VALLEY CITY - It may not be long before North Dakota begins producing its own muskellunge for release into state waters. In recent years most of the state's released muskies have come from Pennsylvania. Raising muskies in-state could result in less cost, and possibly make more muskies available.
Muskies are the fish of dreams for many freshwater fishermen. They can grow to immense sizes - 40 pounds or more - and are challenging to catch. Muskies are the fish of legends, toothy predators capable of shredding most fishing tackle and leaving anglers in awe of their size and strength.
Today's dedicated muskie fishermen concentrate their efforts in states like Wisconsin and Minnesota, or the Canadian province of Ontario. In those areas, huge muskies attract muskie fanatics in large numbers, men and women eager to hook into the fish of a lifetime.
ABOVE: Two muskie fishermen perform mandatory “figure 8s” during a day on the water at Leech Lake, Minn. If North Dakota’s muskie rearing program is successfully launched, similar scenes may occur in this state with more frequency in the years ahead.
Tackle stores stuff their walls and shelves with muskie gear, primarily large lures and rods and nets that seem more suited for sharks than freshwater use. Leaders and snaps come in 80- to 100-pound test, far greater than necessary for North Dakota's largest northern pike.
Muskies have shown the ability to create a devoted following unlike any other species of fish. When an angler first encounters a muskie, whether by intent or accident, it is almost always the fisherman that becomes hooked. It can become a lifetime affliction.
Now, if a suggested plan is successfully pursued, many fishermen's dreams may become reality in North Dakota. Jerry Weigel, head of the N.D. Game and Fish Department Fisheries Production and Development Section, has asked Valley City National Fish Hatchery Manager Kurt Eversman to look into the possibility of raising pure muskies.
Recent muskellunge fingerling stocking
2012 - 5,642 Tiger muskies
2011 - 5,980 Tiger muskies
2010 - 4,050 Tiger muskies
New Johns Lake
2010 - 720 pure muskies
2009 - 672 Tiger muskies
2008 - 720 pure muskies
2006 - 1,000 Tiger muskies
2004 - 1,070 Tiger muskies
East Park Lake
2006 - 250 Tiger muskies
2004 - 250 Tiger muskies
West Park Lake
2006 - 250 Tiger muskies
2004 - 250 Tiger muskies
2006 - 250 Tiger muskies
2004 - 224 Tiger muskies
Red Willow Lake
2010 - 100 pure muskies
Eversman does not have experience in raising muskies, but has working knowledge of raising forage fish necessary for the survival and growth of young muskies. He also has expressed a willingness to learn and build a muskie program.
"We are looking for ways to expand our hatchery program," explained Eversman. "This is one of the ways we can do that. I don't see why we can't. We raised muskies before and did feed trials on them. That provided much of what we know about muskie propagation today."
Originally built in 1940 for bass and bluegill production, the Valley City Hatchery evolved over the years and expanded into other fish rearing programs, including muskies. An intensive culture building was constructed in 1981. Much of the facility had become run-down, particularly outdoor ponds that had a buildup of several feet of silt, before Eversman was tabbed to run the hatchery less than a year ago.
"The Game and Fish says it wants 2,500 muskies in 2013," said Eversman. "The program is in its infancy. What I know is how to produce the forage these fish need. To make muskies out of fingerlings you need a forage base. I worked with fathead minnows in Texas and Arizona."
Although a go-ahead for muskie raising at the Valley City Hatchery has not yet been officially given, the proposal calls for finding an egg source and then hatching them at the Valley City facility under the watchful eyes of Eversman.
"Our plan is to get eggs from Pennsylvania or Iowa and have Kurt raise them. He'll also raise the food, which in the past became a hassle for us," said Weigel.
Rob Holm, project leader at the Garrison Dam National Fish Hatchery, oversees the Valley City Hatchery. He has expressed an interest in seeing muskies raised in the state once again, but cautions it may be a while before a successful formula is developed and a suitable number of muskies is produced.
"It's an idea to get a new species on-line. We'll see," said Holm. "Muskies are pretty specialized. It's a learning deal. When we get requests we do them. You can get an eight-inch muskie by fall if the food is there."
"If we obtain eggs or fry in the spring, it would probably take until August or September to grow muskies to 10 inches or so," added Eversman.
