By Matt Markey
Eggs collected from muskies in the Detroit River in late spring are raised at the Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery. After about five months, the fish produced from those eggs have grown to around nine inches long and are ready for stocking in inland lakes and rivers.
NEWBERRY, Mich. — Muskies would be easy to count, if they would just hold still, not be so reclusive, not spook at the slightest sound, and readily accept any bait that is tossed in their direction.
But since they are these cagey and recalcitrant creatures, muskies are not the ideal survey subjects. They turn off the lights, hide in the basement, and don’t answer the door when the census biologists come knocking in hopes of getting some accurate picture of the muskie numbers and their ability to thrive in certain waters.
“We can do what we want with trap nets, gill nets, electro-fishing, and all of our usual methods, but no matter what we try, we just don’t capture that many muskies,” said Cory Kovacs, a fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “Even with creel surveys, where we have technicians out there interviewing anglers as they come off the water, we just don’t encounter that many targeting muskies.”
That could be directly related to the legendary reputation of the muskellunge as “the fish of 10,000 casts.” But for some, the pursuit is worth it.
For Sylvania native and professional muskie guide Spencer Berman, muskies present the ultimate challenge for an angler, and he considers their nasty disposition, their finicky nature, and their surly behavior as admirable qualities.
“If muskie fishing was easy, I wouldn’t be doing it,” said Berman, who guides on Lake St. Clair, one of the top muskie waters in the world. “There are some days when it feels like it might take 10,000 casts to catch one, but once you hook the next muskie, the thrill is back and you forget all about that.”
The MDNR is relying on Berman, and legions of other muskie fishermen in the state, to help provide an accurate data base for monitoring Michigan’s muskies.
While walleye fishermen and perch anglers are combining the sport with the pursuit of something exceptional for the dinner table, that is not the case with muskies. Muskie anglers are the apostles of catch-and-release. It’s all about the fight, not the fillets.
Muskies have a very imposing countenance, and one that fits well with their reputation for dining on fish of all sizes — they will not hesitate to latch on to a hooked walleye an angler is retrieving, or one already on the stringer — and they also devour frogs, ducks, snakes, muskrats, mice, and small birds.
They take their prey head-first in a triangle-shaped mouth that is a prison of spike-like teeth. Imagine if a dentist decided to produce a set of dentures out of razor wire, then the finished product would look like the inside of a muskie’s mouth.
Muskies grow big, and outside of the rare sturgeon, they are Michigan’s largest beast that swims. They fight like a bar room arm wrestler, and are as dangerous thrashing about in the boat as some of the nastiest creatures of the open sea.
The pursuit of muskies drives a passionate group of anglers, including Berman, his clients that come from as close as the Detroit suburbs and as far as Europe and Asia, and the members of the Michigan Muskie Alliance. And those anglers play a crucial role in the monitoring of Michigan’s muskie population.
“We rely heavily on the data we receive from anglers,” Kovacs said. “Our conventional survey methods just don’t work with muskies, so we need those diaries from anglers — where they are fishing, how long they are fishing, what they are catching on certain lakes. That is very valuable information.”
The MDNR is continuing to partner with the Michigan Muskie Alliance to monitor the state’s muskellunge fishery through the use of an online angler survey. Catch data and muskie angler demographics are gathered via that route after traditional survey methods such as postcards were deemed unsuccessful.
“Those online surveys really help us measure our success as a program, they help us modify stocking rates, and the data helps us see the growth potential in certain bodies of water,” Kovacs said.
The survey can be found at both the michigan.gov/muskie and the michiganmuskiealliance.org websites. Although most muskie fishermen pursue these brutes in the open water season, anglers are urged to use the surveys throughout the year, including in the winter months for those who hook-and-line fish through the ice or spearfish.
The muskellunge season on all inland waters, the Upper Peninsula Great Lakes, and on the St. Marys River ends March 15. For additional information on muskie fishing and season dates elsewhere around the state, consult the 2016-2017 Michigan Fishing Guide.
There are two strains of muskies in Michigan, the Great Lakes strain and the Northern strain, with naturally reproducing strains of Northern muskies found primarily in the western Upper Peninsula. Northern strain muskies were stocked in numerous lakes throughout the state until 2011, when the MDNR began stocking only the Great Lakes strain.
The Michigan record Great Lakes strain muskie weighed 58 pounds and was 59 inches long. It was caught in 2012 in Lake Bellaire. The record Northern strain muskie weighed 51 pounds and measured 49.75 inches and was caught in 2000 in Thornapple Lake.
Michigan raises muskies for stocking at its Wolf Lake Fish Hatchery in Mattawan, southwest of Kalamazoo. Eggs are collected from muskies in the Detroit River in the late spring and the fish they produce grow to about nine inches long before they are stocked in inland lakes and rivers in October. No stockings took place last year due to the threat posed by Viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), an extremely serious viral disease, but Michigan stocked some 26,000 muskies in 2016, and about 29,000 in 2015.
“Pretty much every good muskie fishery in the state is stocked, except for Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River,” Berman said. “In most environments, it’s hard to get a muskie population established that will get anglers excited without stocking. The state of Michigan has made a huge splash around the muskie world, and the stocking program is absolutely essential to maintaining that.”
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