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Art Lander’s Outdoors: State’s top predator fish, the muskellunge, is a big-time brawler for serious anglers

The muskellunge (Illustration by Timothy Knepp, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

The muskellunge is Kentucky’s top predator fish, capable of growing to enormous size.

Most numerous in the Green, Licking, and Kentucky River basins, and four major reservoirs — Cave Run Lake, Buckhorn Lake, Dewey Lake, and Green River Lake, muskies are big-time brawlers, especially when hooked in close quarters.

The subspecies Esox masquinongy ohioenis, the Ohio Muskellunge, is native to Kentucky and the Ohio River valley.

Pollution, siltation and illegal harvest almost destroyed Kentucky’s native muskie populations, but hatchery propagation and a vigorous stocking program restored the species to much of its historic range across the state.

All the muskies stocked in Kentucky are hatched and raised at the Minor Clark Fish Hatchery, which is located just below the dam that impounds Cave Run Lake.

In recent years annual production goals have been 4,945 nine-inch fish and 6,175 13-inch fish. The nine-inch muskies are stocked in streams in July, and the 13-inch muskies are stocked in lakes in September and October.

Through the years brood fish have been captured from Kentucky lakes and streams to maintain the Kentucky strain of muskie. Northern strains of muskie have never been stocked in Kentucky waters.

Art Lander Jr. is outdoors editor for the Northern Kentucky Tribune. He is a native Kentuckian, a graduate of Western Kentucky University and a life-long hunter, angler, gardener and nature enthusiast. He has worked as a newspaper columnist, magazine journalist and author and is a former staff writer for Kentucky Afield Magazine, editor of the annual Kentucky Hunting & Trapping Guide and Kentucky Spring Hunting Guide, and co-writer of the Kentucky Afield Outdoors newspaper column.

Top Kentucky Muskie Waters

• Barren River

The largest tributary to the Green River, the Barren River is 135 miles long, Muskie are present from the dam, impounding Barren River Lake, downstream through Warren County to the Barren River’s confluence with the Green River on the Butler County line, near Woodbury.

Fish at the mouths of creeks, around wood structures and current breaks.

• Buckhorn Lake and tailwaters

Located about 28 miles west of Hazard, Buckhorn Lake is in Perry and Leslie Counties, in the Redbird Purchase Unit of Daniel Boone National Forest.

The lake was built by impounding the middle fork of the Kentucky River. The dam is 43.3 miles above the middle fork’s confluence with the north fork in Beattyville.

Buckhorn Lake is 21 miles long at the summer pool (elevation 782) and has 1,230 surface acres, with 65 miles of shoreline. The seasonal drawdown of the lake is 25 feet, to the winter pool, elevation 757, reducing the lake to 550 surface acres. At the summer pool Buckhorn Lake averages about 25 feet deep and is 60 feet deep above the dam.

Buckhorn Lake is a mesotrophic lake of moderate productivity, with a surprising amount of shallow water, especially in the upper lake.

Overall, the numbers of muskies in the lake are down, and a majority of the fish are below the 40-inch minimum size limit.

In winter and early spring, fish are congregated in the lower lake and near the dam, around brush piles.

In summer muskies are often at the mouths of creeks on wood covered in 10 to 20 feet of water. One of the best areas of the lake to fish is in and around Trace Branch.

A second summer option in addition to casting is trolling the main lake, during the first three hours of the morning, when the lake is likely to be shrouded in fog. The flat-bottomed, relatively shallow lake is ideal for trolling, as you’re trolling over 15 to 30 feet of water, with the muskies suspended at 10 to 12 feet.

The lower eight miles of the lake offer the best trolling water, also Otter Creek and Turkey Creek.

Arguably, fall fishing is the best.

Depending on the weather, by late August muskies start to move into the creeks, on shallow flats adjacent to creek channels, and on the edges of weed beds. Often afternoon fishing is best, as the days shorten. A rain usually brings muskies up shallow. Otter Creek, Leatherwood Creek and Meetinghouse Branch are three good creeks for fall fishing.

The severe winter drawdown allows some fish to escape through the dam into the tailwaters, Spring and fall muskies are caught fishing from the banks in the tailwaters.

The fishery is maintained by annual stockings of 400 muskies, or about one fish per 0.33 surface acres.

