Woods and Waters An outdoor blog by John McCoy

Cold weather yields hot W.Va. muskie fishing

Bill Looney and his 47-inch muskie

Bill Looney of Amma, W.Va., recently completed one of the greatest stretches of cold-weather muskellunge fishing one could ever imagine.

In an 11-day stretch Dec. 21-31, the air temperature never got above freezing. Snow blanketed the Elk River watershed, and ice rimmed the river’s banks. Despite the inclement conditions, Looney hooked ten muskies and landed six, including one that measured 46 inches and another that taped out at 47.

Looney is perhaps best known as inventor of the Amma Bama jerkbait, which he used to catch all but one of his foul-weather fish. If Looney’s 47-incher wins the December “Lunker of the Month” competition sponsored by Muskies, Inc., the Amma Bama will have accounted for one-fourth of 2010’s Lunker of the Month honorees. The others were a 47-incher caught by Looney last February, and a 58-inch fish caught in Canada in June.

Coming up on outdoors TV

An upcoming edition of the cable TV show, “Fly Rod Chronicles,” features big-game hunting with a distinctively Appalachian flavor.

The host, West Virginia native Curtis Fleming, joins his father Sonny Fleming and longtime friend Louie Derosa on a trophy deer hunt in Kentucky. The outfitting company they hunt with, Ellie May Outfitters, is owned by Daron and Lisa Dean of Kenova, W.Va. 

The show will air on the Sportsman Channel Wednesday, Jan. 5 at 6:30 a.m., and Saturday, Jan. 8 at 12:30 and 9:30 p.m.

An upcoming episode of the show will feature trout fishing at Elk Springs Resort in Randolph County.

Speaking of the show, host Curtis Fleming will travel to Las Vegas later this month for the annual Sportsman Choice Awards. The show has been nominated for Best Fishing Show, and Fleming has been nominated for Best Outdoor Host.

Weather could wreck W.Va. winter trout stockings

If W.Va.'s weather were only this good…

My column this week unfortunately paints a pessimistic picture of West Virginia’s upcoming trout-stocking season:

If this December’s cold, snowy weather doesn’t ease up soon, West Virginia’s trout-stocking season might be off to a flying stop.
Frozen streams, ice-slick roads and low hatchery flows all seem to be working against the Division of Natural Resources’ projected Jan. 3 stocking-season kickoff.
“Normally in December, we get a week or two of cold weather followed by a warming trend,” said Mike Shingleton, the DNR’s assistant chief in charge of coldwater fisheries. “So far, we haven’t gotten that warming trend. A lot of streams and rivers are frozen over, and some of them aren’t accessible at all due to road conditions.”
Barring a drastic warming trend, Shingleton expects remote waters such as the Cranberry River, the Williams River and Shavers Fork of the Cheat to go un-stocked until spring.
“We just can’t get to those streams right now,” he said.
Most of the other streams on the January stocking list are accessible, but only in spots.
“While we can stock wherever we find open water, there’s simply too much ice in many areas,” Shingleton explained.
As always, Shingleton promised that every stream would get its designated allotment of trout. He added, however, that weather conditions might force some of the early stockings to be on the light side.
“People will need to be a little more tolerant and patient this year,” he said.
Hatchery production is down from last year, but only slightly.
“The number of fish is close to last year’s total, but the overall poundage is down because many of our hatcheries had to deal with drought conditions this fall,” Shingleton explained. “With less water than normal, our hatchery managers weren’t able to feed the fish as much as they ordinarily would. You can’t keep pouring food to the fish when they’re not eating.”
Once the stocking trucks begin running, some 197 Mountain State waters – 127 streams and 70 small impoundments – should receive fish.
A list of stocked streams can be found in the DNR’s 2011 Fishing Regulations Summary, available at DNR offices and from hunting- and fishing-license agents; or at the DNR’s website, www.wvdnr.gov.
Shingleton said two streams, Blaney Hollow and Morgan Run in Monongalia County, have been taken off this year’s stocking list because too much of the streams had been posted against fishing.
“We only had two places on one stream and one place on the other where people were allowed to fish,” he said. “That just wasn’t enough. But we’ve added Mason Lake, which is in that general area, so people will still have a place to go.”
Rich Creek, a stream that runs through largely private lands near Petersburg in Monroe County, returns to this year’s stocking list after several years’ absence.
“We’ll stock the same sections we had stocked before,” Shingleton said. “Local people worked with the landowners and persuaded the landowners to open the stream back up. It will be stocked monthly, beginning in February.”
The only other change to the stocking list is along a new catch-and-release segment of Shavers Fork, located near the Monongahela National Forest’s Stuart Recreation Area in Randolph County. That segment will now be stocked once yearly instead of weekly.

