What’s Next for Our Muskie Fisheries?

All you muskie fishers out there-give yourself a pat on the back. Let’s look at what’s happened in muskie fishing over the last couple decades. About twenty-three years ago I started to release muskies myself, and encourage my guiding clients to do the same. As a teenager, so rabid about fishing that I started guiding others regularly at the age of 14 during the summer, I’d gotten a wake-up call.

 

I had just started to dabble in the business side of fishing when I heard something I’d honestly never even pondered. You see, I’d been brought up with the mentality that when you fish-you try real real hard to catch ‘em-and you keep and eat your legal limit. Simple, and this included muskies.

 

A friend (a Muskies Incorporated member) kind-of took it upon himself – graciously starting by stroking my fledgling ego, he mentioned the fact that I was catching a fair number of legal muskies and so were my clients. Then he asked why we kept all of them. Easy answer there-you’re supposed to, silly. It’s just the way it is. He then asked if I liked to catch bigger ones. I replied with the obvious answer – you know where this goes.

 

I started releasing, gradually becoming more and more convinced that it was the right thing to do and pushing it more-and-more with clients and fishing acquaintances. I certainly can’t take credit for starting the trend, but this was about the time catch and release fishing was really catching on with muskie fisherpeople. The majority of the credit would go to Muskies Incorporated (world’s largest non-profit muskie fishing group) and its founders.

 

If catch and release didn’t really work though (result in better quality fishing), it would have never caught on. Muskie fishing now, is SO much better than when I started-it’s almost amazing when I truly consider it. I’m spoiled now, in retrospect. I remember thinking that if I could just catch one over forty inches it would really be a big deal. Of course, the size limit was thirty inches then and most of us killed every “legal.” In recent years, I’ve had several times that I’ve had over 100 muskies caught and released in my boat over forty inches.

 

It is truly amazing. If someone would have told that was possibly back then, I would have laughed in their face (and probably gotten a black eye). Catch and release is the simple difference. It becomes even more important as more fishers have better knowledge, equipment and abilities to catch fish. VERY few muskies would ever reach their full growth potential these days were it not for release.

 

So, where can we go from here? The great news is I believe there is still room for significant improvement. So do the other folks I’ve interviewed on the subject. I spoke with Terry Margenau, fisheries expert for WDNR out of Spooner, Mike Staggs, head of fisheries for the state, and Lee Kernen, recently retired from the same post. Interestingly, none of us are very far apart as we stare into our crystal balls and ponder what’s up for the future.

 

Wisconsin’s muskellunge fishery is as diverse as the anglers who fish muskies. We have nearly 800 waters (a little over 700 lakes) to manage. In a nutshell, everyone seems to agree that when it comes to regulation-fitting them to an individual water’s biological potential is key. While the statewide minimum limit (34 inches) is thought to be low for quality management, there are also nearly 200 waters that have 40 inch or greater size limits (I didn’t realize that).

 

The main issues outlined by Margenau for the future are: improving population size structure, preservation and restoration of critical habitat and “efficient use” of our hatchery products.

 

Higher length limits not only hold promise to improve population size structure, but also allow more mature fish to reproduce multiple times before they become vulnerable to angling. Stocking is currently a big part of the picture, since less than 20% of the state’s waters are self-sustaining. This is very concerning to fisheries managers, having so many fisheries reliant upon hatchery stocking. So, in the recent past, and future, more emphasis will be directed toward “protecting” and restoration of sensitive areas.

 

Of course, protecting makes sense for several reasons, since stocking and reliance on it offers potential trouble. Not enough stocking could mean reduced populations (tough angling); too much creates artificially high densities that can throw off a fishery’s balance. It’s not just a matter of how many fingerlings we can produce, and stock.

 

Besides protecting the habitat, regulation that fits the water is the concensus of experts. And, it’s that of most of the fisherpeople out there too. According Margenau, polls of state muskie anglers show that 72% preferred variable limits to uniform limits.

 

All agree that the tough thing about muskie management is that folks want to see results right away. Being a slow-growing (twenty-plus years to reach maximum size), low-density animal, results don’t show in a hurry. Realistically, the effects of a higher size limit can’t truly be examined until after at least ten years have gone by. And it gets even more complicated.

