MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – West Virginia anglers are hoping to catch large and elusive muskellunge with the help of West Virginia University researchers attempting to better understand how the species reacts to warmer water temperatures.
Often referred to as the “fish of 10,000 casts,” catching a muskellunge gives the luckiest of anglers a thrilling story to tell.
“They’re a big, strong fighting game fish,” explained Kyle Hartman, professor of wildlife and fisheries resources in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design. “That’s why people like to fish for them, and they’re hard to catch. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of know-how to catch them,”
Musky fishing is primarily catch and release and the sport is increasing in popularity, but so is the concern that fishing for them in the summertime might lead to mortality. The angler community agrees that higher water temperature creates added stress on the fish, but it’s divided on whether that stress leads to mortality.
To better understand how muskies respond to being caught in warmer waters, Hartman and two graduate student researchers, Peter Jenkins and Ian Booth, are conducting studies in several West Virginia ponds and reservoirs. The only other study done on how temperature affects muskellunge fish was in Canada, where the water temperatures reached 75 degrees, significantly lower than that of West Virginia waters.
The research project is funded by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and Muskies, Inc., an organization supportive of sustainable musky fishing.
“The anglers are so interested in this that they’re willing to put money up. They’re helping us catch fish for the study as well,” Hartman said.
Booth oversees the pond component of the study. He transported 13 fish from different bodies of water around the state to a controlled environment at the West Virginia State Fish Hatchery in Palestine. He conducts controlled angling events where the fish are in ponds with a controlled temperature and oxygen content
“My part of the study is to compare the survival of musky caught when temperatures were about 80 degrees to those that were not caught,” he said. “By catching half the fish, we'll see if there is any significant difference between mortality rates of uncaught and the caught-and-released fish at those high summer temperatures,” he said.
From his observations, it appears temperatures above 80 do negatively affect the muskies.
“It just might be too much stress for them to stay alive,” Booth explained. “As soon as they get a hook in their mouth, they go all out and expend all their energy immediately. That combined with the hot temperatures may have led to some deaths that you wouldn’t see in colder waters, like 70 to 75 degrees.”
However, Jenkins has seen just one death so far in his part of the research at Stonewall Jackson Lake.
“It’s looking promising that the surface temperature of the water is not the only factor that influences whether they survive,” he said, adding that another factor may be the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water. “Warmer water naturally can’t hold as much dissolved oxygen, but Stonewall Jackson Lake actually retains quite a bit of its dissolved oxygen down to a depth of about 16 feet. So, the fish can actually get to a cooler water temperature that still has oxygen in it, which is potentially one of the reasons why these fish are surviving.”
The research they’re conducting may not show how a certain temperature affects the fish but rather at what point the temperature becomes important, he noted.
“It’s stressful for fish to come from a depth of 16 feet with 70-degree water to surface water at mid to high 80’s,” Jenkins said. “It’s like us walking out of an air conditioned room into southern Florida heat.”
To validate the research, the Wisconsin, North Carolina and Virginia divisions of natural resources will all participate in pond studies with the Davis College next year.
CONTACT: Lindsay Willey
Director of Marketing and Communications
Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design
Photo 1: Ian Booth catches an elusive muskellunge at the West Virginia State Fish Hatchery in Palestine, West Virginia.
Photo 2: Peter Jenkins and Ian Booth work together finding muskellunge in Stonewall Jackson Lake for their research into muskellunge mortality rates.
Photo 3: Peter Jenkins catches a muskellunge at Stonewall Jackson Lake as part of his research.