On a mild Saturday morning, West Virginia angler Luke King had plans to go muskie fishing on a favored water, then head for the grocery store.
Those plans were suddenly interrupted, however, by a historic catch, one that propelled him to the top of the Mountaineer State’s freshwater fishing royalty.
That’s a pretty good way to describe the catch of a gigantic muskie, or muskellunge as the species is more technically known, even for a long-time angler with a knack for catching these elusive monsters.
By the time Luke King’s weekend muskie trip was scarcely underway, he hooked and landed a behemoth specimen that weighed a state-record 51 pounds on certified scales, measured 55 1/16 inches long, and had a girth of 27 inches.
Those numbers are good enough to ascend King to the throne room of West Virginia muskie fishing, breaking the previous state record of 49.75 pounds, a 50.37-inch long bruiser caught in 1997 by Anna Marsh. And according to the West Virginia DNR, it also easily tops the state’s runner-up muskie, a 34.58-pounder caught in 2017 by Joe Willfong.
“Yup, that’s pretty big, huh?,” said King. “Believe it or not, I’ve actually caught a few more that have been up in that territory over the years. I caught one a couple of years ago that weighed 50 pounds, measured 51 inches in length, and had a 28-inch girth.”
A muskie specialist since he caught his first one as a teenager, the fish may be infamous as “the fish of 10,000 casts,” but that’s not the case for the 27-year-old angler from northern West Virginia.
And mind you, King is obviously no stranger to big muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) either, landing upwards of 28 muskies approaching the magical 50-inch range during a fishing career that began when he was a four-year-old fishing a river in front of the family house, all the while as his late grandmother “Nanny” watched from the front porch.
“She would sit in the swing and watch me while I fished the stream below a swinging bridge in front of the house,” said King. “Back then, I was looking for smallmouths, largemouths, catfish, and really anything that would bite. She’d probably be tickled to death by my most recent catch.”
Small Stream Big Muskie
That catch started innocently enough in Braxton County on Saturday, March 19, 2022, as King got to the small river, one that he says is barely 100 feet across in places, and started fishing in water temperatures somewhere in the low 40s. With the sun peeking through the cloud cover, the 40-degree air temperature was pleasantly cool to begin with, although it promised to get even chillier as a strong cold front was forecast to blow through the area later in the morning.
For the first half-hour of King’s morning trip, nothing happened as he worked a six-inch black-and-white ERC Hell Hound jerkbait at the end of a rod-and-reel setup comprised of a Daiwa 300 Lexa Winn baitcasting reel, an 8’6” St. Croix Mojo Musky extra-heavy casting rod, and 100-pound moss green Ande braid tipped with a 175-pound wire leader and barrel swivel at the end, a custom leader from the local McFly Outdoors tackle shop.
As King tossed his lure, which he admits is kind of small for muskie angling, but a size that he finds a lot of success on, he started working off a muddy bank that dropped sharply to the water several feet. Throwing the jerkbait across to the other side, he focused on a shelf of sediment that dropped off sharply about 15 feet from the bank, falling into the main river channel where the water was about 10- to 15-feet deep.
“That jerkbait, you can control the depth by how much you let it sink and how fast you retrieve it,” said King. “If you start twitching it early, it will only get down to two or three feet, and that’s where I like to fish that river because there are a lot of snags in the water. Plus, I want to keep it moving above the muskies’ eyes.”
Twitching the bait with a Zara Spook-like walking action, King fired a cast across the water and started another retrieve around 8:40 a.m. It wouldn’t take long before all thoughts of a grocery-store run were smashed for the day as the ginormous state-record fish came calling.
“As soon as it came off the shelf that time, the fish engulfed it,” said King. “It was no brig strike, but a solid heavy feeling suddenly at the end of the line. I wasn’t totally sure at first if it was a strike, but hook sets are free, so I swung to see what would happen.
“Almost instantly, I knew I had a good fish. When it came to the surface and made a big head shake, I knew exactly what I was dealing with. She dove and went about 75 feet downstream below me and tried to head for a snag.”
King was able to keep the fish from getting into cover that could force a break-off, eventually getting the fish to the surface below his feet, head thrashing, tail thrashing, and quite the ordeal for trying to get the huge fish head-first into his landing net.
Eventually, he got the fish into the net and started turning his attention from landing the fish to proper fish care.
“I like to get them netted as soon as possible, to avoid lactic acid build up, which is really bad for them long-term,” said King. “They’re the meanest fish in the river in some ways, but they are also super fragile in other ways.”
With the fish staying in the water and in the net, King also turned his attention to how to land what he suspected might be a state-record candidate. Had the weather and water been warmer, he says he’s not sure if he wouldn’t have let the fish go immediately after a quick weight, a bump board measurement, and a photo or two.
As it was, there was another angler fishing downstream with his two boys and that angler responded to King’s cries for some assistance.