Rotten-luck day yields monster muskie

Scott Smith and his 48-inch muskie

What started as a Putnam County angler’s worst day ever ended up as one of his best.

Scott Smith, a muskellunge fisherman from Hurricane, didn’t let illness, damage to his garage, a trio of soakings or the loss of a prized lure ruin a recent fishing trip to Kentucky’s Licking River. Smith kept on casting, and in the end landed the largest muskie of his angling life.

“It’s funny how things work out,” Smith said. “All those things happened to me, but then in the end catching that fish made up for everything.”

Though he mostly fishes in West Virginia, Smith likes to make at least one trip a year to the muskie-rich Licking River downstream of Cave Run Lake.

“It’s one of the best muskie rivers around here, and it’s been pretty good to me,” he explained. “I once caught a 45 1/2-incher there. Before this last trip, though, it had been two years since I’d fished there.”

To satisfy a long-standing desire to fish the river again – and to fish it in November, which Smith considers a prime month for muskie angling – he called a friend in Cincinnati and arranged to meet up for a day’s worth of fishing.

“I almost didn’t go, though,” Smith said. “I woke up at 2 a.m. feeling sick. I had body aches, and I was nauseated. I thought seriously about calling the trip off. I tried to go back to sleep but I couldn’t. In the end I just got out of bed and got ready to go.”

On a typical fishing-trip morning, Smith opens his garage door and pulls his boat outside before hitching the trailer to his vehicle. On this particular day he decided to shortcut the process.

“I thought I’d just back the truck up to the boat and pull the boat out. Bad choice. I misjudged how much clearance I had and ended up pulling some of the trim off of the garage door,” he said.

The next disaster came after Smith reached the river.

“We got to the boat launch, but the banks were muddy and slippery. We weren’t sure we could pull the boat back out,” he recalled. “So we took the boat to a launch spot farther downstream, with the idea that we could drag the boat through the shoals and motor to the head of the pool we planned to fish.”

Wearing hip waders, Smith did all of the pulling through the shoals.

“In the first riffle we came to, I slipped and filled my waders up with water. That forced me to hike back to the truck for a change of clothes. I wasn’t about to put them on until I was through dragging the boat, though, and I’m glad I didn’t. I ended up going in over my boots two more times.”

After two hours’ worth of pulling in 40-degree, drizzly weather, Smith and his friend arrived at the head of the pool. Smith changed into dry clothes and started casting.

“I was still cold, wet and miserable, though,” he said. “And then, not very long after we started fishing, I lost my favorite jerk bait. The snap on the end of my line had come loose, and the lure came off when it hit the water. Twenty-five bucks went sinking to the bottom of the river.”

After two hours of casting without as much as a single strike, Smith had had just about all the “fun and recreation” he could stand.

“I felt bad, I was cold and wet, and we’d already fished past the part of the pool where most of the big muskies were known to hang out. I was ready to go home,” he explained. “But I didn’t quit. I put a Dead Head jerk bait onto my line, the very same one I’d used to catch the 45 ½ incher. I was working the lure over a sunken log jam when a fish rolled up and took it with an aggressive, beautiful strike.”

Even on the 60-pound-test braided line Smith prefers for muskies, the fight lasted close to 10 minutes.

“I could see that the fish wasn’t very well hooked. When Mark netted the fish and the line went slack, the lure fell out,” Smith said. “I knew the fish was big, but I had no idea it was as big as it was. When Mark measured it and said it was 48 inches, I just about messed myself. I never thought I’d catch a fish that big out of a river.”

For Smith, the catch was like the Holy Grail of muskie fishing.

“I’d always wanted a 48-incher,” he said. “I always figured if I caught a muskie that size, I’d kill it and have it mounted. But when I finally got the chance to do it, the thought never even entered my mind. I just wanted to get her back into the water so someone else could experience the same sort of thrill sometime in the future.”

Smith still has the photos, though, and with them he hopes someday to have a full-size replica mount made. In the meantime, he plans to keep fishing.

“Muskie fishing stays good through the end of December, and then it picks up again in February,” he said. “I intend to spend as much time as I can pounding the water. You never know when you’re going to hook a big one.”

Even on the worst of days.

Getting rich from catching ‘pikeminnows’

Pikeminnow bounty posters

It’s hard to believe that anyone can make a decent living catching small fish on hook and line, but a few Pacific Northwest anglers are managing it.

They’re catching ‘northern pikeminnows.’ I put the name in quotes because, in the years before political correctness came into vogue, the species was known as squawfish. The PC crowd changed the name.

Pikeminnows eat young salmon, and salmon are important to the Pacific Northwest’s economy, so the Bonneville Power Administration pays fishermen $4 to $8 for every pikeminnow caught and killed.

