May 30, 2012
For many anglers, the muskellunge represents the biggest fish they are likely to catch in a lifetime. This is true in the Mountain State, though both flathead and channel catfish give the toothy muskie competition in this regard. Muskies, however, carry with them a degree of mystery, from their tough-to-catch reputation, to that of showing up at unexpected times, such as when reeling in a modest-sized bass or walleye.
Given the level of fishing opportunities available to West Virginia anglers — from cold, clear running streams teeming with trout, to reservoirs that play host to three varieties of black bass — it's understandable that muskies get overlooked in the mix. Add in the factor that muskies have such a reputation as being tight-lipped, supremely intelligent, and oh-so-hard to catch. And that it takes a boatload of specialized equipment to effectively target muskies. Add these aspects up and it's of little surprise that muskie anglers make up a comparatively small percentage of the state's anglers.
The truth is muskies aren't particularly smart or wary. But as a top line predator their numbers are fewer, which means finding them is a more difficult task than with species found farther down the food chain like trout, bass and panfish. And while the potential size and toothy maw of a muskie calls for certain considerations in the way of tackle, one doesn't have to take out a second mortgage to get properly set up to take on muskies.
Those up to the challenge find they have a number of muskie-fishing options in the state. Muskies are present in a number of West Virginia waters, both flowing and impounded. For the most part these populations are maintained by the stocking of muskie fingerlings by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. In a few cases muskie numbers are maintained naturally. Self-supporting muskie populations are quite rare in the eastern United States, a special resource that should be cherished and respected.
Appropriate preparation to take on Mountain State muskies entails an understanding of the state's muskie management program, the tactics that catch muskies in our home waters, as well as a knowledge of which waters provide the occasion to catch these fine fish. Read on to learn about all these factors!
Muskies can be found in a variety of West Virginia waters. This includes a select number of impoundments, and a wider selection of rivers and creeks.
Impoundments with muskies tend to have significant food sources, most commonly gizzard shad. Lake-dwelling fish tend to be heavier than their river counterparts, a result of the denser forage base and the lack of having to fight current. Rivers containing muskies are usually of low gradient, providing a high number of the slow-flowing pools the species prefers. Soft-rayed species like suckers, carp, chubs and redhorse are common food sources for flowing water muskies.
Reservoir-dwelling muskie populations are provided by maintenance stocking of fingerling-stage muskies, ones reared in the state's Apple Grove and Palestine hatcheries. Stonewall Jackson, Stonecoal, and Burnsville are considered the better West Virginia muskie impoundments.
As stocking programs evolve, fisheries managers discover what gives them the most bang for the buck. Such an example is the modification of holding muskies to the larger advanced fingerling stage, and life stage that appears to provide the highest survival rate. Larger fish that measure 10 to 12 inches in length are about two to three months older than the "standard" 6-inch fingerling previous stocked. Hatchery space and food sources are limiting factors in rearing young muskies to the advanced stage, as such fish take up more room, and require live minnows as opposed to hatchery pellets. Advanced muskie stockings occur during the fall.
The muskie picture on rivers and streams is a bit different than on lakes. While some flowing waters are stocked, there are also flowing waters, like Middle Island Creek and portions of the Elk River, where good numbers of muskies are supplied by natural reproduction.
During the past decade river muskies have been a focus of the DNR, including an extensive study conducted on the Buckhannon River and Middle Island Creek, both of which have sections managed under standard regulations as well as catch-and-release sections.
This study, which began 10 years ago, involved implanting microchips in muskies collected during electrofishing operations. When a muskie outfitted with such a chip was captured during subsequent efforts, the chip was scanned, providing biologists with information such as movements, growth rates and habitat preferences.
Findings regarding movement indicate that muskies found in the six-mile section of the Buckhannon River's catch-and-release section are pretty much "stay at home" fish. Over 300 muskies were captured and "chipped" during the study, of which 120 were recaptured and scanned. Very few of the recaptures moved more than a mile from their original location. Most were within 200 yards of it.
The special regulations section of the Buckhannon River is located within the Buckhannon Pool, the backwaters formed by a small dam. The place is loaded with muskie-holding habitat — shoreline lain-down trees mostly — which might have something to do with the homebody nature of these fish.
The movement findings on Middle Island Creek differed from the Buckhannon Pool, where 240 muskies were collected and chipped and 84 subsequently recaptured. Fisheries managers discovered the average Middle Island Creek muskie moved around three miles. Males moved farther than females. The longest journey for a male was 51 miles, a downstream trek. The most transient female moved 18 miles upstream from the location of its original capture.
The DNR hopes to use the better understanding of muskies provided by this study to better manage the resource in both stocked and self-sustaining waters.
How one goes about taking on the state's muskies depends, to a large degree, on whether the effort is to take place on a lake or river, particularly during the summertime, when most lake-dwelling fish have vacated the shallows in preference of the off-shore areas that hold the most food. In both situations, however, the first requirement is in putting yourself in the right spot, the places most likely to hold muskies at that particular time of year.
As was mentioned previously, classic West Virginia muskie rivers and streams have a slow rate of descent, which provides plenty of slow moving pools and holes. Such streams are also much warmer than trout water cascading down a mountain drainage.
So, expect to find river muskies in and around the deeper, larger pools. These areas often are located on river bends, or where an incoming feeder stream creates a sand, gravel or rock bar that deflects the main force of the current. The presence of tributaries is also significant in that such places also hold forage fish, and often provides a sanctuary for muskies during periods of high and dirty water.
