The Mighty Muskie
Muskie fishing in Minnesota is better than ever.
By C.B. Bylander
It was Sept. 14. A Saturday. The sky was blue. The water was flat. And the muskies in Lake Bemidji were as lifeless as the statue of Paul Bunyan in the city park, or at least they seemed that way.
Karl Dobmeier, of Hines, had met Ron Hanson at 5:30 a.m. in Hanson's driveway. As usual, they were on the water by 6. They fished hard until noon, broke for lunch, then began to cast again. As they did, they grumbled about what a lousy fishing day it was. They would have welcomed a breeze, waves, and sky the color of winter road slush. Instead, they were doomed to a glorious day.
About 1:45 p.m. Dobmeier pitched a black and orange bucktail spinner toward a stand of bulrushes along a shallow flat. A muskie smacked it. Dobmeier reefed on his rod. And in that instant he began to battle what is likely the biggest fish ever pulled from Lake Bemidji.
"I could tell it was a huge fish right off the bat," the construction worker recalled. "I got it to the boat, but it made a run. Then I got it to the boat again, and it ran again. Finally, Ron netted it on the third pass."
Dobmeier and Hanson fished for two more hours and caught one more muskie before they weighed the big fish at Kobilka's North Country Sporting Goods. The fish, which likely lost weight in the livewell, was 55 inches long and weighed 51 pounds, 14 ounces -- just 2 pounds, 2 ounces less than the 54-pound state record set by Art Lyons, of Bena, in 1957 at Lake Winnibigoshish.
A few weeks later, an Iowa angler almost broke Lyons' record. That angler caught and released a 52-pound, 4-ounce muskie on Leech Lake.
These fish -- and others like them -- are testament to the fact that muskie fishing in Minnesota is better than ever. Today, there are more muskie lakes and more fish to catch, and the average size of muskies is among the best in the nation.
"I honestly believe Minnesota has the best muskie fishing in the country," said Paul Hartman, muskie tournament promoter and president of the Minnesota Muskie Guides Association. "I say that because it is my business to know what's being caught in other states and Canada. For people who want a good chance to connect with a muskie 20 pounds or larger, Minnesota is where it's at. Period."
It wasn't always so. Pioneers enjoyed fabulous fishing, but that's no surprise. E.S. Kelley, for example, wrote in an 1897 issue of Western Field and Stream that on a fishing trip to the Sand Lakes in Hubbard County, "We had no time to go on shore to land our fish as the biting was fast and furious. We hauled in all sizes of mascalonge hand over hand, and swung them into the boat with the line. . . . We took more than 300 pounds in weight, the sizes varying from five pounds to twenty pounds. On the following [day] 200 pounds more. . . . We were well satisfied with our outing."
That kind of fishing couldn't last. By the 1920s muskie fishing was belly-up in many parts of the state. Fishing contest records from Fuller's Tackle Shop of Park Rapids, for example, show the number of trophy-sized muskies declined during 1930-59 and did not increase significantly during 1960-87, while six other fish species were increasing in size.
The problem, mostly, was that overharvested muskie lakes couldn't be stocked. The Department of Natural Resources had tried to catch spawning muskies for hatchery use but failed year after year. The fish of 10,000 casts was as elusive to fisheries managers with nets as it was to anglers with rod and reel. As a result, many muskie lakes were paralyzed: They weren't getting worse, but they weren't getting better either.
In the 1950s fisheries biologists discovered a way to trap spawning muskies in Shoepack Lake in northeastern Minnesota. Eggs from these fish were carefully packed, loaded onto a DNR plane, and flown to the Park Rapids hatchery. Muskie production began to cook at last. Unfortunately, the recipe was wrong. After many years of stocking, it was discovered that the Shoepack strain of muskie was a runt, rarely more than 42 inches long, about a foot less than other common muskie strains. Anglers began to demand bigger fish. Some were so strident they even brought muskie fingerlings from Wisconsin and stocked them in their favorite lakes. Something had to be done.
Enter Mr. Muskie
The job fell on the shoulders of Robert Strand, now-retired DNR Regional Fisheries Supervisor at Bemidji, who was a DNR Fisheries Research Biologist at Walker in the 1970s. Strand was well-aware of the DNR's efforts to catch spawning muskies in Leech Lake during the 1960s. These efforts were intensified in the mid-1960s when two crews netted the lake for 30 consecutive days. Their catch: a measly three muskies and no eggs. Netting efforts continued into the 1970s and even expanded to a few other natural muskie lakes in the Walker-Longville area, but again without success.
