The lure of muskies

Trophy fishery in the making

Photo by Kim Fundingsland/MDN Tiger muskies are coming of age in Lake Audubon. This Tiger was caught and released in late August by Kelli Fundingsland, Minot.

COLEHARBOR – A fisherman casts an over-sized swimbait into about three feet of water and begins to retrieve it back to the boat — crazy stuff for hot weather in late August when fish are supposed to be enjoying the cool of the depths.

Suddenly the sensation of a big fish on the line is felt in the angler’s hand. The fishing rod bends like a rainbow and struggles under the load. It is immediately obvious that this is no ordinary fish.

The second fisherman in the boat skis his lure in as fast as possible so as to be able to assist. He puts on a fish handling glove, grabs the over-sized net and places a scale and measuring tape in position for quick access. A moment later a hefty Tiger muskie bursts through the surface as if to analyze his opponent and announce the battle has just begun.

The historic muskie waters of Ontario? Wisconsin? Minnesota?

Nope. North Dakota’s very own Lake Audubon.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department first introduced muskellunge into McLean County’s Lake Audubon in 2010. They were Tiger muskies, 4,050 of them, all about 10 inches long. It was a modest start to a yearly stocking program that is beginning to yield exciting results.

Tiger muskies are a sterile fish that come from cross-breeding pure muskies with northern pike. Biologists wanted to be careful of how muskies would effect existing species in Lake Audubon. If there were problems with the Tigers they would be self-healing as the fish, unable to reproduce, would eventually disappear from the population. To date there have been no adverse consequences.

Tigers were stocked into Audubon each year from 2010 until 2015 when a scant 965 pure strain muskies were added to the mix. Muskies are not prolific at reproduction and biologists determined that pure muskies were not likely to reproduce in any significant numbers in Lake Audubon. They were an excellent addition to a lake that is on the verge of becoming a trophy muskie fishery.

“In talking to Minnesota biologists we learned that, in some lakes, muskies don’t do well if there is northern pike in the lake already,” said Jason Lee, NDG&F fish biologist. “Muskies spawn later than pike and the young pike eat the young muskies. We haven’t seen any young muskies in Lake Audubon, but it would be possible.”

Audubon has an excellent population of northern pike that reproduce naturally. So much so that Game and Fish has not had to do any stocking of northern pike in Lake Audubon to boost pike numbers. The plan is to continue stocking small numbers of muskies as remnants of earlier stocking efforts begin to show up on hook and line.

Although a common size for Lake Audubon muskies is in the 24-30 inch range, anglers are reporting catches of a few muskies closer to 40 inches in length. That’s considered big enough to qualify for the NDG&F’s catch-and-release program. It is also mandatory. The minimum keeper size for muskies, pure strain or Tigers, is 48 inches statewide.

There’s nothing certain about creating a trophy fishery. How fast their growth rate will be and how big muskies will become in Lake Audubon remains guesswork. However, Lake Audubon is loaded with what fishermen refer to as structure, good places for fish to live. The lake has an abundance of underwater terrain that is apparently proving to be very appealing to muskies. There’s also an abundant forage source in the lake, something biologists recognized prior to the initial stocking.

“Ciscos came down from Montana and into Lake Sakakawea. Then into Audubon,” said Lee. “They did much better in Audubon than they have in Sakakawea. 2009 was a huge year for reproduction of cisco in Audubon.”

Young cisco are good forage for Lake Audubon’s most numerous species – walleye. As cisco grow though, they quickly become too large for walleye to prey upon. The introduction of muskies was made with the knowledge that muskies would help keep the population of adult cisco from over-populating the lake and feeding too heavily on other young fish.

Fishermen have been catching the occasional muskie on Lake Audubon since the first stocking in 2010, usually of the “hammer handle” variety. They were a unique and surprising catch to share through photographs on social media. This year though several dedicated muskie fishermen began to target Audubon muskies and have done so successfully. A few fish weighing in the mid-teens have been caught too, helping raise expectations for what the future of muskie fishing might be on Lake Audubon. It could be spectacular.

Tiger muskies are known to have a faster growth rate than pure muskies, but they have a shorter lifespan too. Still, Tiger muskies can be expected to reach 30 pounds or more. The North Dakota state record is a 40 pounder that measured 45 inches in length. The state’s record for pure muskellunge is larger at 46 pounds, 8 ounces with a 54 inch length.

Muskie anglers are a rare breed among fishermen, most of whom target walleye in North Dakota, and muskies remain a very rare breed in Lake Audubon. In fact, they make up less than one-percent of the lake’s fish population. For comparison, since 2010 Game and Fish has stocked over 2-million walleye in Lake Audubon. They stocked less than 40,000 muskie over the same time frame.

Even though the odds of catching a Lake Audubon muskie seem very long, muskie anglers change the equation in their favor by identifying typical muskie haunts and finding the right lures to toss in places on the lake where they have found muskies are likely to frequent. Lure selection is generally on the large size, a perfect presentation for growing muskies and large northern pike too.

This fall Lake Audubon’s muskies are doing what most fish do, feed heavily in anticipation of the winter months. Some anglers will be targeting them. Others will wait until the water warms in the spring. Still more will be asking questions about muskie fishing and making fishing gear selections with big fish on their mind as they look ahead to the open water season in 2019.

ND muskie facts

It is illegal to take or possess muskellunge less than 49 inches in length anywhere in the state.

40 inches – NDG&F catch-and-release qualifier, Tiger and pure muskie.

25 pounds – NDG&F whopper club qualifier, Tiger and pure muskie.

North Dakota muskie waters

New Johns Lake, Burleigh County – 4,773 muskie stocked since 2008.

Larimore Dam, Grand Forks County – 434 muskie stocked since 2016.

Red Willow Lake, Griggs County – 400 muskie stocked since 2010.

Whitman Dam, Nelson County – 219 muskie stocked in 2017.

East Park Lake, McLean County – 8,566 muskie stocked since 2013.

Lake Audubon, McLean County – 37,525 muskie stocked since 2010.