REGIONAL— Are muskies getting a bad rap in Minnesota?
To hear critics of the species, these potentially large and aggressive predators pose a danger to wildlife, walleye, and even people on …
REGIONAL— Are muskies getting a bad rap in Minnesota?
To hear critics of the species, these potentially large and aggressive predators pose a danger to wildlife, walleye, and even people on rare occasions. In recent years, public pressure has been building in the state Legislature to prevent the Department of Natural Resources from stocking new lakes with musky, and possibly ending stocking on lakes with existing musky populations.
So far, such legislation hasn’t been enacted into law, but the pushback against the species is worrying resort owners and guides who cater to musky anglers as well as DNR officials who are working to encourage the next generation of fishermen and women.
Ed Tausk, who owns and operates Vermilion Dam Lodge on Lake Vermilion, is among those who believe musky and their economic and ecological impacts aren’t well known to critics of the fish.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about musky and their impact on fisheries,” said Tausk, who has been a musky angler himself for decades. “If you look at all the top musky lakes, like Leech or Winnie or Vermilion, they all have healthy walleye populations.”
While musky, like most predatory fish, will eat just about anything they can swallow, they tend to feed most heavily on whitefish and ciscoes, which have a high oil content that allows the muskies to put on weight quickly. Lakes like Vermilion, with high populations of these popular forage fish, can grow record-setting muskies, and that potential is what’s attracted musky anglers to the area in recent years.
Not long ago, fishing on Vermilion more or less died down after Labor Day and most resorts shut their doors for the season by mid-September.
With the growth of a world class musky fishery on Vermilion, resorts like Vermilion Dam are open and busy all the way to freeze-up. “I had more musky fishermen in November than deer hunters,” said Tausk.
He’s not alone.
“If we didn’t have musky, we’d probably have to close two months earlier,” said Joe Amundson at Spring Bay Lodge on Vermilion’s west end.
While the musky season begins June 1, the late fall is traditionally one of the best times of the year to catch big musky. Just as black bears spend the late summer gorging to put on pounds for hibernation, musky spend October and early November targeting whitefish and ciscoes to put on weight for the winter. If you’re looking for a monster musky, that’s the time of year to be out on the water— and those who have a passion for the sport don’t care what the weather is like.
A few years ago, when Vermilion was getting plenty of publicity over its newfound status as one of the state’s top musky lakes, musky anglers were keeping resort cabins full all fall at those resorts that catered to this somewhat specialized clientele. To promote the sport, Tausk established a regular musky outing on a weekend in October when he brought together anglers, guides, and fisheries experts as an opportunity for musky anglers to informally compete and learn more about their sport from some of those who know it best.
While the musky outing remains popular, Tausk said those who take part aren’t seeing the numbers of musky they had seen several years ago. While musky fishing is almost exclusively catch-and-release, Tausk said mortality within the population is probably higher than people realize. “I think that the density of muskies has dropped recently,” he said. “We’re not putting the kind of numbers on the board at our musky outing as we used to.”
Nor is Tausk filling as many rooms with musky anglers as he did a few years ago. “We’re not getting the guys up here in the fall like we used to. Our fall business has definitely declined,” he said.
DNR Tower Area Fisheries Manager Edie Evarts said there’s little evidence that the musky population is declining, although she acknowledged that assessing musky populations can be difficult on a lake like Vermilion, where the DNR specifically manages the lake for a low density musky population, with the potential to grow exceptionally large fish.
Evarts said the DNR’s recent creel survey shows that interest in musky fishing on the lake remains about the same, with a bit less than one-in-five anglers on the lake targeting musky. While some might be reporting less success, Evarts said a heavily-fished musky population tends to get warier with time. “We stocked a lot of musky in Vermilion in the 1980s,” she said. “There were a lot of naïve fish originally, which made them easier to catch.”
Unlike walleye, which may only get caught once before ending up in a frying pan, the catch-and-release nature of musky fishing gives individual fish the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.
While musky anglers are still a distinct minority within the overall population of fishermen and women, there’s reason to believe they are a growing segment at a time when the DNR is struggling to maintain sales of fishing licenses generally. While license sales have remained fairly steady in recent years, that’s partly because baby boomers still regularly purchase fishing licenses.
Attracting younger people to the sport, however, has proven to be a bigger challenge and DNR officials believe that promoting musky fishing could attract more young people to the sport. “The younger portion of the demographic wants more adventure,” said Jenifer Wical, who handles fishing outreach for the DNR. “We think musky fishing plays into that.” Wical said that younger people tend to be pretty choosy when it comes to spending money these days, and state tourism officials believe that highlighting the adventure of musky fishing could be attractive to some. Indeed, the DNR had been working in cooperation with Explore Minnesota on a musky promotion designed to bring residents of neighboring states to Minnesota. But that promotion is currently on hold, in part due to the controversial nature of the species and the pushback coming from some in the Legislature. “That’s partly why we haven’t done it,” said Wical. “We want to see how that plays out before pursuing it further,” she said. “The environment needs to be right.”
Yet, as resort owners know, promotion is the key to filling cabins. “From a resorter’s window, you’re out there trying to gather new business, and musky fishing is one way to do that,” said Tausk. “I think we’re missing out by not continuing to try to promote musky fishing and stocking our lakes to keep that interest high.”
Commitment to musky on Vermilion
Resort owners aren’t the only ones who’d like to see more musky in Lake Vermilion. Evarts said she received about 100 comments during the recent management plan update for Lake Vermilion, most of them from musky anglers who favor more stocking.
“There’s certainly a pretty wide range of opinions about musky, but we’re very committed to the musky fishery on Vermilion,” she said. According to Evarts, most opposition she hears over musky comes from walleye anglers who believe the big predator fish take too much of a toll on young walleye.
“There’s absolutely no evidence that it has any impact on the walleye population,” said Evarts, who notes that the catch rate for walleye on Vermilion has increased since the 1980s, when the DNR began its musky stocking effort. She said the same thing is true on other large lakes in the state where musky and walleye both maintain healthy populations.
For musky anglers, Evarts offered some good news in that the DNR has designated Vermilion as one among a handful of lakes in the state that are high priorities for musky stocking. While the DNR has set a stocking quota of 8,000 musky fingerlings every other year in Vermilion, Evarts said shortages of musky fingerlings some years has meant the DNR has fallen short of that goal.
Musky are tougher to raise than walleye, said Evarts, and some years survival is poor, which limits the number of fish available for stocking.
The DNR is also taking steps that should help them better assess the musky population and the role that natural reproduction plays in maintaining musky numbers in the lake. Each of the fingerlings will now have a tiny chip, about the size of a grain of rice, implanted under their skin before release, which will allow DNR fisheries staff to accurately age fish and determine the percentage of stocked fish in the overall population. The DNR’s trap netting, to date, hasn’t provided as much information as officials had hoped, but that should change due to the new technology.
The trap netting, however, has revealed one trend. “We can see that the size has gotten a lot bigger,” said Evarts. “We have quite a few fish over 50 inches out there.”
Any state records in the mix?
“Potentially,” said Evarts.