Within these pools, look for the best cover. River muskies like to ambush their prey, so look for cover options such as shoreline downed trees, submerged boulders, rocky ledges, beds of submerged weeds, and logs imbedded in the river bottom. During the summer months — when water temperatures are warm — they often nose up into areas where a riffle or fast run feeds a pool. Food fish like white suckers prefer the faster water of the riffles, and feeding muskies invade the edges of such habitat when marauding for food.
Finding lake muskies often presents a different set of circumstances. Like river-dwelling muskies, you must find the food. But the food in a lake might not be relating to the shallows. For instance in Stonewall Jackson Lake it's likely many of the lake's muskies are seeking gizzard shad, which come summer tend to found suspended in the upper 20 feet of the water column, feeding on the plankton.
In Stonecoal Lake, where muskies often seek the high protein meal of the adult trout stocked there by the DNR, the picture can be much the same. These trout usually are suspended out over deeper water, down far enough to find the cooler temperatures they require.
Of course, there are exceptions and it's quite possible to catch a mid-summer muskie up in the shallows, but the odds go toward spending most of your time where most of the food is. Successful muskie fishing, after all, has much to do with putting as many factors in your favor as possible.
Targeting river muskies is mostly a casting thing. Shallow-running hard baits that suggest the kind of forage that river muskies eat excel. West Virginia, for a state that lies far out of the "traditional" muskie range of the upper Midwest, has a lot muskie lure makers; ones that make baits such as the Crane and the Amma Bamma. These locally produced baits shine on Mountain State river muskies.
The minnow-shaped 200 series Crane is ideal for throwing over woody cover like that found along the banks of the Buckhannon Pool. The highly buoyant bait can be twitched hard to get it to dive, and then allowed to rise to the surface, as it's worked over visible obstructions. The Amma Bamma, which is a jerkbait, can be worked in a similar manner, particularly over places that offer slightly deeper cover.
Trolling is often the best tactic for targeting lake muskies. Most fishing boats today have sonar units, even the most basic of which are capable of revealing schools of shad. Pay attention to the depth at which you're seeing such baitfish pods. Often the key is to troll baits in the upper depth range which you're seeing the bait, as muskies tend to strike from below. If you're electronics include a GPS unit use it to mark the location of baitfish schools by dropping an "event maker" or similar icon, depending on the name provided by your particular manufacturer.
Typically you are shooting for getting baits down in the 10- to 15-foot range, which, depending on the lure style, can be accomplished with around 50 to 70 feet of line out. Though not necessarily considered a trolling lure, I've had great success trolling Crane's 600 series crankbaits, which are shad-shaped deep divers. The bait tracks properly to speeds around 3 to 3 1/2 miles per hour. For faster speeds, consider a Wiley or Tuff Shad.
Success in trolling requires a degree of experimentation. Pay attention to how much line you have out. Try less line, then more. And take notice of the set up when you do hook a fish, so you can duplicate. But put your time in, and you can be successful.
Armed with knowledge of the state's muskies, and how to catch them, here's a look at some of the waters to try this summer.
STONEWALL JACKSON LAKE
Considered by many West Virginia's best all-around fishing lake, Stonewall Jackson is probably the best bet for an angler looking to put a lake muskie in the boat. Use the offshore trolling tactics mentioned earlier, but also save some time and energy for plying the standing timber found in the bays and coves with shallow running minnow baits, jerkbaits and topwaters.
Stonewall Jackson Lake is located in Lewis County, and can conveniently be reached from Interstate 79 via exits 91 and 96.
Found up the road from Stonewall Jackson, Stonecoal is might not be the odds-on favorite for numbers of fish, but it continues to hold the state records for muskies. The West Virginia DNR recognizes both length and weight records for its state fish records. Stonecoal Lake produced both of the muskie records — a 52.7-inch fish taken in 2003 and a 49.75-pound muskie hauled in during 1993.
There's a 10 horsepower limit on this 550-acre lake located in Lewis and Upshur counties.
The 6-mile Buckhannon Pool's catch-and-release area has a dense muskie population, at least dense as far as muskie populations are concerned. When the state DNR conducted its muskie tagging study it collected muskies, by way of electrofishing, at the rate of one every 12 minutes. Expect to see and catch muskies in the 30- to 35-inch range, though some fish over 40 inches do show up. Propeller-driven boats can be used in this pool, but be sure to watch out for the woody cover that's prevalent there.
The Buckhannon Pool can be access from the city's Wood Street ramp.
MIDDLE ISLAND CREEK
A tributary of the Ohio River, Middle Island Creek has both a catch and release section, and miles of water under standard state regulations. The DNR's tagging study revealed as dense a muskie population in the standard regulations areas as that of the catch-and-release area.
Middle Island Creek flows through Doddridge, Tyler and Pleasants counties. The catch and release area is in Tyler County, extending 6 miles upstream from the low water bridge near The Jug Wildlife Management Area. The best boat ramp is the Blue access, located at the mouth of Indian Creek.
The Elk River, from the Sutton Dam tailrace all the way to its merger with the Kanawha River in Charleston, furnishes muskie water that flows through Braxton and Clay counties.
Clay County access sites include Camp Associates sites No. 1 and No. 2, Duck, King Shoals, Mary Chilton Roadside Park, Procious and Queen Shoals. In Braxton County, small boats can be launched at Frametown Bridge and the Sutton Dam tailwaters.
The daily creel limit on muskies is two, with a 30-inch minimum length (28 inches for tiger muskies). However, most muskie anglers practice catch and release.
Such serious muskie addicts also carry the proper nets and release tools — pliers, jaw spreaders, hook-out, hook cutters — to safely handle their fish.