• Cave Run Lake and tailwaters

Cave Run Lake is in Menifee, Morgan, Bath, and Rowan Counties, about 15 miles southwest of Morehead.

At the summer pool (elevation 730) Cave Run Lake is 8,270 acres and 48.1 miles long. The six-foot winter drawdown to elevation 724 creates a lake with 7,390 surface acres of water. At the summer pool there is 166 miles of shoreline.

A mesotrophic lake of moderate productivity, fertility levels increase in the upper reaches of the reservoir and decrease near the dam. The lake can be very clear in the summer but is prone to muddy up after heavy rains in the Licking River above the lake.

Cave Run Lake is Kentucky’s premier Muskellunge fishing destination (Photo from Kentucky Tourism)

The scenic reservoir in Daniel Boone National Forest, set against a backdrop of steep wooded hills, is Kentucky’s premier muskie fishing destination.

Trophy-size fish, 40 inches and larger are present in good numbers. The Kentucky state record muskie was caught from Cave Run Lake on November 2, 2008, by Sarah K. Terry. It weighed 47 pounds.

The population is maintained by annual stockings and a very small amount of natural reproduction. In 2022, 241,950 fry were stocked in the tailwaters and a total of 2,500 sub-adult fish at eight boat ramps on the lake.

Anglers can catch muskies from the lake year-round, but as imagined, fishing strategies must change with the seasons.

In spring, if water conditions are stable, fish in the backs of large coves. High, muddy water conditions are sometimes of a problem early in the year.

The Warix Run embayment is a good example of an area muskies prefer in the spring where there are shallow flats, but immediate access to deep water.

April is a good month because that’s when muskies spawn. Large females are often found in shallow water on sandy banks and caught on floating-diving crankbaits.

The upper lake often produces the best fishing in the spring because water temperatures are higher. There can be as much as 10 degrees difference between water temperatures in the North Fork of the Licking River and the main lake.

Fish the northeast-facing coves and banks because the prevailing southwest winds blow in surface layers of warmer water. Beaver Creek is a good place to fish in late April and early May because a lot of active fish seem to be on points and standing timber on the edge of flats.

During the late spring/early summer, muskies move out into deeper water and frequent weed beds early and late in the day. That’s when in-line spinners are a top lure choice.

During the heat of summer, fish very early and very late in the day, casting or trolling large, deep-diving crankbaits near the old river channel, especially around Zilpo Flats and timbered channels in Beaver Creek.

Arguably the best time to fish is in the fall, on rainy, overcast days when big fish come up shallow to feed before the onset of cold weather. Jerkbaits and bucktail spinners are top lure choices in and around weed beds at the backs of coves, gently sloping gravel banks or flats near channel drop-offs. Fish the large embayments in the lower lake during the fall.

Excellent angling can be expected. There are good numbers of muskies in the tailwaters, for miles below the dam.

• Dewey Lake

Dewey Lake is four miles northeast of Prestonsburg in Floyd County.

Impounded from John’s Creek, a tributary to the Levisa Fork of the Big Sandy River, Dewey Lake is 1,100 acres at the summer pool (elevation 650), and 900 acres at the winter pool (elevation 645). At the summer pool there are 52 miles of shoreline, the lake is 18 1/2 miles long and its maximum depth is 50 feet, just above the dam.

Dewey Lake is a eutrophic lake of high productivity.

Cover types include deadfalls, weed beds, rocky banks, and standing timber.

For 10 years, beginning in 1975, tiger muskie, a sterile cross between the male Northern Pike (Esox lucius) and female (silver) Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy ohioenis), were stocked in Dewey Lake.

The stockings were discontinued in 1985 because project goals were never met. There was poor growth and survival of adult fish, and angler success was low.

Beginning in 2014 silver muskies began being stocked.

The moderate-density population continues to improve. Anglers report catching more fish over 36 inches. Concentrate fishing efforts at the back of larger coves and shallow banks, around weed beds and standing timber.

Sarah K. Terry, of Mt. Sterling, who was 14 at the time, caught Kentucky’s record 47 lb. Muskellunge at Cave Run Lake (Photo from KDFWR)

• Green River

The Green River, 384 miles long, is the longest tributary to the Ohio River in Kentucky that is solely within the state.

The river basin drains 9,430 square miles in central and western Kentucky.

Muskies are present throughout the upper river basin, and through the years have been stocked in several locations above Rochester, in Butler County (river mile 108.5).

