Can We Grow Bigger Muskies?

We have great muskie fishing here in Wisconsin, but can we increase the numbers of trophy fish?

This DNR researcher is preparing to collect eggs from a muskie. Photo by Terry Margenau

By Pete Maina

The editor of this magazine asked me an interesting question. Can Wisconsin produce more trophy-sized muskies? I'll try to answer that. I asked knowledgeable folks a whole bunch of questions, and I will offer my own thoughts based on years of fishing and guiding for muskies on Wisconsin's waters, eight other states and many of Canada's best waters.

Considering that I grew up in, reside in and likely will continue to live in Wisconsin, I have quite a bit of information and a lot of contacts I've developed over the years. I asked this question of former Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division chief Lee Kernen, current head of fisheries Mike Staggs, muskie angler and DNR fisheries biologist Larry Damman, and DNR fisheries biologists Frank Pratt and Steve Toshner.

We'll take a look at where we think Wisconsin fisheries are. We'll look at potential options to hopefully make muskie fishing better, and how we may best achieve these goals. And we'll take a look at what we can realistically expect. It's a big issue with many gray areas.

WHERE ARE WE?

This is actually a real big question. With respect to those I interviewed, all seemed to feel that there is certainly room for improvement. All, however, commented that everyone's idea of improvement is a little different. We discussed the different ways things could be improved and the social issues that stand in the way. And this is a big issue with a big question mark, especially for me: how much should our fisheries-related management policy be controlled by public opinion?

I think we have quite a bit of room for improvement with respect to muskies in Wisconsin. And overall, fisheries folks agree. There is no doubt that we have the most water - for a state, anyway - and the most diverse opportunities. Overall, Wisconsin's muskie fishing opportunities are exceptional, but I think no one would argue that we could experience significantly better opportunities for trophy-class muskies. When it comes to opportunities to catch muskies of average proportions, it could be argued that Wisconsin is the best.

Understand that we can do little, really, to create fisheries that grow larger muskies than they currently do, or create a master species. While genetics is a factor in muskie size potential, more important is the fishery itself - the fertility and forage species it offers. In a nutshell, if you take a fish with great genetics and dump it in water with mediocre forage, it won't grow to exceptional size.

So, for trophy muskie opportunities, likely our only real option - and certainly our only short-term option - is to work with our fisheries known to grow muskies to large sizes. Muskies take a long time to get big. It takes approximately 15 years to get a muskie close to its maximum size. Consider that we need 20 years to get there for sure, and muskies may live to their mid- to upper 20s in these latitudes.

It takes time. If trophy muskies are the goal, we need to maintain reasonable numbers of muskies in our trophy-potential waters. More importantly, we have to protect them from being harvested or incidentally killed/wounded until they get old. It sounds simple, but it's not so easy. We haven't done the greatest job of allowing our big fish to get old. This is where we have the most potential to improve.

The issues are many, but a few stand out. The two biggest problems, specifically, with many of our trophy fisheries, are tribal spearing and live-bait use. Many of our best fisheries experience both spring spearing of muskies as well as unregulated winter spearing of muskies. Unfortunately, larger muskies are more desirable to many of the spearers. It's very hard to get a handle on how many fish are lost to this practice, since counts for harvested winter fish are not available and counts for fish wounded to die later would be nothing more than a guess - but certainly a reality.

There is no clear answer here, other than hopefully working directly with tribal folks to possibly curb or shift harvest pressure around to other waters with higher densities, to rotate harvest efforts in general. Mike Staggs mentioned that these types of discussions will be ongoing, but he doesn't expect anything significant in the short term. With respect to negotiations, he said, "They have things they want and we have things we want."

On that subject, Lee Kernen mentioned that one angle would be simply concentrating on waters - managing for trophies - where tribal harvest is minimal, nonexistent or just plain tough. A good example he used is the Green Bay fishery and Lake Winnebago.

"Green Bay is simply too big to spear, and it has the forage for ultimate growth," said Kernen. "It truly is the type of place we should expect the largest fish in the state to come from."

One other huge issue Wisconsin has is our tradition of live-bait use. During the coldwater period - especially fall - live-bait use is very popular here. Kernen recognized this as a huge issue during his tenure. Fortunately, I was able to tell him that it's getting better, but it certainly still kills muskies. If a swallow hook is used - or a quick-strike rig is used and the angler waits before setting the hook - we now have steel left in the stomach or gullet, and all the tearing associated with it. These fish die, period.

