Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

Mark Blauvelt (right) and fishing partner Ryan Lawrence with Blauvelt's 59.88 state-record blue catWhen Mark Blauvelt released the heaviest blue catfish ever caught from West Virginia waters, he fully realized his shiny new state record might be short-lived.

“At just 60 pounds, that fish has plenty of room for growth,” said Blauvelt, who caught the gigantic blue cat (which officially weighed 59.88 pounds). “I wanted to release it so someone else might have a chance to catch it.”

The chances that some angler might land the very same fish are probably slim, but there are other blue cats in the Ohio and Kanawha Rivers that might easily eclipse Blauvelt’s name from the record books. Four record-breaking fish have been caught from the Ohio in the past five years. In just half a decade, the record skyrocketed from 32 pounds to 44 pounds to 52 pounds and now to almost 60.

Blauvelt (on the right in the accompanying photo) caught the fish during the May 14 Cabela’s King Kat Tournament, held on the Ohio and lower Kanawha. It earned the New Lebanon, Ohio, resident and  tournament partner Ryan Lawrence the prize money for the biggest fish, but wasn’t enough to win them the tournament. The first-prize money went to a team that had caught an impressive stringer of trophy flathead catfish.

Does it really measure up?The world of kayak bass fishing got rocked to its core recently when the winner of a Kayak Bass Series tournament on Tennessee’s Dale Hollow Lake got caught using an altered measuring device.

The angler, later identified as Andrew Shepherd of Prestonsburg, Ky., was disqualified after tournament officials noticed something funny about the photos Shepherd turned in to have his tournament-winning catch verified. In kayak bass fishing, contestants are required to measure and photograph each fish on a “bump board,” a broad ruler that cradles the fish. A vertical stop at one end of the bump board ensures accurate measurement by making sure each fish’s nose gets placed at the same spot.

Sharp-eyed judges figured out that Shepherd’s bump board had had 4 inches removed from it, which had the effect of making the bass he caught appear 4 inches longer. Shepherd allegedly disguised the subterfuge by holding his hand over the fish in way that concealed the alteration.

Not surprisingly, Shepherd’s disqualification triggered a social media firestorm from indignant anglers.

One unanticipated side effect of the incident could be that anglers will lose confidence in so-called “golden rule” tournaments, which rely on anglers’ honesty in measuring and reporting their catches. I suppose that when hundreds or even thousands of dollars in prize money are at stake, verifying results takes on even more importance.

(Photo courtesy Westernbass.com) Greg Gasciel with his new Michigan state-record smallmouth bass.
(Photo courtesy Westernbass.com)
Greg Gasiciel with his new Michigan state-record smallmouth bass.

A note to West Virginians who like to fish for smallmouth bass: A new state-record bronzeback just might be lurking somewhere in the waters of the state.

I can’t offer proof, of course, but I can offer evidence that even the longest-standing state records can be broken. Last Sunday, a Michigan man caught a 9.33-pound, 24.50-inch smallmouth from Hubbard Lake in Alcona County. Greg Gasiciel was bait-casting with a green grub when the big fish hit.

Michigan’s previous record of 9.25 pounds had stood for 109 years. That should give hope to anglers in the Mountain State, where the smallmouth record has stood for 44 years.

It was in 1971 that a fellow named David Lindsay caught a 9.75-pound, 24.25-inch bronzeback from the South Branch of the Potomac in Pendleton County. No one has yet come close to breaking the record, but if the Michigan fish is any indication, it’s possible.

(DNR photo) Ryan Bosserman with a 61.8-pound, 50.2-inch bighead carp from the Ohio River.
(DNR photo)
Ryan Bosserman with a 61.8-pound, 50.2-inch bighead carp from the Ohio River.

If anyone needs evidence that invasive Asian carp are making it into West Virginia waters, they need only to check out the adjacent photo.

It shows Ryan Bosserman, acting manager of the state’s Apple Grove Fish Hatchery, holding a 61.8-pound 50.2-inch bighead carp. The fish was found dead (or nearly so) recently in a lock chamber of the nearby Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam. Corps of Engineers employees alerted the folks at the hatchery, and some of Bosserman’s assistants retrieved the fish.

Although two Asian carp species — bighead and silver — have taken over entire ecosystems in some of the Ohio’s lower tributaries, Division of Natural Resources biologists believe that won’t happen in West Virginia’s Ohio and Kanawha rivers because the rivers’ currents are too strong. The fish tend to favor slow-flowing waters.

One thing’s for certain, though: The Ohio seems perfectly capable of growing really large specimens, at least of the bighead species.

(Photo by me) How many bass of this size would be around if officials removed the creel limit on them?
(Photo by me)
How many bass of this size would be around if officials removed the creel limit on them?

My friend Bill Monroe reports that Oregon’s fisheries officials will remove creel limits from bass, perch, pike and other warm-water species starting in 2016.

