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Muskie fishing popularity, opportunity expanding

Minnesota is the nation's premier trophy muskie fishing destination today based on the abundance of catchable 50-plus inch fish and larger, and anglers are taking the bait.

The growing popularity of the sport has even led the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to consider increasing the number of muskie waters around the state.

The five waters that currently do not contain muskie but could in the future include Roosevelt Lake in Crow Wing County; Upper South Long and Lower South Long in Crow Wing County; Tetonka in Le Sueur County; and the Sauk River Chain in Stearns County. These lakes were chosen based on their geographic location, their suitability based on various natural resource criteria, and their ability to produce trophy-sized muskie (at least 48 inches long).

Lakes were selected from the south, central and northern portions of the state in an effort to provide a geographical balance of nearby muskie fishing opportunities. Currently, Minnesota is home to 116 muskie waters, 64 of which are the result of DNR stocking efforts.

The tremendous growth of this fishery is hooked directly to research that occurred 30 years ago this spring.

In 1980, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources' (DNR) research biologists and citizen volunteers discovered at long last the locations of Leech Lake's muskellunge spawning sites. In doing so, fish managers identified an annual source of eggs from the largest-growing strain of muskellunge in Minnesota.

"The 1980 discovery played a pivotal role in Minnesota's muskie management," said Tim Goeman, a DNR regional fisheries manager. "It was the seed that grew into to an enhanced muskie management program. The program incorporates science-based criteria on where and how to stock muskie and research evaluations to ensure our stocking efforts are not harming other fish communities."

As the program evolved, the fish grew and so did the number of waters stocked with muskie.

The DNR created the opportunity and interest followed. Currently, 14 percent of the Minnesota angling license buyers identify themselves as muskie anglers and another 18 percent say they have an interest in catching a muskie. Ten years ago only four percent of anglers identified themselves as muskie anglers.

The DNR is well aware that not everyone is enamored with the muskie. To that end, the agency will be gathering public comments and is planning input forums in the months ahead. Currently the department is sharing muskie management information and making it available to citizens. If the DNR does move forward with any of the five proposals, the first stocking would begin in 2011 and it would be 12 to 15 years before the fish would reach the legal minimum size of 48 inches.

Goeman encourages those who have an interest the muskie stocking proposals to contact their local fisheries manager.

Meanwhile, Goeman said, the agency is being as transparent as possible as to why these waters were selected and why adding muskie to them will have no effect on other fish populations.

"Though muskies, northern pike, walleye and panfish have successfully co-existed for thousands of years in many lakes, it's not illogical to believe that introducing a top predator into a body of water will have some impact," said Goeman. "Even our own fisheries managers had questions about this. That's why we did an extensive investigation that compared fish communities before and after muskie stocking in 41 different lakes. In the end, we found stocking muskies had no consistent negative effect."

A key explanation for this finding is rooted in the density of muskies Minnesota stocks per lake the types of lakes it selects for stocking. Another reason relates to the muskie's preference to prey upon non-game soft-rayed fish species, primarily redhorse, suckers and northern cisco. Muskie prefer these species because of their torpedo-shaped body and soft dorsal fins, which make them easy to ingest. Walleye, bluegill, bass and crappie all have spiny dorsal fins and the later are more elliptical in shape.

Studies in certain other states, including Wisconsin, have indicated negative fish impacts as a result of muskie stocking, it is also true that those studies involved smaller lakes where stocking rates were dramatically higher. Goeman said circumstances are different in Minnesota.

To find out more, including information on the agency's long-range northern pike and muskie plan, proposed stocking plans for each of the five lakes, and the DNR's study on the muskie's impact on other fish communities is available online. 

"We've come a long ways in 30 years," said Goeman. "In fact, we are making significant strides toward the goals of our long-range muskie and northern pike plan. We want people to understand where we've been, where we're going and how they can make informed decisions."