The worst thing about it that really makes fisheries management tough is that - like winter spearing harvest - it's impossible to put any real numbers on it. Many of these fish are released only to die later, sometimes months or a year later. And remember that to have trophies it takes a minimum of 15 years. Just tossing a few more fingerlings in can't replace a 45-incher removed now.

The live-bait problem is getting much better due to education. Most folks do use quick-strike rigs these days, and more and more know that setting the hook immediately is critical. Besides education, outlawing swallow-type hooks would help. Outlawing live bait for muskies altogether would be the most effective, but it certainly would not be popular and likely hard to enforce.

Of course, general angler harvest is an issue. Tournaments may become a bigger issue, and have already become somewhat of an issue with regard to regulations.

SOLUTIONS

While live-bait use and tribal spearing harvest are much more gray issues, regulating anglers on what they can intentionally harvest isn't. I haven't the space here to offer full reports obtained from Steve Toshner, but information provided by him on Lake

Namekagon in Bayfield County - where a 50-inch size limit has been in place since 1996 - shows the limit to have had a very positive effect on the size structure of muskies on this water.

Limiting the size of muskies that can legally be kept likely affects more non-muskie anglers catching fish by accident than those specifically fishing for them, since most muskie anglers are willing to release even trophy fish. Reducing harvest of fish naturally present in very low densities makes sense.

Evidence from waters in the U.S. and Canada with high size limits shows such regulations producing positive results. They do not turn anglers away, as feared by some when proposed. However, we must be careful, too. As Larry Damman warns, high size limits have the potential to stack male muskies in the system - if folks keep female muskies above the limit - and potentially ultimately slow growth rates by having too many large predators in the system.

Damman had some interesting ideas. He said the best regulation for trophy fisheries would be to have a maximum limit, beyond which anglers can't keep any. In other words, harvest is allowed with smaller fish, but beyond a certain point, say 45 inches, it's mandatory release. This would create the desired effect of protecting the larger fish without fear of stacking them in the midrange. Makes sense to me.

Of course, establishing which lakes "fit" a regulation is key. Putting a 50-inch limit on all Wisconsin lakes would be ridiculous. For medium- to high-density lakes with slower growth rates, high limits could be a disaster. This is where I can honestly say I think DNR personnel have really done their jobs. Unfortunately, not all proposed regulations live to see the light of day. A prime example was a grouping of trophy-potential lakes in Vilas and Oneida counties proposed for 50-inch limits brought to the Conservation Congress meetings in 2003.

In my opinion, it was a tremendous proposal that was well thought out. It included 34 lakes with proven trophy potential. The lakes were spread out, thus assuring that not too much pressure would be exerted by trophy seekers, both anglers and tribal spearers. It made sense, especially since the social and biological results of 50-inch limits on several Hayward-area waters had been positive. And, public acceptance of such limits is rising. Yet this proposal was shot down.

When I asked Mike Staggs about this he said that the basics of it is simply that it was likely too much, too soon. He agreed the proposal was sound, yet admitted that they probably didn't do the best job of selling it to create public support. These days, public support for any regulation proposal is critical. Questions and proposals are brought to the public every year via the Conservation Congress meetings held in every county in April. The public is invited and encouraged to come to these meetings, where they can express opinions and vote on proposed regulations for both fish and game.

With respect to those trophy lakes, the plan now is to re-evaluate and take the approach of a few lakes at a time as support is gained. Staggs explained that selling a big, sweeping regulation - like the 34-lake proposal - requires a lot of time. Because it was big and time wasn't taken to sell it to each "area," and much of the positive news about limits was presented late, a few rather vocal groups rallied against the proposal.

I guess that's just reality these days. And it seems Staggs and the others are resigned to it. After explaining that things will have to be approached a little differently and taken in smaller chunks, he said, "Things that work do eventually happen. They just happen quite a bit slower with public policy." Good news in a way, but it seems to me that if experts have a good idea that something is going to work, it should just happen.

I've always questioned the Conservation Congress system to a certain extent. It seems the meetings are poorly attended, and a few vocal individuals can organize and really sway a statewide vote. This occurred with the muskie limit issue. There was a strong anti-limit push made by muskie tournament interests, who were more concerned about their contestant's ability to legally transport fish - once a fish is put in the boat and moved at all, it is legally in your possession - than they were about protecting these trophy fisheries.

The other problem is that there are both fishing and hunting questions. Often, a group of individuals show up for a particular hunting or trapping issue who are against the particular regulation in question. These folks tend to vote against new regulations no matter what, especially if spurred by anti-reg talk by others at the meeting. While many aren't anglers at all, and don't really care about fisheries regulation, they often end up swaying a vote one way or the other. In Minnesota, they do it differently. They have what they call the Fishing Roundtable, a discussion between experts and concerned citizens on just fishing.

