CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Muskellunge fishermen, take note - at certain times of the year, your quarry might literally be here today and gone tomorrow.
A five-year Division of Natural Resources study of Elk River muskies shows that muskies sometimes move up and downstream more than 60 miles in search of spawning habitat and better wintering grounds.
Jeff Hansbarger, the DNR biologist in charge of the research, said most of the movements tend to occur during the early spring spawning season.
"During the spawn, they tend to migrate toward the upper 20 to 25 miles of the river, from Frametown upstream to Sutton Dam," Hansbarger explained. "That's where the best spawning habitat is located."
But, he added, just because muskies are present in larger numbers doesn't necessarily make them easier to find or to catch.
"Like many top-order predators, muskies tend to exist in low densities. And when they're spawning, they're on the move looking for a mate to spawn with. It's actually kind of hard for fishermen to encounter them at that time," he said.
The study also revealed that the same muskies that gravitate toward the river's upper reaches in spring often travel far downstream to find a suitable winter home.
"The lower river, from Clendenin downstream to Charleston, seems to be a popular over-wintering spot," Hansbarger said. "The pools are deeper and the currents are slower, and fish don't have to expend as much energy."
Hansbarger and his fellow researchers were able to track muskie movements by capturing mature fish and injecting electronic tags next to their dorsal fins. When the fish were recaptured, either by DNR survey crews or by fishermen volunteers, a simple pass with an electronic scanner revealed the fishes' tag numbers. Armed with that knowledge, Hansbarger was able to compare the fishes' latest locations with the locations of previous captures.
"The fact that we were able to tag and recapture so many muskies says a lot about the catch-and-release ethic a lot of Elk River fishermen have," he said. "A lot of these fish were caught repeatedly by our volunteer anglers, their friends and family members. We were able to get a lot of great data."