Stumped but determined to succeed, Strand asked his supervisor for permission to go fishing. Strand argued that if fish couldn't be caught by many men with lots of nets then, by golly, he'd catch them on a single line with rod and reel. Each mature muskie he caught, he explained, would be implanted with a radio transmitter that would send out a signal. In time, these fish would move to their spawning grounds and reveal these sites at last. Then the crew could set nets, catch fish, strip eggs and milt, and release the fish unharmed.
Then-research supervisor Joe Scidmore bit. In 1979 Strand and citizen volunteers began fishing for the secrets that had eluded fisheries managers for decades. That year they caught 15 muskies large enough to receive a transmitter. Fourteen survived to the following spring. (An angler caught and kept one fish 17 days after the DNR released it.) The DNR tracked all the muskies by boat and plane. "Then came the dawn," Strand recalled of this pioneering research.
The dawn was this: Leech Lake muskies spawned later in spring, in deeper water, and farther from shore than fisheries managers had ever imagined.
"What we discovered was a manifestation of natural selection," said Strand. "The Leech Lake muskie, over thousands of years, had found places to spawn and raise their young that were distinctly different from the northern pike, whose young, because they hatch earlier, would out-compete the smaller and more vulnerable muskie."
The DNR took its first Leech Lake muskie eggs in 1981. By 1984 research was under way to determine if the Leech Lake strain of muskie -- sometimes called the Mississippi strain -- was indeed superior. After six years, the study proved Leech Lake fish were larger than the Shoepack and two Wisconsin strains.
Jerry Younk, the DNR muskie specialist who completed this research, said the study had far-reaching implications. "Not only was the Leech Lake strain the biggest fish, but it [also] had the desirable trait of successfully coexisting with northern pike," said Younk. "The debate was over. We knew which muskie to stock in native muskie waters."
Today Minnesota has about 80 muskie lakes, about twice as many as the state originally had. In the Twin Cities area, a half-dozen lakes are true muskie lakes and the DNR manages 30 lakes and rivers for hybrid muskies. With tales of 20- and 30-pound catches, these places have become magnets for muskie anglers.
"People from Illinois, Iowa, and Wisconsin drive into the heart of an urban center of 2.5 million to go fishing," said Rod Ramsell, DNR west-metro Fisheries Specialist. "It's not unusual for anglers from Alexandria and St. Cloud to come to the Cities rather than driving north to Longville and Walker."
Most metro muskie lakes are stocked with the tiger muskie, a hybrid between a northern pike and a muskie. The tiger muskie grows faster and is more likely to strike a lure than the Leech Lake strain. However, it doesn't grow as large and can't naturally reproduce. The state-record tiger muskie, caught in the shadow of downtown skyscrapers at Lake Calhoun, weighed 33 pounds, 8 ounces.
"Muskie fishing is thriving in the metro area primarily because of fish numbers," said Ramsell, who supplies fishing diaries to more than 100 anglers each year. "Though some anglers don't catch a fish, others see as many as 300 muskies in a single season and catch more than a dozen. Clearly, most muskie anglers have a strong catch-and-release ethic, and that is a tremendous boost to the fishery."
Though muskie stocking has been a boon in the metro area, don't expect a DNR fish-stocking truck to roll up to your favorite fishing hole. Most lakes are managed for walleye, bass, and other species. Only lakes that meet certain criteria are stocked with muskies, and only after input from the public.
"Our goal is to have a balanced program, and we believe we are close to that," said Ron Payer, DNR Chief of Fisheries. "We want a good geographical distribution of muskie fishing opportunities, but I don't foresee a significant expansion in the number of muskie lakes."
This approach speaks to the fact that muskie anglers represent but a small fraction of the angling public. It also reflects the reality that the muskie is fundamentally a controversial fish. "The muskie is a difficult fish to manage from a social standpoint because of its mystique," said Henry Drewes, DNR Regional Fisheries Manager at Bemidji. "In the eyes of many people, muskies are either too abundant, too few, being managed with the wrong regulation, or in need of one thing or another. Muskie lakes are much more management intensive because the fish generates a lot of emotion among supporters and detractors."
The biggest backlash against the muskie is the perception that it will harm other fish populations. That's usually not the case. Many of Minnesota's best fishing lakes -- Leech, Winnibigoshish, Mille Lacs, Lake of the Woods, Minnetonka -- have thriving muskie populations. Yes, the muskie eats other game fish, but that's normal. Walleyes eat walleyes. Bass eat panfish. Northern pike ambush most anything they can.