Maybe the move seems logical to anglers in Oregon, who focus mainly on trout, steelhead and salmon. But for someone like me, who lives in a state where most of the fishing is for warm-water species, it seems a bit shortsighted. Oregon’s Columbia River has been named one of the nation’s top bass-fishing destinations, and the John Day River has been named the top smallmouth-bass river in the West.

I’m sure the fisheries folks made the decision based on the best available science, but in the back of my mind I can’t help but think that the Law of Unintended Consequences might come into play sometime in the not-too-distant future.



NOAA photo

A new report from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration reveals that fishermen suffer more deaths from lightning than any other group.

Since 2006, 26 people anglers have died after being struck. Campers came in second on the list with 15 deaths, closely followed by boaters with 14.

Interestingly enough, 82 percent of those who died were male.

NOAA released the study to mark the kickoff of National Lightning Safety Awareness Week.


Sleuthing out a famous fishing book

I am an unabashed fan of Norman Maclean’s classic book, “A River Runs Through It.”

Not only is the story achingly well written, it centers on a family of fly fishermen. Maclean’s vivid scene-setting helps me imagine what those long-ago scenes on Montana’s Big Blackfoot River must have looked like.

And apparently I’m not the only one.

Other fans of Maclean’s superb novella have made a pastime out of locating the exact spots described in the story simply by matching the written description with features along the river. A reporter for the Missoula, Mont.,- based Missoulian newspaper wrote a fascinating feature story about those angling sleuths. If you’d like to check it out, here’s the link.

New bass species found in Florida

Choctaw bass (Photo courtesy Florida FWC)

Well, maybe there is something new under the sun.

Or under the water.

Fisheries researchers in Florida have discovered a new species of black bass. It’s very similar in size and appearance to the spotted bass, but genetic studies revealed that its DNA profile didn’t match any other species.

Since the fish’s range appears to overlap territory once controlled by the Choctaw tribe, scientists have decided to call it the Choctaw bass.

Here’s more, from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Hat tip:  J.R. Absher at The Outdoor Pressroom.

A random act of conservation

Luke King with his muskie (Courtesy photo)

Sometimes doing the right thing makes everyone feel good. Case in point: Nineteen-year-old Luke King of Burnsville, W.Va., who caught and released a muskellunge that probably would have broken the state’s length record for the species. Here’s my feature story about King’s good deed:

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — How many people would catch the fish of a lifetime and release it, knowing full well it might have been a state record?
Ask Luke King, who did exactly that.
On April 15, King landed a muskellunge he hastily and conservatively measured at 53 inches in length, slightly longer than the current West Virginia record of 52.7 inches. Moments later he released his hold on the muskie’s tail and watched her swim away.
“I never dreamed I’d catch anything like that,” King said. “But there was no question I was going to release her.”
Since he began muskie fishing four years ago, King has caught more than 250 of them, and has released all but a handful.
Last year, the 19-year-old from Burnsville caught a whopping 83 legal-sized muskies, including several in the 45- to 50-inch range.
The first few months of this year had been a bit slower. King had fewer opportunities to go fishing, and by the time April 15 rolled around he had caught just 12.
And for most of that day his total remained right there. He and his fishing partner, Jake McLaughlin, spent a fruitless afternoon on the Little Kanawha River, casting their lures toward submerged logs in one of the river’s deep pools.
After they finished with the pool, King and McLaughlin guided their boat into a shallow area. What they saw there made their eyes grow wide.
“We had found a spawning riffle,” King said. “We were expecting to find pre-spawn fish, but instead we found muskies that were already paired up to spawn.”
Most of the fish were more interested in their mating rituals than in the 10-inch Red October pink tube jig King cast in front of them.
“They didn’t want to eat,” he said. “Most of them didn’t even want to look at [the lure].”
Female muskies are almost always larger than males, and King said a couple of the females he and McLaughlin saw were much larger.
“We saw one female that must have been 50 inches, and she was accompanied by a male that looked to be about 30 inches,” King said.
One pair in particular grabbed the anglers’ attention – a male in the 45- to 49-inch range, accompanied by a female several inches larger.
“I cast to the female, and she followed the lure back toward the boat,” King recalled. “She didn’t take, though. She just hovered there under the boat. I made some figure-of-eights with the lure, but she stayed down there. Then I dropped the lure down and started jigging it right in front of her face.”
That did it. The muskie inhaled the lure and nonchalantly turned to rejoin her mate. King set the hook.
“She took off down river, and peeled 50 yards of line off the reel in just a few seconds. I’ve never had a muskie pull that hard,” he said.
Fortunately for King, he had come prepared to do battle with just such a leviathan. The 8-foot, extra-heavy action rod helped him tire the fish quickly, and the 80-pound-test braided monofilament ensured a more-than-adequate connection between angler and fish.
“We used the trolling motor to help close the distance to the fish,” King said. “The fight probably lasted five or six minutes, tops. Jake netted her for me.”
As the net’s meshes closed around the huge muskie, the lure fell out of her jaw. Instinctively, King reached for the fish’s tail to make sure it wouldn’t flop out of the net.
“I couldn’t get my hand around the base of the tail,” he said. “It was too big.”
When King finally lifted the big female from the net, he noticed eggs coming out of her vent.
“She was spewing eggs,” he said. “We wanted to get her back into the water as quickly as we could so all her remaining eggs could be turned into little muskies.”
The fish was too long to lie out on a flat surface for measurement, so King and McLaughlin held her in the water and stretched out the tape.
“Her body was slightly bent, but she still measured 53 inches, and that was without a tail squeeze,” King said.
When fish are measured for recordkeeping, Division of Natural Resources officials allow anglers to squeeze the lobes of the fish’s tail together. Jeff Hansbarger, a DNR district fish biologist and muskie researcher, said a tail squeeze can add as many as 2 inches to a large muskie’s length.
“There’s a good chance [King’s] fish would have gone 54 or 55 inches,” Hansbarger said.
The current length record, held by a fish caught in 2004 from Stonecoal Lake, is 52.7 inches, so King’s fish probably would have eclipsed that mark rather handily.
King and McLaughlin also measured the big muskie’s girth at 24 1/4 inches. Using a weight-estimation formula based on length and girth, King calculated the fish’s weight at 45 pounds – huge, but well short of the state record of 49 3/4 pounds, set in 1997 by another Stonecoal Lake muskie.
“There was no question about releasing my fish, though,” King said. “I try to release all of them. I had caught a 50-incher before, and released that one too. But boy, I never dreamed of catching something like this latest one.”


