Wisconsin's Trophy Muskies

Did you know our state has about 200 waters that are regulated to grow bigger muskies? Here's how this management plan is going and where it's headed.

Photo by Pete Maina

By Dan Small

It is no secret to muskie fanatics that Wisconsin's Chippewa Flowage produced the current world-record muskie back in 1949. In fact, Wisconsin waters produced several world records in the middle of the last century. Since that time, thousands of anglers have thrown millions of casts over every acre of Wisconsin muskie water, and no one has come close to besting Louie Spray's record 69-pound, 11-ounce fish.

Wisconsin waters still produce trophy fish, however. And as more anglers express interest in catching not just any muskie, but a big one, more state waters are being managed to produce big fish. Of Wisconsin's 775 waters known to harbor muskies, about a quarter of them are managed with size in mind, with a minimum size limit of 40, 45 or 50 inches. Those waters, all listed in the fishing regulations booklet, offer anglers a better chance of tangling with a truly big fish because more of the fish in those bodies of water reach trophy size.

"Trophy" means different things to different anglers. For some, a 45- or 50-incher is a trophy. For others, a trophy is measured in pounds, usually at least 40 of them. Still others use a sliding scale of "personal best" that moves up a notch every time they top it. Regardless of how you define trophy, some lakes produce more trophy muskies than others.

Lakes where you have a hope of catching a truly magnum muskie share several characteristics that other muskie waters lack. For one thing, they tend to have a relatively low density of muskies. Muskies with less competition for forage tend to grow bigger. Trophy lakes also tend to have an abundance of forage. And they often have a lot of deep water. Muskies that hang out in deep water don't see as many lures, and thus are less likely to be caught by anglers. The more often a muskie is caught, the greater the chance it will eventually be caught by someone who will kill it, whether intentionally or by accident.

Restrictive regulations also help produce big muskies. This is one area where Wisconsin has lagged behind Minnesota and Ontario, where larger size limits are producing larger fish in greater numbers than are caught here. According to Department of Natural Resources fisheries supervisor Mike Vogelsang of Woodruff, a lot of anglers looking for big muskies are bypassing Wisconsin and going instead to Minnesota and Canada.

"Fifty years ago, Wisconsin was the destination for big muskies," says Vogelsang. "But Wisconsin lakes no longer have the numbers of 40- and 50-pound fish they had back then. We'd like to turn that trend around. Minnesota and Canada are seeing those fish because they've bumped up the size limits on selected waters."

Some Minnesota and Ontario lakes now feature 50-inch size limits, and a few Ontario lakes are catch-and-release only when it comes to muskies. Wisconsin is heading in that direction. A 50-inch minimum size limit is currently in effect on four inland lakes and the waters of Green Bay, and there may be a bunch more lakes with a 50-inch limit next season.

Let's take a look around the state to identify trophy muskie waters and see what fish managers are doing to increase the opportunity for anglers to catch a trophy muskie.

Most of the lakes with a 40-inch size limit are located in the traditional muskie country of northwest and northeast Wisconsin.

Three counties have a county-wide 40-inch minimum: Polk (four lakes), St. Croix (11 lakes), and Washburn (11 lakes). All muskie lakes on the Wisconsin-Michigan border have a 40-inch minimum, as do the waters of the Mississippi, St. Croix and St. Louis rivers where they form the Wisconsin-Minnesota border. So do 60 more lakes and rivers in 20 counties. Trout Lake in Vilas County currently has a 45-inch limit.

The four inland waters currently with a 50-inch limit are Grindstone Lake and Lac Courte Oreilles in Sawyer County, Bayfield County's Lake Namekagon, and Clear Lake in Oneida County. Clear Lake was added to the list beginning this season.

"Clear Lake was a test case," says Vogelsang. "But it was so well received at the spring hearings that we decided to expand the trophy muskie opportunities here in Vilas and Oneida counties."

