How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Muskies with a Southern Accent

If you are down South, you may want to check this out.

By Don Wirth

The South is blessed with great muskie fishing-and that's not just whistling dixie.

March 2006

Ask a Northern angler to name the best muskie-fishing destinations, and chances are he'll start with legendary Canadian venues like Lac Seul, Georgian Bay or Lake of the Woods. But you don't have to risk frostbite or dodge blackflies to catch a big muskellunge. Most fishermen may not realize it, but world-class muskellunge can be caught south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Better yet, the flourishing fishery is largely underutilized. Muskies are native to some rivers and streams in Southern states and have been stocked with varying degrees of success as far south as Alabama. The hotbed of Southern muskie angling is the mountainous region stretching from eastern Kentucky through West Virginia, where several excellent fisheries attract anglers from around the country. The best known of these, Kentucky's Cave Run Lake, gave up a 44.38-pound state record in 1998. Another outstanding Bluegrass State fishery, Green River Lake, hosts national muskie tournaments on a regular basis.

Lesser known lakes and streams throughout the South occasionally produce monster muskies as well. The heaviest ever officially recorded in Dixie -- a 49.75-pounder -- was taken from obscure Stonecoal Lake, W.Va., in 1997. Anna Marsh, a grandmother from nearby Weston, caught the 50-inch brute on a night crawler while bluegill fishing from the bank with a spin-cast outfit. A week after Anna caught her trophy, a 521/2-inch muskie was found floating dead in nearby Moncove Lake, a 144-acre body of water that hadn't been stocked with muskellunge since the '60s.

The possibility of catching a certifiable monster of a fish from water that hasn't been jerkbaited and bucktailed to death adds to the mystique. I've heard tales from local fishermen of encounters with downright scary fish. Consider the Tennessee angler who hooked a muskie in the Collins River that was so big it pulled his canoe upstream. And there was the Kentucky farmer who recalled the day his grandfather caught a 57-pound muskie from the Green River on a catfish trotline -- "fed a family of twelve," he told me.

Fish stories? Perhaps. But it's a stone-cold fact that five Southern states have muskies over 40 pounds in their record books.

The Few, the Dedicated
With the exception of a few high- profile bodies of water like Cave Run, the muskie maintains a low profile in Dixie; consequently muskie fishing is somewhat of a cult activity here. This is bass and crappie country, and an angler thrashing the water with oversized Suicks and Eagletails is apt to garner some stares. That doesn't keep Parkersburg, W.Va., muskie addict John Kaltenecker from his appointed rounds on rivers and streams in the Mountain State, where he's caught and released hundreds of muskies. "These fish will ruin you," he says. "I can't remember details of many of my past bass trips, but I can tell you exactly where, when and how I caught almost every muskie I've ever landed. Once you catch a big one, you're hooked. Other fish are just bait."

Steve Dodson of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., feels the same way. And he doesn't have to knock people out of the way to get to his favorite muskie waters. "If I mention that I'm going muskie fishing, friends assume I'm heading for Minnesota or Wisconsin," he notes. "Most local anglers don't even realize muskies live around here. In central Tennessee, Dale Hollow and Great Falls lakes both have a decent population of muskies, and their average size is bigger than in most Midwestern lakes. We've boated fish weighing thirty-five pounds, and state biologists tell me they've shocked up fish there that weigh in the mid-forties."

Southern Haunts
The South's muskie waters fall into three basic categories: highland reservoirs, timbered reservoirs and rivers or streams. Natural lakes with thick weed cover -- the kinds of places most Northern muskie anglers fish -- are virtually nonexistent.

Southeastern highland reservoirs are deep, clear and rocky, with little submerged wood cover. The main forage consists of threadfin and gizzard shad; occasionally the mix includes alewives and rainbow trout. While these lakes are best known for their smallmouth bass fishing, some of them contain muskies -- the progeny from either aborted stocking programs or ongoing stock-grow-and-catch efforts. One of the best Southeastern highland reservoirs for muskies, Dale Hollow Lake on the Tennessee/Kentucky border, produces fish that nudge 40 pounds regularly. Its big drawing card is extensive weed beds that attract muskies and provide good spawning habitat.

