Muskie of the Mountains
“He was big and a good 72 inches and his sides were the color of polished silver”, the old man said. “His eyes were wild, fire-flecked and looked as if they belonged to a demon. It was the first live muskie I ever really seen up close and it was mad enough to snort flames when it came from beneath the tie jam and scooted a good 40 feet on top of the slippery logs before it found an open spot in the creek.”
The old man wasJoe Stamper and he lived in a cabin on Kinniconick Creek for most of his 94 years. Folks remember him as “Muskie Joe”, and in 1984 a renowned outdoor writer by the name of Soc Clay published an article about the legendary fisherman in Happy Hunting Ground. Later, the story was included in the book Of Woods and Waters. Joe’s encounter with the six-foot long muskie occurred in 1905 when he and his father and brothers floated thousands of hand-hewn wooden ties down the Kinniconick. The Stamper family lived near the headwaters of the Laurel Fork of Kinney where they made barrels and cross-ties, forty miles from a steamboat landing at Garrison on the Ohio River.
“Muskie Joe” never hooked up with a six-footer but he caught hundreds of legal sized fish on artificial lures, in a fifty year career that began in the 1920’s and ended the year of his death in 1981. “Ye’ know boys,” he once said, “I’ve got a sweet water spring in my front yard, a good warm cabin, plenty of fishing tackle and muskie in my back yard. What else in the world could an old fisherman want in his lifetime?”
Early in the spring of one year in the 1960’s, I visited Joe and his brother Commodore at their place on Puncheon Eddy. The expedition was unforgettable because I pulled off their gravel road and the car sank into knee-deep mud. The Stampers came to my rescue with their tractor and I have the warm memory of two good men who lived a simple but beautiful life. On the back wall of their cabin about a hundred heads of muskies had been nailed, so I can vouch for the legend of “Muskie Joe”.
The Mountain Muskie is a very exotic fish. It did not exist south of the Great Lakes until about twenty thousand years ago. Muskellunge are an ancient species, a relative of the Great Northern Pike whose range is not only North America but also Europe, and they inhabited lakes and rivers in Canada, Minnesota and Wisconsin for eons. Then the Ice Age descended on the planet, and when the glaciers reached their southern boundary in North America, muskies were left in the receding waters, and those waters created the present course of the Ohio River.
Now we can imagine the twenty thousand years of their evolution. The fish became a distinct species, Esox Ohioensis, and they searched for clear water, swimming upstream like salmon, spawning on clean gravel in the Ohio and its tributaries. Before the settlement of the midwest, and up until the nineteenth century, specimens weighing over 100 pounds were caught in the Ohio River. We can only imagine how the Shawnee pursued the big fish in Kinniconick, in the riffles and pools of Liles Eddy where evidence of an Indian summer encampment were found by Field Stafford. (Chapter Two of this blog is about the Shawnee of Kinniconick.)
In another earlier chapter, I told the story of my family’s discovery of Kinniconick soon after the First World War. At that time their fishing gear was comprised of long, cane rods and rustic reels, live bait and bobbers. When they saw giant muskies cruising in Pine Eddy, one of my uncles created a lure made of fur and feathers and trolled it on a handline behind a scow, and the first whopper of a fish struck and was landed. And so began their conversion to the early casting rods and multiple reels, and to artificial lures. Joe Stamper’s technique had evolved in the same way and about the same time, and he became famous as a fishing guide, down there on Puncheon Eddy.
In those days, muskies were still plentiful in tributaries of the Ohio. The big river itself had become so polluted and turbid that the species was extinct, but in the Scioto and Brush Creeks in Ohio, and in Kinney, Green, Triplett, and Tygart in Kentucky, muskies thrived. The fish was occasionally found way up the Little Tennessee River in North Carolina, though no trace of them existed in the Tennessee or any other major tributary of the Ohio.
My love affair with Kinniconick began in the early 1930’s, and I fished for muskies until the day I left Shabomekaw, in 1977. Though I never landed a really big fish, I “raised” many lunkers, and that is the term we used to describe the sight of one who followed the lure, or a missed strike, or a fish hooked but lost. “The big one always got away.” Now as I look back, I’m glad he got away. Especially the fish that took my top-water lure at dawn one morning, in the big drift on Pine Eddy. When hooked he shot straight up into the morning mist, his entire body above the water, then threw the plug and was gone. It looked to be four feet long (and you know that fishermen never exaggerate).
I did get to see a four-footer when I was a kid, while on a family vacation at Kinney. Somehow Dad learned that a big fish had been taken by Dr. Herbert Bertram, Vanceburg’s MD, and we made a special trip into town. Doc Bertram was another renowned muskie fisherman, along with Musky Joe. The fish was displayed in his office, right there on main street, and for many years Dad and I enjoyed re-telling the story of that lunker muskie.
My guess is that today no “native” muskies remain in Kinniconick or in any other stream or lake south of the Great Lakes. Populations of the fish are maintained by hatcheries. I will never forget one day on Pine Eddy in the mid-sixties. I happened to meet Henry Bate on the creek and he was furious. Fish and Wildlife folks had been on the eddy a few days before, and according to Mr. Bate, they were shocking big fish to the surface in order to strip females of their eggs and males of their milt. Kinniconick may have been the original source of the first propagated muskellunge in Kenucky.
Kinney had been the home of native muskies for thousands of years, its clean water and silt-free gravel riffles a perfect place for them to spawn, its deep pools and beds of lily pads the best of their haunts. Then water conditions deteriorated over the last thirty or forty years. But since the stream was designated an Outstanding Water Resource by the state of Kentucky a few years ago, I like to think that someday Kinniconick will be returned to its original glory, that erosion and pollution will be checked, and that muskies will once again thrive in the mountains.
The legend of Muskie Joe is one of my favorite stories about Kinniconick. Joe loved the creek and the wild fish who lived there. His words are eloquent: “What else in the world could an old fisherman want?”
This wonderful watercolor was painted by Winslow Homer on a fishing trip to the Adirondacks in 1894. Rowing his rough-hewn scow is an old fisherman, looking for a rising fish, finding happiness on his favorite stretch of water.
The painting of a Shawnee fishing is by the great N.C. Wyeth.