What are the ecological impacts of winter water level drawdowns on muskellunge in Canada’s historic Rideau Canal? Exploring winter connectivity and habitat use to inform conservation strategies

Jordanna N. Bergman, PhD Candidate | Department of Biology, Carleton University

The Rideau Canal Waterway, located in eastern Ontario, is a 202-kilometres continuous route that forms a hydrological connection between the Ottawa River, at Canada’s capital city of Ottawa, and Lake Ontario, at the city of Kingston. Constructed 1826 to 1832, the system was originally created for Canadian commercial shipping and national defence; today, the Rideau Canal is primarily operated for recreation. The completed Rideau Canal includes a series of rivers, lakes, and constructed channels interconnected by 24 operating lockstations that form the navigable waterway, many with adjacent water-control dams. As a National Historic Site of Canada, a Canadian Heritage River, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Rideau Canal is internationally significant and, as a result, is highly regulated by the federal agency Parks Canada. Parks Canada is legally mandated to prioritize public safety, meet navigation requirements, and protect federally listed at-risk species; although their focus is not wildlife conservation, continuous management of the system has indeed supported the organisms residing within. The Rideau Canal has been described as having one of the most diverse fish assemblages (107 documented fish species) in Canada, and additionally, it supports one of the few wild urban muskellunge fisheries in North America supported by natural reproduction. Similar to most freshwater ecosystems, muskellunge in the Rideau Canal are ecologically important as apex predators and are also recreationally important as iconic sportfish.

During the Rideau Canal’s navigation season, which runs each year mid-May to mid-October, a channel along the entire waterway is maintained (minimum depth 1.5-metres) for boaters to travel safely. Outside of the navigation season, however, water levels in many reaches of the system are lowered (i.e., drawdowns). Each winter, in an 8.2-kilometre stretch of the waterway from Black Rapids Lockstation (45.321438, -75.698007) to Long Island Lockstation (45.250954, -75.702111), water levels are lowered by approximately 3-metres (10-feet). We refer to this section as the “Eccolands Reach” because of the nearby local Eccolands park. Most of the Eccolands Reach ranges in depth from 4.5-7.5-metres with a max depth of 9.1-metres; lowering the water levels by 3-metres for winter therefore significantly reduces the amount of habitat available for aquatic animals to overwinter in. 

Protecting habitat – critical habitats in particular – plays a key role in effective conservation. Critical habitat is defined as “the habitat that is necessary for the survival or recovery of a (listed) wildlife species,” and specific to aquatic species, critical habitat includes “areas on which aquatic species depend directly or indirectly in order to carry out their life processes.” Thus, any area that supports a life history process necessary for the survival of a species would therefore be considered “critical.” Though not explicitly stated, habitats which supports overwintering of aquatic organisms in Canada are consequently critical. Winter in North America is already an ecologically challenging season for freshwater fishes, and annual winter drawdowns can exacerbate challenges fish are already experiencing like reduced habitat and refuge from areas with lethal dissolved oxygen levels. Our goal is to not wait until it’s too late, and instead take proactive measures to ensure critical habitat of muskellunge is protected. Of serious concern to the Eccolands Reach muskellunge population are the highly urbanized surrounding lands. Previous research has shown that persistent anthropogenic disturbances and environmental modifications, like shoreline alteration, runoff from developments, and decreased water quality, can be detrimental to freshwater ecosystems, particularly to habitat quality and quantity. By discovering what areas of the Rideau Canal are most important to muskellunge survival and population health, we can proactively take steps to protect (and potentially even enhance) those areas and work against population declines. Because of the significant winter water drawdowns, and project timing, we decided to evaluate overwintering habitats first.

We use acoustic telemetry to track muskellunge movements in the Eccolands Reach. Acoustic telemetry essentially has two parts to it: 1) acoustic tags and 2) acoustic receivers. The tags are surgically implanted into muskellunge and each tag emits a “ping” every 20-seconds with a unique ID and timestamp. Acoustic receivers are deployed and sit at the bottom of the river, waiting for a tagged fish to swim by. When a tagged fish swims by a receiver and its tag emits a ping, the receiver stores that information, providing a corresponding time and date for when that individual fish was near that specific receiver. Acoustic receivers are essentially “listening stations” whereby the receivers are listening for detections (“pings”) from tagged fish. In this way, as a long as the tagged fish is within the detection range of the receiver, we can determine where each fish was and when. With the generous help and expertise of Muskies Canada Inc. (MCI) Ottawa Chapter anglers, we captured and tagged 15 muskellunge in October 2020 for our overwintering study. Eleven acoustic receivers were deployed, relatively evenly spaced out, in the Eccolands Reach to monitor fish movements. We also deployed two receivers downstream of Black Rapids (into the Mooney’s Bay Reach) to see if fish left the reach by moving over the weir, but none of our tagged muskellunge were detected downstream. Interestingly, all our muskellunge were detected only upstream of the Eccolands boat launch, many of which in November showed upstream movements, potentially in search of the best available winter habitat. 

