Acoustics Track Kanawha River Muskie Movements

By on January 26, 2016
Fisheries biologists with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources implant a transmitter tag into a Kanawha River muskie. (Credit: West Virginia Department of Natural Resources)

A lot of fishermen know what a “honey hole” is. But if you haven’t heard this term before, it’s a spot in a river or lake where the bite is just amazing for whatever type of fish that you’re targeting.

In the Kanawha River, there are many of these honey holes for muskie, according to anglers that frequent the waterway. Now that may be good for catching fish, but it’s not the best thing for conservation of the species.

Thanks to work by the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (WVDNR), the dynamics of why these muskie sweet spots exist is becoming clearer. Scientists with the agency have used transmitter tags to study movements of the fish in the river over the past three years, revealing some insights into stream factors affecting their movements and habitat.

Implanting the tags involves some standard methods like electrofishing to momentarily stun a fish. Then, once the muskie has been pulled on to the boat, officials with the WVDNR can quickly implant the transmitter tag with a quick incision and stitch job. The doctored-up fish then gets released back into the river’s currents.

Key to the effort are acoustic receivers planted up and down the river that capture when a fish has swum by. By recording the little pings of each fish’s movement, WVDNR researchers can precisely track where the fish have gone and where they’re going. The total number of these receivers in the river is seven currently, corresponding with about 10 tagged muskies that range in size from 26 to 45 inches.

As the investigation has progressed, scientists have found that the movement patterns of muskie are altogether unpredictable. Some go farther downstream than others, while some go too far to be tracked anymore. Still, they have made some interesting finds that will aid conservation of the fish.

One consistent finding of the research is that muskies tend to like to congregate at Kanawha Falls, an impassable upstream barrier. This find is consistent with reports by anglers that they have found honey holes of muskie near this spot to target.

But for the muskies in the river, they seem to enjoy congregating together as well. For example, researchers say that they have found five to six muskies repeatedly in the same spots in the Kanawha River. Their thinking is that there must be some sort of water quality conditions at play that are causing the muskies to stop and stay in those areas. And the areas aren’t that big — they are only about the size of a house.

There was another time that researchers found about six muskies sitting in deeper waters near the London Dam, which is downstream of Kanawha Falls. That find, combined with others hinting at the variability of muskie movement is making some researchers worry that there just isn’t enough habitat for them throughout the waterway.

As for gender differences, males of the species seem to come in sooner than the females, about two weeks sooner. The females follow after that. In the spring time, all of the muskies seem to congregate toward a pool near Kanawha Falls, telling scientists that there may be a temperature difference there attracting them.

Next steps for the researchers are to continue the investigation. The battery packs in the receivers should last one more year, so their study will likely end after that.

Top image: Fisheries biologists with the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources implant a transmitter tag into a Kanawha River muskie. (Credit: West Virginia Department of Natural Resources)

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