West Virginia is musky country. We’ve got a robust population of fish, and our fishing is best when most of the rest of the fisheries are either closed or frozen. We’ve got great rivers to float, and it’s like most of them were built to throw flies in.
Musky can get big, and often it takes a large fly to get their attention. Most of our fishing is done with 10- or 11-weight rods, and a reel that balances everything out. A faster rod tends to help cast the flies and lines better, and the 10-weight Sage METHOD is about as good as it gets. The new Sage SALT HD rods are great if you like something not quite as fast. Musky are not a fish that needs a train-stopping drag, so the reel is mostly there to help keep the line from tangling in your feet. The Sage SPECTRUM LT is a great reel to match with these newer, lightweight rods.
In order to get the fly into the strike zone and keep it there, most of the fishing is on a sinking line. The new low-stretch lines are a godsend to musky anglers. The RIO InTouch Pike/Musky line and the InTouch Striper lines are our choice for getting the flies down. Depending on water levels, we throw anywhere from the 350 to 450 grain Striper line and the fast-sinking Musky lines.
Leaders tend to be short and simple. Total length should be around 5 to 7 feet and some type of bite guard is needed. If I’m building a typical leader, I’ll taper from 30lb to 20lb RIO Hard Mono for an overall length of about 5.5 feet and then add 12 to 18 inches of 80lb or 100lb RIO Saltwater FluoroFlex tippet as my bite guard. Musky teeth are not sharp on the edge like a barracuda or a shark’s teeth, they are more like large needles, so I rarely fish wire. Just check the bite guard after a fish and change if it’s nicked or frayed. If I do fish wire I use the 40lb RIO Powerflex Wire Bite; it’s nice and flexible and easy to tie knots with.
Flies are as varied as they are for any other fish, although they follow a few common themes. They tend to be large, huge by trout standards, 6-8 inches on the small side and 12-14 inches and bigger if you can throw them. Usually they are articulated in some way, and they need to push some water, so the musky will notice them. Colors range from natural olives, brownish, and black to chartreuse and fluorescent pink. Brighter colors tend to do well for me in colder water and more natural colors in warmer water.
Once you’re rigged up and it’s time to start fishing, the casting can be, shall we say, different. It’s not just different, it can be down right difficult if you don’t have a fundamentally sound cast to start with. Learn to make a double haul and learn it well. Make your cast smooth and learn to start your cast with just the leader out of the rod. Our typical retrieve brings the fly up to the tip of the rod, so we can make a good Figure 8. That can make it difficult to start the next cast. Once you’ve got the sinking portion of your line in the air make a good solid haul, with a high stop of your rod and shoot as much line into the cast as possible. This fishing is one of the few times distance really matters. The longer your cast, the longer your fly is in the water, and the better your chances of convincing a fish to eat it are. I like to see flies retrieved in longish strips that stop abruptly. That, coupled with good fly design will cause the fly to dart side-to-side and hang in the current for a moment. Often that side-to-side action is what will trigger the fish to eat. Think about teasing a cat with a toy: if it runs straight away too quickly, they’ll just sit there; but if it starts and stops, and acts like it’s easy prey, they’ll pounce. Once you’ve retrieved the fly almost all the way to the rod tip, you need to Figure 8, and you should do it on every cast. Keep the fly 12 inches or so outside the rod tip, and in one smooth motion go into your Figure 8 as part of the retrieve. Make an exaggerated sideways 8 next to the boat with your rod. I like to see an 8 where the fly is deep close to the boat, and shallow at its farthest point away from the boat. Make the radius of the turn as large as possible, a big fish will lose sight of your fly on a narrow turn.
Once you convince a fish to eat your fly set the hook, and please, please, whatever you do, don’t trout set! Use a solid strip strike. If the eat isn’t on a Figure 8, do one strip strike, then another before you raise your rod tip. Remember to really put some effort into the hookset; it’s how most fish are lost. When a fish eats on a Figure 8 it can be difficult to get a good hookset. Try to pull the fly into the fish, think about dragging your rod tip from the fish’s nose to its tail, don’t do it gently, pull it with everything you’ve got, and once that fish takes a bit of line out, feel free to stripe strike it again for good measure. Don’t lose a fish to a weak hookset.
Our musky water is everywhere, we have a state full of warm water rivers and if you’ve got a river that’s supporting smallmouth it’s probably got some musky in it. They don’t like the raging torrent of the smaller streams and while they can swim through the whitewater of our southern rivers they tend to be in the flatwater pools between the rapids. Look for them to be somewhere they can ambush prey from. Our fish like woody structure and rock ledges. Anything that gives them a bit of cover and breaks the current for them. For the most part, musky are homebodies, they tend to stay in the same areas for long parts of the year. Keep good notes of where you move fish, and where you’ve caught fish, chances are you’ll find them there again.
Musky are a tough fish. They have a reputation for hyper-aggressive attacks on prey and anything they think is prey. That might be the case but being aggressive doesn’t mean they are bulletproof. Musky can be incredibly sensitive to handling stress and water temperature. Use a net big enough to capture the fish, that’s usually a net with at least a 30x32 inch hoop and a 36-inch-deep bag. When it comes to nets bigger is usually better. With an appropriate net you can hold your catch in the water while you get your tools ready, and you should have real tools on the water with you. You’ll need a pair of small bolt cutters or heavy-duty wire cutters to cut hooks, a jaw spreader, and a long pair of needle nosed pliers. Often the fly is in the corner of the mouth but when it’s not, a musky’s mouth is not a place for our fingers. An appropriate net lets us keep the fish in the water while we get the hook out, and then when we are ready for pictures, we can keep the fish in the water and either take the images with the fish in the net, or go to the bank and take a picture in knee deep water without ever having to pick the fish up.
Musky need to be kept horizontal. The vertical, gill plate hold that we see in so many old faded pictures is not good for the fish. A big heavy fish is not supposed to be held that way; it puts a ton of stress on all the internal organs and can lead to killing a fish.
Water temperature is a huge factor in the safe release of our musky and we need to worry about them in the summer. Musky are a cool water fish, meaning they can survive temperatures in the mid 80’s but often do not survive the stress of being caught when the water is that warm. If the temperature is above 75-degrees in the morning, it’s too warm to musky fish; go chase some smallmouth instead. It’s not worth killing a fish, wait until the temperatures are consistently below 70 to start fishing again. For our fisheries that means we musky fish from October to July, and bass fish the rest of the summer.
Thankfully most of the anglers out there who are chasing musky are doing so on a catch & release basis. Even though the average musky might be a fish of a lifetime for many anglers there is no need to kill a fish for a mount. Replica mounts are readily available and cost the same as a skin mount. Take good measurements and good pictures and you’ll have a fantastic mount while that fish is still swimming around.
Musky are an awesome fish, they grow big, they fight hard, and they are a lot closer to home than most people think they are. Get out there and spend some quality time with your 10-weight. You won’t be disappointed.