The Ad Hoc Muskie Committee - composed of biologists, guides, resort owners, Conservation Congress members and muskie enthusiasts - was formed last year to come up with a list of lakes where a 50-inch size limit might work. The group settled on 32 lakes, or about 6 percent of the muskie waters in Vilas and Oneida counties. In Oneida County, the Minocqua and Rhinelander chains and the Willow and Rainbow flowages were listed. Vilas County lakes included Big St. Germain, Big Sand, Long, the Manitowish Chain, Plum, the Presque Isle Chain, Star, White Sand (T42N R7E Sec. 26), Big Muskellunge, Crab, Kentuck, Papoose and Trout. A 50-inch size limit was proposed for those lakes at the spring hearings in April.

"We wanted this submitted as one package," says Vogelsang. "But the Natural Resources Board (NRB) felt it was better to separate them out into individual waters, so instead of one question, the proposal was broken into 17 questions, one for each individual lake or chain of lakes."

As of press time, voting results were not yet available, but any waters where the change was approved would then have been considered by the NRB in May. Barring NRB objections, approved waters would have the 50-inch size limit in 2004.

Since muskies are long-lived and relatively slow-growing fish, it might take a decade or more for a regulations change to have a significant impact on the fishery, says Vogelsang. Regardless of whether these proposed changes were approved this past spring, these lakes are still good choices for anglers seeking trophy muskies. Rainbow Flowage and Big Muskellunge, Crab, Kentuck and Papoose lakes currently have a 40-inch limit.

"We tried to avoid lakes that are family oriented, where a youngster might catch his first muskie sometimes by accident," says Vogelsang. "Instead, we chose lakes like Trout and Tomahawk (on the Minocqua Chain), where you usually have to know what you're doing to catch a muskie."

The committee used some clear criteria in choosing the proposed trophy lakes. All are around 500 acres or larger. All have a good forage base, primarily suckers, redhorse or ciscoes. All showed better-than-average muskie growth rates, and all have the potential of producing muskies of at least 50 inches.

"With a couple except

ions, we tried to avoid lakes that we stock," says Vogelsang. "In those two counties we stock a couple dozen lakes with muskies each year. Most of the lakes on the list have good natural reproduction. These are also mostly lakes with a low muskie population density. We didn't want to take a chance on impacting other fish populations in the lake, which might occur if you have too many big muskies eating up everything else."

On each lake where a 50-inch size limit is approved, fisheries crews will monitor the muskie population at least once every six years, if not sooner. If the larger size limit appears not to be working on a given lake, Vogelsang says the restrictive limit will be changed back to the current size limit or some other option.

"We've even had requests to experiment with some slot-size limits on muskies, which has never been done before," says Vogelsang.

Despite more-restrictive size limits and a growing acceptance of the catch-and-release ethic, muskies are still being harvested in fair numbers, both by anglers and tribal spearers, says Vogelsang. Creel census results show the average muskie kept by an angler is about 37 inches. Although creel census clerks note winter-speared muskies when checking non-Indian ice-fishermen, the winter spearing harvest is largely unmonitored. Muskies and walleyes taken in the spring spearing season are carefully tallied, however.

While lakes with natural reproduction are generally better muskie lakes, Vogelsang says a number of stocked lakes offer good fishing for big fish.

Among those, he says the Rainbow Flowage, Trout Lake and the Sugar Camp Chain are definitely worth fishing.

The state began restoring muskies in the waters of Green Bay back in 1989, when Great Lakes-strain "spotted" muskies were first introduced, using fish raised from eggs gathered in an inland lake in Michigan. For the past few years, DNR fisheries crews have regularly seen big muskies in their spring and fall walleye population surveys, including a 53-inch 48-pounder handled in the spring of 2002. Anglers also report catching fish up to 50 inches.

"There are enough big fish in the system now that people are fishing for them in the fall in the Fox River and up in the Marinette area," says DNR fisheries biologist Terry Lychwick, stationed at Green Bay. A 50-inch size limit went into effect there this season.

According to Lychwick, from 1989 through 2001, an average of about 3,000 spotted muskies per year were released as 10-inch fingerlings in the waters of Green Bay, all of them produced at the Wild Rose Hatchery. Last year, spotted muskies were also raised at the Art Oemcke Hatchery in Woodruff, and a record 32,000 spotteds were produced in the two hatcheries combined.

