Catch and release on Cave Run

G. Sam Piatt

Comes March and the big muskie swimming in Cave Run Lake are ramping up activity. Besides satisfying their voracious appetite by feeding up on bluegill, crappie and shad, they’re thinking of perpetuating the species.

They will at least go through the motion of spawning, although fisheries biologists do not believe there’s any egg fertilization and reproduction going on from the hatchery-raised muskie stocked into the lake every year.

If the lake is to produce trophy muskie, they say, it’s important for anglers to practice catch-and-release.

The legal-size limit for muskie caught from Cave Run is three feet. Anglers may keep one fish per day for the wall – or to eat – if they so prefer.

Perhaps there may be some spawning success going on in the upper reaches of the lake. The Licking River held reproducing wild muskie in the past.

The 8,200-acre lake, located about 10 miles southwest of the quiet college town of Morehead, was created 43 years ago when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a dam across the river.

Biologists do what the muskie perhaps can’t do. At the Minor E. Clark Hatchery, located in the shadow of the dam, they get the eggs from brood females and fertilize them with sperm milked from brood males. When the fry reach fingerling size, perhaps a little bigger, and can feed themselves, they are released into rearing ponds near the hatchery to thrive and grow.

When the young muskie reach about 13 inches, they’re ready to be stocked into the lake.

“Every year we release 2,700 of them, one for about every three acres,” says Tim Timmerman, fisheries biologist with the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources.

He says the average age reached is 10 years. In that time the 13-inch muskie can grow to 48 to 50 inches. In 2012, they were aware of at least 10 fish caught that would exceed 50 inches in length.

“Our goal is to produce bigger fish for the fishermen,” Timmerman says.


Nine years ago, Sarah Terry, a 14-year-old freshman at Montgomery County High School, landed the state record muskie from Cave Run Lake. It was 54 inches long and pushed the scales down to 47 pounds.

According to Terry, she and her stepfather/guide wanted to release the fish alive, but it died. So they took it to be weighed.

Timmerman says tests showed the fish to be 14 years old.

Even if the fighting muskellunge breaks the line and strips the gears on the reel, and gets away, that bone-jarring strike, those bulldozing drives and airborne antics provide the fodder for many dreams to come.

“If you’re going to have big fish, really big fish, you have to put the fish back,” said the late David “Crash” Mullins, who guided muskie fishermen of Cave Run for many years and who is listed as a legendary guide on the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame.

“You turn back that 38- or 39-inch fish and he has a great chance to become a 48-incher,” Mullins said in a 2014 interview. “In fact, we’re getting a lot of muskie going 48 inches now. They’re common, really.”

He went on to say that a common fisherman has a hard time releasing a 45-inch fish. But a fish that size released to fight again can become the new state record.

“What they can do is quickly measure that fish – length and girth – take a photograph of it, and release it. The taxidermist can then work from the photo and measurements to make a reproduction of their fish – one that will look good on the wall in their den and last for the rest of their lives.”

Mullins guided on northern lakes during summer months when the muskie fishing gets slow on Cave Run.

“I don’t know of any lake other than Cave Run where you can catch a 50-inch muskie in just 10 years. It takes twice that long in Wisconsin, Minnesota or Canada to grow a 40-pounder.

“Up there, you might as well shoot your momma as to kill a muskie.”

G. Sam Piatt

Reach G. Sam Piatt at [email protected] or 606-932-3619

Reach G. Sam Piatt at [email protected] or 606-932-3619