“I had left my tape measure at home—it was supposed to be a short trip and I wasn’t really expecting much—and he didn’t have one,” said King. “So, after he took a few pictures with my phone, I got the fish back into the water and called my fiancé (Becky Jackson) and told her I might have a state record muskie and asked if she could bring my bump board.”
Jackson did that, and when she arrived, she was as excited or more excited than her future husband was, and he was pretty excited.
After getting an initial weight of 55.75 pounds in the difficult to weigh environment, King got the fish back in the net and water again and messaged some buddies on Facebook to see if they could come assist in the process. When no one answered—they were out fishing too—he called his dad, who then called the French Creek office of the West Virginia DNR office.
“But it was Saturday, and no one was there,” said King.
That’s when his father called the non-emergency version of 911, asking the dispatcher if there was any DNR personnel in the area who could come assist in the weighing of a fish of a lifetime. Again, there wasn’t anyone available, at least nearby.
Finally, King got through to his friend Daniel Hoard, who was fishing with a DNR park ranger named Brian Carson. Carson had a couple of phone numbers of fisheries personnel, and soon, Eric Yaeger, a biologist who worked at the French Creek office, was on his way.
“Unfortunately, Eric wasn’t close and it took him a good while to get to where I was,” said King. “The whole time, I worried about the health of the fish and tried to keep her calm in the net and in the water. Every once in a while, she would thrash around pretty good, and I’d get nervous and wonder if I was doing the right thing. Plus, I didn’t know if she would eventually find her way out of the net too, because she was enormous.”
After a good wait, Yeager got there and they got a weight and measurement on the fish, checking in at just more than 51 pounds and 55 inches in the riverbank environment. But then Yeager delivered some bad news and said that the certification on his scale had just gone out and they’d have to find a nearby certified scale for King to officially snag the state record mark.
Since Yeager had an oxygenated fish tank in the back of his truck, King agreed to put the fish in that and drive down the road to a local feed and supply store called Southern States.
“After we filled the tank in, got the oxygen going, and put her into the box, she seemed to like that a lot and got even more lively,” said King. “When we got there, we walked in and asked if they had a certified scale that we could weigh a big fish on, they said yeah, looked at us kind of strangely, and pointed to a scale that they weighed propane on.”
One Rubbermaid-like container later, the big muskie was finally on certified scales, spinning the electronic dial to 51-pounds even, a new state record!
“She wasn’t as big as I initially thought from the first couple of weights we got, but she still eclipsed the old state record by a fair amount and I was happy and ready to get her back in the water and swimming on down the river again,” said King.
After transporting the big fish back to the river, the West Virginia DNR biologist clipped a couple of fins to gain a genetic sample for aging and other information. Then they tagged the fish, just in case she gets caught again somewhere down the road.
As a video was being recorded, King got the fish in the water, worked water through her gills and got her revived and ready to go.
“When I let go, she took off like a rocket,” he said. “I was super worried the whole time about her health, and decided to do what we did only because of the cold water scenario. Had it been warmer, none of that would have worked.”
Now, King has become fishing royalty almost overnight in West Virginia and among the tight clad group of muskie hunters that fish in waters across the Appalachian region, down into Tennessee, and back up into the upper Midwest. He’s gone viral on social media and has been interviewed by a host of news agencies ranging from local TV stations to magazines and, of course, Outdoor Sportsman Group.
Through it all, he still shakes his head in disbelief, chuckles a bit, and wonders about a fishing trip that interrupted his grocery shopping plans and made him king of West Virginia anglers.
“It’s still hard to believe,” said King. “It’s something that I always wanted to do, but I never really thought it would happen. I can’t think too much about it, though, because I was just in the right place at the right time.
“Besides, it’s always about fishing for fun in my book, and that’s what I’m going to try and do in the future. I’ll still try to catch something bigger, I guess, but I just love to do this and I enjoy it, so it’s my hobby. That’s how it started and even this isn’t going to change that.”
Also not changing is King’s passion for the muskie species, or his devotion to ensuring that any kids he might have one day in the future find the same fish catching opportunity that he has.
“I’ve never wanted to kill a fish, not in a long time, even for a record,” said King. “I’ve caught a few good ones before, but I never pursued a record because I didn’t have any phone service, it was a warm day, the water was warm, or something else wasn’t working out and it wouldn’t have been a good idea.”
Thankfully, on a chilly March early spring morning, everything came together and did work out for King. Because of that, there’s new royalty atop the West Virginia DNR record book and the fish that set that new benchmark is still silently sulking in the river depths, eating, growing, and waiting to one day be tempted again by a lure coming off a ledge.
And that’s enough for King, the new monarch of muskie fishing in the Mountaineer State, and one who is plenty happy with the way things turned out last weekend.
“Who am I to kill something that old, something that’s lived in that muddy, cold river for so long,” asked King rhetorically as he reflected on his catch and good fortune. “I guess it worked out pretty good, because I got the record and that fish is still swimming and doing her thing.”
What more could an angler ask for, even one who is the King?