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Lack of muskie-fishing success sparks debate on St. Louis River

Duluth muskie fishing guide Dustin Carlson (left) helps client Jeff Ness hold a 51-inch muskie that Ness caught on the St. Louis River in 2009. Carlson and some other muskie anglers say that muskie fishing has declined in the past few years on the river and that a lack of stocking is to blame. (Dustin Carlson photo)

Five or 10 years ago, muskie guide Pete Brzezinski could take his clients to the St. Louis River and have a good chance of putting them on big muskies.

“I personally caught 13 over 50 inches off the river in one year (2007),” said Brzezinski, of Superior. “I was averaging 180 to 220 muskies a year.”

The river became a well-known destination for serious muskie anglers. The Professional Musky Tournament Trail held a major tournament here.

But those days are gone, say Brzezinski and some other St. Louis River muskie anglers. They say that in the past few years, muskie action has declined significantly.

 “Everyone had their worst year ever last year,” said Duluth’s Dustin Carlson, a muskie guide and former president of the Lake Superior chapter of Muskies Inc. “All of our members agree that the population is down. We all have great concerns.”

The problem, they contend, is the decision of the Minnesota and Wisconsin Departments of Natural Resources to quit stocking muskies in the river effective in 2006. Stocking had been done annually by the agencies since 1983.

But Minnesota DNR officials say their research shows that the river’s muskie population is in good shape. Spring trap-netting of adult muskies and fall young-of-the-year assessments show the river’s muskie numbers rival or exceed those of the state’s other muskie fisheries, said Nick Peterson, DNR fisheries specialist at French River. Paul Piszczek, Wisconsin DNR fisheries biologist in Superior, concurred with Peterson’s assessment; the two agencies collaborate on muskie field surveys on the river.

The maximum size of the river’s muskies increased in the late 2000s and leveled off, Peterson said. Now, anglers report catching more fish in the 30-inch range than before.

“The relative abundance looks good. We’re average or above average in our numbers per trap net and number of fish per acre with other areas in the state. Our young-of-the-year numbers are as high as you’ll see anywhere in the state,” Peterson said.

DNR population assessments show that the St. Louis River’s estuary in Duluth-Superior holds an estimated 3,235 muskies, Peterson said.

The two states’ DNRs have stopped stocking so they can determine how much natural reproduction of muskies is occurring in the river, fisheries officials say. Because muskies live to be 12 or 13 years old, fisheries officials say they need to wait until at least 2017 to fully assess the success of natural reproduction.

“Once you start stocking fish, it’s hard to tell how well natural reproduction occurs out there,” Piszczek said.

“We’re in the same thought process,” Piszczek said of his colleagues in Minnesota, “and we’ll continue that collaborative work and see what happens in 2017.”

Smaller fish

Bob Busche of Saginaw, an avid and successful muskie angler on the river, agreed that catch rates have dropped but says that might be a result of the change in the river’s habitat.

“A lot of the weeds blew out. Water clarity has changed, making it more difficult to fish,” Busche said. “I know personally the size has gone way down. We’re catching lots of smaller ones, in the low to mid-30s (30 inches), where in the past, I’d have expected the average fish to be between 35 and 40.”

The Minnesota DNR’s Peterson also has heard that smaller muskies are more abundant.

“We are seeing good numbers of small fish being reported by anglers, which is a great outlook for the fishery,” Peterson said.

But some anglers say an entire generation of young anglers will grow up with poor muskie fishing on the river without a resumption of stocking.

According to Carlson’s own records, he and his clients averaged a muskie every 5.5 hours from 2003 to 2011, but that rate jumped to one per 14 hours in 2012, the year of the flood, and to one every 23 hours last year.

He and Benson say they don’t think the St. Louis River can be a high-quality self-sustaining muskie fishery without stocking.

“I think the St. Louis River is a self-sustaining muskie fishery,” Benson said. “But if they’ve created a self-sustaining muskie fishery that’s not a desirable muskie fishery, what’s the point?”

Changes in the river

The local Muskies Inc. chapter and DNR fisheries officials have had a history of working together. But they appear to have reached an impasse on this issue. They have met and exchanged data, but the DNR wants to extend the no-stocking period through at least 2017. The DNR’s Peterson says biologists have seen no “red flags” that would indicate the muskie population is in peril.

Walleye anglers on the St. Louis River experienced similar frustration when their catch rates went down over the past few years. DNR officials maintained that the walleyes were still there, according to research data, but anglers were having more trouble catching them. Then, last summer, walleye fishing rebounded. Members of the Twin Ports Walleye Association agreed, in hindsight, that DNR officials must have been right about the walleye population.

The river has undergone significant changes in recent years, becoming clearer for a few years, which encouraged the growth of aquatic vegetation. Then came the June 2012 flood, which scoured much of that vegetation from the riverbed and re-arranged gravel bars in places. Now, with higher water conditions the past two years, the river’s more stained appearance has returned.

The more recent lack of vegetation may have changed the behavior of muskies, the DNR’s Peterson said.

“They’re ambush predators,” he said. “(The lack of vegetation) may drive some of their prey out into the basin, making it easier for muskies to eat, which would explain why catch rates may have declined. But that’s all speculative.”

Guides like Carlson and Brzezinski say the decline had begun before the 2012 flood. Whatever the case, the river is no longer the muskie destination it was just a few years ago, muskie guides say.

“I used to do 99 percent of my trips on the river,” Brzezinski said. “Now, I haven’t guided much there for two years.”

Busche isn’t as concerned about the muskie fishery as some of his fellow anglers.

“I’m guessing that things over time will pick back up again,” he said, “but it may never be like it was before.”