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November/December 2003

Musky Fishing in the Lower Allegheny River

by Jeff Knapp


Musky Fishing in the Lower Allegheny River by Jeff KnappFew waterways offer the variety and length of season as does the navigable portion of the Allegheny River. During years of a relatively mild winter, angling is available 12 months of the year.

Thanks to the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission's consistent stocking effort of both purebred and tiger muskies, the lower Allegheny River supports an excellent fishery, and not one of skinny, undersized "river muskies," either.

Consider the mega-musky caught and released by Howard Wagner. Wagner, who hails from the Fombell area in Beaver County, chases muskies year-round. He is a big-fish specialist, having taken several 40-pound-plus fish in both Pennsylvania and Canada. During the winter of 2002, Wagner caught one of the biggest muskies ever landed in the Keystone State, a fish from the lower Allegheny.

When fall gives way to winter and cold water pushes river fish into predictable locations, Howard begins hitting the mouths of creeks that feed rivers with good musky populations, ones like the Allegheny. He first made contact with the monster fish in a spot like this one.

According to Wagner, he and a fishing partner had spent the best part of a mild winter afternoon hitting several feeder waters along the river. The sun was starting to set and Howard was beginning to feel the initial effects of what would turn out to be a case of the flu. He walked up the feeder stream to ward off the cold, and then began working his minnow-shaped crankbait in a twitching fashion. The spot held a sandbar with a scour hole downstream, a choice place for a foraging musky to wait in ambush. The big fish first showed itself there by following the lure, but not committing to it.

Howard remained at home during the next couple of days as the weather turned sour and he tried to fight off the illness. Then a warming trend moved in, and Howard figured if he didn't try for the fish then, despite still feeling sick, he might not get another chance. River fishing is sensitive to weather and flow conditions, and changes could move the big fish from its current lair.

Wagner was by himself when he returned to try for the big musky. The physical nature of the spot required Howard to wade into the stream to fish. A submerged rock was his casting platform. He cast a while until the cold water chased him to shore to warm up, and then he was back at it again.

At one point, the fish appeared and followed the lure the whole way back to the wading angler. Howard said it was quite exciting to have a musky of such size swimming a mere few feet from him.

As the day grew long and his flu-induced fever began to wear him down, the big fish finally engulfed the minnow bait. Despite the cold water, the big musky put on a strong fight. Not having a net man didn't make the landing job any easier, but after about a half-hour, Howard led the big fish into the shallows, where he was able to weigh and measure it quickly, as well as photograph himself with it, thanks to the self-timer on his camera. Then he released the big musky.

Wagner's river musky stretched the tape to 52.5 inches, with a girth of 28 inches. On his scale it weighed 52 pounds. Impressive as these numbers are, they tell only part of the story. Later that week, he checked his scale by testing it on a 50-pound weight. On the initial try it registered about 47 pounds. He shook it a bit, and then it measured 50 pounds. It's possible Howard's musky may actually have weighed 55 pounds or more, which would have surpassed the longstanding state record of 54 pounds, 13 ounces, taken in 1924 from Conneaut Lake by Lewis Walker, Jr.

Even if he had known it was a state record fish, Wagner says he still would have released it. He has a strong catch-and-release ethic concerning muskies, and he always tries to set a good example. Record or not, big muskies make for great stories, and this is one of the best.

The navigable portion of the Allegheny, which runs from East Brady down to Pittsburgh, provides an opportunity to fish for muskies throughout much of the year. Here's a look at a proven wintertime game plan.

Howard Wagner with 52 pound musky Wagner hefts the 52.5-inch, 52-pound musky he caught last winter in the lower Allegheny River. The fish's girth was 28 inches. Wagner carries a small selection of hard baits and soft baits. Hard baits include minnow baits in the 6-inch to 8-inch range that can be fished in a twitching manner. His retrieve is one of a stop-and-go manner, where the lure is cranked in a few feet, which pulls it under the surface. He then stops the retrieve, usually long enough for the lure to rise to or near enough the surface. He repeats this crank-pause motion throughout the retrieve. Strikes often occur when the bait is stationary.

