Some local guides still practice Set-Line Slaughter 

An Editorial: By Craig K Sandell

It was reported that a 52-inch musky weighing more than 40 pounds was found washed up dead on an island on the northeast end of the Chippewa Flowage on June I by three anglers from Illinois...certainly a disheartening site for someone who has traveled all that way to fish the Chippewa Flowage.

Set Line DeathThe dead musky apparently expired this spring after ingesting a single-hook sucker rig last fall, according to local musky guide Scott Allen, who examined the fish on June 2. A swallow-hook rig was found coming out of its mouth.

Set Line DeathAccording to Allen and a number of other anglers and guides, the fish is another example of the waste of a natural resource caused by some anglers who fish from shore with sucker-baited set-line rigs each October and November.

The set-line fishermen may or may not get to a rod when there is a bite. They cut the wire leader and release many of the fish, thinking they will live. But the fish end up dying, Allen said.

Allen stated that "The (52-inch) musky may have broken the line while battling an angler or wrapped the line around a stump or log and broke it before the set-liners got around to checking their fishing rods. "Last year in the Hayward area, there was only one 40-pound-plus musky that was known to have been caught," Allen added. The practice of set-lining is "a big problem, especially on the Chippewa Flowage. We have to stop it, and stop anglers from using swallow-type hooks," he said. "This is hurting our fishing, and it is having a negative impact on Sawyer County businesses, especially in the fall when tourist dollars are needed the most," Allen said.

Betty Greene, co-owner of D & B Bait and Tackle on the Chippewa Flowage, agrees that "this practice has hurt everyone in this business, and it's got to stop. Something has to be done. Fall business is going to heck. I sure wish some tourist would have had that (52-inch fish) on his line and had the thrill of his life," she said.

A long-time musky' fisherman and former trapper on the Flowage, Rick Marks, said that "in 13 years of trapping every day during the fall, I found numerous muskies floating in the stumpy back bays, reeds and weed edges. Invariably, all of them had a sucker harness wire sticking out of their mouth." 

"I really feel that one of the biggest reasons we're not seeing the 50-inch-plus fish with consistency despite catching and releasing all these 46-, 47-, and 49-inch fish is because we’re killing a great many of them using sucker rigs," Marks said.

"Many times when set lines are used, by the time the fish is done fighting and is landed, it has done serious damage to its intestinal area," Marks added. If it is released, "it's no different than a deer that has been gut-shot. It will run away and die."

Marks added that he is "not against sucker fishing if you’re going to keep the fish or use a quick-strike rig to hook it in the jaw and then release it.. But I'm against sucker fishing (with a gut-hook rig). I've seen too many of them that have been gut-hooked that have died."

Shoreline problem

Marks added that another problem with set-lining is that it is hard for other anglers to find a place to drift along a shoreline, because there are rods placed on the shore every 50 to 75 yards by the set-liners. "I've talked to a lot of people who have come to the Flowage to fish, and they're really disgusted with it," Marks said.. "They say it's very hard for them to fish. "Maybe we should go to one rod (allowed) per angler, like in Minnesota," Marks said. The limit is three rods per person in Wisconsin.

Guide problem

Allen said he is aware of only two guides who are using set-lines in the fall on the Big Chip. "The problem is that they are teaching their clients that set-lining is an acceptable method. It is not acceptable," he said. "We have to put a stop to this before it totally decimates our musky fishing," Allen said. He and others have seen groups of anglers having parties on islands in the late fall while having 30 to 40 baited rods set out on shorelines up to half a mile away. Allen said that set-liners often attach a jug to their fishing rod with a light rope. That way, if the rod is pulled into the water by a musky, the set-liner can retrieve the gear and the fish. This is "both illegal and unethical," he said.

Studies conducted

Guide John Dettloff said that several studies conducted of the effects of single-hook sucker rigs (and circle-hook rigs) have had "very similar results," showing that the majority of muskies which ingest these hooks die later.

In a DNR study, 14 muskies which were gut-hooked in October and November 13 of 14 died* by the following mid-July, Dettloff said. Half of the fish lived through the winter.

* The original story in the Sawyer County Record misquoted John Dettloff saying that all 14 Muskies in the WDNR Study died (13 of 14 dead Muskies is a 92.8% mortality rate).

Terry Margenau, a Department of Natural Resources Northern Region musky expert, spoke recently to the Hayward Lakes Chapter of Muskies Inc. about musky management issues, angler perceptions and ongoing research. He said that "It's difficult to say anything conclusive" about the results of a study of muskies now in its second year because of the small number of fish involved. Margenau indicated that "It's not unusual for some mortality to occur after muskies spawn, especially in older, larger fish which have been beat up in the spawning process." People need to make their own decisions after reading about the results of the studies, Margenau said. "I can't see a DNR regulation that you can't use a single hook. We don't want to limit (anglers) more than we have to."

The DNR Problem

At the heart of the problem is the sure doesn't take a degree is fishery biology to conclude that if you puncture the stomach of a Muskie with a larger hook while reefing back on your fishing rod, it is more likely to die than live.

The WDNR has persistently abrogated its responsibility to take action that is in the best interest of the fishery citing that 'they just do the will of the people' and it is not their place [the WDNR] to act. I submit that this type of 'head in the sand' attitude on the part of the WDNR is no better than the disregard for the fishery health displayed by the Guides and anglers that put out set-lines during October and November.

The WDNR says that they don't want to "limit anglers more that they have to." Well, it sure looks to me as though the WDNR has to put some limitations on methods that are contributing to negatively impact the health of the fisheries the WDNR is is supposed to be managing. It wouldn't take very much to seriously curtail the set-line problem...Eliminating shoreline sucker fishing on Class A Muskie water in Wisconsin would go a long way toward protecting the Class A Fishery and it wouldn't cost the WDNR one red cent. Class B and Class C fisheries would still allow the practice for those anglers who feel that they just can't catch a Muskie any other way.