By Spencer Neuharth
This winter, an online post in a Facebook group went viral among anglers and garnered hundreds of shares and comments. It showed a couple locals holding a giant muskellunge, or muskie, that came out of one of the South Dakota’s glacial lakes. Among the hordes of comments were a lot of fishermen that were confused by the species.
“What kind of pike is that? Can you keep it? What lake are these in?”
It’s not their fault, as South Dakotans have had little exposure to muskies. If it were a post about walleye, though, you can be sure our residents would flex their knowledge about a fish that we’re so accustomed to. Muskie, on the other hand, are rarely seen by anglers, especially in the Rushmore State.
Here’s a bio on North America’s top freshwater predator, which hopefully clears up some of the misinformation out there on this amazing fish.
Muskie are the largest member of the pike family, which includes northern and pickerel, too. There are also tiger muskie, which is a cross between a pike and muskie. These rarely occur in the wild, because pike spawn at about 40 degrees while muskie spawn at about 50 degrees. However, both species use the same sort of habitat for spawning, which is often shallow, vegetated areas in bays. Unlike most fish we target, they don’t build nests or protect their young.
The tiger muskie has its place in fisheries management, though. Because they’re sterile, state wildlife agencies feel more comfortable about stocking and controlling them in select bodies of water. Tiger muskies also grow about 1.5 times quicker than muskie, meaning that hatcheries can farm them to stockable lengths much faster.
Muskie are carnivores, likened to being the cougar of the fish community. They typically hunt alone and take their prey in an ambush attack. Adults have no natural predators, besides humans, and the oldest individuals can reach their teens.
Known as “the fish of 10,000 casts,” it’s easy to see why more Facebook posts, like the one referenced above, don’t show up on timelines. For those anglers that do target them, the season is often broken down into the degrees of 7.
When water temperatures reach 47 degrees, fishermen look for the warmest waters in vegetated areas. These spots will contain muskies in shallow water that are preparing for the spawn. Amazingly, the species is said to return to the same weed beds year after year, so experienced anglers have their go-to honey holes each spring.
At 57 degrees, muskies start to transition into their summer habitat. In some bodies of water, this can mean migrating for miles until they hit the structure they’re looking for. During this period, the fish are sporadically found all over the water column and hard to pattern.
At 67 degrees, most fish are on their summer range and most fishermen are after them. At this stage, muskies hold up on obvious structure, like points, saddles and reefs. They’ll move with the weather and forage, heading deep when cold fronts move through and shallow when panfish start spawning.
South Dakota isn’t a famous muskie destination. Historically, we’ve hardly had any muskie here at all. Their native range is much of the Great Lakes watershed, which extends from Minnesota to Georgia.
I’d argue, though, that the very southeastern corner of South Dakota should be included in their native range, as they’ve been documented multiple times on the Missouri River below Gavins Point Dam near Yankton, S.D. For example, in 2016 two muskies were netted near Yankton that were believed to have come from Spirit Lake via the Little Sioux River, both of which are bodies of water native to muskies.
Besides the Missouri River, there are a handful of lakes in eastern South Dakota that are now home to muskie, and the number keeps growing.
Amsden Dam near the little town of Andover in Day County is our original “muskie lake,” which started its stockings in 1975. The state record is an Amsden 40-pounder that was caught in 1991, but recent surveys show that the species is below the lake’s management objective. In 2014, the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department estimated that only 13 muskies called the lake home.
Other lakes, which are relatively new on the muskie scene, include Lake Sinai, Island Lake and the 81 Sloughs. It’s not believed that natural reproduction takes place in any of these lakes, but their diverse fish communities, textbook structure and favorable countours make the lakes a promising option for stocking programs.
However, the weight of the state’s hopes falls on the shoulders of Lynn Lake right now. Lynn Lake, which is also in Day County, started stocking muskies in 2003, and it has truly turned the corner in the last five years. In 2014, 94 muskies were sampled on the 1,500-acre lake that ranged in size from 31 to 48 inches. For South Dakota anglers, Lynn offers the best opportunity to catch a muskie in the coming years.
Whenever possible, muskie should be released. Ohio is a good model as to why, because like South Dakota, they hardly have any natural reproduction. Studies there show that each muskie stocked costs about $12. To get a muskie to 40 inches, it requires stocking about 40 fish, making a 40-inch fish worth $480. To get a muskie to 50 inches, it requires stocking about 500 fish, making a 50-inch fish worth $6,000.
In South Dakota, lakes have a 40-inch minimum-size limit for muskellunge. Still, most states preach CPR, which is an acronym for catch, photograph and release. After all, pictures on a lake look better than at a boat ramp, and replica mounts look just as good as the real thing. Whenever I land my first muskie, you can bet it’ll be swimming shortly thereafter.
About the Author: Fishing columnist Spencer Neuharth is a freelance outdoor writer from Menno, S.D. To see more of his writing and photography, go to boofcommunications.com.