A Fanatical Few

By Tom Cwynar | July 2, 2008
From Missouri Conservationist: Jul 2008

They call muskies the fish of 10,000 casts, and they’re not exaggerating by much. In Missouri, where muskie fishing is better than in most other states, the average muskie angler spends about 32 hours on the water for each legal-size fish he or she catches.

Figure, for example, eight 4-hour trips to the lake. If it’s spitting rain and the wind churns up whitecaps, all the better. On average, the angler will drag the boat home without having landed a legal-size muskie during seven out of eight of those trips.

When, finally, a monster fish does come to net, it doesn’t get sliced up for Sunday dinner or stuffed with wadding and displayed over the fireplace. No, the lucky angler usually lets out a whoop, takes a picture or two, then promptly and carefully releases the trophy back into the water.

He or she will then begin fishing for the next one.

“Sanity has to be called into question whenever it comes to any kind of fishing,” said Gary Neely, president of the Pomme de Terre Chapter of Muskies Inc., “but muskie fishing is a unique obsession.”

Neely freely admits to being afflicted. He bought a homestead in Pittsburg, Mo., that overlooks Pomme de Terre Lake in large part because he knew muskies dwelt there. After moving in, he three times hired a professional guide to help him catch one. Although the guide taught him lots about muskie fishing, he didn’t learn a thing about muskie catching.

Neely then joined the local chapter of Muskies Inc., which gave him a large network of helpful muskie fishing friends, but still no muskies.

“If muskies are the fish of 10,000 casts,” he said, “then the lake owes me about 20 of them.”

Neely finally landed his first muskie. He said his second one came a little easier. He’s caught many more since then, including, last June, a 43-incher—his personal best.

Muskie Madness

If you haven’t hooked into a muskie or seen one sizing up your lure—or your boat!—you might wonder what the fuss is all about.

Muskies (Esox masquinongy) are toothy, top-of-the-food-pyramid predators. They feed mostly on other fish, as well as—if you believe legends—ducks, muskrats and even small dogs. They also are huge. The world record is 67 pounds, 8 ounces. The Missouri record is 41 pounds, 2 ounces. In Missouri, the minimum legal size limit is 36 inches!

Long, lean, predaceous and pugnacious, muskies are a challenge to hook and a thrill to fight. Because they often follow lures back to the boat, anglers routinely swish a lure around in the water a few times before extracting it for another cast. When this tactic works and a muskie strikes at boatside on a short line, the odds favor the muskie. And, no matter which way the fight goes, it sure features a lot of commotion.

We wouldn’t have muskies here (they aren’t native to Missouri) if the Conservation Department didn’t stock them. The state’s muskie program began in 1966 when the Department first placed muskies in Pomme de Terre Lake. Through the years, lakes have been added to and subtracted from the muskie program. Currently, the Department stocks the fish in Pomme de Terre, Fellows, Hazel Creek and Henry Sever lakes, as well as Busch Area Lake 35.

Although all the lakes provide good fishing, Pomme de Terre is the muskie hub of Missouri. The lake draws anglers from around the state and has become a national attraction.

“We have a tremendous fishery down here,” Neely said. “I think we have more fish per acre than you’ll find in any other place I could name. Even more than in what they call ‘premium’ muskies lakes up north and in Canada.

“And, you don’t need a passport to catch them.”

The Pomme de Terre Chapter of Muskies Inc. is part of a national organization dedicated to improving the sport of muskie fishing everywhere. The Pomme de Terre Chapter includes members from five states. Most of its 180 members, however, live in Missouri.

Neely said about a third of the members come from the Springfield/southwest area, another third from the Kansas City area and another third from St. Louis.

“Some of them drive down here for the meetings, even when there’s no fishing involved,” he said.

The club keeps members, who might undergo long stretches between catches, enthused about muskies. It’s especially helpful for club members who still are trying to catch their first muskie.

“What amazes me is the willingness of our members to tell you what they’re doing, where they are fishing, where their hot spots are, what lure they are using and how fast they are retrieving or trolling them,” Neely said.

The chapter’s annual Pomme de Tour events have institutionalized the practice of helping anglers. Two times a year, generally in the summer months, experienced members take members out on guided tours of one of the lake’s two major arms in a pontoon boat.

“We show them where to catch fish and on what,” said professional guide Earle Hammond. “We tell them what the bottom’s like, why the fish stay there and even show them brush piles that aren’t marked.”

Hammond also is a regional vice president for the national Muskies Inc. organization and is in charge of the chapter’s newsletter and Web site. The latter contains enough fishing and club information to keep you busy for days.

To bring members together, the chapter fills its calendar with meetings, outings and gatherings. Meetings often include time for fishing or, during the winter months, expert instruction in fishing and fishing accessories.

