PORTERSVILLE, Pa -- In his 97 years, Ray Bauder has caught his share of muskies, but the 37 1/2-incher he hauled in recently at Lake Arthur was special. The fish was boated near 90 acres of submerged farmland the Portersville man owned before the state purchased and flooded the valley in 1970 to create the 3,225-acre Butler County impoundment.
As muskies go, Bauder's fish put up an easy fight, running toward the boat and nearly right into the net held by his nephew, Muddy Creek Fishing Guides co-owner Jim Burr.
President of the Three Rivers chapter of Muskies Inc. (www.muskiesinc.com), Burr said he respectfully disagrees with anglers who believe Lake Arthur muskie fishing was harmed when Moraine State Park staff used defoliants to control aquatic weed growth. Yes, the musky fishing is down compared to past years, he says -- Bauder's catch and those of Three Rivers Muskies members notwithstanding -- but Burr doubts it's because of state park negligence.
"I think lakes go through ups and downs," he said, while trolling in a 21-foot pontoon boat, his first mate, a 6-year-old mixed-breed mutt named Suzi, seated beside him. "We've had some fantastic years -- some people had 100-fish months. Then it went down. The thing I look at, and the general impression of people at Three Rivers Muskies, is that records show [musky fishing] was down almost everywhere last year. That means it can't be [because of] something that happened here. It's just a trend."
The trend, he believes, has more to do with the rise and fall of Eurasian watermilfoil, an invasive aquatic weed that entered Western Pennsylvania lakes many decades ago. Milfoil choked out native weeds but bloomed into tangled floating beds that provided great cover for fish. Anglers grew up fishing milfoil habitats.
In 2002, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report, another invasive weed, Hydrilla verticillata, native to Asia, entered the U.S. via Maine. By 2003 it was documented in New Jersey and sometime around 2007 hydrilla swept across Western Pennsylvania.
In October, 2011, at a Lake Arthur musky meeting with anglers, Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission biologist Tim Wilson explained it like this: big fish including muskellunge lurked under and at the edges of the milfoil beds, and anglers caught them there. Hydrilla crowded out the less dense milfoil, forming thick beds on the bottom that are less conducive to the feeding tactics of ambush predators.
"It's too thick," said Wilson. "The little fish can't use it to hide, and the big fish don't use it as a point of ambush. Like other gamefish, muskies are cannibalistic. Baby muskies need weeds to survive and without the good milfoil, they're more susceptible to predation from big muskies."
As it did elsewhere, the arrival of hydrilla radically changed the habitat at Lake Arthur, said Wilson. Indirectly, it increased mortality among the 3,200 musky fingerlings stocked annually by the state, and contributed to the loss of entire year-classes of muskies, those from 26 to 32 inches, according to a PFBC study.
In September and October, said Wilson, Fish and Boat will more than double its Lake Arthur musky stocking to 6,600.
Burr, who fishes the lake two or three times a week, said the anglers who are regularly catching muskies have adapted to the new environment and changed their tactics.
In an informal GPS mapping survey of recent musky-catch locations, Burr found habitat to be key.
"We found that the 20-some [muskies] that I caught here were all caught in four places," he said. "One was a drop off at a point, the rest were at [submerged] roadbeds or railroad beds."
Trolling speed and zigzag patterns remain important, said Burr, but he's experimenting with new tactics.
"I used to run real shallow and bump right against the weed edges," he said. "Now that we don't have the surface weeds, I'm running longer lines -- 65 to 85 feet -- and fishing deeper off the [submerged] roadbeds. When we hit a road or a creek bed I'll let more line out, cross back and forth across the road ... and tighten up how much I zigzag. Other times I might just go along the edge of the road and come in slow with the depth finder. You rarely catch muskies on the roads -- they're laying to the side of them."
Bauder's musky was taken at 10:45 a.m. under cloudy skies at 10 feet trolling a walleye-colored Wiley Scout at 4.7 mph over a 12-foot basin between a submerged hump and a roadbed rising to 10 feet.
Similar musky tactics are working at lakes throughout the region. At Crawford County's Pymatuning Reservoir, some musky anglers are reconsidering shallow trolling along weed beds. Ohio Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Matt Wolfe, who studies the Ohio side of the lake, said anglers should focus on deepwater points, offshore bars and shallow humps.
"By now, most of your fish are going to be suspended off points or some deeper-water humps," he said. "Muskies are a coolwater species, so they are going to try to find the balance between the coolest water possible with the highest oxygen content. That is why the trolling bite starts to pick up this time of year -- anglers find the thermocline and troll to that depth."