Anglers in the northeast metro area have been stalking the mighty muskellunge for decades. The muskie following today is stronger than ever, but one word is on the lips of anglers and fishery managers alike: change.
Ryan McMahon has been fishing muskies for 25 years and has guided clients for the past 10. He knows the northeast metro lakes well and has had a front row seat to changing dynamics in Owasso, Forest, White Bear and Bald Eagle lakes. “They’ve all gone through so many changes,” he says, citing the introduction of Zebra mussels and other aquatic invasive species. He added, “weed growth has changed tremendously.”
In general, McMahon reports a “steady decline in the last couple years” in the overall quality of muskie fishing, which means fewer fish seen and fewer catches. In his estimation, “2012 was the last good year.” In late 2013, Lake Owasso experienced a fish kill, and he says he’s waiting until that lake is about a decade out before he goes back.
East Metro Area Fisheries Supervisor T.J. DeBates generally cites all the same changes McMahon has observed. One complication in responding to those changes is a relatively recent statewide stocking guide, which dictates the stocking of fingerling-size muskies in many lakes, including Forest and Owasso. That is in contrast to White Bear and Bald Eagle, where DeBates is allowed to stock yearlings and adults — which fare better against competition and predation by other predator fish.
However, the same plan that controls the stocking regimen also mandates getting a better handle on muskie demographics through a two-year lake sampling process. It promises to help managers fine-tune individual resources. “It’s a high priority in our area,” explains DeBates. “Our goal as biologists and managers is to collect the best data we can. In the next five to 10 years, we’ll have a real good picture (of each lake’s population).”
Initial results are beginning to paint that picture through population estimates. Before COVID-19 interrupted survey efforts, East Metro Fisheries managed to survey Bald Eagle Lake and DeBates was “very impressed with the numbers and size of the fish.”
But numbers don’t always translate into catches. McMahon notes recent difficulty finding and enticing the fish on Bald Eagle. He knows muskie behavior changes often, and laughs it off: “it’s not my favorite lake right now.” He fishes it often, along with nearby White Bear, which he characterizes as deep and “crazy clear.”
White Bear Lake has been known for its clear water, but Zebra mussels have augmented that clarity since they were introduced. DeBates notes that changing water clarity may cause behavioral changes in muskies. For one thing, as lake water becomes clearer, weeds tend to grow at depths previously unseen. Changes in weeds influence the location of bait fish and predators alike, and DeBates says that if anglers don’t adapt their approach, they may simply conclude there are fewer fish. He suggests the same may happen on Forest Lake, where Zebra mussels have also appeared. “Time will tell.”
McMahon fishes Forest Lake often, and recognizes it as having its own unique characteristics. “It’s really cool. It has a good topwater bite and a good shallow water bite.” Locally, he splits his time between Forest, Bald Eagle and White Bear lakes, sometimes hitting two in one day. He stresses the importance of keeping abreast of what the fish are doing at any one time: “You have to stay on your toes.”
Another thing keeping the muskie crowd on its toes is the sheer popularity of the sport. Both McMahon and DeBates mention how muskie anglers have increased in number over the years. Lakes managed for muskies, however, number fewer than 100 statewide. As a result, relatively few adult fish encounter lures on a regular basis. These “educated” fish show signs of reluctance, which makes catching them more difficult over lifetimes that can last 20 years or more.
All changes and complicating factors aside, McMahon continues to ply local muskie waters regularly. Despite increasing difficulties catching fish, he derives satisfaction from providing clients what he calls “a fun, exciting experience.”
“I enjoy the cat-and-mouse game aspect of it. It’s always a rewarding and interesting process.”
When asked if muskies are truly “the fish of 10,000 casts,” he says, “No. I’m not sure where that idea comes from. Especially nowadays, with the technology we have and what we know about the fish, they should not be. There are no guarantees, but you should be able to have a good shot at catching one in less than 10,000 casts.”