September 19, 2007

La Crosse Tribune, Wis., Bob Lamb Outdoors Column: Bob Lamb Column: An Avid Muskellunge Angler, DNR’s Jordan Weeks Piloting Program to Develop a Muskie Resource in Lake Neshonoc

By Bob Lamb, La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Sep. 19--was planning to go muskie fishing on Lake Neshonoc until I talked with Jordan Weeks last week. Now I've decided to allow the fish to grow a couple of years before wetting a line in the beautiful lake in West Salem, Wis.

Weeks is the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources inland fisheries biologist for La Crosse, Monroe, Vernon and Crawford counties. He has been with the DNR for eight years, working primarily with walleyes and muskies in northern Wisconsin.

The 32-year-old Weeks grew up in Stoughton, Wis. He transferred to the La Crosse area in the spring of 2005 and enjoys the Coulee Region. When Weeks isn't working or spending time with his wife and family, he heads up north to fish for muskies.

Spend a few minutes chatting with Weeks about muskies and you will discover he is a "walking encyclopedia" when it comes to Wisconsin's state fish. So it seems only natural that he is spearheading a pilot program to develop a muskie resource in Lake Neshonoc that hopefully will rival the state's best northern muskie waters some day.

So far, so good.

It all began last September when Weeks and DNR crews released 521 12-inch muskies into Lake Neshonoc and another 219 12-inchers into the La Crosse River below the Neshonoc Dam. The 740 fingerlings were hatched only four months earlier in Spooner, Wis.

DNR crews marked the fingerlings with a left rear fin clip before releasing them into Lake Neshonoc and the

La Crosse River. Now it's just matter of time to see how large they grow.

"It takes about five to six years before muskies reach adulthood," Weeks said.

By 2010, the male fingerlings could be about 30 inches long while the females could be up to 36 inches long, according to Weeks.

Now, fast forward to May 2 when Weeks and the DNR tried something never attempted before in Wisconsin. Adult muskies, 116 to be exact, were caught in fyke nets or electro-shocked by DNR crews and then transferred by a special DNR hatchery truck from Butternut Lake in northwestern Wisconsin to 743-acre Lake Neshonoc in La Crosse County.

Weeks said all of the muskies looked healthy and swam away easily when released. However, three fish were found dead floating in Lake Neshonoc about six days later.

"That's excellent if that's all it was because this has never been done in Wisconsin with any adult fish, especially muskies," Weeks said.

While a 97 percent survival rate is excellent, Weeks said a few others may have died and remained on the bottom before eaten by turtles. Typically, dead fish don't float, he said.

The adult transfer fish didn't have fin clips, but rather internal transmitter tags in their cheeks.

"The general angler won't see it," Weeks said. "When we catch them and wave a special wand over the fish, it tells us the number of the tag."

Eleven transfer fish were 39 inches long. Twenty-two additional muskies were 34 inches long, the state's minimum legal size limit.

Weeks said he has heard reports of about a half-dozen muskies being caught and released so far. He encourages all anglers to continue releasing legal-sized muskies they catch from Lake Neshonoc or the La Crosse River.

"Obviously, most of the fish are smaller," he said. "I would just recommend staying away a year or so to get a bigger fish population up there. The odds of catching one of those larger ones are not very good anyway."

Weeks said muskies in Lake Neshonoc have the potential to grow very large thanks to a huge carp population to feed on and ideal water temperatures. He said carp make up 70 to 75 percent of the total fish population in the lake.

Muskies are an opportunistic predator and will eat anything that swims past them.

"They can feed on anything up to one third their body size, so 30-inchers could eat 10-inch fish," he said.

Neshonoc Lake also provides changing temperatures to grow large muskies. Weeks said warm water from the La Crosse River enters the lake in winter while cooler water flows into the lake in summer.

"This helps all the fish in the lake because they can grow in the winter," too," he said, adding that the lake eventually could become home to 50-inch muskies reaching 40 pounds in 15 years or so.

Weeks said the transfer muskies were thin because of limited food and an overpopulation of the popular game fish in Butternut Lake. However, he said they will "plump right up" because of an unlimited food course. They also have fewer muskies to compete against.

Weeks also said that adding another top-end predator to Lake Neshonoc simply provides another species of fish for anglers to try for.

Who knows? Some day the state record muskie may come out of our own Lake Neshonoc. That would be quite a fish story, wouldn't it?

Bob Lamb can be reached at (608) 791-8228, or at: [email protected]


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