How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Monday, February 20, 2006

Anglers reel in 45-inch musky from Potomac River

This is not something you here of everyday, especially from the Potomac River.

By Jim Gilford
News-Post Staff
BRANDON PYLES AND HIS BUDDY James Tyeryar were at the right place at the right time. They were fishing for walleye at Taylors Landing Sunday before last. That Washington County section of the Potomac River below Dam No. 4 is a hot spot for walleye in the spring of the year, and the day was mild, topping off an unseasonably warm January.
They were trolling a 5-inch Rapala Firetiger on 12-pound test line about 400 yards downstream of the dam when a heavy fish took their bait. Mr. Pyles spent an exhilarating 30 minutes or so fighting the fish, fearful the entire time that the light line might break during the struggle. But the line held and eventually, with his companion's help, he was able to land the fish, which was not a walleye but a 45-inch long, 26.5-pound musky.

While not really expecting to catch a musky, Mr. Pyles knew about the presence of musky in the Taylors Landing area, so it wasn't a complete surprise either. Having caught a 37-inch musky several years ago, he knew almost at once it wasn't a walleye that had grabbed the bright chartreuse-and-orange crankbait on the end of his line.

But he couldn't be sure whether it was a tiger musky or a true musky; both are present in the Washington County stretch of the Potomac. The state record true musky, which was caught by Matt Beall in August of 2004, and the state record tiger musky, caught by Kevin Conner in February of 1997, both came from that part of the river. Mr. Beall's fish weighed just over 28 pounds, while Mr. Conner's trophy was 29 pounds, 4.75 ounces.

True or tiger?

The tiger musky is a sterile hybrid cross between true musky and a northern pike; some occur naturally but most are hatchery raised and stocked as fingerlings. The hybrid forms exhibit characteristics of both parents. They grow slightly faster than the true musky through the first several years of life and are said to endure higher temperatures better than either parent. It also is easier to raise in a hatchery environment than the true musky.

According to John Mullican, Department of Natural Re-source's musky expert and an experienced musky fisherman, most of the musky caught in the Taylors Landing area are pure-strain musky, and only a small percent are hybrids. From the photograph of Mr. Pyles' fish, Letha Grimes, of the Lewistown Work Center fisheries staff, identified it as a true musky. But like a rose by any other name, the musky Mr. Pyles caught is a spectacular fish whatever the nature of its genes.

The Maryland Fisheries Service has been stocking fingerling tiger musky, obtained from the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, in the Potomac River since 1989. According to Mr. Mullican, some years, as many as 4,000 fingerling tiger musky have been stocked in the Potomac from Cumberland to Seneca. A few impoundments in the state, among them Blairs Valley Lake, Piney Run Reservoir and Little Seneca Lake, also have received stockings of tiger fingerlings.

The presence of the wild strain of musky in the Potomac wasn't recognized until 1996. Unlike the hybrid form, true musky do not do well in a hatchery environment and the Fisheries Service has never stocked true musky in the Potomac. Those that are present in the Washington County section of the Potomac are the result of natural reproduction, but how and when the reproducing population became established is not known.

When the Fisheries Service stocks fingerling tiger musky, usually it is done in the fall. Last week, Mr. Mullican said stocking probably will be cut back to about 2,000 fingerlings this fall; those fish will be placed in the river west of Paw Paw where no reproducing population of true musky exists. As a practice, stocking tiger musky in areas where true musky are established does not improve fishing and it may be detrimental.

If conditions are right and they are in a feeding mood, musky will eat almost anything that swims in front of them. Their prey may include items such as ducklings, snakes, young muskrats and various other forms of aquatic life, but the mainstay of their diet is other fish, preferably soft-rayed fish such as suckers, and the larger the better.

Biologically, musky like other members of the pike family are at the top of the aquatic food pyramid. They require a large food base; one report claims that a musky has to eat 5 to 7 pounds of forage fish to gain 1 pound of body weight. Because of that substantially large food requirement, a given area of a river or an impoundment can support relatively few musky; that's what makes musky fishing so different and so challenging.

A number of musky are caught every year by anglers fishing for other species, such as walleye and smallmouth bass, especially in the early spring and in the fall when the water is cooler and the big fish are more active. Early spring is also a time when suckers tend to accumulate below dams, such as Dam No. 4 several miles upstream from Taylors Landing. The concentration of forage fish at those sites attracts walleye and musky, and that attracts anglers.

While some musky are caught unintentionally, an increasing number of them are being caught by anglers who fish for them exclusively; they are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to catch one. And more and more, these same anglers are releasing the fish they catch so that they can be caught again. A big musky is an old musky. A 25- to 30-pound female, for example, is 14 to 17 years old, and when a fish of that size is caught and not released, it takes a long time for nature to replace it.

Musky fishing is not for anglers who measure success by the number of fish they catch. Musky typically are few and far between in any given body of water and, because of their place at the top of the food pyramid, that situation is not going to change; the quantity of food they require and their predatory nature limits their abundance.

Even so, breakthroughs in techniques for raising tiger musky in hatcheries has made it possible to introduce the hybrid form into rivers and impoundments where musky did not exist before, creating new musky fisheries and more opportunities to fish for musky. Tiger musky fingerlings stocked in the Potomac River and a few selected impoundments by the Fisheries Service, along with the naturally reproducing population of true musky in the river, has created an exciting and high-quality sport fishery for freshwater anglers.

If you need to be convinced, look at the big musky Mr. Pyles caught two Sundays ago at Taylors Landing.

(Jim Gilford can be contacted at


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