There’s a tiger prowling the Kanawha River.
Don’t believe it? Just ask Robbie Thaxton. He caught it. Twice.
Thaxton, a die-hard muskellunge fisherman, had seen plenty of muskies, but he’d never seen one quite like the tiger muskie that showed up on the end of his line June 13 and launched a comedy of errors.
“I hooked that fish about 7:30 in the evening and had it in the net,” Thaxton recalled. “When I was trying to get my pliers to unhook her, she started thrashing around. When she did that, the handle of a spinning reel got caught in the net.
“I got distracted by that and wasn’t paying attention to the fish. I felt it roll around, and when I looked back, the fish was outside the boat, barely hooked. I was going to roll the net back around the fish, but the reel handle was still stuck in it.”
The fish came unhooked, but didn’t dart away.
“It just laid there in the water, so I decided to try to grab it by the tail,” Thaxton said. “As soon as I touched it, though, it took off.”
Losing the big muskie haunted Thaxton as he drove back to his home on Georges Creek. It haunted him the rest of the evening and into the wee hours of the morning.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “All the time, I was thinking about that fish. I debated going back to try to catch it again.”
Thaxton finally got to sleep at 1 a.m., but woke up at 4 a.m., still thinking about the muskie.
“I looked at the weather report and saw that there was a storm coming in,” he said.
Barometric pressure drops when storms approach, and fish tend to feed when it does. Thaxton got up, hitched up his boat and headed up the river.
When he arrived at the spot where he’d hooked the fish 12 hours before, Thaxton clipped a black-and-white “dive and rise” jerkbait to his bite leader.
“I had hooked the fish the night before on a carp-colored dive-and-rise,” he said. “I had learned through experience that using a similar bait with a different color could get a fish to bite again, so I decided to go with the black-and-white one.”
On the third cast, the fish struck. It fought hard, but soon succumbed to pressure from Thaxton’s heavy-action muskie rod. He netted it, and immediately noticed its unusual markings. Dark, elongated vertical spots covered the fish’s flanks like the stripes on a tiger’s sides.
Thaxton realized immediately that he’d caught a tiger muskie, a cross between a regular muskie and a northern pike.
There was a problem, though. Tiger muskies hadn’t been stocked in Mountain State waters since 1996, and the odds that one could live for 24 years were extremely slim.
Thaxton held up the deep-bellied 44-inch fish just long enough for a couple of photos, then slid it back into the Kanawha.
After he arrived back home, he sent the pictures to other muskie anglers and to Division of Natural Resources biologists.
“Nobody denied that it was a tiger,” Thaxton said. “The DNR guys said the only way to know for sure, though, was to count the number of pores on the underside of its jaws. A tiger muskie has five or less, and a muskie has six or more.”
Thaxton said Mark Scott, the DNR’s fisheries chief, speculated that the tiger might have come from a stocked private pond located along the Greenbrier River.
“Mark said some ponds got washed out by the 2016 flood,” Thaxton added. “Someone caught one after the flood and reported it.
“A couple of months later, someone on the New River caught one. If the tiger I caught was one of those fish, it would have had four years to make its way downstream to the upper Kanawha, so it’s possible that’s how it got there.”
Thaxton is determined to find out for certain if the fish he caught is a true tiger.
“The only way to know for sure is to catch it again and count the pores,” he said. “I’m going to try.”