The muskellunge is a lean fish and mean fighting machine and arguably one of the most sought-after and ultimate fishing trophies of Wisconsin. It is the largest in the pike family, long torpedo shaped with the anal fin and the dorsal fin close to the tail. They have an enormous mouth with long pointed teeth. The marking and coloration vary from fish to the other. This species is recognized by sporty and vertical bars. The head, back, and upper sides are green gold to light brown and pearly white berries. The fins are rust colored and pointed, and the cheek and the lower grill have no scales. The great lake muskellunge is a known fighter who when hooked drags the line beneath the boat and wraps it on a submerged stump. It strips reel, cracks rods, bends hooks and also mutilates baits. Hooking and capturing a muskellunge is one thrill no angler can forget.
Historically, the Winnebago system had been home to a small population of the muskellunge. The Winnebago system was once inhabited by the Great Lakes strain of the muskellunge (Paul A. Smith,2017). That strain was however extirpated in the 90s due to habitat degradation and overfishing. Stocking of the limited muskellunge was done in the 1970s, but the largest stocking in the effort to boost the muskellunge population took place between 2002-2007 when six adults, 589,643 fries, 22,397 large fingerlings, 40 yearlings and 1,162 small fingerlings totaling 613,248 Great Lakes spotted strain muskellunge was stocked all through the system. The main aim of the restocking strategy in the Winnebago system was to reintroduce the great lake strain muskellunge and potentially set up a natural reproducing system for the muskellunge.
The restocking program of the Great Lakes strain muskellunge, however, ceased in 2007 in the bay of Green Bay and the Winnebago system after the viral hemorrhagic septicemia fish virus (VHS) was detected. Up to now a protocol to disinfect cool water fish eggs from the viral hemorrhagic septicemia favorable waters have not been in place. The eggs taken from the green bay fish can therefore not be reared at the state hatcheries. This resulted in the availability of a small number of muskellunge fish for restocking since 2007. Three brood Lakes were established in the recent years for the Great Lakes strain muskellunge to serve as a probable source for future stocking. This will, however, take longer because the fish in those Lakes still need to reach reproductive age. (Joel K. Nohner & James S. Diana, 2015)
The DNR fisheries staff members have since the restocking worked hard to track the population of the muskellunge using the traditional sampling gears. This has been quite challenging considering the diversity of habitat and the broadness of the area of the Lakes system. As a result, the fisheries staff has come up with a new approach referred to as the outside the box approach that involves rough commercial fishers to sample the population of the muskellunge. This process involves commercial fishers bidding for a contract to seine for the coarse fish mainly the buffalo and the common carp that are commonly taken to the market. During the seining effort, game fish is also captured, and this provides an opportunity for the DNR staff to collect and save biological data from an assortment of game fish at a reasonably low sampling cost. This effort is limited to only one seine haul per year and is mostly takes place during the fall when the temperatures in the water are cooler. This minimizes the stress amounts to the game fish. However, if more data samples are required more hauls may be conducted. (Terry L. Margenau & Jordan B. Petchenik, 2014)
The seine span length is an impressive 8700 feet consisting of 5-5inches mesh panels. This large mesh size is used so that it can allow the small-sized non-target fish to go through, at the same time retaining the larger fish in the seine. The gear retains Muskellunge, northern pike and other fish larger than 30 inches. This allows the DNR staffs collect the biological data they needed. Other large game fish collected through the survey including the walleye, lake sturgeon, and flathead. The fishermen start by stringing the seine. They begin from Leonard’s point and stretch it north across the Lake Butte des Morts then loops it back to the east and back to Leonard’s point, the gear samples around 500 acres per haul. The fishermen then pull the seine back to shore congregating the fish into a holding pen. DNR fisheries staffs monitor the operation and process the captured game fish in the seine. These surveys have been carried out on Lake Butte des Morts in 2008, 2009, 2013 and 2014. The caught fish are weighed, measured, and their maxillary clip or fins are checked from the stocking events. (Paul A. Smith, 2017)
The right maxillary clip, the right ventral fin clip, and the left ventral fin clip are marks used in marking the stocked muskellunge. Different cohorts of stocked fish are characterized uniquely utilizing a combination of different marks. These marks make it possible for the fish to be tracked back to when they were stocked. The fish captured without clips indicate that the fish was either naturally produced or is from fry stockings. In addition to the fin checkup, the untagged fish get tagged, and they are checked for (PIT) passive integrated transponder. Every individual fish has a specific 10-15 digit alphanumerical code tag which allows for the evaluation of the fish movement patterns and growth.