 

Allow me to regress – one of the big issues in the social aspect of management has been concerns for business people who rely on tourist (and local) dollars spent on fishing. The concern, of course, is that when you start to “limit” anglers, they aren’t going to want to come back and fish, and spend money. The reality is with muskie fishers though (and I think, all anglers), is that higher limits (or ‘quality’ regulations) bring more fishermen. Past and present proves that out.

 

In reading a study on Bone Lake (Polk County) provided by Margenau, a two-inch higher length limit (34 inches; statewide went to 32) that went in effect in ’83 brought increased pressure from muskie anglers. The perception that bigger fish would be available brought more anglers even back then. The increased pressure actually had a reverse affect due to increased harvest at first, but then the size structure went up. The same was true in ’90 when the lake went to a 40-inch minimum. Following that size-limit increase, the number of fish between 38 and 40 rose 300%, while the number over 40 rose 72%. Of course, this shows that harvest of “legal” fish still occurs to a significant extent.

 

The increased pressure issue brings us back to the complications. How much does the stress of repeated capture of these fish slow growth rates? It’s very hard to say, but a consideration for Margenau. Anglers get better and better, and buy better and better gear every year. The folks with the most experience and gear generally seek out the best opportunity for big fish (a prime example is Lac Seul in Ontario; Ministry officials imposed a “no-keep” regulation to protect the fragile muskellunge fishery – increased pressure was the result, and yet the fishery still maintains a high quality).

 

This affect on growth is an unknown though, and very hard to control or study. What can be controlled are habitat, stocking and the length limits. Mike Staggs, head of fisheries for the state, echoed the same cry I heard from all (and feel myself). He said, “we need to manage waters to their management potential. This leads us to lower limits on ‘action’ waters and high or even ‘no keep’ limits on trophy potential waters.” All interviewed agree that while high size limits can be a very effective management tool, high limits on waters with slow growth rates can be counterproductive.

 

So, individual regulation is definitely the direction we are headed. Mike also offered heavy emphasis on getting a better handle on stocking. Both he and Margenau mentioned that Tim Simonson (WDNR) will be conducting studies to provide a “larger experimental design on stocking.” In simple terms, try to get a better grip on exactly how many fish should go into each water to provide the best balance. As with size limits, try to step away from a “blanket-type” policy based soley on acreage. Also explore the efficiency of stocking fall fingerlings (extended growth 1 year-old fish) which have better survival rates  – good enough to justify the extra time and money?

 

It’s a tough “social” call these days, but Staggs did mention that on some of the best trophy potential lakes, it would be nice to see what a no-harvest policy would do. At the least he feels such waters should have high size limits. It’s been my personal feeling that on trophy potential waters, size limits should be set at the length fisheries experts feel the “average female muskie” can attain on that water body. This offers significant protection, yet allows harvest of a “super-fish” if one comes along, which is the ultimate goal.

 

He was excited (as was I to hear) to see what will happen down the road with the Lake Michigan muskie fishery. The DNR is working on establishing a 50-inch limit on the Green Bay (Big and Little Sturgeon and wherever stocked fish roam) muskie fishery and tributaries. The growth potential for muskies there is “huge” – it should realistically be as good as it gets. A muskie illegally taken through the ice there last season was at the very least a fifty-pound-class fish in my opinion (and very healthy; not done growing).

 

Mike called it a great opportunity to “actively manage for monster fish.” He also said that they are considering trying to create the same opportunities in Lake Winnebago. For a muskie-head like me, it’s truly exciting to ponder the potential – too bad it takes time.

 

Mike and I chatted further, and there’s too much to really be mentioned here, but one thing of note-are all of the variables here. I’ve already made mention of how growth rates may be affected by increased instances of capture. Other things that can drastically affect the “effect” of regulation are the “release abilities” of the anglers. The better anglers are at releasing (more prepared with proper release tools and knowledge) the less the stress effect will be. And consider, that regulation means nothing at all if the angler (intentionally or due to inexperience/unpreparedness) releases a dead fish. Education on proper release practices plays a huge part too.

 

Also, there is the issue of tribal harvest. Mike was positive about the potential for a good working relationship with tribal leaders-for the common goal of seeing the state’s fisheries get better-as tribal interests increasingly have more businesses. This, of course, benefits everyone. A willingness to work together for the common goal is important and apparent.

 

Finally, my good friend and ex-head of fisheries, Lee Kernen has some great input. I was encouraged by speaking with both Margenau and Staggs, simply because of the fact that they were both very positive about being proactive in their management vision to push for quality, yet stressing that each fishery has its own capabilities. Frankly, having known Kernen for some time, I expected to hear a strong push for quality out of him. And, that’s what I got.

