The Potomac River above Great Falls long has been an excellent place to fish for bass in all seasons, especially for smallmouths, which many fishermen say outfight largemouths, pound for pound.
But along the same stretch of river above the fall line, a relative newcomer, the tiger muskie, is making its mark in a fishery well known for its quality and quantity of black bass.
"Tiger muskie have a different, larger body type than bass," DNR fisheries biologist John Mullican said last week. "They make quick, ambush strikes and they put up a short but spectacular fight."
Tiger muskie are a cross between a northern pike (usually male) and a muskellunge, said DNR river and reservoir specialist Ed C. Enamait, and the resultant hybrid grows quickly, is tolerant of high water temperatures and is aggressive.
And among predators in the 184 miles of river above Great Falls, the thin, streamlined tiger muskie is potentially the largest.
In 1997 and 1996, two state-record tiger muskies came out of the Potomac, one 47 inches and more than 29 pounds and the other 46 inches and 27 pounds. Eleven muskies checked in at Wolfe's on the Square in Williamsport last year averaged more than 42 inches and 18 pounds.
While tiger muskies are far larger than the bass and walleye that are caught more often in the river, Enamait said they do not pose a serious threat to those populations.
"We've heard from more than a few anti-muskie people who said they eat the bass and are not a good thing for the river," Enamait said. "We ask them if they've ever looked at the contents of a tiger muskie stomach and explain there are many examples across the nation that show [these species] co-exist."
According to Mullican and Enamait, tiger muskies prefer large, soft-rayed fish that often approach half their size, and in the Potomac their preferred food is sucker, with fallfish the next preferred food. Bluegills, catfish, walleye and bass are far down the menu, behind minnows, gizzard shad, carp and yellow perch.
"Plus, tiger muskie are present in such low density and suckers are such a large food item that we probably won't have a problem there," said Enamait, adding that across all size ranges there are perhaps only two tiger muskie per acre.
The Conococheague Creek area in Washington County has perhaps the highest density on the river because the creek, too, is stocked from time to time.
"You can go out on the Potomac and 30 smallmouth of different sizes in a day would be excellent," said Mullican, who likes to fish for tiger muskie. "But 35 muskie a year would be a good average."
Tiger muskie have been stocked in the Potomac since 1989, with a minimum rate of about 15 per river mile. Fish usually are raised to 8- to 10-inch length before being stocked in the fall.
"That starts them out pretty far up the food chain," said Enamait, "although at 8 inches they probably are a meal for a good-sized smallmouth or walleye or a big blue heron, and they'd definitely be dinner for a largemouth."
But those fish that survive will reach 24 inches after two years, 32 inches after three years and 40 inches after six years. Kevin Conner's current state-record 47-incher was stocked in 1989.
Mullican said the best way to catch a tiger muskie is to find where and when the suckers are, and to fish accordingly.
From late February through April, suckers run into the tributaries, where they may be concentrated by small dams and rock ledges the heads of pools. Mullican suggests using 6- to 8-inch crankbaits and working them past good ambush points.
As the weather warms and the suckers disperse, large bucktail spinners and spinnerbaits will cover a lot of ground, and deep pools and shallows runs will be the best locations.
In late fall and winter, the fish are forced into the deepest pools, and large jigs will be the best choice.
In all cases, wire leaders and heavy spinning or medium baitcasting tackle should be used. Also, careful handling is essential because tiger muskies are toothy and aggressive
"In general, the size of these big fish, over 30 inches, limits their habitat," said Mullican, noting that the minimum length for keepers is now 36 inches and the creel limit is one per day. "Usually, they are in close proximity to deeper, slower water."
And if you find one that measures up or comes close, Mullican said, be prepared.
"These fish are not plentiful when compared to the more popular fish in the river," he said. "But a big tiger muskie will make strong runs, jump clear of the water, do everything a smallmouth will do, only harder."
Sizing up tiger muskies
The Colorado Division of Wildlife gathered length and weight data from agencies across North America and developed a standard length-weight equation for tiger muskies (length in inches; weight in pounds):
In. -- Lbs.
30 -- 6.83
31 -- 7.62
32 -- 8.47
33 -- 9.38
34 -- 10.36
35 -- 11.42
36 -- 12.54
37 -- 13.74
38 -- 15.02
39 -- 16.38
40 -- 17.83
41 -- 19.36
42 -- 20.98
43 -- 22.69
44 -- 24.50
45 -- 26.41
46 -- 28.42
47 -- 30.53
48 -- 32.76
49 -- 35.09
Pub Date: 3/08/98