Anglers looking to land a musky like this one held by biologist Brian Ensign have a couple of good options in Pennsylvania.
Photo: PA Fish and Boat Commission.
So you want to catch some fish, huh?
Well, here’s a tip. Start by casting your line where the fish are.
Pretty sage stuff there, I know. Confucius-esque, almost.
But if you want to catch fish, you’ve got to know what waters the fish call home and in what sizes and numbers.
The good news is, there’s a way to pin that down. Biologists with state fish and wildlife agencies each year survey lakes, streams and rivers to get a handle on fish populations. They don’t get to every water every year. Indeed, in many cases, they go years between looks.
But the survey reports are a starting point, a sort of CliffNotes for anglers.
And we’ve got them. Each week or so over the next few months, we’ll provide the lowdown on the latest fisheries surveys from across Pennsylvania.
Here’s episode #2.
Frances Slocum Lake
This is what muskies can do when given the right conditions.
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission stocks muskies in Frances Slocum Lake, a 165-acre state park lake in Luzerne County. It surveys the lake each year, too, to see how those fish are faring.
The answer is pretty good.
The results of the 2019 survey aren’t available, but those from 2018 are. The numbers aren’t staggering, in part because of weather.
Crews handled just seven muskies, something they attributed to water temperatures. They were too cold to bring more fish within reach of nets, said area fisheries manager Rob Wnuk.
Even so, the catch rate was still above the statewide commission standards for continued stocking.
Most interesting, though, was the size of the fish.
Biologists implant captured muskies at Frances Slocum with PIT – or passive integrated transponder – tags. Each has its own signature.
What that means is, when biologists catch a musky, they can scan it and see if they’ve handled it before. If the answer is yes, they measure its growth.
At Frances Slocum, that’s generally impressive.
One female stretched 20.9 inches long and weighed 2.3 pounds when first caught in 2013, for example. When next caught in 2017, she was 38.4 inches, or nearly twice as long. But she increased her weight by almost a factor of six, to 15.8 pounds.
Another female grew even faster. When caught in 2015, she was 19 inches long and weighed 1.4 pounds. Three years later, in 2018, she was 35.2 inches and 13.1 pounds.
A third female caught in 2015 was already 40.6 inches long and weighed 19.4 pounds. Even she packed on the pounds, though. In 2018, she was 44.7 inches and 33.2 pounds.
The biggest muskie caught since PIT tagging began in 2013 was a female netted in 2016. She was 50.2 inches and weighed 45.2 pounds. She’s the only musky to top 50 inches so far, with fish in the mid- to high-30s more common.
Not every musky caught once gets captured again, Wnuk noted. And new ones turn up each year. Four muskies – two males and two females, all between 31.1 and 37.3 inches – were caught for the first time in 2018.
Mahoning Creek Lake
This is a 270-acre U.S. Army Corps of Engineers lake in Indiana County. The commission stocked it with tiger muskies starting in the 1970s, but halted the effort in 2017 when biologists decided things weren’t working.
Now, though, something else is.
Mahoning Creek is actually supporting a pretty decent population of purebred muskies. Recent surveys turned up fish between 25 and 39 inches.
They are most likely the result of two purebred musky stockings, done in 2005 and 2006, said biologist Brian Ensign.
Anglers report catching muskies there pretty consistently, he added.
So, while there’s as of yet no way to say for sure, it’s likely some level of natural reproduction must be occurring as well, Ensign said.
Still, to boost the fishery, Mahoning Creek Lake will be stocked with fingerling purebred muskies, fish 12-14-inches long, every other year, he said.
Meanwhile, there are a few other species at Mahoning Creek Lake anglers might want to target.
One is channel catfish.
The commission stocks the fish in the lake, and has since the 1970s. The results of the latest monitoring effort are encouraging, Ensign said.
Biologists handled channel cats up to 30 inches and 13 pounds, with multiple year classes providing lots of fish in all sizes. Their catch rate overall was “well above” statewide standards.
Because the lake is home to so much good channel cat habitat – sunken logs, submerged stumps, and a muddy bottom – catfish appear to be reproducing on their own, Ensign said.
Also noteworthy are the lake’s black and white crappies. Biologists handled “record” numbers last year.
The fish, as of last summer, were small. Only 10 percent of the white crappies, for instance, were longer than 9 inches. But some hit the 16-inch mark, and another year of growth may have them at nice sizes now.
Unfortunately, the news for muskies is not so good at Loyalhanna Lake in Westmoreland County.
Another Army Corps lake, this one 480 acres, it’s long been stocked with muskies. But they aren’t catching on.
Commission biologists surveyed it in 2014, 2016 and 2018. They found six muskies the first year, two in 2016 and just one in 2018. Worse, a PIT tag scan revealed it was a tiger musky that had previously been caught in the past two efforts.
It was a nice one. It was 35 inches and 10 pounds in 2014, 37 inches and 11.5 pounds in 2016 and 38 inches and 14.5 pounds in 2018.
But being the only one of its kind – or at least of very few in the lake – muskies are no longer being stocked at Loyalhanna Lake, said commission biologist Mike Depew.
There are other opportunities at Loyalhanna Lake, however.
The “highlight,” Depew said, is the lake’s catfish. The channel catfish are especially impressive. The most recent survey revealed fish well distributed between 7 and 31 inches, “with ample opportunities for anglers to catch some trophy-sized” specimens.
“Our largest fish went over 31 inches and weighed over 15 pounds. Most of our nets had at least one or two channel catfish over 25 inches,” he said.
The lake also holds white catfish. There are lots of fish in the 14- to 17-inch range, he said, and some up to 20.
As for Loyalhanna’s panfish, white crappies are fairly common, with 25 percent of those seen exceeding 9 inches. The largest were just shy of 15 inches and 2 pounds.
Next week: The Delaware River’s wild trout.
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