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Research sheds light on Elk River muskies

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."

Hansbarger published some of his findings in a recent edition of Muskie Hunter magazine, and he has several speaking engagements scheduled in the near future to go over the results with Elk River anglers.

"Part of our job is to get the word out about what we do," he said. "I like talking to angler groups, so I volunteered to do several presentations. People seem eager to hear the findings."

Just days after his Muskie Hunter article came out, officials of the American Fisheries Society asked him to present an overview of his research at the organization's annual meeting in September.

"They said they found the findings really interesting," Hansbarger said. "People are interested in self-sustaining muskie populations, especially with such a push on to establish trophy muskie waters.

"Everyone wants detailed knowledge on muskies' life history. The more we know, the more we can make better decisions on how to manage the resource."

Hansbarger said the full-scale final report on his research is due in December. He said DNR officials would then "sit down to see if there's something we could do to improve muskie fishing on the Elk."

"One of the things we might try to do is to ensure more fish-friendly flows [from Sutton Dam] in the spring during the spawn. We know that if we can protect muskies until they reach about 24 inches in length, survival is very good after that.

"Another thing we might look at is how sedimentation has lowered [muskies' spawning] productivity. And we need to look at all these things on a watershed-sized scale. The bottom line is to try to make the Elk River muskie fishery as good as it can be."

Reach John McCoy at johnmccoy@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.


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