Muskie hunting has arrived. Muskies are now stocked into 36 lakes in Illinois, depending on the availability of fingerling muskies each season; new waters are added when the opportunity arises. The statewide 36-inch minimum length limit, in combination with special regulation waters, is providing an excellent put-and-take fishery for muskellunge anglers.
The Illinois Department of Natural Resources (DNR) began stocking muskies in the 1970s and the rest is history. Spring Lake (North) received the first fish and the program was soon expanded to include other waters that were capable of sustaining these toothy predators. Bass anglers understandably put up a few roadblocks early on, but the protest was soon quelled by muskie diet studies that showed little predation on black bass.
New muskie waters have been added within the last few years. These are the newcomers to this fishing scene and are certainly worth keeping an eye on. They include Busse Lake in the Cook County Forestry District, Fulton County Recreation Area lakes No. 3 and No. 4, and Mallard Lake in DuPage County. State money is tight right now, so there aren’t any plans in the works to add new lakes to the list.
According to Joe Ferencak, the Division of Fisheries’ Impoundment program manager, most lakes can support an adult muskie population of one adult for every five surface acres of water. This density is what biologists like to see. Fingerling muskies are distributed based on how fast they grow in a given lake and on how many are available from the hatchery in a given year. In recent years, the survival rates of hatchery-raised muskies have increased and there has been a more predictable number of fish for stocking.
A surprising number of stocked lakes are less than 100 acres, but the size doesn’t really matter. A small lake won’t have nearly the number of adult muskellunge as a larger lake because of carrying capacity limitations, but on a per-acre basis, smaller lakes hold their own.
One of the key components in the muskie program is the anglers, according to Ferencak. The catch-and-release rates are right up around 99 percent. Muskie clubs have been an exceptional resource for the DNR, and for the last 20 years have assisted with creel surveys, have purchased much-needed equipment, and have paid for fingerling muskies.
Local fisheries biologists are on the front line of the DNR’s muskie management program as well. If a biologist thinks that one of his lakes is a good candidate for a stocking, an impact study is coordinated with creel and population density studies to determine if it would be successful. If the answer is yes, a recommendation is made to the Division of Fisheries. The project moves forward, depending on the cost and availability of fish. If all goes as planned, a new muskie lake is born.
Conservation is the name of the game with these fish. Muskie stockings only work if anglers keep the fish alive and well. Though doing the right thing to preserve the state’s muskie fishery comes natural for most anglers, catch-and-release does have a drawback, according to muskie guide Al Nutty.
The first thing to remember is that when surface temperatures exceed 80 degrees there is less dissolved oxygen in the water. Any muskie caught is easily stressed, and even if it swims away from the boat, delayed mortality may come into play. If catch-and-release isn’t done with care, that trophy fish may be dead in a few days.
Nutty’s second point of caution for summer muskies is their tendency to respond to these warmer temperatures by lying near the thermocline where the water is cool. Bringing a hooked fish to the surface can quickly induce thermal stress, similar to what happens when aquarium fish are introduced into a tank without letting the temperature in the plastic bag acclimate to the water already there. This is another situation where a big fish may swim off and then die a few days later.
If a muskie is hooked during hot weather, stress the fish as little as possible. Don’t rush or horse it to the boat. Take whatever time is needed on a tight line to bring the fish in slowly. Net it quickly and leave it in the water, even for photos. This is important. It takes five or six years to grow a 40-inch muskie and only a couple of minutes to fatally injure one on a hot summer’s day.
Muskie experts like Nutty strongly recommend practicing the fundamentals of CPR. The acronym CPR stands for Catch, Photograph and Release.
Here’s a look at where you’ll be able to get in on the Prairie State’s muskie action this year.
FOX CHAIN OF LAKES
The Fox Chain of Lakes is one of the state’s premier muskie destinations and it’s gaining quite a following of dedicated hunters, according to fisheries biologist Frank Jakubicek. The toothy predators are running up to 46 inches. Suicks and bucktails of all descriptions are flying out of the boats and into likely looking muskie lairs.
The Fox Chain has been producing some really good fishing for walleyes, bluegills and crappies over the last several years. But even so, just about everyone has at least one story about a muskie, said Jakubicek.
The northern lakes in the Chain produce the most muskies. Channel, Catherine, Marie, Bluff and Petite get the most attention, but the backwater areas can sometimes produce a well-fed straggler. All of the lakes yield up a muskie or two at one time or another.
A thermocline usually develops at about 14 feet beginning in July and lasting through September. Fishing any deeper than this means you’re beating dead water. The oxygen, and consequently all of the fish, will be above the thermocline and relating to shallow structure.
Muskie guide and expert Rich Gallagher has had a lot of success on the Fox Chain and says there are some challenges along with the successes. Gallagher usually positions his boat on the first break line and has one angler throwing a bait shallow and another angler tossing to the deeper water. By midsummer, the weeds are usually up to the surface, depending on lake levels, and short, accurate pocket casts are a must in order to keep baits free of the weeds.
During the search for the lake’s big fish, Gallagher tells his clients to keep the bait within 12 inches of the surface. Active fish are the target and active fish is what they find.
Muskie baits of all sorts will do for casting, but trolling calls for a chartreuse Little Ernie, said Gallagher. Cloudy days with wind and a chop on the water are when the muskies are the most active.
About 3,000 fingerling muskies have been stocked every year since 2006, a big increase over the target numbers of earlier years. The recent fisheries survey produced some impressive results. The average female was over 39 inches long and weighed in at over 16 pounds. The largest fish was over 47 inches, and the heaviest tipped the scales past 29 pounds.
The Fox Chain covers 8,100 acres of water. A one-fish creel limit with a minimum length of 48 inches is in effect from the Wisconsin line south to the Algonquin Dam.
For more information, contact the DNR at (815) 675-2319 or guide Rich Gallagher at (847) 741-9771 and online at www.biggoomba.com.
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