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Minnesota muskies: Exciting catch or monster nuisance?

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Heavy duty fishing poles carry muskie lures.
Heavy duty fishing poles with muskie lures rest on Jerry Sondag's guide boat on Pelican Lake, on Sept. 19, 2015.
Dan Koeck for MPR News 2015

The long-running controversy over the stocking of Minnesota's lakes with muskies — a fish with plenty of fans and foes — was left unresolved at the end of this year's legislative session.

Muskie opponents pushed an unsuccessful effort this year to halt the progression of stocking in Minnesota lakes, and to give counties more input in the decision. 

Still, the debate over whether muskies pose a threat to other fish — or humans — is likely to continue, with anti-stocking legislation expected to return again next year.

Muskellunge, the fish's proper name, are closely related to the northern pike, but bigger. The state-record muskie catch was 56 inches long.

The fish is native to  44 Minnesota lakes and eight rivers. The Department of Natural Resources stocks about 48 others with muskie fry. 

A quarrel over impact

muskie
Muskellunge
Joseph Tomelleri | University of Minnesota Press

When the DNR began stocking Gull Lake, near Brainerd, nearly two years ago, some residents along the Gull Chain of Lakes were opposed.

Steve Frawley, who lives on Lake Margaret, is one of them. He worries the non-native muskies eventually will swim up the chain and into his lake.

"I'm all for muskie fishermen fishing on muskie lakes," Frawley said. "But don't introduce a non-native species into a lake. There's concern about the delicate balance in our ecosystem. A lot of scientists they still don't know all the effects when you introduce a non-native fish."

But the DNR's fisheries chief, Don Pereira, said there is a lot of research that shows muskies don't harm the lake — or native fish.

"We're very confident that the way we manage muskellunge in these introduced populations, they are ecologically benign," he said.

Pereira said that, by stocking new lakes with muskie, the DNR is providing opportunities to a growing number of people interested in the sport of muskie fishing.

A muskie
A muskie recovers after being stunned by researchers using an electric charge May 4, 2016, on Fish Lake near Detroit Lakes, Minn.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2016

"We can create 40 to 50 new muskie fisheries in lakes around the state so a person who's really into muskie fishing, maybe in southern Minnesota, doesn't have to drive all the way into the upper Mississippi drainage to go muskie fishing," he said.

The DNR had planned to stock eight new lakes with muskie by 2020. It stocked five — including Gull Lake — before the DNR put the plan on hold due to the political pushback.

A bill introduced in the Legislature this year by state Sen. Bill Ingebrigtsen, R-Alexandria, would have halted muskie stocking in new lakes for five years. It also called for a study of the effects of muskies on native fish in Otter Tail County, which has been the epicenter of the muskie conflict.

The bill was watered down in committee hearings so the moratorium only would have applied to Otter Tail County. It was included in an omnibus spending bill that Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed.  

Prime catch or toothy nuisance?

Inserting a small electronic tag
Jim Wolters, an area fisheries supervisor for the Minnesota DNR, inserts a small electronic tag, similar to those used to identify cats and dogs, into a muskie May 4, 2016, on Fish Lake in Otter Tail County.
Dan Gunderson | MPR News 2016

Muskies' size and sharp teeth make some people nervous. Reports of gruesome injuries allegedly caused by muskies have made media headlines, although it's unclear whether all were actually caused by a muskie or something else, like a northern pike or an otter.

Pereira says muskie bites have happened, but they're rare. He said in one case he knows of that probably did involve a muskie, the person was wearing a shiny ankle bracelet and the lake had dark-colored water, which might have confused the fish into thinking the foot was prey.

Aaron Meyer, co-chair of the Minnesota Muskie and Pike Alliance, said there's no need to fear the fish.

"Thousands of people swim in muskie lakes across the country every day," Meyer said. "There's no reason for concern. They're not a shark. It's a freshwater fish just like walleyes and northerns and bass. The only thing they can eat is what they can swallow whole."

Meyer is concerned that a temporary halt on muskie stocking could lead to the end of Minnesota's muskie fishery. He said that would be a blow to the state's economy.

"You're creating more opportunities to fish more chances for people to get out enjoy the outdoors," Meyer said. "It also helps with tourism and business."

Resident David Majkrzak
David Majkrzak, a member of the Pelican Lake Property Owners Association, is spearheading the opposition to a plan by the DNR to expand muskie stocking in area lakes, here on Sept. 19, 2015.
Dan Koeck for MPR News 2015

The DNR estimates about one in every six licensed Minnesota anglers target muskellunge. And Meyer said muskie fishing draws people from all over the country.

Longtime muskie opponent Dave Majkrzak, who lives on Pelican Lake in Otter Tail County, is skeptical of those numbers.

"It's a small subset of interested fishermen," Majkrzak said. "They're very dedicated. They've spent a lot of money promoting their sport. But they already have too much of the state and they don't need any more."

Majkrzak said he worries lakes stocked with muskies are more vulnerable to aquatic invasive species like zebra mussels because muskie anglers tend to travel around.

But Pereira said some lake associations simply don't want more anglers coming to "their" lake.

"Our lakes are public resources," Pereira said. "And the job of the DNR is to manage that lake for the common good of the entire public — not just the people who are lucky enough to live there."