Population trends and status of the fishery

Muskellunge are known to be present in 21 lakes and some of the zone’s major river watersheds. An effective sampling protocol specifically targeting muskellunge does not currently exist. Routine index netting and creel surveys have collected a limited number of muskellunge samples over the years.

Muskellunge compete with northern pike for both habitat and food resources and muskellunge density is typically lower when northern pike are present. Northern pike are also suspected to have a detrimental impact on muskellunge populations primarily due to direct predation of young-of-the-year (YOY) muskellunge by YOY northern pike, as the latter gain a size advantage at a very young age, due to earlier spawning (Dombeck et al., 1986; Harrison and Hadley, 1978; Inskip and Magnuson, 1983 and 1986; Monfette et al., 1995; Osterberg, 1985; Wahl, 1989; Wahl and Stein, 1993) muskellunge in most of FMZ 18 have, for the most part, always existed in a northern pike dominated environment.

Muskellunge make up a very limited component of the recreational fishery. On most lakes and rivers, less than 1% of anglers target muskellunge. In addition to survey data, members of Muskies Canada Inc. have participated in an angler diary program since 1979 (Kerr, 2004), providing data from angler catches of muskellunge. In 2012, the average catch rate by anglers in FMZ 18 (0.108 fish per angler hour – on four waterbodies) was on par with the Ontario average (0.122 fish per angler hour), with muskellunge exceeding 102 cm. (40 inches) reported on all four waterbodies for which angler diary data was available. The average catch rate (fish per angler hour) by anglers on the Rideau River, the zone’s most popular muskellunge fishing destination, was double the Ontario average, including one catch as large as, or exceeding, 127 cm. (50 inches) (Taillon and Heinbuck, 2013). The vast majority of muskellunge anglers do not target the fish for harvest.

In summary, muskellunge populations in FMZ 18 are presumed to be at relatively low abundance in lakes and relatively moderate to high abundances in rivers, and are not likely showing signs of high mortality. The management focus for this species is to try and maintain, and possibly increase populations, beyond current levels.

Muskellunge management in FMZ 18

FMZ 18 supports a limited, but relatively high quality muskellunge fishery, capable of producing a number of large sized fish. Muskellunge are native to the area and Ontario supports the overwhelming majority of naturally reproducing native populations worldwide. MNRF and the Advisory Council identified a number of challenges to managing muskellunge populations in FMZ 18.

Management challenges:

  • lack of an effective, standardized assessment protocol for surveying muskellunge populations
  • post-release mortality, particularly from incidentally caught muskellunge
  • loss of critical spawning habitat and/or connectivity to this habitat
  • water level and flow fluctuations in the spring causing recruitment failure
  • limited enforcement resources and the need to better educate the public on species identification, in comparison to northern pike

The MNRF with the advice of the Advisory Council developed objectives and strategies to address the challenges and help reach the following muskellunge management goal.

Goal:

To maintain a trophy muskellunge fishery supported by naturally reproducing populations.

Objective 1:

Maximize growth potential of the muskellunge populations.

The size limit recommendations in the Regulatory Guidelines for the Management of Muskellunge in Ontario (aka Muskellunge Tool Kit) were developed based on extensive analysis of female growth characteristics and are based on the minimum ultimate size for a given population. A standard minimum size limit of 91 cm (36 in.) is related to the minimum reproductive size of muskellunge in Ontario. In addition, the minimum ultimate size, which represents the length which 99% of female muskellunge would reach if they grew indefinitely, is used in Ontario to set standard ‘trophy’ minimum size limits (Casselman, 2007). These recommendations have been implemented in FMZ 18, with a zone-wide standard minimum size limit of 91 cm (36 in.), and with standardized exceptions in place where growth rates have been determined to warrant higher minimum size limits (e.g. Rideau River).

Strategies to address the objective include:

  • assess growth potential in FMZ 18 muskellunge fisheries
  • promote and support additional science to better manage sustainable muskellunge populations
  • encourage Muskies Canada volunteer angler programs to provide data from various muskellunge fisheries

Objective 2:

Maintain or increase suitable habitat conditions to provide for natural muskellunge recruitment.

Muskellunge concentrate at specific sites to spawn each spring in shallow bays or littoral zones of lakes, rivers, streams and wetland areas. It is important to identify, enhance, protect and provide access to these sites to ensure sustainable muskellunge populations. Muskellunge spawning habitat can be impacted by fluctuating water levels and flows. It is important to maintain consistent water levels and flows during the spawning/hatching period of muskellunge. If the water levels are lowered during this time period, eggs (and/or larval fish that stick to vegetation) may be killed if they are exposed to air. There are numerous dams and hydropower facilities in FMZ 18 that control flows and levels that could impact muskellunge spawning success.

