ARTICLES

The famed and fearsome muskellunge

Anglers seldom bother to tell lies about our mightiest fresh-water fish because the true tales of terrifying encounters with his thrashing five-foot body and snapping, sharp-toothed jaws put fiction to shame

FRED BODSWORTH April 11 1959
ARTICLES

The famed and fearsome muskellunge

Anglers seldom bother to tell lies about our mightiest fresh-water fish because the true tales of terrifying encounters with his thrashing five-foot body and snapping, sharp-toothed jaws put fiction to shame

FRED BODSWORTH April 11 1959

The famed and fearsome muskellunge

Anglers seldom bother to tell lies about our mightiest fresh-water fish because the true tales of terrifying encounters with his thrashing five-foot body and snapping, sharp-toothed jaws put fiction to shame

ARTICLES

FRED BODSWORTH

Bob Turnbull Jr. of Woodbridge, Ont., hooked a fish last summer in the Lake Couchiching narrows, sixty miles north of Toronto, and forty minutes later when he finally got it to the side of the boat he saw with horror that it was a thrashing monster almost five feet long. Two friends with him were so alarmed by its size they pleaded with Turnbull to cut the line and let it go. but Turnbull wrestled the fish into the boat, only to be knocked overboard in the struggle lo subdue it. He swam back and finally killed the fish with an oar.

It was, of course, a muskellunge—that giant, dynamite-packed breed that has broken more records, more fishing tackle and more fishermen’s

hearts than any other fresh-water game fish. The scales showed later that it was a thirty-eight-poundcr, a whopping fish, yet far from a recordbreaker. King musky can come twice this size.

Mightiest battler of them all, the musky has been responsible for the biggest records (up to seventy pounds) and probably the biggest lies of any fresh-water game fish, although veteran musky fishermen will deny that any stories of muskies are lies. Muskies, they insist, come so big you don’t have to lie about them. Probably a spunky smallmouthed bass or speckled trout has more fight pound for pound than a muskellunge, but this is like trying to compare bantamweight and heavy-

weight boxers. The musky is in a class by himself.

But this biggest of inland game fish is also our biggest fish-conservation problem, for the musky, though strong, tough and fierce on the end of a line, seems to be a weakling in the struggle for survival against other fish and against man’s constant tampering with the waters where he lives. He has disappeared or become very rare in many waters where he was once fairly abundant. There have been recurrent gloomy predictions from sportsmen that the great fish is declining toward inevitable extinction. Biologists doubt if it is that bad. There are signs, they say, that the muskellunge is beginning to respond a little to the years

of conservation efforts on his behalf and is now at least holding his own.

Other game fish are fairly widespread, but the musky has established himself only in a restricted region around the Great Lakes and even there his distribution is spotty. His main range lies within Ontario, a fact for which Ontario's tourist-trade barkers arc exceedingly grateful, but there are good musky populations in southwestern Quebec, Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin. The four largest muskics on record hail from the latter two states. Ontario’s proudest entry to date, a mere 62-poundcr, trails in fifth position.

Ontario has three major continued on page 36

Continued from page 29

“Fish authorities disallowed one man’s record catch because he shot the musky with a pistol”

musky regions: 1. the Lake of the Woods and Rainy River district; 2. the Trent canal system, particularly its Kawartha Lakes section north of Peterborough; and 3. the St. Lawrence from Lake Ontario into the Montreal region of Quebec. Muskellunge are also caught in Georgian Bay, the Rideau and Ottawa Rivers and Lakes St. Clair, Simcoe, Nipissing and Timagami.

It is generally agreed among tourist and game officials that the musky lures more tourist dollars to Ontario than any other fish. That is because the musky is never abundant, and even in the best waters the angler expects to stay around a while and spend money to catch one. Whereas other anglers measure their success in fish caught per hour, the musky angler measures his in hours per fish. The muskeliunge has been called “a fiftyhour fish,” and on the average that label would be fairly close. But the battle that results when a fisherman finally hooks one is worth waiting for, and the musky angler who devotes his two-week vacation to catching just one big one usually figures he got his money's worth.

