Trophy musky are the stuff of angling legend, and Tennessee is one of the best sleeper locations for targeting these monsters.
Cory knows a thing or two about musky fishing based on the pictures of large fish on his website, so we spoke with him to find out a little more about the fisheries in Tennessee as well as find out why he and his client released the big fish.
How long have you been guiding for musky?
Cory Allen: “I guess I’ve been guiding somewhat since high school when I would just take my high school friends out, teaching them “Spoonplugging” as we’d troll and cast our way around the structures of Kinkaid Lake in Southern Illinois. Guiding has become this ivory tower or pedestal of bronze deification. Basically, in guiding, your only qualification is your reputation. I guess I started building mine as a “musky guide” in 2010 when a guide left my former outdoor identity, Stone’s Throw Adventures. I had been serving only as a website manager and conventional trout guide, but I had a whole pile of musky pictures where my friends and I had caught a lot of them in our free time. One thing led to another, and the rest, as they say, is history.”
You have put a lot of big muskies in your boat, both as a guide and an angler. Other than the obvious skill involved, is that a product of the quality of the fishery?
“These Tennessee musky fisheries, from the whole historical fact that they are a native species that thrived in these waters and climate, to the explosion of their genetic potential after bolstering their population and reintroduction, to the now enhanced biospheres of the TVA reservoirs they prowl, are the sleeper cells of the trophy musky world. I realized it when I first moved here in 2005. You never heard of anything coming out of Tennessee. Yet the diamond in the rough lay buried just under the sand the whole time. In short, Tennessee musky fisheries are, even at their infancy, some of the best trophy musky fisheries to be had anywhere. Good thing they guard their secrets.”
You used to guide in middle Tennessee. Did your move to east Tennessee have anything to do with the quality of the musky fishery there?
“I grew up a reservoir dog at heart. Compared to the lakes and rivers I fished in middle Tennessee, Melton Hill was a bigger piece of meat, and virtually untapped and unexplored throughout most of the system for trophy muskellunge. Opportunities to basically pioneer a water on the last great frontier of sport fishing do not happen very often. In fact, they are once in a lifetime. I just could not turn it down. Plus, Knoxville has a symphony. So there is that.”
What is so unique about Melton Hill Reservoir as a musky fishery?
“I call Melton Hill “Lake Goldilocks” for a reason: it is never too hot, and it is never too cold. It is always just right. Even on the lowest possible discharges during the hottest part of the year, as we experienced last summer, the benthic current flowing through the system still provides a very permeating cool water regime that is highly oxygenated throughout. The general rules of southern reservoirs, or anywhere really, do not apply here. Melton Hill Reservoir is an entirely unique system that contains an ecosystem near perfectly tailored to allowing the genetics of muskellunge to run rampant beyond their normal confines. These same factors can also make it a very challenging puzzle, but the most succulent fruits, as they say, hang from the highest branches.”
Will southern musky waters ever challenge more well known fisheries to the north in places like Wisconsin and Minnesota as world class destinations?
“In many ways they already do. During even the hottest summer months, we were routinely getting fish in the low 50″ range, and even had a day where a friend and I got three over 50″ within four hours working the same area. That does not happen many places, period. In fact, I do not know of many days like that on Lake of the Woods or Lake St. Clair ever being reported. Melton Hill did it. The summer before we got a 50″ fish, a 51″ fish, and a 48″ fish with a client on three consecutive casts…read that again slowly.
The potential of this ecological phenomenon has yet to be truly understood or tapped. Watching it stretch its legs firsthand will be an absolute joy as an angler. Our close relationship with TWRA regional biologist Jim Negus ensures that we have a great open channel of communication between the science of fisheries and the intuitive feedback of these fish through our angling. Working together, we have been able to not only validate theories on both sides of the scope, but also provide valuable insight for mutual gain.”
Will southern musky waters ever have a chance of producing a world record musky?
“Two words: F#@%. Yes.”
In regards to the recent catch that brought a lot of notoriety with it, were you surprised to see such a large fish?
“Surprised? Hardly. Honored to be able to interact with an animal of that caliber and hand off the rod to a client? Absolutely, but definitely not surprised. I have hooked a handful of fish on this water that felt that big or even larger, and the general ecological as well as the health of the big fish we have caught alluded to much bigger fish, “the matriarchs” as I refer to them. A fish this size from this particular water does not surprise me in the slightest. I have known them to be there before I ever wet a line here. The habitat demands they grow to these sizes and beyond. I will be surprised if a fish over 57″ does not come out of here in the next two to three years.”
