The alpha predator quandary: “Them dang muskies eat everything”

Tim LesmeisterFishing for muskellunge in the state of Minnesota has never been better. The DNR has stocked lakes all over the state to create a new fishery to encourage anglers to drop big wads in the area. But the amount of money it takes to chase muskies is another story. This one is about the controversies that arise every time a state resources organization decides to stock this alpha predator.

Not just any small lake full of stunted panfish will suffice. When stocking muskies into a body of water there are many considerations. To the fisheries biologist, they’re considering how many muskies per acre the biomass of the lake can handle. How many stocked fish will make it into adulthood based on the predator population? How will a muskie population affect the current fish population regarding size structure, numbers and areas of the lake where the fish are distributed?

From an angler’s point of view there is only one question: How many walleyes will these eating machines devour? Or in some states: How many bass will these slimy, toothy torpedoes consume?

That’s one side of the equation. From the angler who loves to fish for muskies the question is: Why can’t you put more muskies in this lake? 

So who wins this argument of whether a lake should be stocked with muskies? Recently some conservation agencies that had planned to add some muskies to a particular body of water suspended their plans because of the feedback they received from anglers that used the resource. Was this reaction warranted or are the anglers, many who have no biology in their backgrounds, just second guessing the fisheries managers?

On a lake in Minnesota where muskies had been stocked, the lakeshore owners threatened a lawsuit if the DNR continued stocking muskies. The lake’s fisheries surveys showed that the muskies had no negative effect on the lake with a record number of yellow perch in the test nets and a walleye gill net catch rate that was right at the historic average for the lake over time.

So why the perception that walleye fishing declined? According to a statement by the fisheries biologist who worked with the lake, things had changed in the past five years. Zebra mussels made the lake clearer and the walleyes were more wary due to the muskies in the system. There was more light penetrating deeper into the water so more plants were growing deeper. As conditions changed, so did fish behavior. If people were fishing in the spots that they fished back in the 1980s, and did not catch fish, it doesn’t mean the fish aren’t there. The fish have obviously adapted to the conditions, and now anglers need to adapt.

Then again, maybe there are enough muskie lakes out there and resource agencies in charge of stocking need to assess whether it is worth it change perceptions when leaving well enough alone means less negative interaction with anglers.

My unprofessional opinion is to stock muskies everywhere because I love hooking into a fish that is capable of pulling me out of the boat. On the lakes that I fish with muskies, there seems to be loads of bass, panfish and walleyes. Anglers like me are surely a minority in Minnesota where I live, but we seem to have a lot of options for muskie fishing, and they keep growing. That’s the case across the country.

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