The muskellunge (aka musky or muskie) is believed by many to be one of Wisconsin’s most unique and important trophies. In 1955, the State Legislature proclaimed the musky to be the official State Fish of Wisconsin, due to it being so highly valued. Thanks to WI putting the muskie first, Wisconsin has the most musky world records than anywhere else. Taken from the Chippewa Flowage, the current state and world record muskie is an astonishing 69 pounds and 11 ounce musky, according to the WI DNR.
Putting Muskie First
Nearly 50 years after fishermen pulled the final of 4 world-record fish from Hayward, WI area lakes, huge monster musky are once again on the prowl in Wisconsin waters. This is due to Wisconsin’s efforts of putting the muskie first.
A great catch-and-release ethic among anglers, restrictive size limits, and a state-sponsored hatchery system have combined to rebuild Wisconsin musky populations that faced near collapse due to 30 years of over fishing after those world-record muskie catches in the 1950s. Things have really started to move in a positive direction since folks began putting tiger muskie fishing first.
Wisconsin has done an excellent job of rebuilding the musky population to trophy quality fish. 30 or so years ago, a 40″ musky in Wisconsin was nearly nonexistent. As recent as 10-12 years ago, 50″ musky in Wisconsin were exceptionally rare.
Since putting muskie first, Wisconsin has not only broken both of those size barriers, it can be argued that they have smashed them. The next decade looks promising for more world-class Wisconsin muskies.
Muskies, which are commonly referred to as the fish of 10,000 casts, are today actually being caught in Wisconsin waters on average in about only 3,000 casts. According to the WI DNR, each year for the past 13 years fishermen have caught an average of 29 muskies larger than 48″ and 9 musky larger than 50″ from Wisconsin lakes and rivers. These are the true measures of Wisconsin’s efforts to put muskie first.
Check out this near world record Tiger Musky (52″) caught in Vilas County, Wisconsin in August 2014.
The number of musky hunters has grown significantly to an estimated 360,000 fishermen, about 3 times the number from the late 1950s. Thanks to mutual respect among muskie anglers and respect for this great fish, nearly 98% of the muskies that are caught are being released so that they can grow bigger and live to fight another day. It’s great to see the fishermen also put the tiger muskie first.
This change in conditions, which has exceeded even the most optimistic of expectations, is leading to an evolution within Wisconsin’s approach to muskie stocking. Wildlife biologists expect a change in the public’s perception of musky stocking will also transpire.
Many don’t realize that muskie stocking is a relatively expensive, intensive process. It costs about $70 for each stocked musky fingerling that will survive for at least 18 months in the wild. So, the next time that you purchase your Wisconsin fishing license, know that your dollars are also contributing to put muskie first.
Wisconsin Fisheries Put Muskies First
In the late 1970’s, the growing belief that muskie populations were decreasing due to over fishing and poor spawning habitat inspired WI state fisheries officials to take action. Official’s research indicated that by the year 1990 increasing numbers of musky fishermen and a growing muskie harvest would possibly exceed the levels required to sustain the fishery. Fishing resource managers began a strategic process to short-circuit the possibility of that happening.
The newly created muskie management plan outlined for more restrictive harvest regulations which included increasing the 30″ minimum size limit across the state, increasing and improving data collection, protecting musky spawning habitat, and encouraging voluntary muskie catch-and-release. An increase in musky stocking was a key focal point.
The research showed demand for muskies increasing and supply decreasing. Officials felt that the best way to address the issue was to establish a fairly extensive musky stocking program.
In 1985, the musky hatchery system produced some 200,000 fish for stocking. The general rule at the time was to stock musky lakes at twice the annual rate of harvest. Musky fisheries employees assumed that the harvest rate to be 1 musky per acre, because at the time they didn’t have great information on the harvest. Most Wisconsin lakes were being stocked at 2 muskies per acre, regardless of if the lake had it’s own naturally reproducing muskies first.
Officials now know that the musky stocking rate used then was very high given present conditions. Creel surveys showed that the musky harvest is a lot less – only .02 muskies per acre, or 2 muskies per 100 acres now.
The muskies first stocking formula did not anticipate the rising popularity of catch-and-release musky fishing, nor the implications that it would have on reducing the musky harvest. Non-profit groups encouraged anglers to ‘let the muskies go’ – and fishermen did.
Early on in the 1980s, the expected harvest from 356 Class A Wisconsin lakes, or “trophy waters” as some call them, was 38,300 muskies statewide. By the year 1990, that total had decreased to an estimated 8,540 muskies, and by the year 2001, a paltry 1,980 muskies were actually kept.
This was a huge shift in the way anglers viewed the fish. Fishermen began to put muskies first, as well.
DNR officials and biologists, including some who had been active participants in fisheries work since the 1970s, began seeing the harvest declines brought on by the great catch-and-release ethic. Creel and population surveys verified the new trend. A lot of data began to come in as the DNR ramped up it’s sampling programs in the mid-1980s in order to help set Native American tribal spearing quotas for muskie and other fish like walleye.
During the past 20 years, catch-and-release has been rolling among the musky faithful. Since they began raising muskies, the hatcheries have been putting out a good quality product. The muskies were big, and their survival rates were improving.
The research and surveys showed that increasing the minimum size limits of musky helped to rebuild the populations. In 1984, the statewide musky size limit went from 30 to 34 inches.
Putting Musky First – A Look At The Numbers
In 1997, much of the research findings were beginning to come together when the LAB, or Legislative Audit Bureau, reviewed the Wisconsin DNR’s musky propagation program. The Legislative Audit Bureau concluded that the DNR’s system was not sufficient to meet the increasing demands for Wisconsin muskie fishing. In response to this, the DNR fisheries scientists recommended setting up a management framework to help protect and preserve the genetic integrity of native Wisconsin fish, and to also make the stocking of muskie and other species of fish more effective and less expensive.
Watch as the Hayward Lakes Chapter of Muskies Inc. stocked 1,300 tiger muskies averaging 10 to 12 inches long in Round Lake.
The DNR has since learned that stocking fewer muskies first, but larger fish has been proven to be much more economical than stocking a lot of smaller fish. Roughly about .004 percent of tiger muskie fry stocked soon after hatching in the spring would survive to fall season, and roughly about 4% of those that did survive would make it to the following year. Consequently, approximately 588,200 fry would be required to be stocked to end up with one surviving musky, and have a cost of nearly $800 per fish, according to numbers from the work done by UW – Stevens Point and DNR research teams. Cost and survival for stocking musky first as 10″-12″ long fingerlings only requires 25 muskies to yield a single surviving musky and a rough cost of about $70.75 per each musky.
Each of Wisconsin’s 220 stocked muskie waters has been assigned to it’s own specific stocking practice for a period of 10 years based on its natural reproductive status. Biologists and scientists will monitor and assess the musky first fisheries using continued surveys.
Officials feel that the worst-case scenario is fishermen will have slightly lower numbers of muskies, but larger muskies in Wisconsin waters. On the other hand, the best-case scenario would be that they will be able to discontinue stocking some lakes altogether. This, in fact, would be great news and a true sign of success with putting musky first. This would mean that something truly great is happening in Wisconsin musky lakes.