For several reasons, the first muskellunge Eric Harris ever caught turned out to be a memorable one.
Harris hooked “the fish of 10,000 casts” on his very first cast. He landed the fish on line so light it literally was a joke. He was dead certain the fish broke the West Virginia record for length, and later was disappointed to learn it didn’t.
He caught the muskie on the night of July 1 while fishing the Little Kanawha River just downstream from Burnsville Dam.
“I was there catfishing,” said Harris, a pipeline worker from Summersville. “There were two guys there fishing for muskies. I told my wife, ‘I’d love to try that.’”
After a while, Harris walked down to where the two men were fishing and struck up a conversation.
“I started asking them questions about muskie fishing,” Harris said. “One of the guys handed me his pole, and had me cast it to get a feel for it.”
Harris learned that the men had been fishing at the same spot for eight hours.
“They told me they hadn’t had anything to eat or drink during that whole time,” he said. “So I went up and got some stuff for them, chips and snacks and pop.”
As they got ready to leave, the younger of the two men handed Harris a rod and baitcasting reel he no longer used.
“He said I was nice to them, so they wanted to be nice to me,” Harris said. “He gave me the rod and reel. The other guy gave me one of his plugs.”
Harris wanted to use the rod, but the reel had no line on it. He called a friend who lived nearby and asked if he had any line. “As a prank, he brought out a spool that had about 6 miles of 6-pound-test line on it,” Harris said.
He loaded the line on the reel anyway.
“I put a Jitterbug on the end of the line and cast it out into the river,” he said. “The fish hit as soon as the lure hit the water.”
Harris didn’t know what had taken the lure, but he could tell it was big.
“I fought it for about 25 minutes,” he said. “At one point, the gears on the reel stripped out, so I pulled on the line with my fingers. When the tension built to the point it felt like the line was about to break, I let some line out.”
The fight created quite a stir among the people who were fishing nearby.
“They were running down and shining lights on the fish,” Harris said. “When they did, the fish would take back off. Finally, a guy brought a dip net out there. The fish wouldn’t fit in it, and it flopped out.
“I jumped on the fish and pinned it against the rocks. That thing had teeth like you wouldn’t believe.”
From measurements taken on the riverbank, Harris said he believed he had a fish that might rival a state record — 56.5 inches, 39.5 pounds. The fish’s weight, as measured, fell well below the state weight record of pounds. The length, however, was a different story. A 56.5-inch muskie would break the length record by 3 inches.
Harris took the fish back to his camper, slid it into a trash bag and kept it on ice until he could get it officially weighed and measured. Jim Walker, the Division of Natural Resources’ district fisheries biologist, agreed to meet him in Flatwoods at 1 p.m. the following day.
“I brought my measuring board and my certified digital scales, and I weighed and measured the fish,” Walker said. “I really wanted it to be a record. I pinched the fish’s tail as hard as I could to get the best length measure I could.”
Walker measured the muskie at 51.25 inches and 30.84 pounds — more than 2 inches below the length record and more than 18 pounds below the weight record.
“It was a terrific fish, and there was a terrific story behind it, but it was no record,” Walker said.
There might have been some miscommunication between Walker and Harris, because Harris and his wife went home expecting to receive a notice that the muskie had, indeed, been a record breaker.
Instead, they received a DNR Trophy Fish Citation in mid-August — a citation that listed the fish’s length at 51.25 inches and 30.84 pounds. Though disappointed, Harris remained philosophical about it.
“Either way, it’s a trophy to me,” he said. “It’s at the taxidermist’s now, and I plan to donate it to the Burnsville Marina for them to display.”
Though not the record-breaker Harris hoped it was, the big muskie has had a lasting impact on him.
“I’ve been dedicated to fishing for muskies ever since then,” he said. “I’ve spent a lot of money on plugs, and I’m learning everything I can about muskie fishing.”
Harris might go on to catch a lot of muskies, and even some big ones. Chances are, however, he’ll never catch one that is quite so memorable, and for so many reasons.