River Currents

by Free Speech on December 11, 2009

Lodi, WI~

Lodi Valley News serving Lodi, WI & the Lake Wisconsin area with local information since Earth Day 2008.

Lodi, WI

A Valiant Attempt to Increase the Muskie Size Minimum

A nice Wisconsin River musky.

A nice Wisconsin River musky.

Many anglers now know that the Lower Wisconsin Riverway has seen an increase in its muskie population during the last decade. Muskies have always been present in the Wisconsin River and in Lake Wisconsin above the Prairie du Sac Dam, but most of these catches have been accidental. Anglers fishing for another fish species (northern pike, catfish, sturgeon, and walleyes) have accidentally caught muskies.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, the muskies present in the Wisconsin River have gotten there during periods of high water usually in the spring. Melting snow and spring rains can raise the river’s water to where it is possible for muskies from Lake Wisconsin to go over the top of the Prairie du Sac Dam and into the Lower Wisconsin River. Periodically, muskies have also been stocked in Lake Wisconsin, but the population of these fish has been low making it difficult to “target’ the big fish. There also are muskies in the Mississippi River, but it would be extremely difficult for the fish to travel up river and take up residence below the Prairie Dam. The amount of natural reproduction in these waters is minimal if any, so most of the fish in question are old.

As I earlier said, the population of muskies below the Prairie du Sac Dam has risen for the years to the point where there is a fishable population of good sized muskies. These fish are concentrated in the waters below the dam from the tailrace area to the Highway 12 Bridge in Sauk City, Wisconsin. Everything that a muskie could want is in the area. There is deep water in the “scour hole” below the dam formed from many years of the spring’s high water (over 30 feet), good habitat, and a steady supple of forage fish to their liking. I’ve caught and seen muskies caught for years, but they are almost always caught when fishing for another species and not in great numbers till recently.

The last few years has seen more and more muskies caught to the point where many local anglers have started targeting and releasing the fish. It is not unusual to fish the tailrace area below the dam, the deeper water in the scour hole, and both of the river’s shorelines and catch and release some nice sized muskies.

But, a problem has arisen with the growth of the fishery. The minimum size for a muskie in the Wisconsin River below the Prairie du Sac Dam is 34 inches which is the state minimum unless there are local regulations. The Madison Chain of Lakes has a minimum size of 45 inches and the Bay of Green Bay has a 50 inch minimum. A vast majority of muskie anglers practice catch and release anyway, so over-harvest has not been a problem till recently.

Another beauty from below the dam in Sauk.

Another beauty from below the dam in Sauk.

In the fall, many anglers come to the Wisconsin River to fish for sturgeon, catfish, and walleyes since there is good action from the middle of September till winter. Many of these anglers have accidentally caught muskies usually while live-bait fishing big suckers or shiners for other fish species. So, by word of mouth, many more anglers are now coming to the area to try and catch muskies. This is fine, but many of these anglers are not accustomed to the catch and release ethic that has been engrained in most if not all serious muskie anglers in Wisconsin. By my accounts and those of local DNR officials, at least 25 muskies (up to 47 inches) have been killed just this fall. In my opinion this is ridiculous, since muskies are not a table fish, a picture can be taken, a graphite reproduction can be made for about the same as a mount, and you aren’t killing a fish that could be 20 to 25 years old.

To combat this unnecessary harvest, a group of local anglers led by Wally Banfi, an accomplished fishing guide and muskie angler from Prairie du Sac, Jack and Dan Batchelor, and many other local anglers got a petition out last March to see if they could get a 45 inch size minimum for the Lower Wisconsin River on the docket for the 2010 Wisconsin Spring Fishing and Wildlife Hearings. The petition received great support with over 200 signatures in a few days and all in favor of the increased size minimum. The resolution was also presented to those in attendance at the 2009 Hearings in Dane, Columbia, Sauk, and Iowa Counties which are the counties closest to the Wisconsin River area.

This past weekend, Banfi drove alone to Stevens Point to present the “muskie proposal” to the Warm Water Conservation Congress Committee at their annual meeting. This committee, made up of about 25 sportsmen and women, read the proposal and asked for comments from those in attendance. Banfi presented the case for raising the minimum size for muskies on the “River” and read letters of support. The local proposal was supported by the local anglers, the DNR warden for the area (John Buss), and the local and regional fish managers for the DNR.

The proposal was discussed briefly by the committee members who asked questions like what if a 10 year-old boy catches his first muskie that is only 36 inches long. What a better way to introduce a young fisherman to the sport then taking a photo and letting him release his “trophy” to grow and be caught again by another angler? The thrill of releasing a muskie can be as great as catching the fish. The committee voted down the proposal by a voice vote without getting enough support for a roll-call. About 40% of the committee voted for the increased size minimum and 60% against the change.

My opinion and that of a vast majority of muskie anglers is that this is a vote by people who don’t understand the local conditions and the changing times that are affecting all fishing. Many older anglers were brought up fishing where nothing was ever released no matter what it was, how big it was, or how old the fish is. Few, if any of the committee members knew the area in question and what a fragile and small fishery the Wisconsin River muskie water’s are. This is a unique fishery that could possibly be wiped out in a few years of fishing with the current regulations. This is an area that should be visited to see what is really being talked about and to fully understand this situation. It is a shame to have fish that are 20 to 25 years old killed for mounting when there are other options.

I’m not trying to badmouth this Conservation Congress Committee, but it seems that more than a voice vote should be given to a worthy proposal with nothing but the health of the local fishery at stake. Wally wondered how many of the Committee’s members were even muskie anglers? Proposals like this should be presented to committees which include those who actually take part in the activity and are familiar with the area in question. Wisconsin, where the muskie is the state fish, has the smallest minimum of all the neighboring states. Minnesota, Michigan, and Iowa have 40 inch minimum with some waters having a higher minimum. Even Illinois, which doesn’t have nearly the number of muskie waters as Wisconsin has a 36 minimum size.

Tim Simonson, a muskie expert from the DNR, suggested that a statewide 40 inch minimum might be the next step if these magnificent fish are to be protected and allowed to reach their potential. Something will have to be done quickly or muskies in the Lower Wisconsin River will be a thing of the past. What a travesty this would be!

Sportmen and conservations are working hard to preserve the musky fishery on the Lower Wisconsin River

Sportmen and conservations are working hard to preserve the musky fishery on the Lower Wisconsin River

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