WDNR Forage Harvest Creates Musky Fisheries Tipping Point
By Craig Sandell © 2013

I was alerted by Kurt Krueger, outdoor writer for the Vilas County News Review, to the practice of the Wisconsin DNR of harvesting forage to feed hatchery production. I had not heard of that practice so I contacted Tim Simonson at the DNR in Madison. He referred me to Bruce Underwood at the Woodruff hatchery.

In addition to sending me a spread sheet chronicling forage harvest on lakes in Vilas and Oneida Counties, Bruce indicated that forage harvesting was suspended in 2006 due to VHS concerns but did note that sucker eggs are still taken to support hatchery production. The spread sheet that Bruce sent me covers the years between 1998 and 2006 and shows the forage harvest in pounds for the lakes listed.

The two tables shown below list the total pounds of forage taken from lakes and rivers in Vilas and Oneida Counties from 1998 to 2006 and are arranged by the highest poundage taken.

LAKE COUNTY Harvest In Pounds
Lac Du Lune Vilas 13077
Trout Lake Vilas 10120
Big Arbor Vitae Vilas 4452
Anvil Vilas 2954
Big Vilas 2126
Clear (V) Vilas 1437
Laura Vilas 1252
Stevenson Creek Vilas 1117
White Sand Vilas 963
Big St Germain Vilas 906
Erickson Vilas 793
Big Muskellunge Vilas 762
Razorback Vilas 684
Rest Vilas 566
Trout River Vilas 535
Island Vilas 526
LAKE COUNTY Harvest In Pounds
Lake Tomahawk Oneida 31228
Big Carr Oneida 10849
McNaughton Lake Oneida 7546
Squash Oneida 4081
Bird Oneida 3895
Buffalo Oneida 2262
Clear (O) Oneida 2000
Little Tomahawk Oneida 1565
Two Sisters Oneida 1472
Tomahawk River Oneida 1408
McNaughton Pond Oneida 1177

*Note This is a partial List of Lakes. There were 45 Vilas County and 22 Oneida County Lakes)

In order to get a good perspective of just what this means, you need to consider two things:

How many minnows make up a pound (minus the water)?

What effect would removing forage have on the fishery when Musky are at a 100% release rate?

As for how many minnows make up a pound, I have no exact number. If you have ever harvested minnows using a seine net, you could estimate that 20 or 30 might equal a pound. If we use 30 minnows equaling a pound, we see, for example, that 936,840 minnows were harvested from Lake Tomahawk in Oneida County from 1998 to 2006.

As for the effect on the health of the Musky fishery from removing 936,840 forage minnows when no Musky are being harvested, the negative impact is obvious. Now you have more Musky chasing a diminished food source. Without sufficient food no animal or human will achieve their genetic potential…in this case it’s the Musky achieving a trophy size. (Sort of makes increased size limits for Musky a joke, doesn’t it?) The problem gets even worse when you artificially increase the number of Musky through stocking which puts more pressure on the forage base. Given the amount of forage taken from these Musky lakes and the 100% release of Musky and the continued stocking of Musky, it is NOT hard to recognize that the health of the fishery will soon reach a tipping point that plunges the fishery into imbalance.

Mr. Underwood also pointed out that because of VHS the DNR now buys its minnows from commercial outlets. This has had an impact on the ability of the DNR to continue hatchery operations. The current 2013-2015 DNR budget indicates that 3 hatcheries have already been closed and projects that more will have to be closed.

I have only focused on two counties. I am confident that hatcheries in other counties, like Sawyer and Price have also harvested forage to support their hatchery operations.

So is there a solution to head off the inevitable decline and eventual collapse of Wisconsin Musky fisheries?

I have two suggestions, neither of which will be popular:

Musky stocking should be stopped for a period of 5 years and hatchery operations should be reorganized to produce forage for stocking in Musky bodies of water.

Musky size limits should be reduced to 44 or 45 inches and Musky anglers should be encouraged to harvest at least 1 legal Musky a year.

I can already hear the folks at Muskies, Inc. saying that calling for lower size limits and harvesting of Musky is a radical idea.

To that I would respond that the Wisconsin Musky fisheries are facing an inevitable collapse because too many Musky are chasing too little food.

Suspending Musky stocking coupled with size limit adjustments and limited harvesting represents no more of a radical suggestion than the concept of catch and release did back in 1969.

The pendulum of Musky fishery health has swung to a perilous extreme and it needs to be returned to a more balanced approach.

If Muskies, Inc. has a better idea to address the Wisconsin Musky fishery decline, I am sure we would all be interested. I would be pleased to provide a spokesperson for Muskies, Inc. space on my website for their suggestions.

We Are All In This Together!!!