Damman had a very interesting idea. He said that there are really no regulation questions that couldn't wait a year, and that emergency rules can be put in place for fish and game. He suggested alternating fish and game questions at spring hearings. This would shorten the meetings - thus making it much more appealing, since they are currently long and arduous - and ensure the focus is on the actual issue when it comes to voting. In reality, it would make for more time for the DNR to prepare to "sell" proposals. I think it's a great idea.

WHAT'S NEXT?

Everyone seems to agree that live-bait use and tribal harvest are both issues that need to continue to be looked into and negotiated, hopefully resulting in fewer fish being harvested or wounded before getting old and big. Regulation is something we have the most control over. Protecting muskies from intentional harvest by anglers on waters known for lower densities and trophy growth makes sense. It works, too. Anglers can really help speed up the process by getting involved and planning on attending Conservation Congress meetings and supporting protective regulations for muskies.

Stocking is important, too, to create new fisheries and maintain many existing fisheries. While in some cases natural reproduction is sufficient to maintain fisheries, oftentimes lakes need supplemental stocking or rely on stocking completely. Staggs mentioned to me that they are working on adjusting their stocking rates by studying individual lakes to find which lakes may need more muskies and which may require fewer fish. Where previously stocking was done more on a fish-per-acre - or lake-size - basis, knowing for certain the spawning success on specific waters and adjusting stocking rates accordingly makes sense.

He did mention, though, that muskies are expensive and that muskie production has been down. With budget shortfalls coming, he expects even fewer muskies will be raised. I asked him about a creating muskie stamp, like the state pheasant stamp. He said muskies were a prime candidate for a stamp program and that if the user group was behind it, it should go.

In my opinion, this is something Wisconsin muskie anglers should be in favor of. Its effects are twofold. It creates a source of funding earmarked for muskie projects. We have

to make certain the bean counters have enough funds to cover costs, plus fund muskie management. And, it somewhat accomplishes the same thing as protective regulations in that only anglers with an interest in muskie fishing who choose to buy a stamp would be able to harvest a muskie. I think the time has come. Hopefully we will soon see a question at the spring meetings for a muskie stamp and hopefully anglers will be behind it.

And finally, a dose of reality here: I got into this issue recently with former head of fisheries Lee Kernen. And we both agreed. In many ways and for many reasons, our expectations of what to expect from muskie fisheries may be way too high. Everyone wants to catch a big muskie, but what is a big muskie, and how many are there?

To me, part of the real problem stems from yesteryear's claimed records. Part of it, too, is simply that this is a species well hyped and promoted. Fish seen, lost, claimed to be caught and released, spotted eating swimming poodles always seem to get stretched a little. It's arguable certainly, but it's my opinion and the opinion of many other serious muskie anglers that many of the currently recognized record muskies were very likely not as large as claimed. It sure seems odd that with all of the technology, better boats, better knowledge and more intelligent and efficient anglers, that people can't seem to catch record-class muskies. Seems odd, too, that in looking at photos of today's 40-pounders that they appear larger than yesteryear's 60-pounders.

We'll leave that whole issue up to the World-Record Muskie Association (WRMA), a group recently formed to investigate the list of record muskies that should clear the issue up once and for all. What I think we'll find is that our idea of how big muskies grow in our waters was really inflated then - and now.

Regardless of what anyone believes, the reality is - poodle-eating stories aside - that even in Wisconsin's best trophy-growth muskie fisheries, most female muskies never get any longer than 55 inches, and very few ever get beyond the 40-pound class before dying of old age - if allowed to do so. I recall a large muskie we released in Round Lake in Sawyer County. The fish had a fin clip, so I checked with the DNR and found the fish to be 19 1/2 years old. It was a huge fish at 51 1/2 inches and approximately 43 pounds.

Considering that Round Lake has to be rated in the top five inland waters for growth potential for muskies, the fact that this fish had potential to only get a little bigger before peaking and eventually dying tells us that mid-30-pound muskies are what we can realistically expect. This is what we all should consider a trophy. If we are waiting around for 50- and 60-pounders, we aren't being realistic, with the possible exception of Green Bay waters.

Consider a very true comment Lee Kernen made a few years back, noting the overall density of muskies in trophy waters, the time it takes to grow them and the number of muskie anglers.

"It's impossible for every muskie angler to harvest a trophy muskie," he said.

There's no denying that.

(Editor's note: For more information on the WRMA investigation, check www.thenextbite.com under the muskie/pike forum).



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