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