MINNEAPOLIS — Late last fall, long after most Minnesotans had stored their boats for the winter, Paul Hartman still was casting oversized baits into chilly Lake Mille Lacs, hoping against hope for a killer strike — and a big muskie.
Day after day he tossed and retrieved crankbaits, jerkbaits and bucktails, before, finally, on Nov. 12, boating a 56-inch-long monster.
Hartman makes no attempt to rationally justify the time he spent hunting for his toothy trophy.
“Yes, it was a huge muskie,” Hartman said. “On the other hand, it took me more than two years of my life fishing on Mille Lacs to catch it.”
Hartman owns and promotes George’s Minnesota Muskie Expo, which ran Friday through Sunday at Concordia University in St. Paul. Now in its 21st year, the show is named for its late founder, George Wahl.
At the expo, which is fairly described as an orgy of muskie lures and other equipment, along with nearly continuous how-to seminars, Hartman was joined by thousands of anglers who share his muskie obsession.
And for good reason: While walleyes remain Minnesota’s most prized fish, and panfish such as sunnies and crappies its most popular, muskies, arguably, are its most spectacular — whether measured by size, coloring, angry demeanor or memories provided to the lucky anglers who catch them.
Yet trouble seems afoot with the state’s muskies, and it’s not related to the brickbats some lakeshore owners hurl at the Department of Natural Resources when the agency proposes to introduce these alpha predators into one of “their” lakes.
Just the opposite.
“For a while, say between 2005 and 2010, muskie fishing was spectacular in what we call the state’s ‘legacy’ lakes, such as Mille Lacs, Vermilion, Cass and others,” Hartman, of the Twin Cities, said. “Now, with success falling off, some people have gotten out of muskie fishing, while others are looking for new lures or ‘the next big thing’ to try to catch these fish.”
Luke Ronnestrand agrees. He guides muskie anglers 70 days or more each year on Lake Vermilion in northern Minnesota.
“Compared to the past, Vermilion guides are having to burn a lot more gas and stay on the water longer to produce fish for clients,” Ronnestrand said. “As a result, we’ve seen the number of anglers coming to the lake decline since about 2009.”
Multiple forces are at play, said Neil Vanderbosch, a DNR fisheries manager. One is that when muskies were introduced into some of these waters — Mille Lacs was first stocked with muskie fingerlings in 1984 — their numbers initially flourished, yielding fish of various sizes, including, in time, some longer than 45 inches.
Now, 15 years or so later, smaller muskies seem to be missing from Mille Lacs (and certain other waters) altogether, while the lake’s remaining muskies are far fewer — and gargantuan.
Case in point: In late 2015, a muskie estimated to weigh 61 pounds was caught on Mille Lacs by Dominic Hoyos of Stillwater, topping a 57-inch behemoth landed only 16 days earlier by Robert Hawkins, owner of Bob Mitchell’s Fly Shop in St. Paul.
DNR fisheries chief Don Pereira agrees that some Minnesota lakes “aren’t performing for muskies the way they have historically.”
The DNR’s ability to produce muskie fingerlings for stocking is limited by budget and facility constraints, Pereira said. Still, fisheries managers intend to refine their stocking methodologies, he said, while also tagging planted fingerlings to better determine stocking success.
Asked whether the DNR’s plan to stock muskies in three more state lakes or rivers by 2020 should be re-evaluated, with more emphasis placed on managing the state’s current muskie waters, Pereira said, not yet.
Vanderbosch of the DNR estimated that 10-15 years might pass before it’s known what’s going on with muskies in state lakes.
That’s too long, said muskie guide Josh Stevenson, owner of Blue Ribbon Bait & Tackle in Oakdale and White Bear Lake.
“Not many years ago, I boated more than 100 muskies a year. Now a lot of work goes into cracking 60 or 70,” Stevenson said. “Minnesota may be the ‘State of Walleyes.’ But now it’s also the ‘State of Muskies,’ and I would think the state would want to pay close attention to how these lakes are stocked and managed so this great fishery can be sustained.”