Why fish just one way?

This week’s column takes a look at how we, as anglers, sometimes sentence ourselves to the same old same-old:

Jeremy Wade is a fisherman after my own heart.
Wade, who hosts cable TV’s “River Monsters” show, values results more than technique. He’s interested in catching big fish and doesn’t much care how he goes about it.
I’ve seen him use lures to catch Eurasian “pike-perch” from the cooling pond at Ukraine’s infamous Chernobyl nuclear site. I’ve seen him fly fish the headwaters of India’s Ganges River for mahseer. And I’ve seen him use live bait to catch everything from African tigerfish to giant Mekong River stingrays.
It’s almost as if the mind of Al Davis, the late Oakland Raiders coach, has made its way into a world-traveling angler’s body. Davis’ motto was “Just win, baby.” Wade’s seems to be “Just catch fish, baby.”
These first few paragraphs might confuse those of you who know me or have followed my weekly columns for the past 33 years. Yes, I prefer to fish with a fly rod whenever possible, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy fishing hardware or bait.
The top shelf of my fishing closet contains tackle boxes filled with crankbaits, buzz baits, spinnerbaits, grubs, tubes and twitch baits. It also contains a small box filled with small spinners and all the necessary gear to fish, like worms, minnows, salmon eggs or PowerBait for trout.
There are fly rods, sure, but there also are spinning rods in several actions and two or three casting rods. And the collection is by no means complete. Before I cash my chips, I plan to purchase (and make good use of) a muskie rig and a spinning rod heavy enough to be used for big catfish and hybrid striped bass.
One of the best things about living in West Virginia is that its angling opportunities are so very diverse. From tiny headwater brook-trout streams to rocky smallmouth rivers to deep-channeled inland waterways where monster catfish lurk, there’s something for everyone.
People have preferences. I get that. Heck, I have them too. My personal preference is to use a fly rod to cast for trout, largemouth or smallmouth bass. But I’ll happily use minnows to fish for crappies, dough balls to fish for carp, plastic grubs to fish for sauger, chicken livers to fish for channel cats, or strips of baloney to fish for creek chubs.
I know people who fish using only one kind of tackle for only one species. I’m not about to criticize them, because they’re doing what they enjoy and they’re doing it in a way that makes them happy. Personally, though, I don’t like to limit my options.
I also like to learn new things, and the best ways I’ve found to learn more about fishing are to fish for different species and to try different baits, techniques, rods, reels and lines.
A good friend once invited me to go bass fishing. He knew of my reputation as a fly angler, and he knew that I preferred to fish for trout. When I showed up carrying a bait-casting rig, he did a double take.
He did another double take when I fired cast after cast without a single backlash. He did a third double take when I cast a spinnerbait over a sunken log, teased it up to the log and let it fall as soon as it crossed over.
“You’ve done this before, I take it?” he asked, grinning.
“A time or two,” I replied. “Hey, man doth not live by fly rod alone.”
The goal of fishing, after all, is to catch fish. The more or bigger fish anglers catch, the more they tend to enjoy the experience.
Perhaps, then, we should all take a lesson from Jeremy Wade and start caring more about catching fish than how we go about doing it.
We’d probably catch more fish, and we’d certainly have more fun.