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Wisconsin's Trophy Muskie Lakes

Wisconsin's Trophy Muskie Lakes

Did you know our state has a bunch of waters with a 50-inch size limit on muskies? Here's where you can experience this thrill of a lifetime!

Photo by Pete Maina

There are few experiences in life that can rival having a big muskie engulf your lure. The slam on the other end of the line isn't for the faint of heart, and the bigger the fish, the bigger the thrill.

Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologists have worked hard to make this experience available throughout the Badger State. Judging by the sizes of lunker-sized muskies being caught in waters managed by the DNR for trophy-class fish, it's only getting better.


The DNR estimates that more than 350,000 muskie hunters target this toothy predator every year and spend a statewide average of 31 hours of angling time for each muskie caught. Twenty-five years ago muskie anglers numbered fewer than 225,000 and put far less pressure on the state's muskie populations.


The challenge biologists have faced is how to produce not only acceptable numbers of muskies but big-fish action as well.

"Muskellunge are managed as a trophy fish in Wisconsin," said Tim Simonson, a DNR fisheries biologist and muskie expert. "This means restricting the harvest through relatively high length limits and low daily bag limits to promote large fish in the fish populations. Within the scientific community, high length limits are generally accepted as the primary tool to manage for trophy muskellunge fisheries."


According to Simonson, a fingerling muskie will reach 11 inches after a year, and take up to 17 or 18 years to top out between 50 and 56 inches. Intense stocking efforts can produce good numbers of muskies, but only voluntary compliance with regulations and catch-and-release practices by anglers will allow fisheries to produce trophy fish. These factors, combined with the high minimum length limits, are the heart of the trophy-class muskie program. The DNR believes the 50-inch regulation on selected lakes will increase the numbers of fish this size from about one muskie per 1,000 acres of water to about five per 1,000 acres.


Here's a look at our state's top five 50-inch size-limit lakes where you can experience the thrill of a lifetime!

NAMAKAGON LAKE

"Creel survey results in 2003 and 2004 indicated muskellunge and walleye were the most sought after game fish," said DNR fisheries biologist Scott Toshner.

Toshner recently completed an exhaustive study of the muskie population in Bayfield County's Namakagon Lake. Biologists used fyke netting, spring and fall electroshocking and a creel survey to get a grasp on what's happening under the lake's surface. The results were a mixture of both good news and bad news.

"Information on abundance and angler catch rates from previous surveys suggest muskellunge numbers have declined from 1989 to 2003," said Toshner. "While individual muskellunge size structure has increased since 1989, low numbers of fish less than 36 inches in the 2002 survey warrants concern."

The good news is that the 3,227-acre lake is producing plenty of fish in the 43- to 48-inch range, with 50-inchers available. Anglers tangling with Namakagon muskies this year will be tangling with quality fish.

"Historic management of Namakagon Lake has included fish surveys, stocking, and various length and bag regulations," said Toshner. "Muskellunge were stocked from 1937 to 1947, and then discontinued until 1983. Muskies were stocked annually from 1983 to 1993 at a rate of .08 fish per acre, or a total of 2,500 fish, with the exception of 1987 and from 1994 through 1996 when no stocking occurred. Starting in 1997, muskellunge have been stocked during alternate years at the same rate."

In 1983 the minimum length for muskies increased from 30 to 32 inches. In 1992, biologists raised the minimum length to 40 inches, and in 1997, the regulation was extended to protect fish 50 inches and above.

Toshner pointed out that anglers fished an estimated 80,578 hours during the 2002-2003 season on Namakagon and logged a whopping 25 hours angling pressure per acre, the vast majority of which was during the open-water season. Muskies got the nod from anglers as the most targeted game fish. "Since 1993, muskies have surpassed walleyes as the most popular game fish," said Toshner.

But according to studies, the numbers of muskies being caught are down, dropping 53 percent from the catch rate in 1993 and down 67 percent from the numbers of muskies taken in 1989.

"In 2002 it took anglers 92 hours to catch a muskellunge compared to 54 hours in 1993 and 14 hours in 1989," said Toshner.