Because such lakes are so deep and they have precious little cover along their banks, muskies tend to suspend offshore. Trolling big lures with heavy-duty bait-casting rods and reels is the most viable presentation method.

Oppressive heat and humidity (as well as hordes of vacationing houseboaters and jet-skiers) make fishing for them in summer hard duty, but it's possible to catch a big fish by running aluminum spoons on downriggers from 30 to 50 feet deep. The typical setup is to troll main-lake points and ledges adjacent to deep channels, watching the graph for big schools of bait and telltale hooks that indicate muskies.

Whether you're casting or trolling, heavy-duty tackle capable of handling muskies over 20 pounds is required. Line in the 20- to 30-pound-test range, with wire leader, is favored.

Fall, winter and early spring are the best muskie seasons on highland reservoirs. Fish move into tributary arms once the water temperature drops below 60 degrees and can be taken by flat-line-trolling bass crankbaits such as Hellbenders and Bombers or larger muskie plugs like Cisco Kids and Believers, in shad and trout patterns. Targets include submerged ledges, weed beds and channel bluffs in the 15- to 25-foot zone. Trolling speeds vary between 1 and 4 miles per hour, depending on how cold the water is. This is a cold-weather pattern; muskies of the highland reservoirs will smack a trolled lure in 38-degree water.

Timbered reservoirs (Cave Run Lake, for example) often have a deep, open main body, but their shallower creek arms are loaded with casting targets such as standing and fallen trees, stumps and thick beds of aquatic vegetation such as Eurasian milfoil. Muskie prey usually consists of shad, carp and suckers. As in highland lakes, muskie fishing is best from fall through spring. By October, fish move into tributaries where weed and wood cover is thickest. A favored fishing approach in timbered reservoirs is to cast large jerkbaits (Reef Hawgs, Suicks) and bucktails (Harassers, Buchertails). On cloudy or rainy days, muskies often move to the edges of cover and will hammer a noisy topwater plug or a buzzbait. Once the water temperature drops into the 50-degree range (usually in November), anglers switch to large crankbaits like the Bucher Depth Raider or Crane, casting them around deep points with standing timber.

Trolling deep-diving muskie plugs along submerged channels where standing timber tops off around 15 feet below the surface is popular, too.

Moving-Water Muskies
Rivers and streams are popular venues among Dixie's muskie fishermen, especially in Kentucky and West Virginia. Their forage buffet features suckers, carp, crayfish, frogs and terrestrial critters such as muskrats. The size of creeks is no indication of the fish in them -- their pools may hold big muskies. Some of the best West Virginia muskie streams are fishable only with a johnboat or by wading.

During summer, fishermen concentrate on deep pools and cast crankbaits and jerkbaits around sunken trees and boulders. As the water cools in fall, muskies will slide out of these shadowy lairs and prowl shallow shoals and gravel bars for groceries; they'll blast a topwater prop bait. Shallow wood cover in the form of deadfalls and logjams will hold river muskies any time of year, which is a good reason to bump a spinnerbait along them or root a Hellbender through them.

Southern rivers are prone to flooding in spring, and muskies tend to move upstream as the water rises. When inflowing tributaries begin to clear and mud lines have formed at their mouths, muskies will lurk in the discolored water. Anglers fish such areas with sucker-colored jerkbaits.

Although the South has produced numerous world-record catches of the most popular game fish, it will never yield a world-record muskie. The forage base just isn't there. Still, Southern anglers are grateful for the fish they have. And they take comfort in the fact that like the other Northern "snowbirds" who have made themselves at home in Dixie, muskies know a good thing when they see it, too.


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