The muskie is not a death knell to panfish populations, said Strand, citing a Wisconsin study in which predators were added to a small lake to reduce an overabundant panfish population. First, northern pike were stocked. Nothing happened. Next, walleye were added. Nothing happened. Finally, muskies were stocked. None of these stockings knocked down the panfish population.
"The muskie is often blamed or credited for things it probably does and does not do," said Strand. "That's why research is important, research that can provide answers for even better management."
Though Minnesota's muskie program took decades to grow into one of the best in the nation, it demonstrates that a science-based approach works best. Could this approach even produce a new state -- or world -- record muskie?
Yes, if you believe in the mathematical models that predict the biggest fish likely to live in certain lakes. Theoretically, muskies in excess of 60 pounds swim in several state waters. These fish -- if they exist -- might never be caught or seen. However, the promise that they might is enough to make the muskie angler rise early and fish hard, even on lousy fishing days.
C.B. Bylander is DNR Regional Information Officer in Brainerd and a frequent contributor to the Volunteer.
The Story Behind the Record
In 1976, 19 years after it had been caught by fishing guide Art Lyons, a 54-pound muskie was crowned the Minnesota state record.
The unusual tale starts in 1931 when J.W. Collins of Baudette landed a 56-pound, 8-ounce muskie from Lake of the Woods. The fish was as real as a fish can be, but in 1976 Jimmy Robinson, the famed waterfowler and writer, insisted that the fish had been caught in Ontario. The DNR investigated. The evidence was convincing. Suddenly Minnesota had a new record -- a 54-pounder pulled from Lake Winnibigoshish in 1957.
Joe Fellegy, an angling historian, interviewed Lyons and others who witnessed this catch. What follows is an abbreviated version of the account in his book Classic Minnesota Fishing Stories.
One August afternoon Lyons, a fishing guide for High Banks Resort on Winnibigoshish, took two Twin Cities couples fishing for northern pike. The couples went in one boat and Lyons in another. After motoring to promising water, Lyons would cast and try to find fish for his clients. When he'd come upon a likely spot, he'd say, "Try here." Fishing was slow.
Suddenly Lyons set the hook and began to play a big fish. This went on for 15 or 20 minutes. The couples watched and kept out of the way. Sometimes the fish would boil up weeds. Sometimes it dove. It dragged Lyons' boat around. Lyons sometimes used the motor to maintain the position he wanted.
The fish seemed to be getting bigger, Lyons joked, as the battle wore on. Finally, after an hour or so, the fish surfaced between the boats. "It looked like a piece of log," recalled George Ross, a member of the fishing party. "The sight of the fish actually gave us a scary feeling."
Realizing they did not have a net big enough to land the fish, Lyons told the couples to go back to the resort to get the gaff with jaws that snapped. They did. But when they tried to use it, the jaws failed, and the fish dove deep again.
By this time Don Hanson had joined Lyons in the boat. The others went back to the resort to fetch the biggest net they could find. The first time they tried to use the new net the fish flopped out. But Lyons decided if he and Hanson could get the fish's head in the net they could grab the body and sort of flip it into the boat. And that's what they did.
By the time the two boats returned, curious folks lined the shore. Lyons raised his fabulous fish to a chorus of cheers. Many photos were taken, including one of Lyons holding up a fish nearly as big as he was.
A bar in Bena displayed the fish until 1979, when the building burned down, and the state-record muskie went up in flames.
-- C.B. Bylander
One beneficiary of DNR research and management is Libby Hoene, an 11-year-old from Coon Rapids. Her friends call her "Lucky." And lucky she is, for she fishes more than most grown-ups do and catches more too. She caught 20 muskies during the 1998 fishing season, one weighing more than 30 pounds. Her first muskie -- a 34-pounder that measured 48 inches long -- was caught just days after her dad had given her a new rod and reel for her ninth birthday.
"She's been hooked ever since that first fish," said Tim, her father. "Heck, she out-fishes guys who drive to Canada and fly in to remote lakes. And she does it without ever hardly leaving the seven-county metro area."
Libby landed one such fish on Thanksgiving 1998. On that unusually warm day, she and her dad had launched the boat, said a prayer together, and watched the sun rise before settling on a particular place to fish. A muskie struck moments later. Libby reefed hard on the rod, as she always does, and bore down on her Ambassadeur 6500 reel. Dad watched. Dad grabbed the net. They both rejoiced when they lifted the 27-pound fish from the water. After a quick picture, they released the fish, just as they did with all her others.
"Catching. That's my favorite part of fishing," said Libby. "And I like releasing too. It's neat to know that I might catch that fish again.
-- C.B. Bylander