Several interesting patterns emerged from movement analysis. First, fish moved more so than I anticipated – I expected muskellunge to be detected on the same 1-2 acoustic receivers for the duration of winter, but interestingly most fish were detected consistently across several stations, moving often through habitats across a 1-mile distance. Second, most fish overwintered near tributaries where there were deep areas (4.5-6-metres/15-20-feet). Third, it appears the portion of the river beneath the Vimy Bridge is so shallow that during winter it acts as a potential barrier to winter connectivity; essentially, once ice freezes over in December, if fish were upstream or downstream of the Vimy Bridge then that’s where they were confined to until ice-off in April. To date, it is unclear to what extent winterkill events occur in the Eccolands Reach, or if events are region/site specific. If muskellunge winterkill events are occurring in certain areas upstream or downstream of the Vimy Bridge, providing a connection between those areas could offer a chance for fish to escape. It therefore could be important to increase depths beneath the bridge to allow fish to move freely. Finally, we found that several of the larger, presumably sexually mature, individuals showed increased movements in April. Evaluating spawning movements was not an original objective of our overwintering study, however it may be one of the most important findings. We believe that the increased activities we noted in April are most likely linked with muskellunge pre-spawning movements in search of spawning sites. Parks Canada does not (start to) raise water levels in the Eccolands Reach for the navigation season until early May, so if muskellunge are searching for spawning areas in April when water levels are still low, their reproductive efforts may end up unsuccessful because habitat is still so limited at that time. Fish movements are highly regulated and directed by water temperatures – if it’s a warm spring (muskellunge usually spawn when water temperatures are 9-15°C), spawning has been documented in northern-latitude lakes as early as mid-April. We have not incorporated this data yet as special temperature loggers have just been recently recovered, but we will be carefully inspecting temperature data to see when muskellunge spawning might have commenced this past spring.

We are currently in the process of finalizing data analysis and have been fortunate to collaborate with hydraulic engineers, Parks Canada scientists, researchers, and MCI anglers to ensure we have a thorough understanding of muskellunge spatial ecology. Our goal is to factor in environmental characteristics of the river, like depth and bottom composition (e.g., sand, pebbles, boulders), to determine which areas are most suitable to muskellunge. We will also be evaluating if fish size has any effect on habitat preferences, as it may be that larger fish choose different areas compared to smaller fish. Though we have investigated overwintering of muskellunge in the Rideau Canal, this is only one annual aspect of their spatial ecology; because the winter drawdowns are so considerable in this reach, we felt it was best to quickly evaluate those movements and release that information rapidly. We are, however, tracking muskellunge movements year-round in the Eccolands Reach, and will be doing so until 2023. In the spring of 2021 MCI anglers again donated their time and expertise, and with their efforts to supplement ours, we tagged an additional seven muskellunge (we currently have 23 acoustically tagged muskellunge in the Eccolands Reach). Our aim is to assess other critical habitats used, like spawning habitats, and additionally we know very little about lock connectivity. We also note that protecting habitat and connectivity is only one part of conserving muskellunge; there are several other issues that threaten the local population like water quality and invasive species. We are working with several universities, the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority, and Parks Canada to evaluate the various threats to species within the Rideau Canal. Investigating muskellunge movements is only component of my PhD research – we are also tracking the movements of several other native and invasive fish species and will be compounding that information with our muskellunge movement data to better understand overall fish connectivity in the Rideau Canal. If you’d like to find out more information about our work, you can check out Dr. Steven Cooke’s Fish Ecology and Conservation Physiology website at http://www.fecpl.ca/ or my personal website at https://jordannabergman.wixsite.com/jordannabergman.

We use acoustic telemetry to track fish in the Rideau Canal. Size-specific acoustic tags (top left) are surgically implanted into our study species so that we can monitor their movements year-round. In the Eccolands Reach of the Rideau Canal, we are focusing our efforts towards monitoring the movements of muskellunge. In other parts of the waterway, however, we are also tracking northern pike, largemouth bass, common carp, and round goby. Acoustic receivers (bottom left) are stationed beneath the waters’ surface and are essentially “listening stations” – when a tagged fish swims by one of our receivers, and that tag emits a “ping” with a unique ID and timestamp, the receiver detects and stores that information so we can later determine where each tagged muskellunge was swimming and when. 

