If it looks like a pike and fights like a shark, it could likely be a muskellunge. The muskie earned its spot as an angler’s favorite due to its acrobatic displays, strength and speed. With the fish’s popularity rising in recent years, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has met the growing demand by stocking more than 36,000 muskie fingerlings in 21 of the state’s water bodies.
Although the stocking is driven by angling effort, muskies are Michigan natives and, as a top-level aquatic predator, are an important part of the state’s natural ecosystem. DNR fisheries biologist Matthew Hughes said that muskie stocking in Michigan dates back to 1954, when managers performed the first egg take of northern strain muskellunge in the Lac Vieux Desert. Since then, the hatchery program has grown to include more egg sources and fisheries.
In the early days of the program, Michigan predominantly stocked northern muskies, but now the DNR directs much of its efforts toward raising the Great Lakes strain, which was historically more widely distributed in the state than their northern brethren. DNR workers harvest eggs and milt from adult muskies in the Lake St. Clair and Detroit River system, raising the fish at Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery. The DNR has harvested Great Lakes muskies since 2011, but their work with the strain is already showing promise.
“Last year was the best in Michigan’s history, with the production of over 50,000 fingerlings,” Hughes said. That same year, he noted, the world record-winning muskie was caught in state waters.
“This year was fairly successful,” he said, though “we experienced fairly high mortalities while the fingerlings were being reared in ponds.”
Overall, however, Hughes said that the intensive portion of muskie rearing — that is, the part that occurs in controlled tank environments — went well this year. It also happens to be the most time-consuming part of the process. During intensive rearing, fishery workers feed the fingerlings and clean their tanks twice per day. Caring for the juvenile muskies requires up to 12 man hours each day, reduced to 8 hours just before the fish are ready for transfer to ponds.
“Had we had more lined ponds, we could have reared several thousand more fingerlings,” Hughes said. Even so, the DNR still produced enough of a surplus to ship muskies out to Indiana and Wisconsin for their stocking programs.
The DNR hopes to expand its muskie hatchery program to improve productivity, though Hughes admitted that funding is a limiting factor. Future additions could include a new coolwater culture facility, extra lined ponds at Wolf Lake and the program’s expansion to more hatcheries.