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Art Lander’s Outdoors: A ‘big-time brawler,’ the Muskellunge is Kentucky’s top predator fish

The Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) is king of Kentucky’s major lakes and the streams they were impounded from, a voracious predator and big-time brawler on even the heaviest fishing tackle.

The subspecies Esox masquinongy ohioenis, the Ohio Muskellunge, is native to Kentucky and the Ohio River valley. Muskies are members of family Esocidae, which includes pikes and pickerels.

Pollution, siltation and illegal harvest almost destroyed our native muskie populations.

Muskellunge (Image by Timothy Knepp, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

But hatchery propagation and a vigorous stocking program restored the species to much of its historic range in central and eastern Kentucky.

All the muskies stocked in Kentucky’s rivers and lakes are hatched off and raised at the Minor Clark Fish Hatchery, which opened in 1972, and is located just below the dam that impounds Cave Run Lake.

“Production goals are 4,945 9-inch fish and 6,175 13-inch fish,” said Rod Middleton, hatchery manager. “We generally produce more than that.”

Through the years brood fish have been captured from Kentucky lakes and streams to maintain the Kentucky strain of muskie. “We have not introduced northern strains, “ said Middleton. “The 9-inchers are stocked in streams in July, and the 13-inchers in lakes in September and October.”

Natural reproduction is uncommon in the major lakes stocked with muskies in Kentucky, limited to a handful of small tributary streams. Muskie spawning begins early in the spring, when water temperatures reach 52 degrees.

Size and Coloration

Muskies are elongated, cylindrical fish that are beautifully marked.

Their bodies are usually olive to greenish-gray, with golden reflections and darker spots, blotches, or vertical bars. Their mouths are duck-billed, and their powerful jaws are lined with sharp teeth.

Muskies grow to enormous size in Kentucky lakes.

The state record weighed 47 pounds, was 54 inches long and was caught by Sarah K. Terry, of Mt. Sterling, when she was 14 years old. The monster muskie was caught from Cave Run Lake on November 2, 2008.

Distribution in Kentucky

In Kentucky, muskies are present in the Green, Licking, and Kentucky River basins, in reservoirs and some streams.

Here’s some details on the waters stocked annually:

• In the Barren River muskies are stocked throughout the 81 miles from Barren River Lake dam to the river’s confluence with the Green River, near Woodbury, Ky.

The fishery is rated good.

Anglers should target the mouths of feeder creeks, in and around wood structure and current breaks.

Muskies are present in the Green, Licking, and Kentucky River basins, in reservoirs and some streams. (Photo by Art Lander Jr)

• The Green River is stocked in several locations from Green River Lake dam downstream to the remains of Dam #3, at Rochester, Ky. in Butler county, a distance of 197.2 river miles.

The fishery is rated good.

Fishing is best below dams, and at the mouth of feeder creeks around woody structure and current breaks.

• Muskies are caught from the 255-mile main stem of the Kentucky River.

The fishery is rated good.

The best fishing is in the spring around creek mouths, and during the summer around timber and creek mouths. There are higher numbers of muskies in the upper river, pools 6 through 14, where stocking occurs. Muskies in the lower pools are fish that have migrated downriver during high water.

• Cave Run Lake, 8,270 acres in Bath, Menifee, Rowan and Morgan.

The fishery is rated excellent.

A majority of the trophy fish are caught in April in the backs of the large coves. There’s also good fishing in Beaver Creek during September and October, in association with gently sloping gravel banks or near channel drop-offs.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for KyForward. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

• Buckhorn Lake, 1,230 acres in Leslie and Perry counties.

The fishery is rated fair.

Overall numbers are good, but the majority of fish are less than 36 inches long. From January to March, muskies congregate in the coves of the lower lake and near the dam.

In July and August fish Trace Branch. In September fish the edges of weed beds in the backs of coves in shallow water. Bank fishing opportunities are good at the tailwaters in March and October.

• Dewey Lake, 1,100 acres in Floyd County.

The fishery is rated fair.

The lake was stocked with muskies for the first time in October, 2014. There are legal-size fish, but numbers are low as this fishery is mainly comprised of just four-year classes (2014, 2017, 2018, and 2019).

• Green River Lake, 8,210 acres in Taylor and Adair counties.

The fishery is rated good.

The numbers of legal-size fish (36-inch) and trophy fish (40-inch plus) are fair. Late fall to late winter is an excellent time to catch trophy fish, even from the bank.

Anglers take note, during the summer, mid-June through mid-October, oxygen levels are too low to support fish below 18 feet.

Food Habits

Muskies will feed on almost anything, but prefer large shad and suckers, both soft-finned fishes. They dart out and grab their prey from hiding, swallowing it head first.

Deadfalls and standing timber are favorite haunts. A muskie may stay in the same general location year after year until it is caught or run off by a larger fish.

Fishing Tips

Two of the best fishing months in reservoirs are May and September, but many muskies over 40 inches are taken in the early spring as water temperature warm up into the 50s.

Crankbaits, large spinnerbaits and in-line bucktail spinners are three of the top lures for casting when muskies are on shoreline cover. (Photo by Art Lander Jr)

Crankbaits, jerk baits, buzz baits, large spinnerbaits and in-line bucktail spinners are top lures for casting when muskies are on shoreline cover.

In the summer, muskies go deep. The ticket to success is trolling or casting deep-diving crankbaits parallel to creek channel drop-offs lined with standing timber.

Stout tackle is imperative and necessary to bring fish over 40 inches to the net.

The standard tackle is heavy action rods, casting reels spooled in 25 to 30-pound monofilament line, and wire leaders made from solid wire with a big snap. When fishing jerk baits many anglers prefer braided line, which has no stretch, which aids in hook set.

Always figure-eight your lure at the end of each retrieve. Muskies sometimes follow a lure to the boat and a figure-eight often triggers an instinctive strike, as the lure dramatically changes direction and speed.

Creel Limit

A 36-inch minimum size limit and one fish daily creel limit is in effect for muskies at Cave Run Lake, Green River Lake, and Dewey Lake.

A 40-inch minimum size limit and one fish daily creel limit is in effect at Buckhorn Lake.

In rivers and streams, there’s a statewide one fish daily creel limit and a 30-inch minimum size limit.

“Old Briartooth” is Kentucky’s top predator fish.

When you’re fishing for muskies you’re really hunting one, trying to locate an old fish in his lair.

It can be exciting and frustrating at the same time, especially when you see a big fish and can’t get him to strike. Hang tough!

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