POINT PLEASANT, W.Va. — The past three decades resulted in a remarkable turnaround for musky fishermen in West Virginia. To be more emphatic, thirty years ago there weren’t very many who would even call themselves musky fishermen.
But over those three decades, with careful planning and study, the Division of Natural Resources successfully enhanced and coaxed along improved musky numbers in many West Virginia waterways. What was once considered one of the most difficult game fish to find in West Virginia is now commonly caught in multiple numbers on a fishing trip. The rebound of the musky ranks up there with the turnaround of bear and turkey when the DNR counts feathers in the cap.
But the time has come, according to the DNR, to give the musky program a thorough evaluation. Timing for the decision was prompted by the work at the Apple Grove fish hatchery where many of the fingerling musky introduced in the past decades have originated.
“We’ve had some problems at the hatchery and we’ve had to cut back on some of our production,” said Jeff Hansbarger, District 5 Fisheries Biologist for the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources. “This was a perfect time to stop stocking some of those places and look for natural reproduction. If we have natural reproduction we can put those resources somewhere else. Mother Nature can take care of the reproduction.”
The stocking of the fingerling fish has already been halted for the time being on the Mud River, Coal River, and Guyandotte River. Hansbarger admitted they hadn’t done a lot of work on the Guyandotte to begin with, but the Mud and Coal have received a number of those stockings and reports of immature fish have been widespread.
“We’re encouraging anglers to give us feedback,” he said. “We want to hear about mainly immature fish if they are under 30 inches.”
Hansbarger, said an abundance of fish smaller than thirty inches might indicate multiple sources of reproduction. Biologist found in earlier studies on North Bend Lake some of the stocked muskies were making their way past the dam and into the Hughes River downstream. Some even made it into the Ohio River. There’s a concern a similar situation may be happening on the Mud River where Upper Mud River Reservoir and the river were both stocked regularly and a third contributor is the natural reproduction.
“The fish are more fit and things are better if we allow Mother Nature to to her thing,” Hansbarger explained. “If the fish are reproducing naturally, it becomes something we don’t have to worry about.”
Biologists in other districts around the state are also considering a brief pause in the stocking program to evaluate whether muskies are doing the job of restocking on their own.
Although some anglers have already complained about the halt to the stocking, Hansbarger explained the program hasn’t been halted long enough to even reach the window of time where a difference should be noticed. He added, they also want to guard against too much of a good thing which would over populate the waters with a top of the chain predator.
“They’re like a lion on the Serengeti, they’re at the top of the food chain and there should be fewer of those and the system can support that,” Hansbarger said. “We’ve had reports of a lot of smaller fish on the Mud River and we wanted to evaluate thinking maybe there were too many of those.”
Allowing the musky to become too plentiful could potentially negatively impact populations of other species all of which is in a delicate balance.