Muskellunge Management: Fifty Years of Cooperation Among Anglers, Scientists, and Fisheries Biologists

West Virginia Muskellunge: Findings from Recent Telemetry Studies [Extended Abstract]

Lila H. Warren


The Muskellunge Esox masquinongy is native to West Virginia in the Ohio River drainage, including the Ohio, Hughes, Little Kanawha, and Elk rivers; Middle Island Creek, and the Kanawha River downstream of Kanawha Falls. The West Virginia Division of Natural Resources (WVDNR) introduced Muskellunge into other state waters beginning in 1958. Muskellunge fisheries historically developed by stocking include the Kanawha River drainage upstream of Kanawha Falls (New, Greenbrier, Bluestone, Gauley, and Meadow rivers), the Potomac River drainage (Potomac and Shenandoah rivers), the Monongahela drainage (West Fork, Buchannon, and Tygart Valley rivers), and several large reservoirs (Stonewall Jackson, Stonecoal, Burnsville, and Bluestone lakes). Stocking still occurs in most of these waters. Natural reproduction is present in all native and several introduced waters. The WVDNR initiated a Muskellunge propagation program during the mid-1960s that uses wild broodstock collected by boat electrofishing to provide fingerlings for stocking state waters. Since 2010, the WVDNR has implanted Muskellunge with acoustic transmitters (Sonotronics, Inc.) and monitored movements using active tracking and submersible ultrasonic receivers in three different waters that include North Bend Lake, the Kanawha River, and the New River. These studies have focused on determining seasonal movement patterns and identifying spawning areas in waters used as broodstock sources. Findings from these studies may enhance the efficiency of the WVDNR broodstock collection program by identifying seasonal movement patterns during spring spawning, which typically occurs in April in West Virginia (Miles 1978). Knowledge of seasonal movement patterns may also improve angler success and lead biologists to pursue more specific research interests, such as locating overwintering areas and summer thermal refugia, examining spawning behavior, or quantifying dam escapement. In North Bend Lake, a 123-ha impoundment of the North Fork Hughes River that contains a native Muskellunge fishery, 24 fish were tagged and monitored from March 2010 through January 2014 (Morrison and Warren 2017, this volume). This study documented significant passage by adult Muskellunge through a dam, collective upstream movements in spring and fall, and consistent seasonal movements throughout the course of the study (Morrison and Warren 2015). Seasonal movements consisted of a collective upstream movement in spring (77–96% of detections in April were recorded from the upper lake), movements to the lower lake in summer and winter, and a concentrated upstream movement to the upper lake in October (Figure 1). Knowledge of this collective movement to the upper lake in spring will contribute to greater efficiency in broodstock collection by the WVDNR, thereby enhancing Muskellunge propagation efforts. In 4 years, 29% of tagged fish moved out of the lake through the dam and contributed to a tailwater fishery in the North Fork Hughes River. Dam escapement by Muskellunge has not been documented extensively in the literature and is an important consideration in the management of Muskellunge fisheries in similar small impoundment systems, particularly in fisheries sustained by stocking or in cases where the establishment of a tailwater Muskellunge fishery may have undesirable downstream effects. Wolter et al. (2013) found that 25% of a Muskellunge population escaped from Lake Sam Dale, Illinois within a single year. In an ongoing study in the London Pool of the Kanawha River, a 19.3-km study area of a native Muskellunge fishery, 24 fish have been tagged since April 2013. Adult Muskellunge in the Kanawha River are able to pass downstream and upstream through an operating lock and dam structure and exhibit a collective upstream movement to Kanawha Falls, the uppermost reach of the study area, during spring. Additionally, tagged Muskellunge concentrated in small areas of available habitat in summer and winter, indicating that suitable or preferred habitat (e.g., water temperature, aquatic vegetation, and prey availability) may be limited in a large portion of this study area during certain times of year. Observations of Muskellunge passing downstream and upstream through an operating lock and dam structure have important implications for managers in developed river systems, such as species colonization after stocking or access to historic spawning areas in an impounded river reach. Documentation of an upstream springtime movement to Kanawha Falls will aid WVDNR biologists in future broodstock collection efforts. In an ongoing study in the New River between Sandstone Falls and Hawks Nest Dam, a 75.6-km study area characterized by an introduced and naturally reproducing Muskellunge population, nine fish have been tagged since April 2014. Despite a large study area, tagged fish in this system have not exhibited significant upstream or downstream movements from tagging locations. The upper portions of the study area are lower in gradient with rapids up to Class III (International Scale of River Difficulty) and less defined canyon walls than the lower portions of the study area, which are characterized by whitewater up to Class V in a steep sided gorge. This difference in habitat between the upper and lower parts of the study area may explain some of the lack in seasonal movement by Muskellunge. Findings from this study are limited by the small sample size and the fact that all tagged fish were collected from the uppermost 10% of the study area. Despite these biases, and in contrast to other studies, the lack of seasonal movement patterns in the New River may indicate that habitat suitability and prey availability are adequate during all seasons in the upper portions of this study area based on current population levels. Additional research and documentation on passage by Muskellunge through structures such as dams and lock systems on large rivers is needed and will provide valuable information for biologists. Based on these three studies, fish passage and seasonal movement differ among systems and warrant special consideration by managers developing Muskellunge management plans and regulations. Seasonal movement patterns gleaned from these particular studies will enhance management of Muskellunge and will help guide conservation and fishing efforts by active Muskellunge angler groups in the state of West Virginia.