If The Muskies were a rock 'n' roll band, it would have two distinct sets of fans -- casual listeners who smile when the radio occasionally plays the group's hit song and diehard believers committed to embracing every nuance of the underground phenomenon.
The big fish have the same marketing dilemma. Fishing regulations that would allow a bass or panfish angler to mount an accidental catch of a lifetime may be contrary to the conservation ethic of a small legion of catch-and-release musky fans dedicated to growing and improving the fishery. And the "record label" trying to satisfy both fan bases is the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
"We manage these resources for everyone -- the youngsters, the grandfathers -- and we didn't want to totally deny an angler the chance to take that fish of a lifetime," said fisheries biologist Bob Lorantas, co-writer of a draft management plan that would research the muskellunge fishery and gradually implement improvements. "But it may not be as important for a dedicated, devoted musky angler to harvest the fish."
The plan would assess the success of changes made in 2007 and incrementally tighten restrictions where necessary, with the goal of growing bigger, healthier muskies and a more robust fishing experience, Lorantas said.
But the draft plan isn't set in stone. The public is invited to a meeting on muskies Tuesday at North Park. (No muskellunge were stocked in North Park Lake.) Fish and Boat is soliciting angler reaction to the plan, and it is subject to a vote by the agency's board of commissioners.
Esox masquinongy is the native aquatic apex predator of western Pennsylvania waters. With the loss of nursery habitat and the proliferation of mostly self-contained impoundments, reproduction is now largely dependant upon state-managed stocking. (Tiger muskies, a usually artificial cross of muskellunge and northern pike, grow faster but to shorter lengths and the females are sterile.)
During the last 10 to 15 years, a culture of conservation-based catch-and-release musky angling evolved in which specialized tackle and techniques are used in the specific pursuit of muskellunge. In 2007 the state increased the harvest limit from 30 inches (a 4-year-old fish in Pennsylvania waters) to 40 inches (8 years old), and dropped the creel limit from two to one fish per day. Nevertheless, musky club records and Fish and Boat research note a decrease in the muskellunge population in some key Pennsylvania waters.
The proposed musky plan is a first for the state -- because the fish is a top predator with a smaller population and lower catch rate, management has been guided by a series of general strategies, not a stand-alone plan. Lorantas said the plan formalizes what the agency has been doing since about 2005. As proposed, it would increase research including tagging studies, protect some nursery waters to increase natural reproduction, adjust stocking as dictated by conditions, and "hypothetically," Lorantas said, increase the harvest limit to 45 inches in some waters.
That's controversial. Many diehards love the idea, but Lorantas said another increase in the harvest limit could present new problems.
"Pennsylvania is at the southern edge of the muskellunge's natural range. We know some fish can attain 50 inches, the question is how many," he said. "We want to give a sense of reasonable expectation of catching such a fish. In some waters out there, muskellunge just don't attain that size -- setting that size limit would be equivalent to statewide catch and release, denying some anglers of their trophy catch. We're not saying we don't want catch and release or a 45-inch size limit, but let's see what happens and make some good decisions."
Jim Burr, a fishing guide and president of the Three Rivers Muskies Inc. fishing club, said changes are clearly needed to grow the musky fishery, but he likes the plan's slow, incremental approach.
"The rivers seem to be doing well, but the lakes are down. I don't know why," he said "Catches probably started decreasing about 2004, 2005. Personally, I'd leave [the size limit] where it is for a while until they get done with these studies -- I would like to see as many studies as we can get. It would help to track these fish, too, and if we educate people more, there would be more catch and release."
Ultimately, Lorantas said, the research elements of the plan are likely to suggest a tailored approach to individual waters. To a degree, that's what's happening now.
An Enhanced Muskellunge Program that would raise the size limit to 45 inches is currently on the books, although no waters are included in the program. Also, musky stocking varies wildly -- in 2011, 206,017 fry, fingerling and juvenile muskies and tiger muskies were stocked at various times of year and for different reasons.
For instance, on Thursday, Three Rivers Muskies stocked 3,500 fingerling muskies in Lake Wilhelm, Mercer County, as part of a Fish and Boat musky and walleye-stocking plan to control an overabundance of gizzard shad. On Friday, the club put 6,600 fingerlings into Butler County's Lake Arthur, doubling the lake's yearly musky stocking quota after Fish and Boat research confirmed angler claims that the catch was down.
"In the case of the musky plan, we enlisted the viewpoints of anglers more so than in some other plans," Lorantas said. "One thing came through resoundingly -- diehard musky anglers can be less forthcoming in terms of where they fish, but they were genuinely interested ... and they knew the current state of musky fishing. The respect musky anglers demonstrate for the fish is, in my view, unparalleled. "
6:30 p.m. Tuesday
Rose Barn, Pearce Mill Road, North Park
Free and open to the public. Park office: 724-935-1766.
Read the proposed muskellunge management plan and submit comments through Nov. 30 at www.fishandboat.com/musky-plan.htm.