(English) Muskies Canada’s Biggest Project

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Trapnetting in Gloucester Pool

The Lake Simcoe Muskie Restoration Project (LSMRP) commenced in 2004. Before it started, there were several years of feasibility studies, which determined that restocking of Lake Simcoe was viable. Muskies Canada Executive asked the Toronto Chapter to lead the project for the club. Dave Boxall headed the LSMRP Team in the early years, with Steve Bedarf, Jim Kelly and Cupcake. In 2002 and 2003, the team had limited knowledge of how to raise wild Muskie, obtained eggs from Lake Couchiching, and experimented with outdoor ponds. These efforts were largely unsuccessful, due primarily to cannibalism, with no fingerlings in the first year and 8 in the second year.

The LSMRP then started in 2004. Our two main operational partners were the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) and Sir Sandford Fleming`s Lindsay hatchery (Fleming). The key people we worked with were Emily Funnell (Jason Borwick in the early years), Wil Wegman and Brent Shirley of the MNRF`s Aurora and Midhurst districts and Mark Newell of Fleming. The Muskies Canada team the past decade has been lead by Ian Young, Jim Kelly, Dave Boxall and Andy Pappas, with many volunteers assisting every year with both the collection of eggs in the spring in Gloucester Pool and the putting of fall fingerlings into the Lake in late October and early November. A lot of expertise regarding the raising of wild Muskies has been developed by all of these involved parties.

The original term of the Project was 10 years, with an annual target of 500 fall fingerlings and yearlings. This was later changed to 14 or 15 years, with an annual target in excess of 1,000 fingerlings and yearlings after Dr. John Casselman said he was sure we would be successful if we stocked muskies through 3 life cycles. Dr. Casselman is the world`s top living Muskie scientist. We have evidence from a similar 8 year restocking program of over 10,000 fingerlings and yearlings in the Spanish River that finished a decade ago (see article in the last issue of the RJ) which has been successful. There has been DNA proof of our stocked fingerlings surviving and many inadvertent catches and sightings of Muskie in Lake Simcoe. By the end of 2018, the LSMRP had lasted 14 years and we had stocked over 20,000 fingerlings and yearlings into Lake Simcoe.

Egg fertilization
Egg fertilization

The total cost of the LSMRP through 2018 has been over $1.5 million. Muskie Canada`s contribution has been over $250,000 ln cash plus many hours by volunteers each year in management meetings, assisting with the spring egg collections and putting of fingerlings and yearlings into the Lake in the fall. Muskie Canada`s fundraising efforts have been lead by Jim, Dave and Ian. Our main financial supporters have been the Becker Foundation (see separate article), the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters (Zones E, G, H and J), Orillia Fish and Game, and Muskies Canada (National and the Kawartha Lakes, Hamilton, Barrie and Toronto Chapters). Thanks to a lot of hard work by Peter Levick to obtain approval from Georgina Township for Muskies to run a provincial lottery in 2016 and a lot of additional work by Tom McCutcheon to run the lottery since then, significant funds have been raised to help fund the LSMRP each year. Over $5,000 has also been donated by individuals to our “Adopt-a-Muskie” program, which we are running jointly with Fleming. These funds are currently in the Muskies Canada Foundation, earmarked for the LSMRP.

Emily Funnell, Resources Management Supervisor of the MNRF`s Aurora District and a Muskie fingerling ready for release

The LSMRP brings a lot of positive publicity each year to Muskies Canada and Muskie conservation. There have been many magazine and newspaper articles and film clips and interviews on television. The LSMRP was the first winner of the best fisheries conservation project in Canada when that annual award was started in 2010. There have also been presentations on the LSMRP at the two world Muskellunge symposiums in Ottawa and Minnetonka, Minnesota in 2014 and 2016. A scientific paper on the LSMRP, was published by the American Fisheries Society in 2017 in its book titled « Muskellunge Management ». A major reason why we have such a strong relationship with the Spring Fishing and Boat Show, and Andy and Vita Pallotta, has been the LSMRP. We developed Muskie Sunday, one of our two major annual fundraising efforts with the Odyssey, out of Andy`s desire to help us raise funds for the LSMRP and Muskie conservation.

There have been many benefits for Muskies Canada in addition to the satisfaction of helping to restore muskellunge to their historical waters in Lake Simcoe. Muskies Canada, the MNRF and Fleming are now likely the most knowledgeable raisers of wild muskellunge in the world We have developed tremendous partnerships and personal friendships with the MNRF, Fleming, OFAH, the Becker Foundation and Muskies Inc., Orillia Fish and Game, and many other partners. This project has been a significant help in raising Muskie Canada`s profile in the fishing and conservation worlds.

At the end of 2018 we had exceeded our expectations regarding the number of Muskie fingerlings and yearlings stocked into the Lake. The MNRF and Muskies Canada have jointly decided that 2019 is a good time to stop egg collections, rearing and stocking of muskies for the LSMRP. Thus, as Emily Funnell, Resources Management Supervisor of the MNRF`s Aurora District announced in a press release in December 2018, “We will not be undertaking egg collections, rearing and stocking in 2019. We will continue to engage with our partners and fisheries experts as we move into long term effectiveness monitoring.”

A special thank you to all of our partners and volunteers for their contributions to date. We look forward to continuing to work together in the future on the long-term monitoring program.

