It's been an epic year of fishing for Bill Looney, who so far has landed 106 muskies from his beloved Elk River and from other state waters. The 66-year-old retiree caught his first fish on Jan. 4 and is still trying to add to his 2012 total.
GASSAWAY - If Bill Looney were a baseball player, he would be in the ninth inning of a game in which he'd already hit six home runs.Looney, 66, of Amma, has caught 106 muskellunge so far this year. That's a lifetime's worth of muskies for average anglers, and two or three seasons' worth even for the best ones.It's even a lot for Looney, a retiree who lives close by the Elk River - arguably West Virginia's best muskie stream - and can go fishing pretty much anytime he likes."Up to now, the best year I had was last year, when I caught 52 muskies," Looney said as he prepared to launch his boat for yet another day on the Elk. "I thought that was a lot. But then I got off to a really fast start this year and realized 100 might be in reach.""Fast start" is probably an understatement. Looney caught his first muskie of 2012 on Jan. 4. By the end of February he had landed 29."We had really mild weather all last winter, and that definitely helped," he said. "But I would have been out there even if the weather had been worse. I worked outside in construction for 35 years in all kinds of conditions. I don't pay much attention to weather."When spring came and Looney kept catching fish, he started thinking about trying for 100. He said two people contributed greatly to his decision."My wife, Ruth, is a very understanding woman," he said. "She understands how important fishing is to me, and she encouraged me. Also, my friend and fishing buddy Donnie Powell introduced me to some new water, and we started catching all kinds of fish there."Looney reached his goal on Nov. 14, with a 34-inch fish that, like all the others he caught during the year, was measured, photographed and promptly released. In reality, he caught his 100th several weeks earlier, but the only ones he "officially" counted were those that met the state "keeper-sized" minimum of 30 inches."Counting the little ones, I have 122 right now," he said.
Landing any decent-sized muskie is memorable, but two of this year's catches were especially so."I had fished all day, trolling and casting, and I hadn't done much good," Looney recalled about one particular fish, a true trophy."I thought I'd throw one last cast and then head for the truck. The fish struck, and when I got the rod up I thought, 'My, forever. This is a good fish!' It jumped clear of the water three times before I landed it. I measured it at 48 inches, with a 27-inch girth. It probably weighed 35 to 40 pounds."Looney's other memorable fish was the largest he ever caught in West Virginia."The day before I caught this fish, I had nine muskies on and landed six. Five of those were over 40 inches and the other was 39," he said. "The next morning, I went to Burnsville Lake and started trolling near the dam.
"I hadn't been trolling long when I got a strike on one of my rods. I saw the fish's head come up and break the water and I thought, 'That's a big one.' I fought it for quite a while. It jumped twice, once almost all the way out of the water and the other about halfway out. By the time I got it into the net, I was shaking."
The muskie measured 51 inches, less than 2 inches off the state record for length. It was the first 50-incher Looney had caught from Mountain State waters."I got the measurement, took two pictures, turned the fish back and hollered, 'Hallelujah, Lord!'" he said. "People probably thought I was crazy."One remarkable aspect of Looney's 100-muskie year is that he caught every last one of them on the same lure - or at least on variations of it."All of them were Amma Bama lures," he said. "I made every one of them myself."Since 1973, Looney has manufactured muskie lures in the basement of his Amma home. The lures, which range in length from 4 to 10 inches, have become almost legendary among serious muskie anglers.
"Around 40 of the fish I caught this year were taken on a new deep-diving Amma Bama, a prototype I've been working on," he said. "It took a lot of fish for me, for Donnie and for one of our friends, Jason Staats. I think I'll start selling them next year."If, that is, Looney ever stops catching muskies long enough to go back into production; he admitted that his 100-fish odyssey has taken countless hours he might otherwise have put into producing lures."I'm way behind right now," he said, grinning and shaking his head.As unusual as his accomplishment was, Looney readily acknowledges that others helped make it possible."A lot of the credit goes to the muskie fishermen of this state, who release almost all the fish they catch," he said. "Years ago, that wasn't the case, and there weren't nearly as many big muskies as there are today."Credit also should go to the [Division of Natural Resources], which is doing a great job of managing the muskie resource. On a personal level, I'm thankful for my wife, who supports my obsession; and for Donnie, who puts up with my craziness when we're out fishing. And every day, when I watch the sun rise, I thank God for another beautiful day."With the end of his epic year in sight, Looney said he wants to dedicate the 100-muskie feat to Eric Workman, the state trooper who was killed in the line of duty on Aug. 28."We fished together," Looney said. "Eric was a dedicated angler. He practiced catch-and-release with the best of them. All of us in the muskie-fishing community miss him. He was a mighty fine feller, he was."Like most avid muskie fishermen, Looney doesn't spend a lot of time thinking about water that has passed under the keel of his boat. He's already looking around the next bend in the river to see where his next muskie might be coming from."I don't plan on slowing down anytime soon," he said. "Lord willing, I'll be out there fishing."Reach John McCoy at 304-348-1231 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.