Seeking Pennsylvania's Biggest Muskies
It can swallow a small dog. It scares the daylights out of scuba divers.
by Mike Bleech
Most anglers consider 20 pounds to be the minimum mark of a trophy musky in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Among the most serious musky anglers it takes 30 pounds to impress anyone. And for those fortunate few who live by charmed waters it takes 50 inches, or 40 pounds.
This is a look at really huge muskies, at least 30 pounds. You might hear about such muskies quite often, but word about these fish spreads quickly. How many are really caught? The biggest musky entered in the Angler Recognition Program during 2001 weighed 34 pounds, and just two others over 30 pounds were entered. The year before, the top musky weighed 32 pounds, and only one other weighed more than 30 pounds.
Muskies of 40 pounds are rare. Very few are caught all across North America each year. A 40-pound musky, usually more than 50 inches long, is just a different critter. Its head is immense, its jaws, frightening. This is a predator that can swallow a 12-pound carp as easily as a big bass swallows a shiner. It can swallow a small dog. It scares the daylights out of scuba divers.
Here is where you might find them.
Most of Pennsylvania's native musky water is in the Northwest Region, in the Allegheny River and Lake Erie watersheds. The state record, 53 pounds, 4 ounces, was caught in 1924 in Conneaut Lake. Conneaut Lake is still a fair bet for big muskies, but fishing pressure is relatively heavy. And even though it is the largest natural lake in the state, 928 acres, the lake isn't really a big lake. The likelihood of muskies eluding anglers long enough to grow to huge proportions is not great.
Pymatuning Reservoir is the source of muskies that are stocked in this state, and a major source for several other states. It has long been one of the premier musky fisheries in the country. Anglers have caught few really huge muskies there during recent years. A 46.5-pound musky was caught there in 1988, but this does not mean they are not there still. The proof is in the trap nets used to capture muskies for the Commission's hatchery at Linesville.
Pymatuning Reservoir is unlike any other waterway in Pennsylvania. A large lake, 13,920 acres, it is quite shallow in most areas. Anglers fish structure in the middle of the lake, even close co the dam. The water color is usually darker than in many of our other musky waters. Regulations reflect a reciprocal agreement with Ohio, which shares the lake, allowing musky fishing year-round.
Last June 28, Dave Bradley was trolling in the Allegheny Reservoir. Early in the afternoon, as he passed the Hopewell Campground, his big lure stopped. About 20 minutes later, a 43.25-pound, 53-inch musky lay in the bottom of his boat.
There can be little question that the best trophy musky fishery in Pennsylvania, perhaps the best in the eastern U.S., is the Allegheny Reservoir. Anywhere else, Bradley's musky would have caused a sensation. There, it was just another musky in a steady stream of huge muskies. The largest to date was a 48.5-pounder caught during the 1987 season. But serious musky hounds are convinced that this big lake holds a state record, and probably several of them. Sometime, a musky there might challenge the world record.
Big, 12,000 acres, and deep, more than 135 feet near the dam, it provides plenty of space where muskies elude anglers. And, surprisingly, there is relatively little serious musky fishing pressure here.
A long-term gill net survey has revealed that a primary forage for these big muskies is carp, often in the 10-pound class. Bring your biggest musky lures, and don't expect a lot of action.
Last August 23," Red" Childress was casting a jig in a deep, dredged eddy in the Allegheny River at Warren when he caught and released a 47-inch musky that weighed about 34 pounds. He is one of those who is waiting for a 50-inch musky to hang on his wall, having come close on several occasions. He has released somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 muskies back into the river.
The Allegheny River is probably the second best trophy musky fishery in this state, and probably among the top five in the East, particularly the stretch from Kinzua Dam to Tidioute. Muskies of 30 pounds are almost as common here as they are from the Allegheny Reservoir, and a few 40-pound fish have been taken here since Kinzua Dam was built, during the mid-1960s.
Looking at this stretch of the Allegheny, a series of long pools separated by long riffles, it is hard to understand why it is such a good place for huge muskies. It is not a big river there. Though there aren't very many serious musky anglers fishing it regularly, every bit of it gets hit by musky lures.
