Troy Radcliff got a phenomenal month of muskie fishing started in early April, when he landed this 52-inch monster from Stonewall Jackson Lake. It was his first-ever 50-inch-plus muskie.
Many muskellunge anglers go their entire lives without catching a 50-inch fish. Troy Radcliff caught three in little more than a month.
"It's been a great season so far, that's for sure," Radcliff said as he described the three catches, all of which took place between April 8 and May 11. "I've talked to some long-time muskie fishermen, and they tell me it's unusual to catch one 50-incher a year in West Virginia, let alone two."
Radcliff's first two 50-inchers came from Stonewall Jackson Lake. The last one came from eastern Kentucky's Cave Run Lake. All three were released unharmed.
The muskie-fishing gods must be smiling on Radcliff, who grew up in Nicholas County fishing mainly for trout. He had never even cast a lure at a muskie until two years ago, when he moved to Weston to work for a forest products company.
"There's a ton of good muskie fishing in the Weston area, so I took it up," Radcliff said. "I fish a lot at Stonewall Jackson, Stonecoal and Burnsville lakes, and in the West Fork and Buckhannon rivers."
He believes - and evidence would seem to back him up - that muskie fishing in general is significantly better this year than it was in 2011.
"I've caught 25 so far this year," he said. "I think the warm winter helped. I was able to fish right through the winter, from January 1 up to now."
The fish Radcliff caught this year stayed fairly ordinary in size until April 8, when he decided to squeeze in a couple of hours' worth of fishing after work.
"I loaded my johnboat and flew to [Stonewall Jackson Lake]," he recalled. "I fished around some timber structure I usually fish, but didn't raise anything. I went down the edge of another stand of structure, working a 6-inch gliding jerkbait. It came up and hit the bait just when I got it to the boat."
Radcliff knew immediately that the fish would surpass the 50-inch mark.
"It was the first 50-incher I'd ever seen, but I could tell it was in that size class," he said. "I didn't have the net ready, so I had to wear the fish down before I could attempt to land it. I was pretty much shaking when I finally got the fish into the boat."
Radcliff got out his tape and measured the monster muskie.
"It was 52 inches long and had a 22-inch girth. It was only 7/10 of 1 inch short of the state length record, but that wasn't important. I wanted to get it back into the water, so I set the camera's timer, got a quick photo and released the fish."
Less than a month later, Radcliff found himself smack in the middle of an almost identical scenario.
"It was another day when I fished after work. Some storms were blowing into the area, and I figured it would be a good day to be on the water," he said.
"I went to Stonewall, put the boat in and headed for some structure pretty close to where I'd caught the 52-incher. I hadn't made 10 casts, pulling a bucktail over some sunken timber, when a fish hit."
Radcliff boated the muskie fairly quickly and put the tape measure on it.
"This one was 51 1/2 inches. I got a picture and let the fish go."
Lightning struck again just three days later when Radcliff accompanied friends Danny Haddox and Daniel Buzzard on a guided fishing trip to Cave Run Lake, a renowned trophy-muskie hotspot.
The lake didn't disappoint.
"Our guide, Greg Thomas, put us onto some fish," Radcliff said. "We fished all that day. Danny and Daniel both caught muskies, but late in the day I still hadn't even raised one.
"Then, late in the day, I was pulling a jig - a Bondy Bait - over some structure, working it real slow. All of a sudden, I got the hardest strike I'd ever felt. That muskie absolutely clobbered that jig.
"Within a few minutes, I had it at the boat. We measured it at 50 inches exactly, took a picture and released it. And that wasn't the only 50-incher we took on that trip. The next day, Danny caught a 51-incher."
Radcliff readily acknowledged his good fortune.
"My friends were all surprised," he said. "I've talked to many people, including some of the older guys, and even the older guys haven't caught more than four or five 50-inchers in years and years of muskie fishing.
"They said to catch two out of West Virginia in one year is really unusual. I don't know if I'll ever match the success I've [had] this year, but it won't hurt to try."
Reach John McCoy at firstname.lastname@example.org