The chapter also offers a guided fishing trip free to new members who sign up for three years, a bonus that by itself is worth more than the price of membership. The Guide for a Day program offers the same expert instruction, plus dinner and a social hour for anyone who wants to learn more about muskie fishing.

The chapter also coordinates a team fishing event, called “Chapter Challunge,” where members compete against another chapter for bragging rights and modest prizes. These events are for members only, but the club’s biggest event, its fall tournament, which takes place on Oct. 3–5 this year, is open to the public.

The tournament actually is two tournaments in one: a Friday tournament, and then a Saturday–Sunday tournament. Each has its own registration and winners. A highlight of the three-day event is the Saturday night banquet, which features a raffle with lots of fishing-related prizes.

Hammond, who retired from police work in Kansas City, said he’s fished the chapter’s annual fall muskie tournament every year since 1980.

“I just fished that first tournament on a lark,” he said, “and I caught a muskie—my first one. It was 18-inches long. We didn’t know if it counted or what, so we went to another boat and asked. They said it had to be 30 inches to count. While we were talking, a guy pulled into the spot we were at, made one cast and caught a 43-incher. I’ll never forget that.”

Preserving Muskies

Although Pomme de Terre chapter members are crazy about fishing, they are extremely sensible when it comes protecting the fish that are the source of their fun.

“Muskie anglers typically love their fish,” said Fisheries Management Biologist Mark Boone, who served as the Conservation Department’s muskie coordinator for nine years. “They know that there’s not a whole lot of them out there compared to other fish, so they put them back so the rest of the muskie anglers, including themselves, have a chance to catch them again.”

Boone, an avid muskie angler whose name appears frequently on the “Fish Caught” section of the club’s Web site, said out of the thousands of muskies reported through the years as part of the Conservation Department’s Show-Me Muskie Project, only a few were reported harvested.

“And those were just the fish that didn’t revive after release attempts,” he said.

Hammond agrees. “Pretty much everybody in the club releases all the muskies they catch. I believe muskie clubs were the first to start catch-and-release.”

Club members also refrain from targeting muskies during the peak summer fishing months. That’s because muskies caught in water warmer than 80 degrees, even if they are handled carefully, might not survive after release.

“The muskie anglers know this and promote it more than we do,” Boone said. “They called their 2006 June tournament off because the water was warmer than normal and a few fish caught early in the tournament died. And, most of the time they’ll fuss at each other if they find someone out there muskie fishing when it’s too hot.”

Fortunately, Pomme de Terre has plenty of good crappie, walleye and bass fishing to feed the members’ fishing appetite during the summer, and, of course, there’s the chapter’s annual Kids’ Fishing Day.

“I don’t know who has more fun at Kids’ Day, the kids or the adults,” chapter president Neely said. “We tell our people to go borrow the next door neighbor’s kids if necessary, and we take them over to a local dock and supply them with worms and we measure anything and everything they catch. They all go home with trophies and fishing rods. It’s quite a program.”

“We do more than just fish,” Neely said. “We have a great working relationship with the Conservation Department and devote what funds we can to different projects that help the cause of muskie fishing and fishing in general.”

Neely said chapter members have volunteered to install and map brush piles, helped with an ongoing lake revegetation project and even walked the banks of the lake to scare away herons preying on young muskies that had recently been stocked. The club has also contributed funds to construct nets to protect fish in hatcheries and has pledged a large chunk of money toward building a disabled-accessible fishing pier on the lake.

“We do this because we figure there has to be a purpose for your club,” Neely said. “Otherwise you are just a group of people going fishing.”

Size Matters

The state record muskie is 49.5 inches long and was caught in the 1970s. Since then, state anglers have gone without “a 50,” even though muskies of this length are recorded in most states where muskies are found.

The difference may be a matter of genetics. In the early years of the muskie program, the fish stocked into Missouri waters have for the most part come from whatever sources were available, usually states to the north of us. Those strains of muskies may be better adapted to cooler climates and have an upper limit to growth here in Missouri.

The Conservation Department has been experimenting with the Kentucky strain of muskies, which in Kentucky lakes reach lengths of up to 53 inches. The first Kentucky strain muskies were stocked in Pomme de Terre and Fellows lakes in 2002. Those fish were 10–12 inches long when stocked and may soon provide a way for Missouri muskie anglers to break the magical 50-inch mark.

Download Missouri’s Muskie Management Plan, or you can request a copy by writing MDC Muskie Management Plan, PO Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65120, or e-mail pubstaff@mdc.mo.gov.

Also In This Issue

Identifying Aquatic Conservation Opportunity Areas means no species left behind.
Some answers in black and white.

This Issue's Staff

Editor In Chief - Ara Clark
Managing Editor - Nichole LeClair
Art Director - Cliff White
Writer/Editor - Tom Cwynar
Staff Writer - Bonnie Chasteen
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Photographer - Noppadol Paothong
Photographer - David Stonner
Designer - Stephanie Ruby
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Circulation - Laura Scheuler