Advancing our esocids

Major advances may be on the way for Michigan’s northern pike and muskies, both in the esocid family of fish species, which explains my attempt to get your attention with the title of this article. There have been several years of careful thought and planning, deliberations to include state fisheries biologists and various angler groups, and two public comment periods on possible strategies to further support these two great gamefish.

This has culminated in specific new management approaches to be presented to the public this year, with implementation in the new regulations in 2013 if all goes well. Before summarizing the possible new approaches for both species, let me first provide some background information;

Some Background

I won’t spend much time trying to make the case that our northern pike fisheries especially, but also our muskie populations, could definitely be improved upon. An overwhelming number of Michigan anglers who responded to public comment periods the past two seasons, and ample other evidence to include population samples and associated research, all point to Michigan northern pike fisheries in particular being degraded from more natural size structures, and in some cases even their populations. Muskies have been more carefully managed in the relatively few waters they are found, but plenty of room for improvement in their fisheries has also been clearly evident to those involved in seeking better management approaches for both species.

Without going into lots of detail, let me at least mention one supporting example for pike. All the countless hundreds of thousands of acres of potentially prime northern pike waters across both peninsulas in our great state over an entire fishing season don’t produce as many large pike as even a single one of a number of individual well-managed Canadian pike waters does in a single summer. For example, a single Manitoba lake produced 312 Master Angler pike in the summer of 2008 alone, and all of Michigan produced 37 Master Angler award pike for that entire same year on all its waters combined (with size requirements nearly identical). True, everyone knows there are major differences in habitat and pressure but c’mon now, this alarming information sure seems to point to an opportunity we can improve upon, not to mention a way to keep more of us vacationing in Michigan for great fishing. Heck our fish usually even grow faster than way up there.

Another point I’d like to address as background before sharing the possible new rules is the continued concern that some anglers have about better quality pike and muskie fisheries depleting populations of other gamefish. Not only is there simply no true evidence of this, there’s tremendous evidence of just the opposite – these effective predators improving other fish populations by controlling rough fish that compete with more desirable species for space and food, and though the big predators prefer to eat fish we tend not to fish for, they also help control populations of stunted panfish where present, and improve panfish sizes to those we do want to fish for.

A lot of detail on the research and information behind this factor would be beyond the scope and space limitations of this article, so consider just this one supporting point – if better quality pike and muskies were so harmful, wouldn’t they have eliminated or severely reduced most other fish from our waters long before we ever got involved? The opposite is actually true. I’ve been blessed to make a few trips to truly remote Canadian wilderness water in my day, and on those waters all native species were plentiful and in good sizes, including quality walleyes, perch, smallmouths and even lake trout doing very well along with the big northern pike that helped make their populations that way. No disrespect to my fellow Michiganders, but on several occasions I’ve listened to hardcore panfish anglers complain about pike or muskie harming their favorite fish, yet some of them have filleted every single one of the thousands of bluegill they’ve caught over the years as long as it was at least a little larger than a Pringles potato chip. Interesting.

The Reasons Include the Seasons

An additional consideration to share before moving on to the possible new regulations is that northern pike and muskie seasons are currently open about 320 or more days a year depending on where you’re fishing, to the tune of allowing at least one as with muskies, and normally two to five pike depending on the specific water, each and every day you can get out and be successful at catching them over the nearly year-long season. Plus some fortunate anglers get out an awful lot, and can be as successful as whatever the fish population can provide.

Also, and not to complain about spearing since it has less of an impact than other methods, but it is an approach where fish can’t be measured before being taken, nor can they usually be released alive if they don’t meet whatever size restrictions. It’s an additional method for northern pike and muskies that is not legal for other gamefish, even if those other species have far stronger populations and in some cases much shorter seasons as well. Again, this is not to start any spearing debate, it should do no harm when managed well in combination with other methods, but season and gear considerations should be taken into account when arriving at just what is a better management strategy for pike and muskies, regardless of the methods. There are certainly a lot more deer in my area in the southern part of the state than there are muskies and even pike, yet I can’t go deer hunting 320 days a year and take 1-5 of them every time I could, be it with bow, shotgun, whatever the method.