A few other lakes in the Northwest Region can produce an occasional 30 to 40-pound musky, including Sugar Lake, Shenango River Lake, Eaton Reservoir and Canadohta Lake. In addition, Lake Arthur gave up a 50-inch musky last year, but it weighed just 25 pounds.
The remainder of Pennsylvania's native musky range is in the Southwest Region, in the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers and their tributaries. If there is such a thing as a "sleeper" for huge muskies in this state, it is probably the lower Allegheny River's navigation pools. This is big water with a good forage base, and it doesn't get a lot of serious musky fishing pressure.
East Branch Lake, Elk County, produced at least one 40-pound musky, caught during the ice-fishing season a few years ago. This lake is relatively sterile, but it is large, 1,370 acres, and very deep. Overall fishing pressure is only moderate, and musky fishing pressure is very light. The Northcentral Region also shares the Allegheny Reservoir. Parts of the lake in McKean County, Willow Bay, Sugar Bay and the Kinzua Arm, are regarded as the best places for musky fishing in the lake.
"There are always sleepers out there in lakes where we stock muskies," said Area 7 Fisheries Manager Lawrence Jackson. "But if I were looking for water with a forage base to produce big muskies, I'd look at Raystown Lake, the Susquehanna River and the lower Juniata River. These waterways are big enough so that a fish might survive and grow to trophy status or a little better."
Jackson mentioned that a couple of muskies longer than 50 inches have been reported from the lower Susquehanna River. However, these fish were caught by serious musky anglers who release everything they catch.
Jackson didn't rule out smaller waterways, though. "If we stock muskies in a waterway, the action there might well be better than you think."
Apparently there is something big muskies like about small, fast-moving, rock-bottomed rivers along Pennsylvania's northern border. The upper Susquehanna River, the North Branch, which is similar to the Allegheny River at this latitude, has been giving up some huge muskies during the past few years. In 2001, it produced the top two, and three of the top five, in the Angler Recognition Program. Some anglers insist that at least one 40-pound musky has been caught there.
According to Area 5 Fisheries Manager David Arnold, anglers have caught muskies as long as 50 inches from the Delaware River. The best pools are the 1-80 and Smithfield pools. Spring and fall have been the best times to fish there, either trolling or fishing from shore with bait. Musky fishing pressure is moderate, a good share of it coming from New Jersey anglers.
Lake Wallenpaupack isn't a consistent producer of huge muskies. Still, in 1985, Lake Wallenpaupack gave up a 49.5-pound musky. That fish might have been the heaviest musky caught in Pennsylvania during the past 50 years, at least.
Fishing pressure is very heavy in the Southeast Region, and none of the lakes is large. This makes it tough for muskies to survive long enough to reach 30 pounds.
"The greatest potential for catching a 48 to 50-inch musky is at Lake Ontelaunee, Berks County," said Area 6 Fisheries Manager Michael Kaufmann. "Next is Tuscarora Lake, Schuylkill County, and finally, not at the moment but in the future, Kaercher Creek Lake, Berks County."
Tuscarora Lake produced a 49-inch musky in a Fish & Boat Commission Survey.
At Kaercher Creek Lake, according to Kaufmann, "48 to 50-inch muskies were almost an annual event in the past. We stopped stocking muskies for a decade because we thought a drawdown was imminent. But we've started stocking it again, and they're doing real well."
Kaercher is a tiny lake, just 31 acres. The main forage for muskies is carp and gizzard shad. Previously the main forage included goldfish. Kaufmann believes a reason for the past record of huge muskies was that weeds close to shore and steep dropoffs outside the weeds minimized the effect of shore fishing.
1. Lake Arthur, Moraine State Park
2. Shenango River Lake
3. Pymatuning Reservoir
4. Conneaut Lake
5. Eaton Reservoir
6. Canadohta Lake
7. Sugar Lake
8. Allegheny River
9. Allegheny Reservoir
11. Allegheny Reservoir
(Willow Bay, Sugar Bay,
12. East Branch Lake, Elk State Park
16. North Branch Susquehanna River
17. Delaware River
18. Lake Wallenpaupack
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