DNR STOCKS LARGER MUSKIES IN LAKE WEBSTER
On May 19, biologists released 1,500 muskies into Lake Webster that were 12-14 inches long. Normally, the fish would have been part of a group stocked last October when they were 8-10 inches long.
Instead, the 1,500 fish were held at the Fawn River State Hatchery in Orland over winter and fed minnows. The minnows were purchased from a commercial source and paid for by the Hoosier Muskie Hunters.
By stocking larger muskies in spring, biologists hope to overcome factors that reduced muskie survival in recent years.
“We’ve seen a big drop in muskie fishing at Webster during the past 10 years,” said Jed Pearson, DNR biologist. “Holding half of the muskies we stock each year for a longer period in the hatchery should help reverse the trend.”
To compare survival of the larger spring-stocked muskies, each fingerling was tagged with a transponder before release. A similar group of 1,500 smaller muskies scheduled to be stocked this fall also will be tagged.
“The tags will allow us to test which group survives better,” Pearson said. “If the spring-stocked muskies win out, we’ll probably switch the stockings at Webster entirely to the spring.”
Pearson said studies in Iowa proved spring-stocked muskies survive better than muskies stocked in the fall because more food and cover are available during summer than winter. Larger fingerlings can also avoid more predators.
Muskies were first stocked into Lake Webster in 1981. By the mid-1990s, the lake developed into a fishing hotspot that attracted muskie anglers from throughout the Midwest.
As muskie fishing interest increased, so did muskie numbers. By 2005, biologists estimated 5,000 adult muskies were present in the lake. That year anglers spent 65,000 hours fishing for the species.
In a move to improve stocking efficiency, the length of time muskie fingerlings were fed minnows before release was shortened to 30 days. As a result, the fingerlings were smaller and less robust.
Additionally, weed control altered muskie habitat and reduced the amount of cover where fingerlings could hide.
Pearson also thinks the large population of adult muskies preyed on the newly stocked fingerlings.
Because of these changes, survival of stocked fingerlings took a nosedive. Eventually the number of adult muskies dropped too.
In 2005, anglers caught 2,200 muskies. Last year, they caught 560. Fishing efforts directed at muskies dropped by 50 percent over the same period.
“We estimate there are now fewer than 500 muskies in the lake,” Pearson said. “That’s a huge decline from the 5,000 we had 10 years ago. We’re hoping the switch to a spring-stocking program will get the number back up somewhere in the middle.”
Muskie anglers hope so too.
MUSKIE RANGE EXPANDING IN NORTHERN INDIANA
The list of northern Indiana waters where muskies can now be found continues to expand — a trend DNR biologists say is not necessarily a good thing.
Although muskie fingerlings are stocked each year into eight lakes in the region to provide muskie fishing, muskies are now showing up in waters where no DNR stockings or legally permitted private stockings have occurred.
Not all lakes are suitable for muskies, a large predatory sport fish. The DNR stocks them in lakes with an overabundance of forage fish, such as gizzard shad. In lakes where forage fish aren’t abundant, muskies could outcompete native sport fish such as largemouth bass and Northern pike for food.
“Our biggest concern is that some fish may find suitable spawning habitat, reproduce, and eventually compete with other fish,” said Jeremy Price, northern Indiana fisheries supervisor. “So far muskie reproduction has been limited in Indiana. We would like to keep them where they are.”
In March biologists captured a 37-inch muskie in Lake Wawasee in Kosciusko County while sampling for Northern pike.
Last month an angler caught a 46-inch muskie at Simonton Lake in Elkhart County.
Another muskie was spotted moving through the South Bend fish ladder on the St. Joseph River near the Bodine State Fish Hatchery in Mishawaka. Hatchery personnel say this is a rare occurrence.
So where are these muskies coming from?
“There are two possibilities,” Price said. “Some may be moving from waters where stockings occur and others may be the result of illegal transfers by fishermen.”
Given the number of muskies now present in the St. Joseph River, Price thinks the bulk of them may be coming from Skinner Lake in Noble County at the headwaters of the Elkhart River. Skinner is a lake that the DNR stocks with muskies.
The muskie, or muskies, now in Lake Wawasee also may have come from Skinner Lake.
“Wawasee drains through Turkey Creek into the Elkhart River, so a fish may be able to swim downstream out of Skinner, make a left turn, and then back upstream to Wawasee,” Price said. “It’s possible but not likely.”
Instead Price thinks muskies may be caught by anglers in nearby Webster, Tippecanoe or Barbee lakes, hauled in a livewell, and then released into Wawasee. The DNR has stocked Webster, Tippecanoe and Barbee lakes with muskies for several decades.
A separation between watersheds, however, does not allow fish to swim directly from these lakes to Wawasee.
Likewise, the outlet of Simonton Lake is small and not conducive to fish migration.
Transferring fish from one lake or stream to another is illegal in Indiana. The regulation is designed to prevent introductions of fish that may have adverse effects on the native fish population.
Price says a variety of other fish species are showing up in waters where they could only get there by illegal stockings.