Thus every musky comes at a high price -—paid in travel, lodging, boat and guide. Several years ago an Ontario government statistician estimated that every muskellunge landed was worth two hundred dollars to the province. Tourist-lodge owners in musky regions say this is too low today. Toronto Telegram outdoor editor Pete McGillen, who runs a tourist lodge himself, points out that musky fishermen usually bring their families into Ontario with them. With this in mind he estimates that every muskellunge landed has produced a thousand dollars in tourist business.

For all his fame, the musky still lacks a universally agreed-upon name. The name “muskellunge” is most widely used today but authorities have listed twentyfour different ways of spelling it. The name was derived from the Cree nutshk kinonje, which meant “deformed pike,” the Indians regarding it as a variety of its much commoner near relative, the northern pike. For eighty years it has

been officially known on the statutes of Ontario and Quebec as the “maskinonge,” which government officials defend as nearest to the Indian original. The Outdoor Writers’ Association of America and the state of Wisconsin have adopted “muskellunge,” but New York state calls it “muskalonge.” No wonder the bewildered angler usually settles for “musky” or “lunge.”

Certainly the musky owes none of his popularity to his beauty. He’s as meanlooking as any fish comes, with long duck-like jaws and an enormous formidable mouth that bristles with needlesharp teeth. Many anglers have difficulty distinguishing him from the northern pike. The pike has light spots on a dark background whereas the usual musky markings are dark vertical bars on a light background.

A twenty-pound pike is a whopper, but no serious musky fisherman would bother having his picture taken with a twentypound musky. Every year produces a few muskies of forty pounds and up, and the record-setting muskies caught by rod and line arc now crowding close to seventy pounds. From 1949 to 1957, the record catch weighed sixty-nine pounds, eleven ounces, and it was landed in the Chippewa Flowage, Wis. by Louis Spray. (In 1954 Bob Malo of Port Arthur caught a seventy-pound, three-ounce musky in Minnesota. However Field and Stream magazine, the recognized custodian of angling statistics, disqualified Maio’s musky because he couldn’t boat the fish and instead shot it with a pistol.) So Spray remained musky champ until 1957 when—again in U. S. waters—New York angler Arthur Lawton landed a musky weighing sixty-nine pounds, fifteen ounces on the U. S. side of the St. Lawrence River. There are still good chances that new musky angling records will be set, because muskellunge up to a hundred pounds were netted by commercial fishermen fifty years ago. Ontario’s record musky is a sixty-two-pounder taken from Lake St. Clair in 1940.

Many tall tales have grown up around the muskies that got away. There are un-

traceable stories of anglers who are said to have had arms broken by the thrashing tails of muskellunge, of other anglers who have had fingers bitten off. An oft-heard yarn is the one about the musky that towed the boat around the lake with a twenty-five-horsepower motor pulling wide open in the opposite direction. And a Wisconsin angler claims that when, after a two-hour struggle, he finally got a six-foot musky into his boat, it bit a hole through the bottom, the boat sank and the musky swam away, grinning back sarcastically.

But the veteran musky hunter takes a disdainful view of all this, because he claims, with sound reason, that the truth about muskies is colorful enough. Two Pennsylvania fishermen hooked a fortyeight-pounder in Lake Nipissing in 1953 and had to send ashore for a pair of ice tongs with which to haul the monster into their boat. Peter McGillcn once encountered an elderly angler in Pigeon Lake who was so frightened by a musky he had hooked that he was on his knees on the bottom of the boat praying. McGillen feared the man was going to have a heart attack, landed the musky for him and took him ashore. The angler was so unnerved that he was put to bed and he stayed there for three days, vowing never again to fish in water where he might encounter another muskellunge.