Angler and collaborator Luc LaRochelle releases a tagged muskellunge in the Rideau Canal. Note the white tag near the dorsal fin – this way, if an angler catches one of our tagged muskellunge, they can contact us to report where and when they caught their fish (there’s a unique ID # and contact info on the tag). Anglers who report tagged fish are entered in a $200 prize draw, and they also provide critical information about fish movements and health. 
Angler and collaborator Luc LaRochelle releases a tagged muskellunge in the Rideau Canal. Note the white tag near the dorsal fin – this way, if an angler catches one of our tagged muskellunge, they can contact us to report where and when they caught their fish (there’s a unique ID # and contact info on the tag). Anglers who report tagged fish are entered in a $200 prize draw, and they also provide critical information about fish movements and health.
Jordanna Bergman surgically implanting an acoustic tag into a muskellunge. After inserting the tag and suturing the incision, she takes length measurements and externally tags the fish. The entire process takes 3-4-minutes, and fish are quickly released thereafter.

Muskies Canada’s Biggest Project

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.

The Lake Simcoe Muskie Restoration Project

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.

Québec Muskellunge : Two centuries of fishing and management history

Gustave Provost, directeur de la station piscicole de Lachine en 1962. Gustave Prévost, director of the Muskellunge hatchery in 1962. Crédit : MFFP.

Anne Carrier ¹ ², Philippe Brodeur³, Daniel Hatin⁴ and Louis Bernatchez¹
¹Département de biologie, Institut de Biologie Intégrative et des Systèmes (IBIS), Université Laval, G1V 0A6, Québec, Canada
²Département de Techniques du milieu naturel, Centre d’études collégiales à Chibougamau, Cégep de Saint-Félicien, Chibougamau, G8P 2E9, Canada
³Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs, Direction de la gestion de la faune de la Mauricie et du Centre-du-Québec, 100, rue Laviolette, bureau 207, Trois-Rivières, G9A 5S9, Canada
⁴Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs, Direction de la gestion de la faune de l’Estrie-Montréal- Montérégie-Laval, 201, Place Charles-LeMoyne, Longueuil, Québec, J4K 2T5, Canada

Muskellunge is one of the most mythical and impressive fish species. Over the past two centuries, biologists and Muskellunge anglers have documented many fascinating aspects of its biology. For example, it’s impressive size (Bernatchez and Giroux 2012), its unusual migration abilities (Kerr and Jones 2017) and even its surprising reproductive behavior (Crossman 1990, Jennings et al. 2011). The history regarding Muskellunge is fascinating, as evidenced by the origin of its name and the history of its management, which reveal the particular importance of Muskellunge in Québec.

This article is a non-exhaustive historical overview of some of the most important aspects of Muskellunge management in Québec. It includes some historical references regarding the nomenclature and taxonomy of Muskellunge, its original and contemporary spatial distribution and the stocking history. This article reports the work done as part of a Master’s thesis, which first aimed at gathering available historical information that would support the interpretation of genetic data on Muskellunge in Québec waters (see article of Rougemont et al. in this issue).

Taxonomy and Québec folklore

As early as the colonization time of New France, documents from the Société Provancher mentions that the first viceroy of France, Sieur Jean-François La Rocque de Roberval, used the basin of the Maskinongé River as his fishing territory. At the time, Muskellunge was a well-known species as evidenced by the multiple presumed Amerindian roots of its name, which meant big pike, ugly pike or spotted pike (Crossman 1986, MacCaughey 1917). Gradually, these appellations have derived to become « long mask » or « elongated mask » in Québec French. Today, the two generally accepted names are « maskinongé » in Canada and « Muskellunge » in the United States, but there are between 40 and 94 common names in French only (see Mellen 1917, Chambers 1923, Weed 1927 and Crossman 1986 for an exhaustive inventory of the different names and their origin). As mentioned by Crossman (1986), probably no other fish has, in a single language, as many forms or spelling of its common name. According to Weed (1927), the number of its common names is a fairly reliable index of the extent to which a fish attracts attention. This partly explains this diverse nomenclature, but as Mongeau (1976) points out, this taxonomic confusion also certainly comes from its great resemblance to the Northern pike (Esox lucius) and the fact that it has been recognized quite lately as a different species from his cousin.

Commercial fishing and natural distribution in the 19th century

Since the nomenclature of the species was highly variable until the beginning of the 20th century, it is very difficult to interpret observations regarding the Muskellunge distribution until the 1900s. In the 19th century, Muskellunge was highly prised by native and non-native anglers and, because of the quality of its flesh and its imposing size, it contributed to a significant commercial fishery in Québec. Although today the opinions are mixed about the taste of the Muskellunge flesh, the naturalist Constantine Rafinesque mentioned in 1818 that « it is one of the best fish (…) its flesh is very delicate and divides easily like salmon, in large white patches like snow » (MacCaughey 1917). According to historical records of the Canadian fisheries management authorities (Crossman 1986), nearly 2.9 million pounds, representing approximately 192 535 Muskellunge, were harvested by the commercial fishery in Québec from 1868 to 1936. Interestingly, commercial catches of Muskellunge in the waters of the Montréal area accounted for 90 % of the landings of this species throughout the province (Fry et al. 1942). Muskellunge commercial fishing ceased in 1936.