Now to Promote Pike

So enough of the background ramblings, let me now summarize the specific regulation proposals, starting with my favorite fish – the great northern pike. Well it’s not earth shattering, personally I’d like it to be much more, but no one can expect to get everything they want, just try to support meaningful improvements and most importantly, do what’s right for the resource first. If we do that, all the varied angler interests will come out OK, whether we want eating pike, enjoy spearing them too, or want to catch and release at least some bigger ones.

The specific new pike alternatives are available in the web-site at the conclusion of this article. But to summarize, and since not all of us have ready web access, the current two-pike limit with a 24″ minimum length is still likely the most favored and relatively safe statewide approach, but the current exceptions are where it gets more interesting, hopefully better for pike, and maybe even simpler too. The current no minimum size, 5-pike per day limit on 127 waters that are more suited to that approach, should be better served by the proposed addition of allowing that only one of those fish can exceed 24″. Not likely to work miracles considering what we currently catch on those waters, again I’d personally like it more restrictive, but this at least allows for the chance of some better fish for all of us rather than simply writing these waters off to never be more than a place to catch small pike. Plus this adds the potential biological benefit of some better fish to control over-population of other species, even too many small pike.

Then it gets more interesting in that another alternative which could be placed on these waters, or even other waters, would be a possibly controversial, but possibly very effective, 24-34″ slot limit where all pike within that range must be released, and two pike either smaller or larger can be taken. Can’t say I’m necessarily a big fan, but I commend the authorities for being willing to try this, and though I have to spare you the supporting details once again, this has helped elsewhere toward more natural size structures where compliance has been high, and of course not helped where it hasn’t. As with any regulation to help fish or wildlife, it can work if we choose to make it work; it won’t do much if we don’t do much to abide by it.

OK these three alternatives may not sound simpler at this point, but if you check out the full scoop, including that there would be no more use of the other exceptions like a 30″ minimum, one fish limit on a few waters, we’d be no more complicated than now and even somewhat less, keeping in mind the vast majority of waters are still under a consistent statewide approach. At most just two limited exceptions to it, and possible only one, would be implemented.

And More For Muskies

There would still be a statewide approach applying to nearly all muskie waters in the state, possibly with a different season length than now, so nothing is too complicated, also considering that far fewer than one percent of our waters even have muskies. But the limited exceptions, and the fact that the statewide approach itself could undergo a landmark change, make the muskie management possibilities very interesting and exciting.

The full details are within the DNR web posting and other sources. But in summary, more than likely the 42″ statewide minimum would remain, with possibly a few exceptions for a 38″ minimum for slow growing waters, and a 46″ minimum on a few fast growing, extremely low population, vulnerable muskie waters that rely on natural reproduction and no stocking. The one fish per day could still remain but the major change possibility would be making that a one fish per season limit instead, implemented by a no-cost tag issued with your license, and a simple reporting request you may get via post-card at the end of the year, to gain some information on these thrilling, low-population density fish we have in so few places except for Lake Saint Clair.

This would be a pretty big deal for our state’s muskie. Michigan would leap from respectable in its muskie management to arguably the leader of the whole continent, as the first ever state or province to actually use such a measure. It would be an approach, more like a hunting season limit, that is very fitting for a rare, low population density species that exists only in a relatively few waters compared to all other major species. This is extra exciting to me, because though Lord knows I’ve tried, it takes me lots of hours on my nearest muskie lake to catch one. I’d sure like some more around, at least in the rare lakes they are found, so us regular weekend warriors have more of a chance at catching them, even if we can keep just one a year to help make that possible (OK part of my problem is though I fish every week, I’m still not good at it, so I need all the help I can get).

Well that about sums it up and the details of the DNR Fisheries Division proposals should be available sometime in March or soon after that, within the Fisheries Division section of I hope Michigan anglers will support improving two of our state’s greatest gamefish. The trade-offs asked of us aren’t too much to help have better pike and muskie resources, and better fishing for us all.