Muskies offer a special challenge for fishing clubs at lakes such as Norris and Melton Hill in East Tennessee.
The sharp-toothed fish are sought mainly for the fight they give anglers. Musky fishing is mostly catch-and-release, according to Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency Region IV biologist Doug Peterson.
"They're conscientious about the way they handle the fish," Peterson said of the club members.
Billy Davis, an environmental geologist in Oak Ridge, belongs to the Volunteer Musky Hunters.
"We actually work with TWRA and their biologists," Davis said, noting that muskies "are by far the most expensive fish to stock."
He said he fishes for them three to five days a week after work and has been seeing an increasing number of Northern anglers at Melton Hill in the wintertime.
Once popular in Woods Reservoir, muskies from an earlier stocking grew to huge sizes there in the 1970s and early '80s. Most of those were eventually caught, but anglers report they still find one occasionally.
The scientific name for the fish is "Esox masquinongy," according to the TWRA Web site. The first part of the name comes from an old European word for pike, the last part from the Chippewa for "ugly fish."
Lunge and blue pike are among other names by which muskies are known. They are native Tennessee fish that have particularly thrived when restocked at Melton Hill. The current state record is a 52-pound, 8-ounce musky caught in Norris Lake in April 1983, but Peterson and others think a Melton Hill fish may surpass that standard.
Melton Hill, the next reservoir down from Norris Dam on the Clinch River, offers a lot of cool water, similar to the lakes that produce huge muskellunge in Canada, Minnesota and Wisconsin. The world record is 69-11 for one caught in Chippewa, Wis., in 1949.
As of March 1, the TWRA's minimum length for a kept musky will increase from 44 to 50 inches at Melton Hill and Dale Hollow Lake, with one fish per day allowed.
"We're getting quite a few over 50 inches," Peterson said.
Tennessee muskies originally appeared in the Cumberland and Tennessee watersheds, TWRA sources say. While the development of lakes apparently led to fewer muskies in the state, they still inhabit streams linked to the Big South Fork and Obed river systems.
TWRA records show 34,866 stocked in Melton Hill since 1986. Sources include hatcheries in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Indiana and Iowa.
No natural musky reproduction in Melton Hill has been documented, state biologists say. One reason is likely a lack of aquatic vegetation, making the fish vulnerable to predators. Elsewhere, they usually spawn in April or May, with females producing as many as 180,000 eggs.
A radio telemetry study under way on Melton Hill could provide clues as to just how fast they're growing.
"Our goal was 25 fish on radio telemetry," Peterson said. "We're now close to 20."
Using electroshocking to capture the fish, the biologists attach small radio transmitters and wire antennas underneath them so they can be traced with electronic equipment.
Fishermen hooking wired fish are being asked to report their findings to one of the TWRA regional offices.