Muskies – More or Less? by James Smith
Recently, a friend of mine, Don Kerr, gave me a call asking about fishing on the Chippewa Flowage. He had heard that the “Big Chip” had been getting a bad rap about not having any muskies. There didn’t appear to be any reason given, just no muskies. This summer on my annual pilgrimage to the “North Country”, my wife and I stayed on the Chip. I had an opportunity to drop by John Dettloff’s Indian Trails Resort and spend some time with him. In fact, we were looking for a place to stay. We had tried Treeland’s and they were booked full.
John’s resort was also booked full, but he arranged for Lynda and I to stay at R & R Bayview Resort. From my discussions with John and the number of fish registered at his resort there was no indication of any lack of the normal “great” muskie fishing. The truth is that the only poor muskie fishing on the Chip was my own inability to catch one during my stay. The muskies registered at R & R Bayview Resort were just as many and big as ever In fact Larry Ramsell had released a fantastic one the day before our arrival.
While we were out fishing I was surprised at the relatively few numbers of boats on the water and, in particular, the few number of muskie boats. You know, the boats with two people standing and casting from the fore and aft decks.
I began to wonder if there was any possibility that folks were actually losing interest in muskie fishing. I have heard those rumors around the country. Some of the reasons for the “decline” in muskie fishing I have heard are:
1 .High cost of equipment, lures and boats, make us some sort of an elitist group. Newer fishing enthusiasts find it difficult to get involved.
2. Changes in the way people spend their leisure time today. Too many jet skiers, water skiing and general changes in recreational uses on prime muskie waters.
3. With the expansion of the muskie historical muskie range there are a number of good waters closer to home.
4. Possibly the spearing issues in Minnesota and Wisconsin.
5. and finally, Catch & Release has changed the mystique of muskie fishing.
These foregoing five issues are not in any particular order.
First of all, let me say that I do not, in any way, feel like there is any decline in muskie fishing interest. In fact, I believe that muskie fishing is one of the fastest growing segments of the sport fishing industry.
Now, let’s look back in history for a moment. Back in the ‘30s and ‘40s muskie fishing was primarily limited to the historical range, consisting of eight (8) states and a couple of Canadian Provinces. There were some local heroes like the Lawton’s and Hartman’s, Homer LeBlanc, Louis Spray, and many others. This was an era when stories were embellished a bit, some more than others. This was an era when the legends were made.
In the ‘50s we still fished with very stiff rods, heavy line and shot muskies. I recall living in Illinois and my family vacationed in Wisconsin. For two weeks out of the summer we fished for anything that would bite. I vividly recall a neighbor who was a true muskie aficionados. He must have had a half a dozen large mounted muskies in his home. I finally got my first break after I graduated from high school. My Dad took me to northern Wisconsin for a muskie fishing trip in the fall of 1955. We hired the guide that our neighbor used, Izzy Catoi. I will never forget that man. He rowed the boat, we threw pikie minnows and live suckers. He taught me how to lace a sucker to a hook. I can still remember how I could throw that sucker a country mile. Then jerk and reel, jerk and reel. You never quit If you got tired you might change to a pikie or a suick. My Dad caught a 38” muskie and Izzy shot it twice to get it in the boat. Impressed me, I can tell you for sure. The next year, 1956, I returned to northern Wisconsin on my own, on the train. Met up with the son of the resort where we used to stay and he and I went back to that lake. I threw that sucker all day and sometime that afternoon, I caught my first muskie. It was only a 30” fish and we didn’t have a pistol to shoot it.
I also recall seeing Izzy that day with a client who admired my muskie so much he offered me $100.00. It wasn’t even a consideration. I remember putting my fish in a local sporting goods stores’ ice chest on the side walk for everyone to view my catch. I even won a lure for the largest fish of the day. Those were the days when muskie fishing came of age. It didn’t take much to catch the fever (mystique). Those were the days when everyone would stop at a local watering hole, after fishing, to tell some tales and have a few beers with the guides.
In 1960 the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame opened and soon became the record keeping authority, a position once held by Field & Stream Magazine. The muskie fishing fever/mystique was spreading and so was the pursuit of this great fish. In 1966 Gil Hamm and some of his friends started Muskies, Inc. This was the same year that Wisconsin passed legislation prohibiting the shooting of muskies.
Over the years the muskie range has grown to thirty-five (35) states and three (3) Canadian Provinces. This expansion of the historical muskie range has certainly brought muskie fishing closer to home. More muskie fishing waters certainly has eased the pressure. In my opinion this has been a very positive move.
