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State's musky management plan draws comments, concerns

| Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, 10:12 p.m.
Biologists Tim Wilson and Freeman Johns of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission hold a musky collected during sampling of Pymatuning Lake. (Submitted photo)

Musky fishermen and musky managers agree the fish is a truly special creature worthy of attention and admiration.

Beyond that? Well, there are some differences of opinion.

Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission officials held a musky summit at North Park. It was meant to update fishermen on work to revise the state's developing musky management plan and to solicit their input.

Historically, the commission stocked as many waters with muskies as possible to give people at least a tiny chance of getting a big fish. That achieved “wildly varying success,” said Leroy Young, director of the commission's bureau of fisheries.

“Now, we're trying to develop the best fisheries we can on fewer waters with the most potential to support those fisheries,” Young said.

“The purpose of the musky management plan is to preserve a trophy fishery,” agreed area 2 fisheries manager Al Woomer, who is taking the lead in writing the plan.

To do that, the commission has been tweaking how it raises and stocks muskies, for starters. The commission has stocked, on average, about 115,000 musky fingerlings each of the past four years, said Craig Vargason, northern hatchery production manager.

Lately, the commission has been experimenting with feeding those fish a mixture of pellets and live minnows to get them larger prior to stocking. That's worked, he said. The fish stocked over the past four years have weighed 60 percent more than those stocked the four years prior.

“And the fish our guys are stocking right now appear to me to be the biggest we've ever seen,” Vargason said.

The commission is also tagging fingerling muskies, and starting next year, will look at adult fish in eight inland lakes to measure the success of a one-fish daily limit and 40-inch minimum size, said Brian Ensign, a commission biologist. It's also comparing the survival of fingerlings stocked in fall versus spring and looking to determine whether stockings are the only way to sustain fishable musky populations.

Several fishermen, however, expressed concern that the use of herbicides in some state park lakes — meant to keep weeds under control around swimming beaches — is destroying habitat, especially for fingerling muskies that need a place to hide from predators like hybrid striped bass.

Avid musky angler Howard Wagner of Fombell did not attend the meeting but said afterward that the commission actually does a “pretty good job” of raising a sizeable number of muskies.

“But they are way short in watching out for the destruction of fish habitat,” he said.

“Dumping rock piles in the middle of a lake attracts large predator fish and gives them a place to wait and ambush prey in the form of bait fish schools that pass by. This type of habitat only makes it easier for fishermen to catch more fish. It doesn't protect fish like weed beds do, by providing not only cover and shade, but much needed oxygen in the heat of the 90-degree summers.”

Jim Burr, president of the Three Rivers Chapter of Muskies Inc., took a different stance, suggesting the lack of weeds in Lake Arthur, in particular, is the result of less nutrients leaking into the lake from farms and sewage.

Commission executive director John Arway said the commission spends about $600,000 annually to raise and stock muskies, so it will take all of those comments to heart.

“That's a lot of money to spend on one species, so we want to make sure we're getting the best return on your money,” he said.

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at bfrye@tribweb.com or 724-838-5148.

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