For the record

Now’s the time to catch the world’s biggest muskie

Lately, I’ve been lying awake at night contemplating the Herculean feat of landing a world-record muskellunge. I’ve even carefully planned what I would do after catching it, right down to partially flooding my boat so the mammoth fish could stay alive while I slowly idled back to town. There, I’d have it measured and weighed on a certified scale, with witnesses, before carefully releasing it.

What got me fantasizing about the possibility of catching a record-breaking muskie? A bleached muskie jawbone that my daughter found on a remote Lake of the Woods beach this past summer. It was huge, unlike anything I’ve ever seen, complete with dinosaur-like teeth. I’ve been fortunate to catch several big fish in the high 40- and low 50-pound category, but this plate of dentures dwarfed even their toothy smiles.

I posted a close-up of the jaw on some social media sites and was soon swamped with comments, questions and observations—it seems a lot of muskie anglers share my dreams about landing the big one. There was even an intriguing debate about the likely length and weight of the fish when it was alive. “Its head would have been more than 15 inches wide,” noted one angler. “Goodness, the girth on that beast must have been pushing 40 inches.”

Still others wondered how the fish came to its demise. We’ll never know, of course, but it hopefully died of old age, which for muskies is roughly 30 years. Many lamented that possibility, but from a fisheries management perspective, you always want a portion of every fish population to live to its maximum life expectancy and die of natural causes—it’s the hallmark of a healthy state of affairs.

So, is there a new world-record muskie swimming in one of Ontario’s waters right now, a 70-pound-plus colossus cruising Georgian Bay or the St. Lawrence River? Or perhaps it’s a little farther north in Eagle Lake, Lac Seul, Lake of the Woods or a lesser-known waterbody such as Nosbonsing or Rowan. Whatever the case, there’s never been a better time to dream the dream—and for that, credit goes to a combination of four key factors.

Factor #1: Competition 

Male muskies rarely reach 40 inches in length, so the biggest fish are always the females. The same goes for most fish species—smallmouth bass being a notable exception—with Mother Nature giving females the ability to grow as large as possible in order to produce more eggs.

With muskies, the females can grow even larger still when they share the same waterbody with northern pike. In fact, there’s never been a world-record contender caught from a waterway that did not also host a native population of pike. But why is this so?

As most anglers know, pike spawn early in the spring, often as the ice is melting, so their hungry fry have a significant size advantage over all other fish species. Remarkably, muskies seem to know this if they share the same waters; so to compensate, they spawn twice in the spring. The first time the muskies come in, they lay about 75 per cent of their eggs. They then pull back for a week to 10 days while the remaining 25 per cent of their eggs mature within their bodies.

It’s as though the muskies know they’re endangered by the pike, and they lay as many eggs as possible to counterbalance the impending predation. Of course, there’s only one way a female muskie can produce more eggs: grow even larger. So explains the increased odds of catching a record-breaker in waters that also hold pike.

As for the contention that big, old muskies—or any fish species for that matter—produce fewer offspring, it’s simply not true, even though their eggs may be slightly less viable. The simple fact the giants are capable of generating so many eggs usually offsets any potential reduction in the eggs’ overall hardiness.

And keep in mind that the biggest muskies are not necessarily the oldest fish. Think of your favourite hockey, football or basketball players. They’re typically big, robust, able-bodied and young.

Factor #2: Climate Change 

Our climate is warming, and that’s producing winners and losers in the fish world. Muskies, being a warm-water species, clearly fall into the winners category, while the likes of trout find themselves on the losing end.

“As our waters continue warming, we’re going to see a rather substantial increase in muskellunge recruitment,” says renowned fisheries biologist John Casselman. So, too, are we bound to see fish growing larger faster. 

By way of example, Casselman points to the 61-pound Georgian Bay muskie caught in 2001 by Martin Williamson. The second-largest muskie ever caught in Canada, it was a product of the 1983 year class, making it just 18 years old. “The year 1977 was when things really started happening from a climate perspective on Georgian Bay, so that fish had the advantage of phenomenal feeding opportunities,” says Casselman.