(English) The Lake Simcoe Muskie Restoration Project

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Young muskie during stocking at Orillia and Cook’s Bay
Young muskie during stocking at Orillia and Cook’s Bay

By Ian Young, Jim Kelly, and Dave Boxall

2018 marked the 14th year of the Lake Simcoe Muskie Restoration Program (LSMRP). The epitome of a true partnership, the LSMRP involves Muskies Canada, Orillia Fish and Game, Fleming College, the Becker Foundation, OFAH, Toronto Spring Fishing and Boat Show and MNRF’s Aurora and Midhurst Districts. This program aims to restore a self-sustaining Muskie population that is not reliant on stocking back into Lake Simcoe. Once plentiful in the lake, it is believed that by the 1930’s the species was almost extirpated due to a variety of reasons, including a prior commercial fishery, decreased spawning habitat quality increasing Pike numbers and a lack of catch and release ethic by anglers.

A Feasibility study conducted prior to the program’s start in 2005, determined that restoring Muskie was feasible, but likely wouldn’t be successful if the original or Kawartha strain Muskie was used to help restock the lake. Kawartha’s Muskie have proven to have little tolerance for, nor an ability to co-exist with Northern Pike whereas their cousins to the north in Georgian Bay, have long been able to co-exist. Therefore, all partners agreed that Georgian Bay strain Muskie would be used.

Since 2005, crews trap netted Muskie every spring in either Georgian Bay or nearby Gloucester Pool (considered same strain) hoping to collect as many as three families each year. But like all good things … it wasn’t easy! “If Muskie are known as the fish of 10,000 casts amongst us anglers, then they are quietly recognized as the fish of a thousand net sets for fisheries techs and biologists,” revealed long time Muskies Canada member, trap netting volunteer and LSMRP organizer Jim Kelly. “Some years we would capture several ripe male and female muskies and collect our full three families in less than two weeks while other years MNRF staff would have their nets out and check for 4 or 5 weeks and barely scrape out enough ripe Muskie for one family,” he added. Whatever the case however one thing was certain … that once the fertilized eggs were transferred over to Mark Newell – “The Muskie Whisperer” and Hatchery Manager at Sir Sandford Fleming College in Lindsay, he would work his magic and get the absolute most out of every single egg, fry and fingerling he was tasked with raising!

Over the years the actual number of Muskie stocked into Lake Simcoe has varied tremendously … from less than a hundred at the start to as many as 4,000 in 2015.

After more than 10 years of trapnetting Muskie in Gloucester Pool, crews from Midhurst and Aurora realized that fewer and fewer Muskie were being caught there so they decided instead in 2018 to join forces with their MNRF Upper Great Lakes Management Unit (UGLMU) cohorts to help trap net Muskie in Severn Sound of Georgian Bay. Here they trap netted for over three weeks in early May and although several Muskie were captured … not all were ripe and willing to yield the eggs and milt required. One very large family however was collected from a big female with plenty of eggs and in the end, this proved to be the saving grace for 2018. “Mark was able to work his magic once again and get the absolute optimal results from that one family … enough that by early summer he was able to transfer 450 summer fingerlings to MNRF’s Harwood Fish Culture Station,” said Dave Boxall long time Muskie Canada member LSMRP organizer. Here, just like Mark was able to do at Fleming, staff did an amazing job ensuring cannibalism was kept at a minimum and only a small handful of mortalities were the result. So … by November stocking time about 1,700 fall fingerlings from Fleming were ready to be stocked into Lake Simcoe and 400 from Harwood were prepared for Georgian Bay at Severn Sound. “The major preparation procedure is basically switching all of the Muskie over from a pellet based feed – over to minnows. This helps acclimate all those individuals to the type of food source they’ll need to chase down and capture in their new homes if they want to survive” concluded Dave.

It was agreed beforehand that a portion of the total stocking numbers in 2018 should go back into the waterbody where the parents came from. On November 15, a crew from MNRF Aurora District, the UGLMU and Harwood Fish Culture, braved icy and snowy conditions to travel out on Georgian Bay in their Jon Boat to release 397 Muskie. “As Wil Wegman, with MNRF Aurora District who’s been connected with the LSMRP mentioned on his Instagram and Facebook Page, many of those young Muskie were stocked around the exact same area of Severn Sound where their parents were captured in trap nets that very spring and where that very important egg collection was conducted,” said Ian.

Stocking Muskie back into Lake Simcoe occurred successfully as well. On November 3rd, over 35 volunteers from Orillia Fish and Game, Muskies Canada, Bayshore Village Community, Fleming College and the Aurora Bassmasters … converged on Barnstable Bay in Lake Simcoe, and released 500 healthy young fingerlings between 7-9 inches from Fleming. On November 6th, Fleming students travelled by boat to the south side of Georgina Island and released 587 Muskie between there and the mainland. The Talbot River was the final stop for Muskie stocking in 2018 and for at least a year while the stocking portion of the LSMRP takes a one-year hiatus in 2019. Those 589 fall fingerlings and four larger yearlings were stocked throughout the river in prime habitat with more shiners to feed on than they could eat in a lifetime.

Ian Young is past president of MCI and lead for the LSMRP for his organization. “So after stocking over 20,000 Muskie into Lake Simcoe since 2005, it looks like, at Press Time anyways, that LSMRP will be taking at least a year off from capturing Muskie in the spring for egg collections and from raising Muskie at the hatcheries and releasing fall fingerlings in November”. There are several reasons for this hiatus, including current spending and travel restrictions on MNRF District staff since the new government came into power here in Ontario,

“After 14 years we are nearing the end of the project and it is now timely to sit back and re-evaluate where the program should go from here. Without trap netting and stocking, in 2019 and beyond, I know MNRF staff would like to focus more on monitoring Lake Simcoe and it’s rivers to try and determine how successful the program has been and where all those stocked Muskie and their offspring can be found. So here at Muskies Canada, we are on board with that in a big way and we look forward to an ongoing partnership with the fine staff at MNRF. We have made some great working relationships and personal friendships with these dedicated Muskie enthusiasts and we know that won’t end anytime soon,” concluded Ian.