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
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
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
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
It's just a theory, but too many moderate-sized
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,
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
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.