But for what Namakagon is lacking in numbers it makes up for in sizes, and the future looks good. According to Toshner, DNR management recommendations to be implemented for Namakagon include the continued stocking of between one and two muskie fingerlings per acre biannually, working with local residents, lake associations and groups to develop a cooperative lake management plan that addresses fisheries management goals, habitat protection and rehabilitation, and education efforts aimed at lake-users.

Additional fishing information can be obtained by calling the DNR Northern Region office at (715) 372-8539.

CLEAR LAKE

"Clear Lake was chosen for the 45-inch and 50-inch size limits mainly because of its track record, though we didn't have a lot of information before the 45-inch minimum length limit went into effect in 1991," said John Kubisiak, a DNR fisheries biologist in Oneida County. "Clear Lake has the potential to produce large muskies, and has done so in the past."

According to Kubisiak, the lake's large size, ciscoe forage base and low-density muskie population are conducive to producing trophy-class fish.

The 50-inch minimum length limit on Clear Lake muskies is a relatively new management tool, and though it is too soon to say how much of an impact it will have on the fishery, expectations are running high.

"Age and growth rates are very difficult to determine on older muskies unless you sacrifice the fish and use the cleithrum bone," said Kubisiak. "I don't have much on growth rates for the larger fish from this area, but a female muskie from northern Wisconsin will average 41 inches at 10 years of age and grow a little better than an inch a year after that."

Will Clear Lake muskies reach trophy sizes? Kubisiak hopes so.

"The DNR c

onducted a mark-and-recapture population estimate on Clear Lake during 2000 and 2001," said Kubisiak. "At that time we estimated there were 106 muskies 30 inches and larger present in Clear Lake, or less than one for every 8 acres. Most of the 59 fish in our nets during 2000 were between 34 and 42 inches, but we saw one 50-incher and one 52-inch fish. These were the only two fish larger than 45 inches."

Surprisingly, stocking has not been necessary since the early 1970s. The muskie population has remained stable and has been maintained solely by natural reproduction. Though muskies may be far and few between, angling on Clear Lake can be well worth the effort.

"The 50-inch minimum size limit was voted on at the 2002 Conservation Congress spring hearings and went into effect in 2003, so we need to allow time for some fish to grow before we will be able to tell how effective that regulation is in producing more fish in the upper 40- to 50-inch range," said Kubisiak.

The official name of this 846-acre lake in Oneida County is Clear Lake T39NR7ES16. This distinguishes it from other nearby lakes with the same name.

For more fishing information, contact the DNR Rhinelander office at (715) 365-8919.

GRINDSTONE LAKE

"There's a clear trend toward big fish on just about every water we manage," said DNR fisheries biologist Frank Pratt Jr. in Hayward. "There are 50-inch fish in numerous Wisconsin waters, even without the 50-inch minimum length regulation."

According to Pratt, Grindstone is no exception. This 3,011-acre lake in Sawyer County has plenty of room for muskies to roam.

"There is no bigger success story," said Pratt. "In the 1970s we were on the brink of fishing muskies into extinction. Now, we've restored the fishery to being a virgin, historic fishery. Our survey on Grindstone conducted last year showed about 400 adult fish present. A 30-inch fish in shallow water in the spring for spawning activities where biologists can get at them is considered an adult."

The glory days before the 1960s and 1970s included a reported catch that weighed in at over 59 pounds. Anglers won't find that kind of size on Grindstone these days, but things should be improving as time goes on.

The muskie populations in both Grindstone and nearby Lac Courte Oreilles are stable and healthy, two factors that contributed to the DNR's decision to include Grindstone in its new 50-inch regulations. The lake's mesotropic characteristics, ability to sustain a muskie population and a good forage base made the lake a logical location to manage for trophy-class fish.

"The 50-inch limit has been in effect for a few years, which is still a relatively short period of time," noted Pratt. "It's way too early to tell what kind of effect the 50-inch limit will have. With all of the surveys I've conducted in the first 27 years of my career, I never saw a 50-inch fish. Within the last three or four years I've seen about 30 (50-inchers) in various waters. I've now personally seen, and documented, three muskies well in excess of 50 inches. I mean, well in excess of 50 inches. One was in Grindstone and two in Lac Courte Oreilles. Considering the length, growth and overall condition of the Grindstone and Lac Courte Oreilles muskies, we have potential for world-class fish."

Additional fishing information is available by contacting the DNR's Hayward office at (715) 634-9658.

