By Kory Boozer, avid angler and member of the Michigan Musky Alliance
A musky is a keystone species that helps hold everything together in its environment. Oftentimes, this role is played out by apex predators such as wolves in Yellowstone National Park, sea otters in kelp forests and even muskellunge here in Michigan. These species are considered keystone species of their environments. Muskies have quite a reputation as being bloodthirsty eating machines that eat everything from baby ducks to poodles. Over the years, they have been blamed time and time again for being the culprit behind diminishing populations of keeper-sized panfish.
All the studies that have been conducted in the last 35 years portray a very different story. In every case, muskies either had no noticeable impact on panfish populations or they helped improve these populations.
In 1988, David Wahl and Roy Stein with the Ohio Cooperative Fish & Wildlife Research Unit and Department of Zoology at The Ohio State University conducted a study where they studied predation of bluegill, fathead minnows and gizzard shad by northern pike, muskellunge and their hybrid, tiger muskies. They found that laboratory experiments clearly showed that these three predators vastly preferred shad and minnows over bluegills. They had to utilize up to five times as many strikes to capture bluegill compared to the shad and minnows. The studies proved that bluegills were much more adept at evading predators than the other species in the lab tests; therefore, the predators chose to target the other species instead when all three prey species were present.
In the early 1990s, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources Biologists Michael Bozek and Thomas Burri conducted stomach sampling of over 1,000 muskies caught on 34 different bodies of water in Northern Wisconsin. They found that fish made up 98% of the contents found in the stomachs of the muskies caught for the study. Yellow Perch made up 17% of the volume of fish found and Catostomids (suckers) made up 47% of the total volume of food found; therefore, they were able to conclude that the diet of muskies, while diverse, is predominately made up of suckers and yellow perch in the waters of Northern Wisconsin.
In 2007 Minnesota DNR Fisheries Biologist Mike Knapp conducted a survey of fish populations in 41 lakes stocked with muskies in Minnesota and found no evidence of any fish populations that the introduction or stocking of muskies had negatively impacted. He stated, “If muskie stocking resulted in a negative impact on other fish populations, we would have seen a pattern emerge.”
The latest study to be conducted was once again in Minnesota and is being undertaken by Kamden Glade, a grad student at Bemidji State University. The findings back up what other studies have already clearly shown and add proof that muskies are beneficial to panfish species on the waters where these studies are conducted
Thus far, they have found that the CPUE (Catch Per Unit Effort) of northern pike has been on a steady rise in all lakes except those that have been stocked with muskies. They have also been able to determine that yellow perch CPUE has seen a decrease statewide throughout the study period. In lakes stocked with muskies, the CPUE of Yellow Perch was significantly higher. Biologists believe the reason for this is muskies prey on northern pike and thus help maintain their populations in a healthy manner. Lakes that have muskies present have fewer northern pike present but larger average size than lakes without muskies. These same lakes where muskies are present to keep pike populations in check also have more robust and healthier populations of yellow perch than those without muskies.
What we also know is that in recent years, studies have shown that panfish populations are much more susceptible to over-fishing than previously thought, and targeting them during their spawning period can be incredibly detrimental to the health of their population, especially when talking about the larger fish. Very liberal creel limits in many places, as well as advancements in the technology available to anglers, make them much more effective at catching fish year-round. This all likely plays a role in the decline of the quality panfish populations in many lakes.. As an avid panfish angler, many of my most productive lakes here in Northern Michigan are also home to muskies. Whether that is due to their presence or not, I cannot say for sure, but they certainly are not hurting anything.
I can also say that I do not feel muskies are quite the vicious creatures folks make them out to be: Muskies are a keystone species and exist in very limited numbers, even in the most sought-after musky fisheries
They are a very powerful fish and have lots of sharp teeth, but they are also a very efficient predator, only using energy when they have to. If you have ever done much fishing for them, you know they don’t precisely chase down and kill everything tossed in “or near” the water. If they did, they would not have earned the reputation as “the fish of ten thousand casts.”
If you want better panfish populations, then perhaps you should look to conservation and management efforts that focus on healthy ecosystems and fish populations. Maybe we should consider those muskies just might be more of a solution than a problem as the science suggests.
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