They are the apex predator of the Collins River, sometimes growing over four feet long and weighing in excess of 30 pounds. These giants of the deep are also among the hardest fish to catch, bringing tourists in scores to Warren County in search of their mammoth trophy fish. They are the musky.
“We are the home of the Southern Musky,” said Will Collier of the Tennessee Wildlife Resource Agency, noting popularity in fishing for the large fish has skyrocketed in recent years even as their numbers remain tenuous in the Cumberland and Tennessee River watersheds. “They used to be plentiful but strip mining in the mid-1920s and other facts caused the population to fall off.”
Collier, who is responsible for waterways in 24 counties, said the musky was placed on the endangered list in 1975 so there are limitations on which ones can be kept and which ones you have to throw back.
The keepers, Collier noted, are monster-sized fish, more than four feet in length.
“Since 2014, you can only keep a musky that is over 50 inches in length and just one fish a day,” Collier said, adding that as a rule of thumb a 40-inch musky weighs an average of 15 pounds so a 50-inch keeper could have significant weight. “We know that there’s 50-plus inch muskies out there and we know there are 30- to 40-pounders there too.”
Proving his theory is somewhat different since the musky is also known as “the fish of 10,000 casts” since it is so hard to catch. In trying to figure out the population of muskies, TWRA agents and researchers sometimes have to resort to electro-fishing where they electrify the water and try to stun the fish so they can get them in the boat. After capture, transponders are sometimes inserted into the fish so they can be tracked. A recent study by Tennessee Tech University revealed there is an alarming 95 percent mortality rate for musky from time of hatching, leading to the governmental protections.
However, Collier pointed out the protections are merely for taking the fish home. Catch and release for all muskies is encouraged and allowed provided you have a fishing license. It is that catch and release that brings tourists by the hundreds to Warren County each year since the Nursery Capital is also the southern-most place where muskies can be found in any decent number.
“We are talking about the Collins, Caney Fork, Calf Killer, Emory and Big South Forth,” Collier said of the Southern muskies. “This is a trophy fishing capital. People are spending more time and money to fish for musky.”
By trophy fishing, Collier pointed to the catch and release policy where the giants are pulled from the deep and photographed. The World Fly Fishing Musky Championships are held in Warren County each year, drawing around 80 participants. Collier said the difficulty of catching the fish and fighting the giants of the deep are what seduces fishermen to fish for the Southern musky.
Collier added there are many myths about the Southern musky that aren’t true. Given their massive size, some worry they might attack humans. Collier said that simply isn’t true as they avoid confrontation. This shyness is one thing that makes them hard to find even though your average musky won’t travel more than 300 yards from its home hole during an average season.
“They are shy and avoid confrontation,” Collier said, noting that sometimes a musky might swim up to check out a kayak but they quickly swim away if tapped by an oar.
Collier also debunked the rumor that muskies will wipe out the bass population. Collier said that while musky are the apex predator in the Collins River, studies have shown only 4 percent of their diet is bass since bass are much harder to catch than the musky’s favorite diet of suckers and minnows. Collier also pointed out it is mathematically impossible for a musky to eat its weight in fish in a given day.