By SAM COOK, Duluth News Tribune
DULUTH, Minn. (AP) -- After a tough summer last year, muskie anglers on the St. Louis River aren't sure how fishing will be this summer.
Sampling by Minnesota and Wisconsin fisheries crews this spring turned up lots of muskies. In five days on the river, Department of Natural Resources crews from the two states trapped and released 187 muskies from 17.8 inches to 50.7 inches long, said Dan Wilfond, Minnesota DNR fisheries specialist at French River. But only two fish were longer than 50 inches.
"We were expecting to see some bigger fish, but we didn't see many over 50 inches," Wilfond said.
Last year was anything but a normal year on the river, after June floods raised river levels, collapsed clay banks and sent big trees downstream. Many of those trees scoured and uprooted weed beds where anglers had previously found muskies.
"It made fishing difficult because the fish were scattered everywhere. I think a lot went out to Lake Superior," said Dustin Carlson, a muskie fishing guide and a board member of the Lake Superior Muskies Inc. chapter.
Muskie fishing opened May 25 on the river. The limit is one muskie with a 50-inch minimum size limit.
Wilfond said DNR crews, setting trap nets on the river from May 12-17, found an average of 2.7 muskies per net lift, which compares to 1.3 per lift in 2010 and 2.4 per lift in 2007.
"(The muskie population) seems to be doing very well," Wilfond said. "We're continuing to see some smaller fish that are evidence of natural reproduction."
Minnesota and Wisconsin began stocking muskies in the river in 1983 to re-establish the species after years of poor water quality had decimated the population. The agencies ceased stocking muskies on the river in 2005 to get a better idea of how much natural reproduction was occurring.
Young-of-the-year sampling has indicated the river's muskies are reproducing on their own, and some of those young fish now are old enough to be caught in DNR trap nets, Wilfond said.
"The long-range goal is to have a totally self-sustaining population that doesn't require stocking," Wilfond said.
But the DNR doesn't think that point has been reached yet, he said.
Carlson is concerned that the muskie population may have dropped since the two states quit stocking eight years ago.
"I'd hope at some point we see some supplemental stocking," he said.
Carlson said he thinks an undetermined number of the river's muskies migrate out to Lake Superior. He has heard reports of Lake Superior trollers catching muskies as far away as Two Harbors and along the South Shore.
Muskie fishing on the river was excellent as recently as three years ago, he said, but the past two summers have been less productive. Still, he believes last summer's flooding may have changed the river in a positive way.
"We're excited about the new habitat out there," Carlson said, "especially the downed trees. They'll provide habitat for young fish, and not just for muskies but crappies and other fish, too."
This late, cold spring has delayed the emergence of vegetation, he said.
"We need some sun and heat to get the weeds to start growing," he said. "It's all going to depend on what's going to happen in the next month. But I'm sure there will be weeds out there."