Maintaining Ohio’s muskellunge population

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trophy-size muskellunge
Fisheries biologist Chris Aman holds a 48-inch muskie caught during netting operations at Leesville Lake, in Carroll County. ODNR Division of Wildlife staff harvest eggs and sperm from Leesville muskie to use in the state’s stocking program. Nine lakes in Ohio are stocked yearly and often produce trophy-size muskellunge like the one in the photo. (Barbara Mudrak photo)

He didn’t spend untold hours catching a fish that is known for cracking rods and stripping reels — if it decides to bite at all. Instead, he netted it at Leesville Lake as part of the ODNR Division of Wildlife’s stocking program. Still, fisheries biologist Chris Aman was happy to have his picture taken with the 48-inch muskellunge to get a message across.

“That size muskie is not unusual for that lake, where there are likely some over 50 inches,” he said. “That’s our goal with the stocking program, to give anglers the opportunity to catch the fish of a lifetime.”

The division stocks muskie in nine inland bodies of water in Ohio: Leesville, Salt Fork, Alum Creek, Caesar Creek and Piedmont lakes; Clear Fork, West Branch and C.J. Brown reservoirs and Lake Milton. More than 20,000 are placed in these lakes at one per acre, usually in October.

Doing the work

Aman and others in the fisheries management crew do the netting at Leesville in early spring, right after the ice melts, when the water is about 54 degrees. That’s when the muskie are moving along the shore to spawn.

When they remove the muskie from the trap nets, the hatchery crew takes over. Males ready to donate sperm are easy to find, but capturing females just when they are ready to release eggs is often tricky, so the crews must stay on it every day, Aman said. The fertilized eggs are transported to the state’s London and Kincaid fish hatcheries. The fisheries crew then release the donors back into the lake, unharmed.

Aman said anglers at Leesville use baits that imitate gizzard shad, the muskie’s main food item, but can also have success with large bait, like foot-long suckers. Either way, the humans must have patience that outlasts the muskie’s.

“They’re renowned for following baits but not striking,” he said.

Where to look

A recent press release from the Division of Wildlife says that West Branch is also a great place to try for trophies. The division’s online Muskie Angler Log “indicates that this lake produces the most muskellunge in Ohio” especially near “long points, sunken islands and weed lines.”

Other muskie opportunities can be found in the Pymatuning Reservoir, which is stocked by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission but is partly in Ohio’s Ashtabula County. The DOW also lists Paint Creek, Grand River, Sunfish Creek, Little Muskingum River, Rocky Fork Creek, Salt Creek, Wills Creek, and the Mahoning River as “good muskie streams.”

The division notes that Berlin Reservoir also has a muskie population, but it is “low density” because it depends on natural reproduction rather than stocking.

There are also some breeding populations of muskie in Lake Erie, the Ohio River and the Muskingum, Scioto and Grand rivers, said Curtis Wagner, fisheries management supervisor for DOW District 3, which covers 19 counties in Northeast Ohio.

Why are naturally reproducing muskie populations low density?

“Most of Ohio’s lakes, streams and reservoirs have too much sedimentation and lack the proper shallow vegetation in the spring because water levels go up and down so much for flood control,” he said. “They need stable water levels and less runoff to reproduce successfully, so in Ohio we need to maintain them by stocking.”

Hatchery history

In 1948, the Division of Wildlife trapped native muskie and put them in hatchery ponds at the Kincaid Fish Farm, but hopes of natural reproduction were dashed. In 1953, the division began the stocking program with 10,000 fry and more than 2,000 fingerlings placed in the nine selected lakes.

But in 1982, the agency’s efforts changed to focus on producing 8- to 10-inch “advanced fingerlings” because they’d have a better survival rate than smaller ones. So while there are just two hatcheries that raise muskie, London and Kincaid, other hatcheries raise minnows and carp fry to feed them.

Muskie fingerlings are then finished in ponds with even bigger minnows.

“They’re an expensive fish to raise at a cost of about $20 per fish with the labor and production costs,” Wagner said. “You have to keep a high density of minnows and the right size minnows. Otherwise, the muskie will cannibalize each other and you’ll get a very low number of very big fish.”

And since 90% of the muskie’s diet is gizzard shad, the young muskie are only stocked in lakes and reservoirs that have high populations of those bait fish.

The gizzard shad is soft-rayed, not spiny, and “muskies want a soft prey,” he said.

Shorter lifespan

In northern states and Canada, muskie have been known to live till their early thirties, while in Ohio, a 10-year-old muskie is considered ancient.

“In colder water, they live slow and die old,” Wagner explained. “When it’s cold, they’re eating less and growing slower …”

In the lower Midwest, there are shorter winters and warmer water, so their metabolism is active for a longer period, he said. The warmer water not only seems to accelerate aging, but results in faster growth rates than are typically found in the northern areas.

“Here, muskie are entered annually in our recording system in the 50- to 52-inch range, with 52.5 being about the highest,” Wagner said. “In rare cases they may reach 53 inches or more.”

Anglers consider a muskie over 40 inches good, the upper 40s a once-in-a-lifetime catch, he said. Ohio’s stocking programs improve anglers’ chances of getting a fish that size, and in less time than it takes where muskies breed naturally.

“It used to be called the fish of 10,000 casts,” Wagner said. “But in recent years we’ve shortened that to 1,000 in Ohio and other states with stocking programs.”

Patience necessary

In Wisconsin, where the muskie is the state fish, “it takes the average angler more than 50 hours to catch a legal muskellunge,” according to the state’s Environmental Education for Kids website.

On Ohio’s Muskie Angler Log, fisher folk not only record their catches but the times of their trips.

From these statistics, “we can say that for every 100 hours, on average, they will get 15 muskie,” Wagner said. “So it’s six or seven hours per muskie.”

Wagner said 98% of those who log their catches say that they released the muskie to live another day.

“They know it’s a stocked resource and they’d rather let them go so they grow and get bigger,” Wagner said.

If someone does want to keep a muskie, it’s one fish per day and no minimum size, he said. There’s no season on them, but most anglers target them in spring and early summer, then lay off in the hot months of July and August so as not to put too much stress on the fish and risk their demise.

The season resumes in the fall and “continues from late October to early December, ahead of the ice, although some are also caught through the ice,” Wagner said.

Muskie Club

The Ohio Huskie Muskie Club was formed in 1961 “with the sole purpose of reporting muskie catches to the state and getting the stocking program going. It’s been a very close partnership with them,” he said.

The club has several tournaments coming up, including May Madness on May 15 at Salt Fork, Lungefest on June 19 at Leesville, plus two at West Branch: The 51st annual Summer Contest July 10 and 11, and the 9th Annual Minnow Fund Outing Sept. 25 and 26.

With clubs in both the United States and Canada, Muskies, Inc. has several chapters in Ohio. Those groups also work closely with the Division of Wildlife, donating money for minnows or equipment needed to raise muskie for stocking.

“Ohio’s muskie program is an example of angler interest and support merging with sound fisheries research and management to achieve a nationally-recognized fishery,” Wagner said.

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Barbara Mudrak was a reporter for 25 years, mostly with the Akron Beacon Journal, and recently retired from teaching English and news writing at Alliance High School. She can be reached at editorial+barb@farmanddairy.com.

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