Those fish have been stocked each year in the lower Fox River from the De Pere Dam down to the mouth, in southern Green Bay, and in the Menominee River. With additional fish available last year, muskies were stocked for the first time in Sturgeon Bay, and in lakes Poygan and Butte des Morts.

"This is still very much a restoration project," says Lychwick. "Given the low number of fish stocked and the annual mortality rates, there are probably only 12,000 to 15,000 adult muskies in the entire system, only half of which are females. That's not a lot of fish, given the size of Green Bay, and there is no evidence so far of successful spawning."

Since last year, eggs are now also gathered from muskies in Michigan's Lake St. Clair in an attempt to revitalize the gene pool and increase the number of muskies stocked. Native to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River, spotted muskies tend to spawn on shoals where there is flowing water. There are adequate spawning areas available in the Fox/Green Bay system, but not enough muskies yet using them to produce a self-sustaining population.

Spotted muskies spawn later in the year than inland muskies, according to Wild Rose Hatchery manager Steve Fajfer. This makes raising them a tricky proposition, since it is sometimes difficult to obtain live minnows of the right size, which muskie fry need from the start.

"By the time the spotteds hatch, most forage fry are already too big for them to eat," says Fajfer. "If they don't have adequate forage, they start eating each other. We try to hold back sucker eggs on cold water to slow their development, so they hatch when the muskies are ready for them."

In some years, Fajfer has been forced to buy live minnows from bait dealers, both in and out of Wisconsin. Buying minnows is expensive, as the young muskies must be fed increasingly larger live food until they are stocked. The hatchery also holds 150 to 300 muskies over winter to stock as 17- to 20-inch yearlings, which have a much better survival rate, but these guys can eat a buck's worth of minnows at a sitting. Fortunately, a coalition of Green Bay area muskie clubs has contributed as much as $12,000 annually to cover the cost of purchasing forage. In these times of tight budgets, it is comforting to know that sportsmen are continuing to support this worthwhile project.

"Our ultimate goal is to develop a spawning population in the Fox River, then utilize them for egg-taking until we have a self-sustaining population," Lychwick says. "We know we're not there yet."

Still, Lychwick is encouraged.

"We're producing big fish and they seem to be surviving well," he says. "It's just a matter of increasing the numbers now to achieve a self-sustaining population. When that will occur, I can't say, but I think we'll get there eventually."

Several lakes in southern Wisconsin produce a number of big muskies every year, despite heavy fishing pressure. Three Waukesha County lakes - Pewaukee, Okauchee and Oconomowoc - regularly yield big fish, despite the fact that they have no special regulations, according to Sue Beyler, DNR fisheries biologist for Waukesha County.

"It seems we have the best of both worlds," says Beyler. "Pewaukee Lake, which has lots of muskies and a good catch rate, produces some nice-sized fish as well. Okauchee and Oconomowoc lakes don't have the same population density, but they produce some big fish.

"We have not proposed any size limit increases," Beyler continued. "Although some people have requested higher limits on Pewaukee and Okauchee, most anglers seem happy with what we've got."

Beyler saw a 51-inch fish on Okauchee during a survey in the spring of 2002. She hears reports of anglers catching several fish that size every year. Beyler cites catch-and-release angling and a good forage base as reasons for big fish in these lakes. Okauchee and Oconomowoc both have ciscoes, while all three lakes have abundant panfish and suckers. Growth rates on all three lakes are above the statewide average for muskie lakes.

A study of Pewaukee's muskies in 2000 revealed a population of one adult fish per two acres of w

ater. While these fish averaged 32 to 37 inches long, some in the survey ranged to 48 inches or more. The following summer, Beyler says, an angler caught a 52-incher.

* * *
If you're looking for a chance to catch that fish of a lifetime, you would do well to try one or more of the waters managed for trophy muskies. Strikes may be few and far between, but the next fish you catch could be bigger than anything you've ever caught before.

For more information on Wisconsin's trophy muskie waters, check the current fishing regulations booklet, or go to the DNR's Web site, at www.dnr.state.wi.us.

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