Let’s talk for a minute about the high cost of equipment. I know that today I am certainly among the almost fanatical acquirers of muskie fishing paraphernalia. Part of the reason we do this is because we don’t want to be somewhere and not have what the fish are biting on. I am sure most of us go to a new lake and the first thing we do is purchase the “hottest” lure for that lake. I can name most of my lures by the name of the lakes. Lime green Reef Hawg-Cass Lake, Chartreuse Rad Dog-Lac Suel, Muskie pattern Big Fork-Deer Lake, weighted Suick(JS) Chippewa Flowage, and so on. The point is we all seem to have to have them. We probably don’t need them; it’s just a “guy thing”. It has to do with our virginity or is it our virility? We create our own values and cost benefit ratios. We all have our reasons.
The issue of how we choose to spend our leisure time is very important, I think. If you stop to think about those darn jet skiers and others, this is a product of our new philosophy of “mixed use recreation”. Essentially this means sharing our resources with other users. The one good thing that comes to mind is that often these activities are family oriented. That is not a bad way of spending your leisure time. I would expect that a great many of those “die hard” muskie fishermen/women will spend another two weeks on a houseboat on Lac Suel or on a fly-in only lake somewhere that has had wonderful stories about the quantity and size of their muskie fishery. Whether or not we want to admit it or not our sport is an adult sport. I am not advocating excluding kids, I just feel it is not practical to take a youth out and pound the water all day. We need to create a different environment in which to teach youth to appreciate muskie fishing. This is hard work and requires an inordinate amount of patience.
Next, catch & release may have had some impact upon the mystique. Instead of converging around the ice chest in front of the local sporting goods store we now record our catches and bask in our own sense of doing something for conservation and the future of our muskie fishery. We have grown in our growth and maturity of sportsmanship and certainly have made a priceless contribution to sport fishing. Priceless only in the sense that our contribution has been irrevocable and will continue to give pleasure for our sport and for ourselves. The legends of the past are almost history now.
Finally, I have mentioned the extent of the muskie market, the current muskie range consisting of 35 states and 3 Canadian Provinces. In 2001 the results of a federal study done in 1996 were published. The 1996 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting and Wildlife-Associated Recreation was conducted by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service with funds from the Sport Fishing Restoration Act. According to data from the 1996 survey titled “Factors Related to Hunting and Fishing Participation,” there were approximately 35 million licensed anglers of which 2.3 million fish primarily for muskie, pike and hybrid combinations.
I have also seen statistics that there are 34,000 fishermen/women who fish muskies. Consider this, according to our M.I. records of total members for all times (since the founding of M.I.) we have enrolled approximately 34,000 members. Don’t think for one minute that all of the muskie fishermen/women have at one time or another passed through our doors, NOT! There are well over fifty muskie fishing clubs throughout the present muskie range and they probably only represent a very small percentage of all muskie fishermen/women. This muskie fishing “thing” is very big, especially when you look at all the specialty tackle manufacturers and peripheral support items available specifically for muskie fishing. These suppliers and manufacturers would not be in business if there were only a few of us aficionados.
Look at the newest mode of communication, the Internet. I entered two words musky, muskie and there were 6,052 “hits” for information or whatever on just these two simple words. My point is there are a lot of folks interested in our sport. In your basic economics class, it is called the “ripple effect”. When one of us goes fishing for the muskie or when one of us catches one we have put a very large number of people to work and created a major economic impact on a rather small area where we have chosen to fish.
In summary, when you look at just our one organization, we release nearly 10,000 muskies annually. We may be only 6,700 members strong, but we are the “hard core” men and women of our sport. It is my opinion that there are plenty of muskies for us and anyone else who wants to put in the time-on-the-water. In addition there are a lot of us muskie types, many more than belong to a club. In addition to those of us dedicated to this sport there are many more wanna-be’s. Our job is to identify these others and invite them in. We have a responsibility to help and teach these interested fisherpersons so that we may provide more muskies and enhance our sport. Enhancement means more than the normal scenario. We need to involve the professional managers at our state agencies who serve the public. We must provide knowledgeable, informed and responsible input to our various agencies in order to promote muskie stocking and expand our muskie range. If we cannot identify appropriately the numbers of our muskie folks or if they just get lumped in with all fishing persuasions, we will lose our identity. We need to stand out in the crowd of fishing persuasions in order to get our public agencies to respond to our needs. In addition, we need continued public support to maximize our numbers. Public agencies and legislatures respond to public input. We truly have the numbers when it comes to muskies, now let’s organize and identify our muskie fishing allies.
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