Releasing a record
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- How many people would catch the fish of a lifetime and release it, knowing full well it might have been a state record?
Ask Luke King, who did exactly that.
On April 15, King landed a muskellunge he hastily and conservatively measured at 53 inches in length, slightly longer than the current West Virginia record of 52.7 inches. Moments later he released his hold on the muskie's tail and watched her swim away.
"I never dreamed I'd catch anything like that," King said. "But there was no question I was going to release her."
Since he began muskie fishing four years ago, King has caught more than 250 of them, and has released all but a handful.
Last year, the 19-year-old from Burnsville caught a whopping 83 legal-sized muskies, including several in the 45- to 50-inch range.
The first few months of this year had been a bit slower. King had fewer opportunities to go fishing, and by the time April 15 rolled around he had caught just 12.
And for most of that day his total remained right there. He and his fishing partner, Jake McLaughlin, spent a fruitless afternoon on the Little Kanawha River, casting their lures toward submerged logs in one of the river's deep pools.
After they finished with the pool, King and McLaughlin guided their boat into a shallow area. What they saw there made their eyes grow wide.
"We had found a spawning riffle," King said. "We were expecting to find pre-spawn fish, but instead we found muskies that were already paired up to spawn."
Most of the fish were more interested in their mating rituals than in the 10-inch Red October pink tube jig King cast in front of them.
"They didn't want to eat," he said. "Most of them didn't even want to look at [the lure]."
Female muskies are almost always larger than males, and King said a couple of the females he and McLaughlin saw were much larger.
"We saw one female that must have been 50 inches, and she was accompanied by a male that looked to be about 30 inches," King said.
One pair in particular grabbed the anglers' attention - a male in the 45- to 49-inch range, accompanied by a female several inches larger.
"I cast to the female, and she followed the lure back toward the boat," King recalled. "She didn't take, though. She just hovered there under the boat. I made some figure-of-eights with the lure, but she stayed down there. Then I dropped the lure down and started jigging it right in front of her face."
That did it. The muskie inhaled the lure and nonchalantly turned to rejoin her mate. King set the hook.
"She took off down river, and peeled 50 yards of line off the reel in just a few seconds. I've never had a muskie pull that hard," he said.
Fortunately for King, he had come prepared to do battle with just such a leviathan. The 8-foot, extra-heavy action rod helped him tire the fish quickly, and the 80-pound-test braided monofilament ensured a more-than-adequate connection between angler and fish.
"We used the trolling motor to help close the distance to the fish," King said. "The fight probably lasted five or six minutes, tops. Jake netted her for me."
As the net's meshes closed around the huge muskie, the lure fell out of her jaw. Instinctively, King reached for the fish's tail to make sure it wouldn't flop out of the net.
"I couldn't get my hand around the base of the tail," he said. "It was too big."
When King finally lifted the big female from the net, he noticed eggs coming out of her vent.
"She was spewing eggs," he said. "We wanted to get her back into the water as quickly as we could so all her remaining eggs could be turned into little muskies."
The fish was too long to lie out on a flat surface for measurement, so King and McLaughlin held her in the water and stretched out the tape.
"Her body was slightly bent, but she still measured 53 inches, and that was without a tail squeeze," King said.
When fish are measured for recordkeeping, Division of Natural Resources officials allow anglers to squeeze the lobes of the fish's tail together. Jeff Hansbarger, a DNR district fish biologist and muskie researcher, said a tail squeeze can add as many as 2 inches to a large muskie's length.
"There's a good chance [King's] fish would have gone 54 or 55 inches," Hansbarger said.
The current length record, held by a fish caught in 2004 from Stonecoal Lake, is 52.7 inches, so King's fish probably would have eclipsed that mark rather handily.
King and McLaughlin also measured the big muskie's girth at 24 1/4 inches. Using a weight-estimation formula based on length and girth, King calculated the fish's weight at 45 pounds - huge, but well short of the state record of 493/4 pounds, set in 1997 by another Stonecoal Lake muskie.
"There was no question about releasing my fish, though," King said. "I try to release all of them. I had caught a 50-incher before, and released that one too. But boy, I never dreamed of catching something like this latest one."
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or call 304-348-1231.