The Associated Press had the following wrap-up on this year’s pikeminnow catch,one that makes me want to move to Oregon and invest in pikeminnow tackle:

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — A program to reduce the numbers of a salmon-eating pest called the northern pikeminnow paid $1.2 million to Northwest fishermen who assisted the effort this year.The Bonneville Power Administration funds the program, which earned one fisherman more than $81,000 during the six-month pikeminnow season.

The BPA said just over 173,000 pikeminnow were caught, helping to increase survival rates for young salmon and steelhead.

Fishermen get paid $4 to $8 for northern pikeminnow 9 inches and larger caught in the lower Columbia and Snake rivers. The more pikeminnow caught, the more the program pays. As an added incentive, specially tagged fish are worth $500.

The annual program opened May 1 and was originally scheduled to close Sept. 30 but was extended 10 days this year.

Some perspective on the lead-ban lawsuit

This week’s column is a more detailed look at a lawsuit, filed last Tuesday,  that seeks to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to ban lead bullets and sinkers:

The people who want to ban lead ammunition and lead fishing tackle are at it again.
Earlier this week, three environmental organizations filed suit in U.S. District Court to force the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to do just that.
Never mind that a ban on lead ammo would be a direct violation of federal law. In fact, that’s the very thing EPA officials said back in August when they denied the groups’ petition to ban lead shot and lead bullets.
Never mind that on Nov. 3, EPA officials also denied the groups’ petition for a ban on lead-based fishing tackle.
The three groups – the Center for Biological Diversity, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, and a supposedly hunter-based group named Project Gutpile – refused to take no for an answer.
If their lawsuit succeeds, a federal judge would order EPA officials to establish rules designed to prevent wildlife from being poisoned by spent lead ammo and lost sinkers or jigs.
The groups argue that lead, which indisputably is toxic, should be regulated under the Toxic Substances Control Act. For the most part, it already is. Since the act’s implementation in 1976, lead has been removed from paint, from gasoline, from plumbing and from any number of other applications.
It wasn’t removed from ammunition because the lawmakers who wrote the act wisely saw the devastating effect a lead ban would have on hunting, shooting sports, law enforcement and the military. So they specifically exempted lead ammo from regulation.
Lead-ban advocates got a bone thrown their way in 1991, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issued its ban on lead shot used for waterfowl hunting. Studies had shown that dabbling duck species – mallards, black ducks, gadwalls, shovelers and widgeons – often ingested spent shot when the birds grubbed for food.
The Fish and Wildlife Service’s ban stood up because waterfowl fall directly under the agency’s jurisdiction. It was entirely within the service’s purview to protect a class of ducks by ordering hunters to use non-toxic shot, and they did.
In 1994, then-EPA administrator Carol Browner proposed a ban on lead sinkers, jigs and other lead pieces of fishing tackle on the grounds that “the ingestion of even one small fishing sinker containing lead or zinc can result in the death of a water bird.”
Anglers responded with howls of protest. They put pressure on Congress, and Congress listened. Within a year, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, introduced legislation designed to block the proposed ban. Faced with such a strong public backlash, EPA officials gave up and let the proposal die.
I frankly expect members of the incoming Congress to introduce similar bills. Some of the newcomers will want to prove their conservative bona fides by torpedoing the Obama administration’s executive-branch attempts at regulation. The proposed lead ban would make an attractive target.
Leaders of hunting and fishing advocacy groups argue that states, not the federal government, should have the final say on lead ammo and lead shot because the alleged effects on wildlife tend to manifest themselves locally, not nationally. Several states, for example, have already banned lead sinkers.
Now, though, the legality of lead ammo and lead fishing tackle will likely be played out in federal court. I wouldn’t be surprised to see the current lawsuit upheld on the district level, overturned on the circuit level, and eventually end up in the Supreme Court.
The final verdict is anyone’s guess.

Ban on lead ammo and fishing tackle isn’t dead yet

I suppose it was inevitable.

The coalition of environmental activists has resumed its quest to seek a ban on lead ammunition and lead fishing tackle.

The activists couldn’t get Congress to act, so they petitioned the U.S. Environmental Protection agency to enact the ban through administrative regulations. EPA officials read the law — which specifically exempts ammunition from any such bans — and denied the petition. Now the activists are back at it. They’re suing, hoping to find a friendly court to do what lawmakers and administrators refused to do.

The story is here, in the Press of Atlantic City.

Steal 299 rare bird skins — for fly tying????