Were you at all tempted to keep the fish so it could be certified as the next state record? What made you release the trophy musky?
“Keeping the fish was never even a consideration for myself or for my client that day. We both knew that fish was undoubtedly a record, and no one could ever question the proportions of it, nor could they ever justify that the fish was anywhere near the end of its natural lifespan. This fish has a few years ahead of her based on her overall condition. If she had appeared to be at the end of her life, then perhaps it would have been a consideration. Much can be learned from this system by donating a specimen at the end of its run to the TWRA for study to determine things that can only be derived from a post mortem fish. Returning this fish to the water was not only an investment back into the fishery itself, but also so that she can be recaptured closer to the end of her lifespan and utilized to derive invaluable information from someday hopefully. Plus, there is nothing so fulfilling as interacting with a wild animal like that, having a few moments of quiet regard in awe, and then returning her back to the water that was so generous to surrender her for just a few moments.”
Is the concept of catch and release important to musky fisheries?
“Not just important, but in all but very extreme instances, it is mandatory. In natural reproduction systems in Tennessee, muskies reproduce well but their natural predisposition is to err on the side of conservancy in their progeny. Nature does a good job on its own to ensure that there are not too many apex predators swimming around. Interfering with this natural order with a top tier predator can wreak havoc, not only on a fishery, but also on an ecosystem adapted to accommodate their role in population control.
In a fishery such as Melton Hill that relies upon stocking, muskies are one of the most expensive sport fish to rear to stocking size. Beyond this, a trophy musky is worth a small fortune in tourism dollars to a fishery in many instances. There truly is no justification for musky harvest in all but the 1% of special occasions, and no, a family cookout does not warrant as a “special occasion.” Besides, the fiberglass replicas available today look far more aesthetically pleasing than skin mounts, and they last longer too.”
What is the biggest challenge facing our southern trophy musky waters?
“What is the biggest problem facing anything anywhere? Ignorance. Most people do not realize that muskellunge are a native fish species that we nearly let fall into extinction just a few short decades ago here in the Tennessee Valley. Their very natural presence here as an apex predator indicates and alludes to the rich decadence of the ecosystems here.
Muskies can only live, thrive, and serve a role in waters that are healthy enough to demand their presence as “crowd control.” Yet many anglers just feel they are mindless killing machines. That is an unfortunate misconception. They are very specialized in their natural order, and not only keep the larger soft-rayed rough fish populations such as red horse, carp, and buffalo in check, but also serve well to remove the sick and injured stock of spiny-rayed game fish from the gene pool. This is why they often attack hooked crappie or bass: they aren’t feeding on these species. Muskies are simply programmed to kill animals operating outside the normal order. To their biology, it screams that a particular fish is inferior and must be removed to ensure the future of that species’ role. Truly the clockwork of nature is tuned to Swiss precision.
People need to know that the very fact these predators can grow to these proportions implies they are serving a role in the environment so well that they are able to thrive beyond conventional understanding.”
What advice do you have for someone wanting to learn to hunt trophy musky?
“I tell anyone who ever begins to take angling seriously the same thing: Buy Buck Perry’s materials. They are the foundational principles upon which all angling we see today is built upon. It brings everything together, because everything was built upon it.
Other than that? Once upon a time I was training to be an orchestral musician. When I wanted to bump my game up a notch, I would find a player or instructor that understood something I did not artistically and hire them for a lesson. Every time I left one of those sessions, I came out with more insight, yes, but also better questions to ask of myself to allow better interpretation through subsequent introspection. This is no difference in angling.
Hire a guide. I do not care if it’s my partner Jake Priegel and I or not. Find someone who speaks to you, and not just one who guides a particular water you intend to fish for trophy musky. You are not looking for site-specific secrets, because those are fleeting anyway. Find a tutor that can take you on the water and put you on fish, but also leave you with a further expanded ability to solve your own on the water problems. Learn not to ask the what, where, when, or how, but learn to ask and understand the why, and you will be well on your way.
Finally, strain the water like a colander with creativity and knowledge, and beat the water to a froth while reading your feedback, both positive and negative, and constantly creatively consuming. The worst thing you can do is look for a pattern. Nature changes too fast to pattern anything for more than fleeting moments. Did I mention go buy Buck Perry’s materials right now?”
Cory Allen guides for trophy musky on Melton Hill Reservoir in Tennessee. You can visit his website for more information or to book a trip.