Even swimming in musky waters can be dangerous. Melville McConeghy of Arnprior was sitting on a log boom in Chats Lake dangling his feet in the water to cool off and a musky struck, lacerating his ankle so severely that McConeghy had to be hustled off to a doctor. At Trout Lake near North Bay a big musky took up residence under a dock. He ignored all the fat worms, technicolor lures and gewgaws offered him, but when a swimmer dunked his toe to test the water the musky hit like lightning, badly slashing the foot. The same thing happened a couple more times and the lodge proprietor had to put a "no swimming” sign on his dock.

It is not uncommon for muskellunge to mistake a hand or foot for something edible. Several years ago, Nick Popovich, a lodge chef near Fort Frances, was going down a lake with an outboard, absently dangling one hand in the water. A musky grabbed him and wouldn't let go. With a landing net in his other hand, Popovich hauled a twenty-pound musky into the boat.

But muskies are not often lured this

easily. As a rule they are sulking and crafty, and will take their time about striking a lure. The first trick to catching a musky is finding one, because they are usually solitary and rare. Like pike, muskies are fond of shallow weedy bays. They lie in wait for smaller fish that are swimming along the edges of weedbeds and most muskies are caught by casting in such spots. In hot weather muskies, particularly the big ones, may go out into deep colder water where they can be reached only by trolling.

Among musky fishermen there are advocates of every bait and lure. Spoons, surface or underwater plugs, live bait— muskies have been taken on them all. Most experts advise big lures, or if it is live bait minnows six to ten inches long, for muskies are rarely attracted to small baits. Because they often grip a lure in their teeth and because they have armor-plated mouths, it takes a hard fast strike to set the hook. Then, keep him out of the weeds, because in a vveedbed he’ll soon snarl up the line. Play him until he is thoroughly exhausted, otherwise there is little hope of getting him into a boat. Landing nets are frequently too small and most musky anglers use gafT hooks for boating their fish. Some experts land the big ones by tipping the boat until water starts pouring in and they slide the fish in with the water.

What are the prospects for musky fishing in the future? For a’l his brawn and fight, the musky is extremely vulnerable during most stages of his life to competition from other fish and to changes in water conditions. According to expert estimates, only one newly hatched musky out of every three hundred thousand has a chance of growing into a fifty-pound tackle-buster even under the most favorable circumstances. Even so, the musky was holding his own against these natural odds until man began interfering with his waters. Man-made dams prevented muskies in many spots from reaching their shallow upstream spawning areas. Artificial manipulating of water levels for hydro-electric power, logging and flood control caused alternate Hooding and draining which washed out eggs or buried them in silt and often left muskies, large and small, trapped in land-locked pools that dried up in summer. Industrial and municipal pollution poisoned thousands of acres of the submerged weedbeds that the musky relied on for concealment and spawning. While all this was happening, anglers were

making increasing use of automobiles, to get to the fishing spots, and outboard motors, to do the fishing. The law began prohibiting spear-fishing on spawning grounds, which had hit the musky population severely, but this relief was soon offset by more efficient angling methods —particularly copperline trolling in the deep water of lakes, where the big muskies once found summer sanctuary beyond the reach of anglers.

But probably man’s most damaging interference was the introduction into musky waters of northern pike, the musky’s nearest relative yet his deadliest foe. In earlier years, pike as well as other fish were often introduced by well-meaning sportsmen into waters where they had not occurred naturally. Pike found their way into many musky waters, and then it was discovered too late that pike and musky cannot live together. Wherever the two fish meet, pike inevitably are the more successful and the musky slowly disappears. Both fish use the same spawning grounds, both are ferocious eaters of other fish, but the pike spawns two weeks earlier giving the young pike fry a head start the muskics never overcome. As soon as the baby muskies hatch there is a horde of ravenous two-w'eek-old pike waiting to devour them. In one Wisconsin experiment, twenty - five thousand newly hatched muskies were placed in a pond with an equal number of pike fry that had hatched tw'o weeks earlier. One month later the pond was drained and a count of surviving fish showed that four hundred and two pike and only four muskellunge remained.

