On Muskie Genetics...
DNR must accept blame

By Kurt Krueger
Vilas County News Review

MANY PEOPLE believe the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is too stubborn or too all-knowing — or both — to admit that the agency has unintentionally damaged Muskie genetics toward small-strain fish.

Using what Minnesota discovered about its Muskie genetics some 20 years ago and the results of their sweeping change in hatchery operations, a small team of Muskies Inc. members is calling for a major restoration effort in Wisconsin.

The new research shows the DNR mixed large-growth and small-growth strains, causing a major decline in the number of trophy fish 50 inches and larger. It also alleges that for the sake of convenience, fisheries personnel have gathered muskellunge eggs mostly from fish with an average length of just 33½ inches, instead of taking them from longer fish that had proven large-growth potential. Top DNR officials have both praised and discounted the new research. While they call more emphasis on Muskie brood-stock management a great idea, they say the team's proposed restoration plan is overly simplistic. The scribbler certainly doesn't have the answers, but I think the public would like to hear, just once, an admission from the DNR that they fell asleep at the fisheries biology wheel. Don't hold your breath. What we got a couple of weeks ago from Mike Staggs, director of the DNR's Bureau of Fisheries, was only that the new research has the department enthused about improving its work.

Stagg didn't even give us a hint of possible wrongdoing — even unintentional — but instead offered excuses about how they've been without a geneticist, low on funds and not pushed by the public to make the issue any sort of priority. That attitude, I'll tell you, more than anything else, is what bothers people about the DNR. When the public wants accountability, they hear excuses.

As a concerned sportsperson, I pay attention to every idea the department comes up with for improving our fisheries, our hatcheries and our fishing regulations. When push comes to shove, I have always trusted the professionals, the so-called experts, to guide us down the right path. But not once in recent decades did I ever read where the DNR realized there was a problem with Muskie genetics — that many of our lakes are filled with slow-growing fish, many of which aren't genetically capable of hitting 40 inches, let alone 50 inches. Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't remember them trying to convince us of the need for more funding for Muskie research, a geneticist, more technicians with which to safely strip eggs from trophy fish, or the purchase of forage minnows for hatchery operations.

The truth is, the agency we entrust to keep pace with the best science and biology for fisheries enhancement had fallen asleep. None of this came up until a group of Muskie anglers said “Hey, you've damaged Muskie genetics and it's time to reverse it.” It's very hard to argue with the cold, hard facts. Minnesota noticed the genetics problem in 1982, and made sweeping changes in its hatchery operations.

Data collected through the Muskies Inc. members' fishing contest shows that from 1986 to 1995, Wisconsin anglers reported taking 51 Muskies of 50 inches and larger, while Minnesota anglers caught just 38. But from 1996 to 2003, members reported catching 65 trophies in Wisconsin and a whopping 438 trophy Muskies from Minnesota waters. And last year alone, club members in Wisconsin took 15 Muskies of 50 inches and larger, while Minnesota waters gave up 163 trophy fish. It is that disparity that prompted the latest push by Wisconsin anglers to begin a joint program with the DNR to immediately begin a restoration project “to isolate and reintroduce the larger Muskie that once inhabited the major river-drainage waters.”

What I hear most from the public is an absolute disbelief that fisheries personnel have been stripping eggs for hatchery brood stock from females that averaged a mere 331/2 inches. That is something they see as the most readily recognized agency goof up, and the one easiest to reverse. I've got a problem with the small-growing Muskie strain the department has purposely selected because of its high survival rate in the hatcheries. What we've ended up with in many lakes is an overpopulation of little Muskies — too many big predator fish that anglers just keep throwing back.

It's just a theory, but too many moderate-sized Muskies puts a strain on available food supplies, which may prevent any of the fish from becoming true trophies. (Just look at the 10-year history of northern pike management in Butternut and Franklin lakes. A 32-inch size limit increased the number of moderate-sized pike, but hurt other species and didn't produce any more trophy pike than under the previous rules with no size limit).

While Muskies prefer to eat rough fish such as suckers and ciscoes, I'm not convinced this overpopulation of moderate-sized Muskies isn't taking quite a toll on walleyes, perch and crappies. As an angler who chases other species, I'd prefer a Muskie program where there are fewer, larger fish. It might be a simplistic viewpoint, but the scribbler shares the concerns of Muskie guide George Langley and others who believe the DNR's stealing of forage food is hurting the fisheries in many lakes. Common sense says that taking 13,400 pounds of minnows from 30 lakes in one year is going to have an affect on the forage base and fishery growth rates. Ditto for stripping eggs from hundreds of suckers and returning no hatched fry to the lake. And when the agency steals that forage year after year, they are hurting our fisheries for the sake of saving some money to feed hatchery Muskies. It's got to stop. As several Muskie groups and individual anglers have suggested, it's time for a Muskie stamp that generates funds that are used specifically for improving management of Muskie brood stock. That is where the money should come from to purchase the fry and minnows needed to feed hatchery Muskies.

There are people who criticize the DNR as an agency that won't adopt an idea that isn't their own. They say it took the department 10 years to implement slot size limits that had already been proven successful in other states. It sure seems they are reluctant to give any credit for the genetics enhancement made by Minnesota's DNR some 23 years ago. By calling the issue “more complicated,” it appears the Wisconsin DNR would prefer that they at least make it look like they reinvent the wheel.

The DNR may never own up to it, but they've damaged Muskie genetics by things they've done, and by things they haven't done. I for one support the concept of improved Muskie genetics and also a push toward fewer, larger Muskies. Keeping the DNR away from natural forage bases is a no-brainer that will help more than just Muskies.