The best fishing is below riffles in deeper pools, around spring and creek mouths, woody debris and current breaks.

• Green River Lake

Green River Lake is east of Ky. 55 between Campbellsville and Columbia, in Taylor and Adair Counties.

At the summer pool, elevation 675, the 8,210-acre lake stretches 25 miles and has 147 miles of shoreline. The average depth is about 25 feet, and at its deepest point, just above the dam, the lake is 65 feet deep. The winter drawdown of seven feet reduces the lake to about 7,205 surface acres at an elevation 668 feet. There is a big island in the bend of the lake below Smith Ridge.

Some embayments of the lake are shallow and filled with stumps, deadfalls and wooden debris. Anglers are reminded to carefully navigate these areas, some of which are marked by buoys.

Green River Lake is a eutrophic lake of high productivity. During the summer, mid-June through mid-October, dissolved oxygen levels are too low to support fish below 16 to 18 feet.

While Green River Lake doesn’t have a history of producing truly large muskies like Cave Run Lake, it produces quality, robust fish.

Muskies were first stocked in Green River Lake in 1977 to restore and enhance a native fishery.

May and June, when muskies are on a post-spawn feeding spree, are top months. Cast to flooded treetops in 10 to 15 feet of water, deadfalls in the deep hollows or slide sites on channel points, where whole trees, as well as rocks and stumps, are piled up.

Big muskies seem to prefer deeper water. Robinson Creek is one of the top muskie-producing embayments on the lake because it has so much deep-water structure.

The best time of the year to fish is a matter of opinion.

Fall is a top choice for many anglers, with the peak fishing from late September through mid-December. There’s a lot more stable weather than in spring, and early December can be especially productive if the lake has been at the winter pool for about a week, water levels are stable and air temperatures are mild.

Twitch baits and jerk baits, which run about six to eight feet deep, are a top lure choice.

Trolling main lake flats is a good option from summer through fall.

There are good numbers of muskies in the tailwaters.

• Kentucky River

The Kentucky River flows through the heart of the state for 255 miles, draining about 7,000 square miles.

Arising on the northwest side of Pine Mountain, in the Cumberland Plateau, it flows in a northwesterly direction through the Knobs and Bluegrass Region. There are three forks.

Muskies are present throughout the river basin, but are most numerous in the upper half of the river, in pools 6 through 14 where there are annual stockings.

Arguably, fishing is best in the spring in creeks, and during the summer around timber and creek mouths.

Fishing Tips

Muskies will feed on almost anything, but prefer soft-finned fish. They dart out and grab their prey from hiding, swallowing it head first.

Deadfalls and standing timber are favorite haunts. A muskie may stay in the same general location year after year until it is caught or run off by a larger fish.

Expect good fishing to begin in early spring as water temperatures warm up into the 50s.

Muskie tackle and lures (Photo by Art Lander Jr.)

Fall fishing is a favorite with many anglers as muskies move into the shallows in embayments, located around wood cover and weed beds. In the fall, use yellow or orange lures, especially in the heads of creeks, as muskies are trying to fatten up by eating carp and suckers.

When water temperatures fall into the low 60s, try slowing up your retrieve, allowing crankbaits and jerk baits to float up, in a stop-and-go retrieve.

Crankbaits with a wide wobble are effective, especially jointed baits, like the Believer, that puts out a clicking noise because the wobbling action makes the rear set of treble hooks hit the tail.

Another top lure choice is the Suick jerk bait.

Colors are a matter of personal choice, but white or black and silver-colored lures mimic shad. Brown with a yellow belly is a sucker pattern, and fire tiger and chartreuse are the top colors in stained water.

Large spinnerbaits and in-line bucktail spinners are top lures for casting when muskies are on shoreline cover.

In the summer, when muskies go deep, one ticket to success is trolling or casting deep-diving crankbaits parallel to creek channel drop-offs lined with standing timber.

Stout tackle is imperative, and necessary — heavy action rods, casting reels spooled in 25 to 30-pound monofilament line, and wire leaders made from solid wire with a big snap. When fishing jerk baits many anglers prefer a braided line, which has no stretch and aids in the hook set.

Always figure-eight your lure at the end of each retrieve. Muskies sometimes follow a lure into the boat and a figure-eight often triggers an instinctive strike, as the lure dramatically changes direction and speed.

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