By Nathaniel H. Axtell
Most people go fishing with the expectation, or at least the prospect, of catching a fish or two. Muskie fisherman, however, are a different breed altogether.
Anglers who pursue the mighty muskellunge — a toothy member of the pike family that grow locally up to 35 pounds and reach lengths of 50 inches — come to their sport with no expectations, other than to cast their arm off all day with perhaps nothing to show for their effort. Fact is, muskies are just plain hard to catch.
Known as the “Fish of 10,000 Casts,” muskies are capricious, moody, and brooding beasts that hang out in shadowy lairs waiting to ambush prey that naively wander into range. According to the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, it takes about 47 hours of fishing to boat one legal muskie in western North Carolina. Not great odds to any betting man.
But their size, explosive strikes, and ferocious fights are enough to lure a select band of masochists to the water in search of them.Walker Parrott is one such glutton for punishment. On his own and as a guide for Davidson River Outfitters, Parrott has been chasing muskies on the French Broad River for about five years. He’s boated several, including a 39-incher he caught on a fly rod last summer (a tremendous feat.)
Twice this February, Parrott took myself and fellow muskie fanatic Mac Marett on a guided trip down the upper French Broad in search of the elusive Esox musquinongy. We put in at a public access between Asheville and Rosman, floating downriver in Parrott’s inflatable raft, tossing giant pike flies on 10-weight rods and pitching jointed plugs the size of respectable trout.
Muskies don’t get big by fighting the current, so most river fish hole up in backwaters behind downed trees, in large eddies, under cut banks, or in deep, slow-moving pools. On our first trip, we anchored in the center of one such pool and began covering the water, me with a 7-inch Bomber plug and Mac with an Enrico Puglisi streamer fly.
“Down here, the reason we hit the dead center of the river is there’s a sandbar on river right that drops off about ten feet and that’s where the fish lay up,” Parrott explained. “I’ve hooked the same muskie in this hole several times. If you see a fish following your lure, keep it coming fast — burn it. If he comes in close, leave your plug or fly in the water and make a figure-eight motion with it. If you stop it or slow down, they won’t eat it.”
Concentrating on areas where you’ve seen muskies before is a good tactic, according to Parrott and others, because the fish are creatures of habit. They show fidelity to certain prime lies, such as tailout areas behind islands, deep outside bends heavy with timber, and dark pools with light current.
“If you find one and you go back to that spot, and you stick with it day after day, you’ll eventually catch that fish,” said Don Funderud, president of the Western NC Muskellunge Club and a French Broad regular. Funderud told of catching and releasing a 43-inch muskie he knew about in a big hole south of Asheville. “A buddy of mine caught it later and it was 45 inches. He put it back. Then this boy’s daddy caught it at 47 inches and kept it, because it was the biggest fish he’d ever seen.”
Muskies will eat anything they can get their jaws around, including crayfish, frogs, muskrats, beavers, waterfowl, and even small dogs! But their preferred diet in the French Broad and other WNC rivers appears to be large shiners, black redhorse, hog suckers, chubs, bluegill, and other smaller fish, according to David Yow, the NCWRC’s warmwater fisheries research coordinator.
As we floated around a big bend-pool, Parrott offered that muskie will even eat their own kind. “I found half a muskie here last August that was probably two and half feet long, severed like you took a fillet knife and cut it in two,” he said. “You could tell from the bite marks that it was eaten by another fish.” That same day, one of Parrott’s clients caught a 40-inch muskie on a plug and broke another one off. “That was a good day,” he grinned.
A muskie’s strike is “pure chaos,” according to Parrott. Upon sighting his prey, the fish curves its body into an ‘S’ shape, like a snake preparing to strike. “Then it lunges forward, accelerating from a dead stop to 30 miles an hour in just a couple of body lengths,” writes Barry Reynolds, author of Pike On The Fly. According to Funderud, “Most of your strikes will come in two places: as soon as (your lure) hits the water, or they’ll explode at the boat. It’s exciting.”
With razor-sharp teeth and powerful, thrashing bodies, muskies are no match for puny tackle. Parrott advises using heavy-action spin gear and 15- to 25 lb. test line, ending with fluorocarbon shock tippet or wire leaders with swivels. Funderud says many people make the mistake of using humongous lures, thinking that bigger is better. “That’s fine for the lakes, but not on the river,” he said. “You need to match the size and color of your basic forage fish, which is a sucker about 5- to 6-inches long.”
Fly anglers should come prepared with 8- to 10-weight rods paired with disc drag reels and several extra spools of line, including a floating and intermediate or Type 1 sinking. Leaders should be 14 lb. test with wire or fluorocarbon shock tippets. Good flies for muskie include Lefty’s Deceivers, Bentbacks, Dahlberg Megadivers, and large poppers. Marett custom-ties these and other special muskie flies; to order some, call him at 864/647-4875.
Summer appears to be the best time to pursue Tarheel muskies, according to the NCWRC study. On the French Broad, the hours of effort needed per fish (including those under the 30-inch minimum creel size) is 8.2 in the summer, versus 46.5 and 59.8 in the spring and fall, respectively. Winter — the time we chose to fish — had no river muskies reported caught within the study’s 1986-89 time period. But Funderud points out that the state record, a 41-pound, 8 ounce monster, was landed in January, 2001 on Lake Adger in Polk County.
“In the summer, the river is at a lower level,” biologist Yow said. “That tends to provide more definition, structurally, to the river. The pools get well-defined and the larger muskies move up and down the river channel less, for territoriality reasons. They seem to have more fidelity to particular large pools. It makes it easier to target certain large fish.”
Though associated with more northernly areas such as Wisconsin and Canada, muskies are native to the Tennessee River drainage of western North Carolina. However, pollution and siltation from logging and mining led to the species’ extirpation from state waters by the 1920s. Passage of the Clean Water Act and other anti-pollution laws helped clean up the French Broad and other WNC rivers to the point they could once again support fish.
The NCWRC stocks roughly 1,300 fingerling muskies (between 8- and 14-inches long) in the French Broad in odd-number years. In even-numbered years, they stock the North Toe River, the New River, and Lake Adger. There are naturally reproducing muskie populations in the Little Tennessee River and Lake Fontana, but Yow said the French Broad has “very low natural reproduction.”
“The problem with the French Broad is there’s very little left of the old river system,” he said. “The floodplain forest and the tributary streams were an integral part of the river system. But now, most of the floodplain is in agricultural and suburban or urban development, and most of the tributary streams have been reduced to drainage ditches and carry more sediment than water sometimes.”
The lack of backwater areas and healthy tributaries hurts muskie reproduction because those are the nursery areas for newly hatched fish. “The fingerlings need to grow and reproduce in areas where they don’t have to share the same water as the four-footers,” Yow explained. He said attempts to improve habitat in the river have been stymied by funding shortfalls and a lack of consensus among stakeholders, including farmers and fishermen.
Funderud agrees that habitat is the limiting factor for muskies on the French Broad. “A lot of the creeks and drainage ditches are filling and a lot of people are farming right up to the shore,” he said. “You mention that and the farmers get pissed off. But they could leave a little more of a buffer to keep the sediment out of the river in the spring.”
To take a guided muskie trip with Davidson River Outfitters, call (828) 877-4181. The cost of a full day float trip for two, including lunch, tackle, and transportation, is $325; a three-quarter day for two anglers is $265.