To give anglers more of a chance to catch a musky, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is going to stock fewer of them.
It’s a matter of size and survival, apparently.
A few years ago the commission changed course with its musky program. Once it sprinkled a few fish in a whole bunch of waters all around the state to give fishermen everywhere a chance – albeit a tiny one – of hooking a musky.
More recently it’s concentrated its fish in fewer waters to create “targeted destination waters,” or higher-quality musky fisheries, said Brian Ensign, a biologist in its Tionesta office.
There are 16 waters across the state that have long been stocked and still get fish. Seven lakes and three river sections were removed from the stocking list, though, and the fates of another eight are under review. The Allegheny River will be examined this year, for example.
Now comes another change.
Muskies can reach 50 inches in length. Most are stocked at 12 inches or less, though.
In years past the commission stocked muskies as fingerlings in the fall of the same year they were born, at about six months of age. They averaged about 7 inches.
Over the past few seasons, though, it’s also held a few back in its hatcheries over winter. They were stocked in spring, as yearlings.
Those fish were noticeably more impressive, said Rob Brown, manager of northern hatcheries for the commission. They were bigger – up to 14 inches, longer than any ever released in the state previously – fatter, livelier and more colorful, he said.
“There’s no comparison between these fish getting stocked in spring compared to what we were releasing even three years ago,” Brown said,
They do better, too.
Some of both age groups were tagged. Biologists sampled the waters that got fish months later to see which – the fingerlings or yearlings – survived best.
It turns out the yearlings are four times as likely to last from one season to the next as the smaller muskies, Ensign said.
The result is that starting in 2018, the commission is going to stock all of its muskies as 12- to 14-inch yearlings, he said.
That will mandate compromise, though.
The commission will have to change its hatchery operations, Brown said. Fingerling muskies can be fed solely pellets. Yearlings require live minnows in their final months, though.
The commission will have to start raising that bait in ponds, Brown said.
That shouldn’t so much change the cost of raising a fish – it will stay around $10 – as much as change where the money is spent, Brown said.
More notable is how many fish can – or can’t — be raised. Hatcheries only have so much capacity, Ensign said.
There have been times recently, he noted, when fisheries managers were asking for more big muskies than the hatcheries could produce. Some waters that were scheduled to fish every year didn’t.
“That’s been a concern. We’re trying to maintain a high-quality musky population,” Ensign said. “We want to make sure they’re being consistently stocked.”
So the commission is going to trade quantity for quality. Last year it stocked more than 82,000 purebreds and tigers. Next year it will stock closer to 47,000, with 40,000 of those purebreds, Brown said.
Waters will get fewer fish, Ensign said. But if more of those fish survive, and he said there’s no reason to expect they won’t, the reduction in numbers shouldn’t matter. In fact, he said, the fishing could improve.
He pointed out that the commission is studying adult muskies, too. Those caught in trap nets during routine surveys are being implanted with tags. When they’re recaptured in subsequent years, biologists can determine how fast they’re growing, among other things, Ensign said.
That work’s showing, in general, that Pennsylvania muskies grow to 36 inches pretty quickly before things level off a bit.
But Ensign said survival has looked good to date. If stocking bigger fish boosts those numbers, he said, fishermen will benefit.
Jason Detar, chief of the commission’s fish management division, said the agency has talked with musky anglers about the changes. He thinks most will like them in time if they succeed in creating lakes and rivers where they can go and reasonably expect to get action.
They’ve said they want to “encounter” fish on every trip, whether that means hooking one or not, he added.
“True musky anglers are different than most anglers in that they know there not going to catch 10 fish every time out,” Detar said. “They’re interested in a trophy-size fish.
“If they’re getting consistent encounters, they’re satisfied with that.”
Brown certainly is expecting good results going forward.
“You’re going to have some happy anglers,” he said.
Two cities, two pilots
Might catfish be a key to recruiting new anglers or at least keeping people fishing longer into summer?
The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission aims to find out.
The agency is going to conduct two experimental catfish programs this summer, one in Pittsburgh and another in Philadelphia.
Area fisheries manager Rick Lorson with a channel catfish.
The former will be held at North Park on July 29-30. The commission will host a family fishing festival from 4-6 p.m. on Saturday, with agency staff teaching people how to catch and care for catfish, said Carl Richardson, its education section manager.
Afterward, until 11 p.m., youth anglers and their adult mentors – with the required permits and licenses — will be able to fish for catfish, though only the kids can keep any. The action will continue under those same rules from dawn to 11 p.m. Sunday.
The commission will buy and stock 1,200 to 1,300 channel cats averaging 14 inches long for the event.
“We’re also going to get some big bruisers out of the (Pymatuning) sanctuary,” Richardson said.
Those fish will all be at least 24 inches long.
Meanwhile, it will try another approach to getting people into catfishing at the Schuylkill Banks/Walnut Creek Access in Philadelphia.
It will run a family catfish festival from 9 a.m.-noon on Aug. 5. It will be part of an annual event known as the “Philly Fun Fishing Fest.”
The commission won’t stock any catfish there; the Schuylkill has a good native population, Richardson said.
But neither will it require participants to have a fishing license, he added. Fishing ill be open to all.
Which approach, if either, will get people fishing?
The commission will be “evaluating the daylights” out of both, Richardson said. It will count anglers, monitor catch rates and, over the following 12 to 18 months, compare the fishing license buying habits of participants before and after the festivals.