Muskies with a Southern Accent

The South is blessed with great muskie fishing-and that's not just whistling dixie.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Ask a Northern angler to name the best muskie-fishing destinations, and chances are he'll start with legendary Canadian venues like Lac Seul, Georgian Bay or Lake of the Woods. But you don't have to risk frostbite or dodge blackflies to catch a big muskellunge. Most fishermen may not realize it, but world-class muskellunge can be caught south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Better yet, the flourishing fishery is largely underutilized. Muskies are native to some rivers and streams in Southern states and have been stocked with varying degrees of success as far south as Alabama. The hotbed of Southern muskie angling is the mountainous region stretching from eastern Kentucky through West Virginia, where several excellent fisheries attract anglers from around the country. The best known of these, Kentucky's Cave Run Lake, gave up a 44.38-pound state record in 1998. Another outstanding Bluegrass State fishery, Green River Lake, hosts national muskie tournaments on a regular basis.

Lesser known lakes and streams throughout the South occasionally produce monster muskies as well. The heaviest ever officially recorded in Dixie -- a 49.75-pounder -- was taken from obscure Stonecoal Lake, W.Va., in 1997. Anna Marsh, a grandmother from nearby Weston, caught the 50-inch brute on a night crawler while bluegill fishing from the bank with a spin-cast outfit. A week after Anna caught her trophy, a 521/2-inch muskie was found floating dead in nearby Moncove Lake, a 144-acre body of water that hadn't been stocked with muskellunge since the '60s.

The possibility of catching a certifiable monster of a fish from water that hasn't been jerkbaited and bucktailed to death adds to the mystique. I've heard tales from local fishermen of encounters with downright scary fish. Consider the Tennessee angler who hooked a muskie in the Collins River that was so big it pulled his canoe upstream. And there was the Kentucky farmer who recalled the day his grandfather caught a 57-pound muskie from the Green River a catfish trotline -- "fed a family of twelve," he told me.

Fish stories? Perhaps. But it's a stone-cold fact that five Southern states have muskies over 40 pounds in their record books.

** The Few, the Dedicated**
With the exception of a few high- profile bodies of water like Cave Run, the muskie maintains a low profile in Dixie; consequently muskie fishing is somewhat of a cult activity here. This is bass and crappie country, and an angler thrashing the water with oversized Suicks and Eagletails is apt to garner some stares. That doesn't keep Parkersburg, W.Va., muskie addict John Kaltenecker from his appointed rounds on rivers and streams in the Mountain State, where he's caught and released hundreds of muskies. "These fish will ruin you," he says. "I can't remember details of many of my past bass trips, but I can tell you exactly where, when and how I caught almost every muskie I've ever landed. Once you catch a big one, you're hooked. Other fish are just bait."

Steve Dodson of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., feels the same way. And he doesn't have to knock people out of the way to get to his favorite muskie waters. "If I mention that I'm going muskie fishing, friends assume I'm heading for Minnesota or Wisconsin," he notes. "Most local anglers don't even realize muskies live around here. In central Tennessee, Dale Hollow and Great Falls lakes both have a decent population of muskies, and their average size is bigger than in most Midwestern lakes. We've boated fish weighing thirty-five pounds, and state biologists tell me they've shocked up fish there that weigh in the mid-forties."

** Southern Haunts**
The South's muskie waters fall into three basic categories: highland reservoirs, timbered reservoirs and rivers or streams. Natural lakes with thick weed cover -- the kinds of places most Northern muskie anglers fish -- are virtually nonexistent.

Southeastern highland reservoirs are deep, clear and rocky, with little submerged wood cover. The main forage consists of threadfin and gizzard shad; occasionally the mix includes alewives and rainbow trout. While these lakes are best known for their smallmouth bass fishing, some of them contain muskies -- the progeny from either aborted stocking programs or ongoing stock-grow-and-catch efforts. One of the best Southeastern highland reservoirs for muskies, Dale Hollow Lake on the Tennessee/Kentucky border, produces fish that nudge 40 pounds regularly. Its big drawing card is extensive weed beds that attract muskies and provide good spawning habitat.

Because such lakes are so deep and they have precious little cover along their banks, muskies tend to suspend offshore. Trolling big lures with heavy-duty bait-casting rods and reels is the most viable presentation method.

Oppressive heat and humidity (as well as hordes of Midwestern lakes. We've boated fish weighing thirty-five pounds, and state biologists tell me they've shocked up fish there that weigh in the mid-forties."

** Southern Haunts**
The South's muskie waters fall into three basic categories: highland reservoirs, timbered reservoirs and rivers or streams. Natural lakes with thick weed cover -- the kinds of places most Northern muskie anglers fish -- are virtually nonexistent.

Southeastern highland reservoirs are deep, clear and rocky, with little submerged wood cover. The main forage consists of threadfin and gizzard shad; occasionally the mix includes alewives and rainbow trout. While these lakes are best known for their smallmouth bass fishing, some of them contain muskies -- the progeny from either aborted stocking programs or ongoing stock-grow-and-catch efforts. One of the best Southeastern highland reservoirs for muskies, Dale Hollow Lake on the Tennessee/Kentucky border, produces fish that nudge 40 pounds regularly. Its big drawing card is extensive weed beds that attract muskies and provide good spawning habitat.

Because such lakes are so deep and they have precious little cover along their banks, muskies tend to suspend offshore. Trolling big lures with heavy-duty bait-casting rods and reels is the most viable presentation method.

Oppressive heat and humidity (as well as hordes of