The catch and release of harvestable-size muskellunge has been instrumental in perpetuating populations of this highly prized sport fish throughout its range. The importance of this practice is magnified by two basic occurrences that face today’s fisheries managers. First, muskellunge are a low-density predator even in the best of North America’s waters; and second, the targeted angling pressure for this species is higher than is has ever been, and it is increasing at an alarming rate. As the popularity of muskellunge fishing continues to grow, the practice of catch and release will become even more critical in maintaining populations of this magnificent animal.
Unfortunately, in the 20-plus years that I have been involved in the production and management of this fish, one thing that has become painfully obvious to me is that the survival rate of angler caught and released muskellunge is not as high as we all would like to think. During this time period, I have seen Minnesota’s muskellunge resource rise to levels that have generated international attention. As a result, I’ve come to appreciate the significance of a line from one of my favorite movies, "If you build it, they will come." The "they" in this case are muskie anglers of all skill and experience levels, both resident and non-resident. While the growth of this fishery has generated many new recreational and economic opportunities in this state, it has come with a price. I have personally recovered and autopsied hundreds of dead muskellunge and hybrid muskies from the waters in this part of the State. While the recovery of these fish has provided some valuable information, it has also shown the effects of poor handling of fish that have been caught and subsequently released by anglers. In many cases, it was easy to determine exactly where the fish had been held firmly and how the angler’s hands were oriented by the bruising of tissue resulting from pooling of blood from ruptured vascularization and the damage to skeletal structures of the body and gills. A synthesis of some of the injury observations resulting from autopsies of these recovered angling mortalities form the basis for many of the potential handling problems discussed in this article. In one of the state’s muskellunge brood lakes, I had tagged the fish from the earliest stocked year classes and monitored them during their adult life span. While I had the opportunity to handle these fish and collect their gametes for multiple years, one alarming fact has stood out during this time. I have yet to recapture a single tagged fish whose number has been reported as being caught and released by local anglers! While I am a firm believer in the value of catch and release, one can’t help but be concerned as a result of observations such as this.
We all have to keep this practice in perspective. If we turn back the clock to the 1960’s and before, almost every legal size muskellunge that was caught was harvested. The angling mortality rate