Trophy muskies at home in New River
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- When fishermen think about West Virginia's New River, chances are they think about trophy smallmouth bass.
Lately, though, growing numbers of anglers focus on a fish usually associated with the Elk, Buckhannon and Little Kanawha rivers - the muskellunge.
"Word has kind of gotten out," said Mark Scott, the Division of Natural Resources' fish biologist for southeastern West Virginia. "It used to be that there were a few folks who fished the New for muskies and didn't talk much about it. As more people got involved in [online] social media, stories and pictures of big muskies getting caught on the New started showing up."
Anglers were finding out what Scott and other biologists already knew - that the New River is home to many more muskies than most people would imagine.
"When we do our fish surveys, our capture rate per hour on muskies is one of the highest in the state," Scott said. "There are times we've gotten close to nine or 10 fish an hour. That's even better than the Elk River, and probably pretty close to the Buckhannon River."
DNR officials, aware of the New's abundant muskies, borrow a few of the river's fish from time to time and use them for hatchery brood stock.
"After [hatchery crews] strip eggs and milt from the fish, we return them to the river," Scott said. "We were out capturing brood fish just last week. We went in at Sandstone Falls, in the middle of the day when muskies aren't as easy to catch, and within a half hour we caught five fish."
Keep in mind that biologists use electric currents to stun fish during their surveys. For anglers who must use hook and line, the catch rate is significantly lower.
It's high enough, though, that the New now ranks among the state's top trophy muskie producers. In 2012, fishermen caught 19 muskies there that qualified for state Trophy Fish Citations, the most in the state.
Two much more famous muskie waters - the Elk River and Stonewall Jackson Lake - tied for second place with 11 apiece.
"The New was the Trophy Citation leader last year, too," said Bret Preston, the DNR's fisheries chief. "Muskie fishing there has obviously picked up over the years."
River fish tend to run a little smaller than lake-dwelling fish, and the New's fish are no exception. Scott said the chances of a record-breaking fish being caught there are quite slim.
"I don't know if we'll ever get any 50-inchers, but we see a lot of fish in the 40- to 44-inch range and they're fat as butterballs," he said. "There may be a few bigger ones, but that's the range we tend to see in our surveys."
The 25-mile section of river between Bluestone Dam and Prince harbors the most muskies, but Scott said the segment between Bluestone Lake and the Virginia border has a good population, too.
DNR officials used to stock the New with juvenile muskies, but Scott said that isn't necessary anymore.
"We have a reproducing population now," he explained. "We haven't stocked the river in quite a few years, and our surveys consistently turn up fish in the 12- to 14-inch range, so obviously we're getting reproduction.
"Often we shock up two adult muskies at a time, and they're usually a male and a female that are paired up. That's evidence they're trying to spawn, and the little ones we turn up are the proof they've been successful."
The New's resurgence as a muskie stream has brought a whole new angling clientele to the river. Scott said that in the past, most of the river's muskies were caught by bank fishermen throwing big chubs or by lure fishermen trolling deep-diving plugs.
"Now the die-hard muskie guys are down there, casting all kinds of lures," he said. "Heck, we even have guys down there fly fishing for muskies."
Because muskies are top-order predators, some anglers worry that the big, toothy critters will eat so many smallmouth bass and walleye that they affect fishing for those species. Scott dismissed the idea.
"A lot of those complaints have come from guys who hooked small bass or walleyes and had a muskie flash up and try to eat the fish they had on the line," he said. "Look, a fish on the end of the line is in distress, which is like waving a red flag at any predator that's nearby. Having a muskie attack a hooked bass doesn't mean muskies are actually hunting bass."
In fact, Scott said he expects the New's muskie-fishing resource to continue to expand.
"The river is capable of holding a lot of fish," he said. "As far as muskies are concerned, I don't think it's reached its peak yet."
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or call 304-348-1231.