The surveys done in 2008 and 2009 showed that 40 Great Lakes strain muskellunge were captured. 37 of the 40 fish were found to have been marked with ventral fin clips or the maxillary. This was an indication that they were either from the large or the small restocking carried out in 2002-2007. The other three fish were from the fry stocks. This showed that the fingerling stocking method was more efficient than the fry stocking method. The survey also revealed that the stocked fish were growing very fast. A sample of four fish ranged from 41.2-44.6 inches and could be traced back to the 2002 restocking. This showed that in seven summers these fish would grow to 45 inches. It was also an indication that given more time the fish would top 50 inches size range in the Winnebago system. The seine survey of 2013-2014 of the Great Lakes strain muskellunge yielded 29 muskellunge, four of the fish sampled happened to be the four that had been measured in 2008 and 2009. These four now ranges from 48.3-51.2inches. This showed that in 12 years the fish were able to hit the 50 inches mark. Compared to the statewide average of 42.6 inches of growth for a 12-year-old muskellunge this was an excellent finding and an impressive growth for a fish that size. (Terry L. Margenau & Jordan B. Petchenik 2014).
Although the size of the muskellunge surveyed in the year 2013-2014 was impressive, there is a worry that the population stocked in 2002-2007 was aging. The seine could not capture the fish below 38inches and it is not yet known if the fish have been able to produce naturally. The DNR fisheries staff also conducted a young of year (YOY) electrofishing survey of the muskellunge in the fall of 2025. Unfortunately, they did not capture any YOY. Now only time will tell if natural reproduction is taking place. As for now the population of the Great Lakes strains muskellunge solely depend on stocking.
A study by Ted Peck (2017) in 2015 showed that a total of 628 yearlings of the great lake spotted muskellunge were stocked to the Upriver Lakes. Lake Poygan got 255, Upper Fox River 219 and Lake Butte des Mort 154. Those stocked in Lake Poygan and Upper Fox River received PIT tag and clipped on the right ventral fin. Those stocked in Butte des Mort received a clip on the right ventral fin. The stocking will help boost population numbers for an opportunity to angle in the future. The DNR fisheries staff plans to keep performing commercial seine, fyke net and YOY electrofishing surveys to obtain the status of the muskellunge population that will guide the management of the Winnebago system.
The muskellunge has impacted the community in a significant way. Tourism has boomed. Millions of dollars are being spent on resorts, lodgings, service stations, sporting goods store and even restaurants. Wisconsin according to Ted Peck (2017) offers the best muskellunge fishing on that side of the planet. This fish is very elusive, and so it takes an average of 50 hours for one to have caught this fish. Many locals have also had the chance to work with the contractors who bid to the highest thus providing employment. The introduction or the restocking of many muskellunge is an opportunity for the anglers to catch a giant muskellunge.
Many more locals have also had the chance to work in those hotels, restaurants service stations, etc. The Great Lakes giant muskellunge has become a big blessing to the people of Wisconsin, and that is why the DNR fisheries staff always persuades the anglers to take a quick picture and report when they fish them out before releasing them back in. This reports on the length the capture location and the strain mainly for the fish less than 38 inches long. The DNR fisheries staff has found it extremely difficult to sample the smaller immature fish using traditional gears and methods. It is, therefore, crucial for them that the anglers report when they see smaller muskellunge. The anglers also have a rough time trying to hook this fish because they keep up the fight and also could be 50 plus inches. Catch and release has become a sport in Wisconsin where the anglers are required to catch and take a photo then release so that the other anglers can also catch this trophy fish. Regulations and more regulations have been put to keep the sport going as well as maintain or even increase the muskellunge population. (Ted Peck, 2017)
Joel K. Nohner & James S. Diana (2015) Muskellunge Spawning Site Selection in Northern Wisconsin Lakes and a GIS-Based Predictive Habitat Model retrieved from http://csis.msu.edu/sites/csis.msu.edu/files/musky_spawn.pdf
Paul A. Smith, (2017) Smith: Wisconsin man reels in a fishing pole… and a 47-inch musky
Ted Peck (2017) Catching Wisconsin’s ‘Easy’ Muskies retrieved from http://www.gameandfishmag.com/fishing/catching-wisconsins-easy-muskies/#ixzz56qr3tA1q
Terry L. Margenau & Jordan B. Petchenik (2014) Social Aspects of Muskellunge Management in Wisconsin