Strategies to address the objective include:

  • identify spawning areas where current water management regiments create recruitment issues and use water management planning process to potentially address these areas of conflict
  • work with stakeholders to identify spawning/nursery areas
  • engage stakeholders to increase awareness, promote and undertake rehabilitation to enable natural shorelines
  • share fishery management objectives, the need to maintain wetlands and connectivity to wetlands, spawning locations and other habitat information (e.g. LIO) with partner agencies to enable the protection of these important areas through land use planning and application of their regulatory mandates (e.g. DFO and Fisheries Act)
  • seek opportunities to restore connections among habitats (e.g. to wetlands)

The goal, objectives and strategies have been summarized in Table 5.

Table 5: muskellunge management summary

Adapted from tabular format

Muskellunge management goal

To maintain a trophy muskellunge fishery supported by naturally reproducing populations.

Objective 1:

Maximize growth potential of the muskellunge populations.

Strategies
  • Assess growth potential in FMZ 18 muskellunge fisheries.
  • Promote and support additional science to better manage sustainable muskellunge populations.
  • Encourage Muskies Canada volunteer angler programs to provide data from various muskellunge fisheries.
Progress reviewed by

BsM Cycle 4

IndicatorBenchmarkTarget
% of Maximum Ultimate Size (MUS) fish reported.Current # of MUS fish reported.Maintain or > Current # of MUS fish reported.
# of waterbodies with MUS class fish.Current # of waterbodies with MUS class fish.Maintain or > Current # of waterbodies with MUS class fish.
Objective 2:

Maintain or increase suitable habitat conditions to provide for natural muskellunge recruitment.

Strategies
  • Identify spawning areas where current water management regiments create recruitment issues and use water management planning process to potentially address these areas of conflict.
  • Work with stakeholders to identify spawning/nursery areas.
  • Engage stakeholders to increase awareness, promote and undertake rehabilitation to enable natural shorelines.
  • Share fishery management objectives, the need to maintain wetlands and connectivity to wetlands, spawning locations and other habitat information (e.g. LIO) with partner agencies to enable the protection of these important areas through land use planning and application of their regulatory mandates (e.g. DFO and Fisheries Act).
  • Seek opportunities to restore connections among habitats (e.g. to wetlands).
Progress reviewed by

BsM Cycle 3

IndicatorBenchmarkTarget
# and total surface area, of suitable spawning habitat and habitat conditions.Current # and total surface area, of suitable spawning habitat and habitat conditions.Maintain or > Current # and total surface area, of suitable spawning habitat and habitat conditions.

Muskellunge monitoring and assessment

The provincial BsM program is the primary lake survey method used to collect fisheries data in Ontario. The program collects information on a large number of lakes to determine status and trends of fisheries at the FMZ scale. The BsM program collects information about fish species, abundance, population structure, growth, maturity and fishing effort. For muskellunge, that is not captured in sufficient numbers to adequately monitor population status using BsM, additional enhanced monitoring may be required. Enhanced monitoring may entail modified BsM projects that target muskellunge habitat, or using other MNRF standardized netting protocols (FWIN, NSCIN). Additional enhanced monitoring will help inform local land-use planning and resource management decision making, consistent with the goals, objectives and outcomes of the FMZ18 plan.

Strategies:

  • support the development of an effective muskellunge population assessment technique
  • develop public/partner opportunities to explore a voluntary program to monitor muskellunge spawning activity
  • encourage Muskies Canada volunteer angler programs to provide data from various muskellunge fisheries

Current muskellunge regulations:

The catch and possession limit for muskellunge in FMZ 18 is one fish for a Sport Licence holder and zero for a Conservation Licence holder. A minimum size limit of 91 cm. (36 in.) is in place across most of the FMZ, with a few exceptions with longer minimum size limits (i.e. Moira Lake and River – 102 cm. (40 in.); Stocco Lake – 102 cm. (40 in.); and the Rideau River -112 cm. (44 in.)), consistent with the MNRF Regulatory Guidelines for the Management of Muskellunge (aka Muskellunge ‘Toolkit’).

The muskellunge season opens on the 1st Saturday in June and closes on December 15th.