A Baron, tied with imitation chatterer and fruit crow

This week’s Gazette-Mail column takes a look at a little-heralded crime that has sent shock waves through the worldwide community of people who tie full-dress Atlantic salmon flies:

We sportsmen like to think that the pastimes we adore are as pure as wind-driven snow, but then something like this comes along:
A 22-year-old American was arrested earlier this week for the alleged theft of 299 rare bird skins from a British museum. Authorities believe the young man was selling the pelts to people who tie full-dress Atlantic salmon flies.
The news hit me like a cold salmon to the face. You see, I too tie full-dress Atlantic salmon flies – fancy Victorian-era patterns tied with brightly colored feathers, tinsels and flosses.
Most of the materials for these flies are easy to come by. Floss is downright cheap. Tinsels are affordable and readily obtained. Many of the staple feathers – dyed turkey, barred wood duck flank, bronze mallard flank and golden pheasant – can be pricey, but are available from any number of legitimate dealers.
Some full-dress patterns, however, call for feathers that are rare, difficult to obtain and absurdly expensive. Feathers from red-ruffed fruit crows, blue chatterers, bustards, toucans and quetzals are prime examples. They’re hard to come by because many of the species are endangered or protected.
There’s a market for these feathers because some tiers like to make their flies “period-accurate,” with materials specified by the Victorian-era anglers who designed them. One 19th-century pattern, for example, calls for two red cock-of-the-rock crest feathers; two light blue chatterer feathers; two light red cock-of-the-rock feathers; two dark blue chatterer feathers and two orange cock-of-the-rock feathers.
Some of those birds are endangered. All of them are protected to some extent. Most of the feathers from those species still available legally were plucked from old taxidermy mounts or Victorian-era ladies’ hats, and routinely sell for $8 to $15 or more per feather.
The young American – Edwin Rist of Claverack, N.Y., a student in London – knew full well the value of the birds he’s accused of stealing from the Natural History Museum at Tring. Rist had been a salmon fly tier since his mid-teens. The flies he tied often contained period-accurate feathers, which he reportedly purchased with money earned by doing odd jobs.
A year ago when the Tring burglary occurred, there was widespread speculation within the salmon fly tying community that some of the stolen bird skins might eventually come up for sale on the Internet.
That’s exactly what occurred. Several red-ruffed fruit crow skins showed up for sale on Rist’s website. Their presence raised eyebrows, but few if any within the community put two and two together until after Rist’s arrest.
It had long been suspected that some of the feathers floating around on the open market had unsavory origins. Without documentation, it was impossible to know whether the feathers were legit, were poached from the wild, or were plucked from stolen museum specimens.
Now those in the fly tying community – me included – are taking a hard look at the zeal with which we once pursued period-accurate feathers. We’re also looking for ways to reduce the financial incentive to traffic in illegally obtained materials.
We’ve already had one success. Five years ago, zoos that raise speckled bustards started providing free molted feathers to interested tiers. The program virtually eliminated the sale of high-priced, illegally obtained bustard plumage.
Might we find something similar for chatterers, crows, toucans, cocks-of-the-rocks and birds of paradise? We hope so.
Until that happens, there are easily obtained and perfectly legal look-alikes for almost all those rare feathers. We need to learn to be content with those.

Mich. anglers land battling trophy bucks

Angler Bryan Ammenson with the two drowned bucks

Two steelhead fishermen made what has to be the most unusual catch of their lives recently in southwestern Michigan. The two were fishing in the St. Joseph River when they saw two trophy white-tailed bucks with their antlers locked in mortal combat.

The deer fell into the water and drowned. The two anglers fished their carcasses out of the river. One of the buck was a 17-pointer with drop tines, and the other sported a gorgeous 10-point rack.

The Herald-Palladium of southwestern Michigan has details.

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

Posters’ aim: Conserve W.Va. brook trout

Photo by Philip Smith

A handful of dedicated West Virginia brook trout anglers have banded together to try to ease the pressure on heavily fished waters.

The men, all involved with the Trout Unlimited organization, designed and had printed posters that urge anglers to practice voluntary catch-and-release fishing for brookies.

The posters feature a full-color illustration of a brook trout as well as the following message:

Many local streams support native brook trout. Brook trout are the only trout native to West Virginia and are an important part of our natural heritage. Because of this, brook trout became the official state fish in 1973.
Today many populations of brook trout in West Virginia are greatly reduced, and have been lost in a number of streams. To help protect brook trout for future West Virginia anglers to enjoy, we request you voluntarily practice Catch and Release  while fishing these streams.
This is not a regulation, but a request. Please practice Voluntary Catch and Release.

A handful at a time, the posters’ designers and a band of selected volunteers are tacking the posters up near brook-trout waters throughout the Mountain State.

Will the posters help preserve brookie populations? Time will tell. One thing’s for sure, though. They certainly won’t hurt.