 

He had a very interesting analogy too. First, he offered what I expected with respect to managing our trophy fisheries. He is a big believer in protecting fish with size limits. He also felt like we should take a few of the best trophy potential waters and implement a no-harvest policy. This is truly the only way to realize the full potential of a fishery to produce with angling pressure. He pointed out that Wisconsin is blessed with “enough” fisheries to do this. We can micro-manage for different results. I agree.

 

In his analogy, he used a “38 pounder” which is obviously a trophy female muskie. A muskie that in some fisheries may be “maxed-out” and near the end of its life cycle, but in others (best trophy potential waters) a middle-aged fish with significant growing and reproducing yet to be done. His basic point was that there simply aren’t enough to go around. To harvest that is.

 

Few people really seem to get a grip on how “low-density” a fish the muskie really is. On the average state muskie fishery, there is only one adult muskie (say 32 inches) for each 4 surface acres of water (most trophy water densities are lower). That’s not many fish. What is the percentage of muskies in the upper thirty-pound-class or over? Very likely, it’s less than 1%. This is a rare animal.

 

Kernen points out that many anglers feel “entitled” to keep/harvest their catch. They feel that they buy a license and therefore have that right. And they do; currently, it’s legal to keep one muskie each day above the lake size limit. But Kernen is very quick to ask folks to look at the simple mathematics of the situation. He simply states, “there aren’t enough 38 pounders around for each muskie angler to keep one as a personal trophy.” Realistically, it’s probably true to say that if only 1 in 100 muskie fishers wanted to keep one, there’s still no enough.

 

So, even if muskie anglers say that they will release muskies, but each would like to harvest a “personal trophy”-it’s simply impossible to accomplish. And, our one fish per day limit is ridiculous. If every muskie angler kept their one a day that they are “entitled” to – by now no one would bother fishing for them.

 

A fault of many of us anglers has always been the thinking that the resource can take whatever harvest we feel like “we” need or “deserve.” Another misconception is that we can’t hurt large waters. I’ve had this very discussion with my good friend Doug Johnson. For those of you that haven’t heard of him, he’s a very good muskie fisherman and guide on the sprawling, million-acre Lake of the Woods, in Ontario (where currently a 48-inch limit is in place and the ministries are raising it to 54). He’s fished there for 35 years.

 

Several years back, after the high limit had been in place a few years, I asked him his opinion on it. He had nothing but positive things to say about the limit. He simply said that is was getting better every year-more big fish were showing up. What was interesting though, was when he told that the LOTW story was quite similar to mine at the start of this article. Muskie fishing is MUCH better than it used to be. You see, back when Doug was first fishing the lake, the size limit was 28 inches and you could keep two. Like here in those days, most folks kept ‘em.

 

Doug said it was very tough to catch a muskie back then. And big fish were pretty few and far between. When you consider that angler harvest can have that great of an affect on a huge water body like that (a million acres), it emphasizes how truly fragile our much smaller state waters are.

 

In closing, Kernen simply reiterated his strong feelings that our trophy-potential waters need to be protected. He mentioned the Chippewa Flowage as an example. He praised it as an example of a muskie fishery with tremendous potential produce monster fish, and then said, “it’s an embarrassment that the flowage has 34-inch size limit.”

 

So, that’s the basic direction of Wisconsin’s muskie management: protect the fish, protect and restore habitat and simply stock smarter (ultimately, creating more waters that don’t rely on it).

 

One thing I’ve noticed that is encouraging too, is a growing acceptance by folks to accept regulations to protect fisheries and catch and release fishing in general. Unfortunately though, there are still many cases of “sound biological management proposals” offered by experts in the field-that get shot down for “social” reasons. The DNR does, and should “to a point,” listen to and react to public opinion. But, having to react to vocal specialty groups who are for or against something, yet have no biological basis for it, seems like nothing more than irresponsible management.

 

I often feel sorry for fisheries managers, actually. They’ve got a pretty thankless job. The fishing is never good enough, it seems. And a management decision that “everyone” likes – well, there isn’t such a thing. It’s my opinion that area fisheries managers should have to react less to social restraints, especially those that truly fly in the face of sound biology. May all of your muskies have big teeth! Let ‘em go!

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