Other states where muskies are frequently raised and released have worked through some of the problems associated with producing the mighty gamefish. However, there is still some disagreement among biologists about the best way to raise muskies. Sometimes muskies are fed pellets until they reach the 8- to 10-inch size. Pellets are less expensive than minnows for food and cost is always a concern.
While muskies raised on pellets might be big enough to be released and save some dollars, studies reveal less-than-desired results once the fingerlings are stocked into the wild. Other studies show young muskies fattened on minnows have a far greater chance of survival. If Eversman can successfully raise fathead minnows, then the cost of raising muskies would also be reduced.
According to Weigel, if a request is formally made, it would be for pure muskellunge. In recent years the state has been obtaining Tiger muskies from Pennsylvania. Tigers are a sterile cross between pure muskies and northern pike. Those fish have been in the 8- to 10-inch range when released into Lake Audubon and the Garrison Diversion Unit canal lakes.
Lakes thought of as primary candidates for Valley City-raised muskies are the GDU canal lakes and Red Willow Lake near Binford. Red Willow has had a muskie population in the past. That ended, however, when a winter kill during 1993-94 wiped out a promising fishery.
"It was a severe winter kill that year, 100 percent" said Randy Hiltner, NDG&F Northeast District fisheries supervisor. "A report from April 18, 1994, says that 30 muskies in a variety of size ranges were found dead along the shoreline. That was the last of the muskies."
Pure muskies, 400 of them, were stocked into Red Willow Lake in 1976. Another 500 were released into Red Willow in 1989. Those stocking produced numerous reports of muskies being caught or following lures. Fishing activity was generally high, until the deadly winterkill of '93-'94.
Currently Red Willow contains fishable populations of walleye, bluegill, perch, largemouth bass and northern pike. Hiltner re-introduced pure muskies in 2010. It was a small release of only 100 fingerlings but at least some of them are known to be thriving in the 150-acre lake.
"We recovered one in our netting survey on June 5 of this year," said Hiltner. "We let him go. It was 660 millimeters, a 26-inch fish."
No northern pike under 24 inches in length can be kept at Willow Lake, a restriction that protects against the possibility of fishermen confusing muskie with northern pike and taking them home. When young, muskies and northern pike have a similar appearance. As an additional precaution to protect growing muskies, spearfishing is not allowed at Willow Lake.
Hiltner says he has not yet decided how many muskies he will request for Red Willow Lake, if the Valley City Hatchery successfully produces pure muskies in 2013. Some would possibly be placed in the GDU lakes. The amount of fish stocked would be quite small when compared to other species.
In regard to natural reproduction, it is not likely that pure muskies would successfully reproduce in the GDU lakes, where they have been released before, or in Red Willow Lake. Even the top muskie waters in Minnesota and Wisconsin require regular stocking to insure a viable population of muskies. Muskies simply do not reproduce well unless water conditions and spawning habitat are perfect.
"My expectations of bringing off year classes are not real high," acknowledged Hiltner. "There's also a pretty high population of northern pike in Red Willow. We'll have to see how that goes."
Muskies and northern pike co-exist in numerous lakes, many of which also contain walleye, bluegill, perch, bass and other species of fish.
The release of fingerlings in the 8- to 10-inch range has proven to be the most cost-efficient method of stocking muskies. Muskies stocked out at fry have a very low success rate of survival. Larger fingerlings are less targeted by predators and have better survival skills.
Approximately 1-year-old Tiger muskies obtained from a Pennsylvania hatchery have been stocked into Lake Audubon for three years running. The fish were about 10 inches in length and had been feeding on minnows prior to their release. Studies show minnow-fed muskies have a much higher survival rate than fish raised on pellets.
There have been a few reports of Tigers having been caught at Audubon the last two years, including a 24-inch Tiger this past spring that was released back into the lake. That fish was likely a product of the 2010 stocking of 4,050 Tiger muskies.
State fishing regulations prohibit keeping any muskies under 48 inches in length. The state record Tiger is listed as a 45-inch, 40-pound fish caught by Marvin Lee of Rolette from Gravel Lake in 1975. The pure muskie record is a 54-inch, 46-pound, 8-ounce monster caught by Cory Bosch of Mandan from New Johns Lake in 2007.