Can we maintain musky fishing by rearing them in hatcheries and releasing them in angling waters? Governments have been carrying on this work for years with the grateful blessing of an-

glers who believe that the releasing of thousands of musky fry every year must inevitably be improving their musky fishing. But biologists believe otherwise. They point out that musky planting at this rate has been going on for twenty years without producing any apparent improvement in musky fishing. Lake Simcoe, for ex-

ample, has been stocked with close to a million muskies since 1936, yet the musky is still practically non-existent there.

To probe the mystery of the disappearing musky fry is one of the main aims of an extensive muskellunge study instituted in 1951 by the Toronto Anglers’ and Hunters’ Association and financed by funds from its Canadian National Sportsmen’s Show. This study is being conducted at Nogies Creek near Bobcaygeon. Ont., where a four-mile stretch of stream is enclosed by dams at each end, providing a musky population that can be studied as a permanent unit, because no fish can get in or out. It has become the most thorough musky research project on the continent and the TAHA has spent thirty thousand dollars to date for its biologist personnel and equipment.

In addition to extensive studies into the musky’s life history, mortality, population fluctuations and other aspects of its general biology, much work has been done to check on the survival of hatchery fry released there. The introduced muskies are marked by tags or fin clipping to make them identifiable if taken later in the biologists’ nets. Results to date suggest that the survival rate of hatchery fry is only one to three percent. As yet. biologists can only guess at reasons for this low survival wherever musky fry are planted. A large female muskellunge is capable of laying three hundred thousand eggs, and apparently a small number of breeding adults can produce all the young fish that their home waters can feed and maintain. Yet even a few muskies are difficult and costly to íear, for the musky, except in babyhood, is a gluttonous eater of other fish, and if other food isn’t available, he turns cannibal. A Wisconsin scientist estimates that three tons of food in the form of smaller fish are required to produce one fifty-pound muskellunge. A musky is capable of eating another fish practically as big as himself, and if he cannot swallow it completely the tail of the victim will remain sticking out the musky’s mouth w'hile the head end digests to permit the musky to swallow more. Items found in musk} stomachs have included muskrats, squirrels, and toy boats. A 43-pound Wisconsin musky caught in 1948 had a full-grown muskrat and a grebe (a duck-sized water bird) in its stomach. A five-and-a-half-foot musky was found dead in 1952 on Lake Bemidji, Minn., with a beer can lodged in its throat.

Since muskies, unlike trout, cannot be fed an artificially prepared diet, a musky hatchery must be two hatcheries in one —one hatchery for the muskies them-

selves, another for rearing millions o! sucker minnows to feed them. Because oi this feeding problem, only one of Oui tario’s twenty-nine fish hatcheries ¡¡| equipped to raise muskellunge on a large1 scale—the Deer Lake hatchery cast o¡ Peterborough. Deer Lake produces two to four million minnow-sized musky fry 3 year.

But because of the high cost and other difficulties hatcheries seem to hold oui little promise for better musky fishing.

Of more promise, the biologists feel, would be steps to correct the damage we have done to musky waters, restoring the shallow weedy nursery waters where more muskies could survive against the great odds that beset their early life. A leading cause of this damage has. beer seasonal fluctuations in water levels pro duced by the opening or closing of dann in connection with power development canals, sewage disposal and flood control A whole year’s musky reproduction car be lost by the opening of a dam foi a few hours at a crucial time follow ing musky spawning. The Conservatioi Council of Ontario in a recent compre hensive report on fish and wildlife con servation suggested that much of thi interference with water levels could bí avoided or done in ways less damaging tc fish if there were closer liaison betweer government departments responsible fo the dams and departments responsible fo wildlife management. The council ha: also claimed that water pollution can bí much more effectively controlled. Wha is needed, it adds, is that greater consider ation be given to the value of waterway as producers of fish and wildlife re sources.

And king musky, worth perhaps a much as $1,000a head, is a rcsourci worth saving.