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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.