Anglers are flocking to Minnesota seeking another season of trophy-sized muskellunge, but Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials are saying that fishermen might find fewer fish this time around. An unexpected phenomenon has cropped up in the state’s waters: muskies are growing larger, but the overall population appears to be declining.

According to the Twin Cities Pioneer Press, a recent survey in Lake Bemidji found only 500 to 600 adult muskies—a low number for the 6,581-acre lake.

“There are a lot of ’em, a lot of really big muskies,” said Gary Barnard, the DNR fisheries supervisor for Bemidji. “A lot of fish over 50 inches.”

Barnard said that one in four of the female muskies caught in Bemidji last month measured over 50 inches, and even the males were exceedingly large. Biologists first took note of the phenomenon last year and subsequent study showed that the decline of smaller fish was unlikely to be caused by disease or overfishing. Instead, officials believe that the larger muskies are eating too many of the smaller ones. It is now suspected that about two-thirds of stocked fish do not survive to adulthood in Lake Bemidji alone.

“That’s just not a lot of fish,” Barnard said. “The notion that these lakes are full of fish is just not true.”

It is not just Lake Bemidji that is seeing a decrease in smaller muskies, either. Data from other Minnesota lakes with muskie populations are also revealing similar scenarios. But why do large muskies cannibalize their own when food is usually abundant? Muskies have voracious appetites and it is not uncommon for the fish to gulp down frogs, small muskrats, or even ducklings. Biologists say that there might be more to the fish’s feeding habits than they know.

Whatever the cause of the apparent population decline, officials said that anglers should not be too affected by the current apparent shortage.

“Nobody produces quality fish like we do. And over the past 10 to 15 years, Minnesota has become a destination for muskie anglers,” DNR regional fisheries manger Tim Goeman told the St. Cloud Times. “We now have people coming here from all over the country to fish muskies, because it’s the best fishing you’ll find.”

Large muskies are a tremendous draw for anglers from nearby states. A 2008 study by the DNR and the University of Minnesota found that roughly 14 percent—about 100,000—of the state’s anglers are muskie fishermen. Trophy-sized muskies are so prevalent that Governor Mark Dayton signed legislation last month that will increase the minimum keep-size for muskie on most inland waters from 48 inches to 54 inches.

It seems the trade-off that anglers now face is more giant muskies at the cost of fewer bites.

Image courtesy Minnesota DNR

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3 thoughts on “Are Minnesota’s Muskies Too Large? Officials See Fewer Small Fish

  1. I see this as a potentially dangerous trend for muskie fishing. If the population is primarily composed of large, adult fish, there is little recruitment for the future. As those larger adults die off, there will be a gap in the numbers of fish available to replenish them and we are in for a tough ride for a while until the population rights itself.

    1. It is definitely a change in population dynamics but not necessarily a dangerous trend. A population of large adult fish without heavy exploitation only needs some modest level of recruitment to replace adult mortality. Low recruitment may be a more “normal” condition of established populations than the high recruitment we have observed during reestablishment of extirpated populations.

  2. The logic isn’t there. We have the same problem in lakes like Mille lacs too, with all species that have such restrictions. It’s true for walleye, northern pike, smallmouth bass, etc. We have seen a huge reduction in jumbo perch, small walleye, small panfish, Cisco, etc. The talk now is to stock forage in the lake to help support the stupid large population of “trophies”. Lakes like that have always had “trophies” not just since they started “managing” the trophy industry. The “eaters” are exactly that, “eaten”, gone, as in not there. Good plan? Great for the guides! For now. Mille lacs used to stock the entire state with walleye and now they have to stock forage. We used to see schools of baitfish that would bulge the water in a torrent of minnows trying to escape, that would be a city block in diameter. All while taking up to 6 fish. Do the math. The Indians don’t net or spear enough to have done that. Also by the dnr numbers anglers don’t take enough to have done that. The number of fisherman has only gone up about 10% in the last 2 decades, so it’s pretty obvious. The trophy industry is cannibalizing the fisheries not just the muskies.

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