LAC COURTE OREILLES

"Lac Courte Oreilles is probably one of the most studied lakes on the planet," said biologist Pratt. "Starting back in the early 1960s or early 1970s, several muskie surveys have established how stable the lake's population is. The research is built up over a long period of time."

Considered by biologists to be a shallower mesotropic lake with a fairly high level of fertility and the ability to sustain high levels of fish populations, Lac Courte Oreilles does have some deep water that reaches down to 90 feet. The lake covers 5,039 acres in Sawyer County.

"In Lac Courte Oreilles we're not talking a large number of fish," said Pratt. "We're talking about 400 adult fish in ideal conditions where fish can live their full life spans. I think no more than 5 percent of these fish will reach 50 inches, taking into account catch-and-release mortality. We need to be realistic, and it used to be zero."

But even though the muskies are getting bigger, anglers are complaining that not only are they not catching any big muskies in the lake, but fewer muskies in general. Pratt believes the anglers are just up against more educated fish.

"I've touched big Lac Courte muskies and they're there," said Pratt. "The Lac Courte catch rates are getting lower, though. In Lac Courte, the muskie, as it gets bigger, gets much more savvy and resists fishing pressure better. With these emerging trophy fisheries where the fish are getting smarter, so to speak, even the savvy angler, if he sticks with the same old tactics, will be ineffective."

According to Pratt, muskie hunters need to experiment with new middepth and deep-water techniques to be successful. They should be open to new tackle and trolling tactics -- where legal -- as well.

The fishery managers' ideal goal, said Pratt, is to have large fish that are easily caught, but the goal is unrealistic. If the big muskies are easily caught, there won't be any. The fishing pressure on Lac Courte Oreilles has increased, and anglers sometimes do go home empty-handed. "Even the muskie experts are having trouble," said Pratt.

But even with disappointing days on the water, anglers can expect good fishing for trophies in the years to come. Biologists are very optimistic about the future of muskie angling on Lac Courte Oreilles due to the 50-inch limit, and are projecting that heavier weights and longer lengths are on the menu.

More fishing information can be had by contacting the DNR Hayward office at (715) 634-9658.

GREEN BAY

"We're trying to reintroduce the once native Great Lakes-strain muskellunge to Green Bay," said DNR fisheries biologist Kevin Kapuscinski in the Green Bay office. "The 50-inch minimum length regulation was put into place to protect the muskie population during our reintroduction efforts. Stocking has been going on in Green Bay since 1989, thanks to the generous donations by the Musky Clubs Alliance of Wisconsin."

The somewhat new 50-inch regulation was put in place on Green Bay in 2003 and includes tributaries in Marinette, Brown, Oconto, Door, Kewaunee and Manitowoc counties.

Muskies practically disappeared from Wisconsin's Lake Michigan waters in the early 1900s due to pollution, habitat destruction and overharvest. The DNR reintroduced muskies into Green Bay in key locations in the hope of establishing a naturally reproducing population. Stocking locations have included tributaries such as the Fox, Peshtigo and Menominee rivers, and in Sturgeon and Little Sturgeon bays.

"The goal of the program is to re-establish a self-sustaining population of Great Lakes-strain muskies in Green Bay," said Kapuscinski. "They are surviving well, but they're not reproducing, as far as we know. Growth rates for muskellunge in Green Bay are exceptional and we see them up to 51 inches in our surveys."

"The 50-inch minimum length limit is also appropriate because the muskellunge population in Green Bay is low density," continued Kapuscinski. "It's important to note that Green Bay has an abundance of food and space for this low-density population, and the minimum-length regulation complements these favorable environmental conditions. The length limit on Green Bay is consistent with the DNR's goal of managing muskies as trophy fish and providing a number of fish larger than 45 inches statewide each year. The 50-inch minimum-length limit has been very successful, in my opinion."

With a relatively shallow lake basin and ideal muskie habitat, the fish can roam anywhere, according to Kapuscinski. It's a trolling fishery where anglers keep moving to cover as much water as possible.

For more information on Green Bay muskie fishing, contact the DNR Green Bay office at (920) 448-5140.

While it's true you have a chance to catch a 50-inch muskie on any Wisconsin lake, your odds are better on our waters managed for trophy fishing. Try to experience the thrill while you can.

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