I have always had a soft spot in my heart for Lake Simcoe, the magnificent waterbody just an hour's drive north of the city of Toronto. Although I live on the shore of Lake of the Woods today, up in Northwestern Ontario, and consider it to be the finest multi-species fishery in the world, I grew up in southern Ontario and probably fished Simcoe more than any other water body. Not surprisingly, I have so many fond memories of giant lake trout, huge whitefish, massive jumbo perch, giant smallmouth bass and tens of thousands of herring.
By pure coincidence, one of my first jobs after joining the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, after graduating from university, was as the Resource Manager for the South Lake Simcoe Conservation Authority. So, I've always followed with keen interest Simcoe's many ups and downs.
Indeed, as a youngster, I remember marvelling at the phenomenal muskie fishing that Simcoe offered, especially in weedy Cook's Bay. Bruce Park was one of several famous Simcoe musky guides at the time and I devoured reading Tiny Bennett's and Pete McGillan's outdoor columns in the Toronto Star and Toronto Telegram, about the days they spent with Park catching mammoth Simcoe muskies.
But then the fishery fell on hard times and the muskie population collapsed. It stayed that way until only very recently, when the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, Muskies Canada, Sir Sandford Fleming College and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources joined forces to develop a strategy to re-introduce muskies into Lake Simcoe and restore the once famous fishery.
For the past several years the stocking program has been hugely successful. And once again this year, the egg collection program went off without a hitch and the Sir Sandford College hatchery was brimming with young muskies. But then the OMNR folks who were caring for the fish gave them their annual physical and discovered a bacterial infection in the fingerlings. They successfully treated it with antibiotics and everything was looking good, until an follow up examination detected the deadly virus, Lymphosarcoma, in many of the fish.
While most fish species can contract the untreatable and often lethal cancer, for some strange reason that no one has been able to determine, muskellunge and northern pike are particularly susceptible. Indeed, I have caught several large adult muskies while fishing in Lake of the Woods with the blister-like, bleeding lesions, usually on the tail portion of their body. It is suspected the fish contract and spread the virus in the spring, when they are spawning and in close contact with one another. (Note the lesions near the tail of this Lake of the Woods muskie we caught last autumn).
After considerable discussions between the OMNR specialists and the partners in the restoration program, everyone agreed that the best course of action would be to destroy the infected fish, rather than stock them into the lake and risk spreading the virus to the extremely small and highly vulnerable population that is currently in the lake.
It was a smart "ounce of prevention" today, that was indeed, well worth more than a "pound of cure" in the future. But the program is now on hold, as OMNR managers work aggressively to develop an early warning screening program to detect the lymphosarcoma virus in future screenings of muskellunge.
Let's hope the Minister of Natural Resources and senior staff at OMNR value the fish as much as anglers, and provide the necessary funding and support to successfully conclude one of Ontario's most important fish restoration projects.