In contrast, Ken O’Brien’s 65-pound Canadian-record muskie, caught in 1988 on Georgian Bay, was from the 1959 year class. “It took 30 years to get that size during those cooler years,” observes Casselman.

Walleye

Factor #3: Regulation 

Along with the late Ed Crossman, Casselman spearheaded the famous, decades-long muskie Cleithrum Project, which led to many of today’s muskellunge management systems. Indeed, muskies have enjoyed the best insurance policy possible in the form of inspired modern management.

Ironically, this conservation success story resulted from the fact that only diehard fanatics typically fished for muskies in the early days, a time when they were considered less than desirable table fare by most anglers. So, when forward-thinking organizations such as Muskies Canada and U.S.-based Muskies Inc. pressed hard for high-quality management, 54-inch-minimum size limits and stringent catch-and-release practices, no one objected.

Factor #4: Disease 

This is perhaps the most peculiar reason a new record-book muskie is likely to be landed sometime soon—disease. Consider the 2005 viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) outbreak that ravaged the celebrated St. Lawrence River muskie fishery.

“The muskellunge die-off was spectacular because the fish were gigantic,” says Casselman, who was one of the first scientists on the scene. “And we found them in every imaginable state of decay. To put it mildly, it was a rotten mess.”

At the time of the outbreak, the St. Lawrence muskie fishery was a model for management, with an enormous population of large fish. Also playing a big role in its success was the pervasive catch-and-release ethic among muskie anglers. “But when you’re managing for old, trophy-sized muskies, it’s a double-edged sword,” says Casselman, explaining that while the giant fish may attract anglers, they’re also more vulnerable to stressors. “You can lose them quickly, and that’s what happened when VHS invaded the system.”

From the ashes of the disaster, however, it appears a fishing Phoenix has arisen. Biologists are now seeing an explosion in the growth rate of post-VHS muskellunge in the St. Lawrence, with fish reaching 50 inches in length in just 12 years.

Amazingly, what appears to have happened is that the virus killed off only the oldest and slowest-growing members of the St. Lawrence River muskie population. For whatever reason, this segment was the most susceptible to the virus. On the flipside, the fish with the highest potential for growth survived. So, with the removal of the slow-growing fish, the fast growers are now mating with other fast growers and producing, well, superfish.

According to Casselman, if we now carefully manage the population and allow the fish to grow to their ultimate potential size, we may well see female muskies in the St. Lawrence River reaching upwards of 62 inches in length. And that, my friends, is certainly in world-record territory.

Casselman is currently analyzing the data from 12 post-VHS muskies, fish that died as a result of angling. “It’s exciting to see such a spectacular growth rate,” he says, noting that the growth potential on the St. Lawrence now surpasses that of Lac Seul, which had boasted the greatest in Ontario.

And while Casselman now pegs the minimum ultimate size for the St. Lawrence’s female muskies at 57 inches, he remains cautious. “We are certainly not out of the woods yet and we need to be concerned about the future management of the fish,” he says, noting that roughly half the mature spawning stock was lost owing to the VHS outbreak. “But still, what a spectacular story. What a spectacular resource.”

And what a spectacular chance for landing a new world-record muskie.

 

Record-Breaking Fish 

So, what is the current world-record muskie? It all depends on whom you ask. Here’s what these three record-keeping associations hold up as the biggest muskie of them all.

International Game Fish Association: According to IGFA, the all-tackle world record belongs to Cal Johnson and the 67-pound eight-ounce behemoth he is said to have hauled out of Wisconsin’s Lake Court Oreilles in 1949.

Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame: Purportedly weighing in at 69 pounds 11 ounces, Louis Spray’s record has long been doubted by many in the muskie fishing community. It was caught on Wisconsin’s Chippewa Flowage in 1949. 

Modern Day Muskellunge World Record Program: Launched in 2006 to set a fresh, verifiable world-record benchmark, this group lists Joe Seeberger’s 58-pound muskie as the “new modern standard.” It was caught in 2012 on Michigan’s Lake Bellaire.