Muskie Transport Vs. Survival

CDTNB221web_0As an avid and dedicated Esox Angler, I will continually try to discover/discuss factors directly linked to incidental mortality of muskie and pike … the fish intended to be released effectively. Most of us have seen “floaters:” Dead muskie or pike with no obvious reason for death. In most cases, these wasted fish are the result of poor release practices. We will do what we can to point out those poor release practices, and hopefully all will do their best to avoid them.

The topic in this installment is the transporting of esocids. Should we be doing it? How much is too much and are there limits? Like most issues involving catch and release, there certainly is some gray area here. The most basic example of that is in the question: what kills these fish? My answer: stress. What causes stress? A variety of factors cause stress. Where too many or a severe example of one is present‹fish die.

To me, a factor that will add significantly to stressing of esocids, and especially larger ones, is the transport of these fish prior to release. It is done for a variety of reasons. In many cases it’s simply a matter of wanting to “show some one” before release. Unfortunately too, cases of transport without an adequate livewell or tank are still fairly common, the the extent that some travel on the floor of the boat results. These fish, of course, are almost certain to perish.

This is a rather timely topic too, considering the fact that tournament fishing for esocids is becoming increasingly popular, and many of these events require that judge boats or stations actually see or measure the fish for it to “count.” In most cases, that means some travel.

Now, before I go any further, I want to point out that I am not a scientist or biologist. I don’t write to try to impress people with my intellect. I write attempting to best get points across that have resulted from my experiences. Basically, what you’ll read here is IMHO (in my humble opinion). That’s important, because I really don’t want (nor does the Bite staff) a whole bunch of folks hollering: “Maina doesn’t have any “proof” of that.” Technically you’d be right. I don’t. Here at TNB, input is welcome, of course, and if you have contrary opinions, feel free to express them .

But, what I do have is a whole bunch of practical experience via the school of hard knocks (i.e. handling thousands fish). IMHO, these observations over time can be every bit as important as some studies. If you really love the fish (and I do), and one dies, or shows signs of extreme stress, you try to figure out what caused it, and avoid it next time.

By the way, one of the first signs of significant stress is the appearance of blood under the skin. This will usually start to show up around the head (around and especially below gill plates) and the tail. It’s been my experience, that when this is noted, all bets are off. We’re talking no more photos, no more time out of the water and no more transport. Let it go! If the blood spreads to the “body” of the fish and gets to the obvious stage, most likely, it’s too late.

There are two basic reasons why transport is bad for fish. First of all, it’s simply unnatural. Riding in a livewell or the floor of the boat is not something they experience with any regularity in their natural environment. Anything significantly abnormal stresses them … as it does you. Second, they fight it, if they have any steam at all left. A fish in a full livewell with a constant supply of fresh water, motionless, will rest. But start moving them around and they fight it. More stress.

A good example of this can be seen without transporting a fish at all, and I’m certain many of you have noted this. A fish is brought to boatside and netted, or just brought to boatside. Say the fish is able to lay horizontal in the water, upright and breathing. If it’s dead calm, they’ll relax, and actually regain some spunk. Now take the same scenario with any significant wave action. They don’t relax, because they can’t. They’re getting sloshed around, and have to constantly “work” to maintain their balance. The only way for them to avoid the “work” is to get back down below the surface to a natural environment.

CDTNB220Landing fish a very simple equation for me. With the exception of easy-to-unhook boatside releases, I exclusively use Frabill¹s Kwik Kradle, which, once the hooks are out, allows for the fish to sit in-water in a perfectly natural position, unless, of course, waves are crashing. If it’s calm, I’m not in a huge hurry once I get the hooks cut and the fish is upright. When the cameras are ready, it’s hurry to get the shots and get the fish back in the water. When it’s rough, it’s “hurry” all the way.

It’s simple: if the fish can’t relax while in a normal position, you’ll soon see the “red” mentioned above. I have transported esocids in a livewell before. I’ve become convinced that it’s something I don’t want to do, period. The only scenario in which I feel it would have minimal detrimental effects on the fish, would be very calm, cold water (more later), and at no faster than idle speed.

Even at idle speed, with any type of wave action, the fish is sloshing around. Now consider putting the boat on plane. Even in a calm situation, the fish is going to be banged into the end or sides of the livewell on take-off, but eventually may be able to settle down while running. But, even on those rare windless days, there’s usually that ever-increasing phenomenon of artificial waves created by a variety of crafts (at times, they’re constant). Simply put, if the water is rough, the fish just flat gets beat-up.

I’ll never forget my second trip to Lake of the Woods, Ontario over 12 years ago. It was a great trip overall, with one sour note. A friend caught a beautiful 47 1/2-inch muskie, which he fully intended to release alive. But, he wanted to get some “promo-shots” for a new camp owner. The fish was put in the livewell for an approximate one mile ride back to camp. The lake had only a light chop. The fish made it to camp for photos, but ended up at the taxidermist. This fish was easily releasable at the site of capture.

In my experiences in fresh water fishing, the muskie may be the biggest, the meanest, the toughest to catch and the most prized, but it’s also the most susceptible to stress-related expiration. And, we all know that adults are present in very low densities. These big fish just can’t take much handling, and very little time out of the water. Pike are notably tougher overall, but can certainly be killed via poor handling too, and should be treated with the same care as muskies. And as I mentioned earlier, with respect to all species, the bigger they are, the less they can take.

This brings us back to the water temperature issue. This too, is simple: warm or hot surface temps are bad. Fish should never be transported for any reason during the warm-water period. Every stress factor becomes much more deadly in warm water. Be extremely careful when temps above seventy persist. Anything above eighty is kind of scary to me. Once temps cross the eighty degree mark, it is getting to the point where I personally, am very uncomfortable fishing for muskies (I have little experience with large pike, since I catch very few big fish during the warm water period), because I’m not at all confident that I can successfully release the majority of these fish. Handling and heat equals death in my experience.

This is exactly the reason that natural resources personnel try to do any work that requires significant handling during the cold-water period. Does cold water mean fish will survive poor handling and transport? Realistically, in many cases the answer is yes. A cold-water fish can easily survive over-handling that would have killed them in the summer. But, this is another gray zone, and no one knows “exactly” where the point of “over-handling” is, in cold or warm water. Common sense tells us to be careful and efficient at all times, but especially so in warm water.

Have I fully answered or covered the question of transport? No. It’s an issue that I’m certain we will continue to touch-on from time-to-time. If we are able to uncover any “credible” research results on the issue, we will certainly pass it along.

I can tell you that everyone I know with a lot of experience handling muskie and pike would agree with my observations. Certainly, no one can rightfully answer whether or not it’s O.K. to do at times, or how much is too much with respect to transport. But, anyone that would look you in the eye and say that “it’s good for them,” or that “it doesn’t hurt them a bit” isn’t being honest with you or themselves. A final question: If we are putting the health and survivability of the fish first, should we be transporting esocids any distance before release? IMHO, NO!


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