The story of Howard Wagner's monster musky illustrates several key points about his strategy from late fall through early spring. Wagner doesn't begin river fishing until water temperatures are about 40 degrees or lower. If the weather allows, he fishes from about early December until the season closure in mid-March. During a typical winter, some ice will form, but usually a combination of warmer weather and higher water will flush this out. Fishing this time of year can be a day-to-day activity.

Impounded by eight separate lock-and-dam systems, the lower Allegheny isn't a free flowing river, but it's not a lake environment, either. Current is present, how much of which depends on the flow. Wet winters with high water mean greater amounts of current in the river. Current is perhaps the greatest influencing factor for river fish, and when the water is cold, fish like muskies seek areas with little or no current. Thus, one of the best spots for them is in and around the mouths of feeder waters. Such spots also tend to collect baitfish and smaller gamefish, such as walleyes and sauger, providing river muskies with a good food source.

Milk runs

The term "milk run" is common among musky anglers. A milk run is a series of spots known to harbor muskies, the knowledge acquired either from fish caught or from "follows" (when a musky trails a bait but doesn't strike).

Even though most milk runs entail fishing by boat from spot to spot, Wagner's wintertime milk run involves driving to several high-percentage creek mouths during a day's fishing. How long he spends at an area depends on its size. Bigger creek mouths with better habitat require a longer effort, as do places where a fish has recently been seen. Smaller feeders tend to have gravel bars in front of them, where sand and gravel has washed into the river. A slack-water pool forms below these bars in the river itself. If the bar is substantial, it will be marked with a buoy to warn boaters of the navigational hazard.

Larger streams offer a different situation. Most times, a slack-water pool will be present in the creek mouth, with the bottom composed of a muddy, silt-laden delta. Typically the river's current shaves off this delta, and a bit of a dropoff can be found along this line. Active fish are usually stationed along this dropoff or up on the delta, and they are within reach of shore-bound anglers. Some creek mouths can be fished from the bank, while others require wading.

Weather and time of day also play a part in Howard's wintertime tactics. He finds the best fishing occurs during warming trends, particularly on days when the sun has been hitting the water. Afternoons are best, with the late afternoon, just as the sun is beginning to set, most productive. It's worth staying until dark, though, because some fish will hit during twilight.

Lures

Wagner's arsenal this time of year is simple. He carries a small selection of hard baits and soft baits. Hard baits include minnow baits in the 6-inch to 8-inch range that can be fished in a twitching manner. His retrieve is one of a stop-and-go manner, where the lure is cranked in a few feet, which pulls it under the surface. He then stops the retrieve, usually long enough for the lure to rise to or near the surface. He repeats this crank-pause motion throughout the retrieve. Strikes often occur when the bait is stationary.

In addition to minnow baits, Howard also uses glider-style jerkbaits. He fishes these also with a stop-and-go action. Soft-plastic baits like a grub dressed on a musky-sized jighead can be productive. These offerings can be jigged or fished with a slow swimming retrieve.

Though heavy baitcasting equipment is the norm in musky fishing, heavy duty spinning equipment, like that intended for saltwater service, can also be used. Load reels with a small-diameter braided or fused line. Wire leaders are a must.

Wagner's tactics take place from shore or while wading. Still, fish can also be taken from a boat this time of year. Many muskies are taken from these same areas by anglers targeting walleyes and sauger.

Even though this description of tactics and places focuses on the lower Allegheny River, remember that excellent musky fishing is also available in the middle and upper portions of the river.


More Information

One of the best Allegheny River information sources is the book of navigation charts published by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. It's available from the Pittsburgh office of the Corps at 1000 Liberty Avenue, Room 1801, Pittsburgh, PA 15222; 412-395-7502. The cost is $7, and the maps were updated in 2000.

River conditions play a big role in musky fishing on the Allegheny. From the U.S. Geological Survey web site you can view current data from several river stations. The web address is www.waterdata.usgs.gov/pa/nwis/rt. The page that comes up is a state map of Pennsylvania. Click on the dots on the Allegheny that call up information on the gaging stations.


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