The historical texts suggest that native Muskellunge was found only in southern Québec, even if its northern and southern distribution limits are only very slightly defined. Its distribution was likely limited to the waters of the St. Lawrence River watershed and some of its tributaries from the Ottawa River to Québec City (Small 1883, Dymond 1939, Vézina 1977). According to information available at the end of the 19th century, native Muskellunge was found from the southern border of the province (including the Champlain Lake and the Richelieu River watersheds) to Northwest of Outaouais, Laurentides, Lanaudière, and Mauricie regions (Dymond 1939). Specifically, Dymond (1939), Small (1883), Halkett (1906 and 1907), and Montpetit (1897) report that Muskellunge was present (1) in the Rideau River north of Merrickville (Outaouais, Québec), (2) in the Ottawa River south of Rapides des Joachim (MRC de Pontiac, Outaouais, Québec), south of the Petawawa River and up to Travers Lake (Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario), and (3) in several lakes connected to the Gatineau and du Lièvre Rivers, including Gilmour, Donaldson, and Plumbago Lakes (MRC Collines-de-l’Outaouais, Outaouais, Québec). In addition, some isolated populations were discovered in 1968 after the dismantling of private fishing clubs in the Mauricie region, specifically in the des Envies River watershed, which is a tributary of the Batiscan River, where the Traverse Lake (Potvin 1973, Pageau et al. 1978) analyzed in the study of Rougemont et al. (see article in this issue) is located. Finally, according to the interpretation of Fry et al. (1942), quoted by Robitaille and Cotton (1992), the most important native population in Québec would have been in Lake St-Louis, a fluvial lake of the St. Lawrence River.

Active management period


Gustave Provost, directeur de la station piscicole de Lachine en 1962. Gustave Prévost, director of the Muskellunge hatchery in 1962. Crédit : MFFP.
Gustave Prévost, director of the Muskellunge hatchery in 1962. Credit : MFFP.

Muskellunge has been one of the most stocked fish species in Québec (Dumont 1991). Prior to 1950, few Muskellunge stocking in Québec were recorded in the literature (MacCaughey 1917, Dymond 1939, Small 1883, Halkett 1906 and 1907). At the end of the first half of the 20th century, a significant decline of Muskellunge populations in the waters of the St. Lawrence River and of the Montréal Archipelago, associated with overfishing and habitat loss, raised worries and questions. Therefore, the wildlife management authorities undertook a major restoration project which included the construction of the very first Muskellunge hatchery facility in Lachine (borough of Montréal city, Québec) (Pictures 1 to 3), as well as the development of a local expertise on esocids breeding (Vezina 1977). In 1950, these actions led to the beginning of stocking, which were adapted to contemporary knowledge in 1985. Muskellunge stocking continued until 1997. During the same period, the species was also introduced, with or without success, in more than 80 Québec water bodies in order to create new opportunities and enhance existing Muskellunge populations (Vézina 1977, Dumont 1991, Vincent and Legendre 1974, Brodeur et al. 2013, de la Fontaine, Y. unpublished). In a few rare cases, Muskellunge introduction has been used in an attempt to control competing species in brook trout lakes. Introducing a top-predator into the food chain obviously had an impact on the fish communities.

Photo 2 - Muskellunge hatchery facility in Lachine (1950-1964). Credit : MFFP.
Photo 2 – Muskellunge hatchery facility in Lachine (1950-1964). Credit : MFFP.

Muskellunge farming began in Québec at the Lachine hatchery in 1950. Due to water supply problems, breeding was transferred to the Baldwin Mills hatchery in 1964 (now known as the Baldwin-Coaticook provincial hatchery) (Dumont 1991). Following unsuccessful attempts to breed Muskellunge from several local lakes such as Lake des Deux-Montagnes (Montréal area) and the Gilmour, Donaldson, and Plumbago Lakes (Outaouais) (MPC 1961, Vezina 1977, Crossman and Goodchild 1978), embrocated eggs were imported from the Bemus Point hatchery (New York, USA) and, to a lesser extent, from the Deer Lake hatchery (Ontario, Canada) to start production (Kerr 2001, Dufour and Paulhus 1977, Christopher Wilson and Christopher Legard, personal communication). Muskellunge from both hatcheries originated respectively from the Chautauqua Lake (New York, USA) and from Stony Lake, Buckhorn Lake, and from the Crowe River, these three last water bodies being part of the Kawartha Lakes system in Ontario. According to the information we gathered, it appears that all the lakes used by these hatcheries have also been stocked with an unknown Muskellunge source to support their respective fishery (Christopher Wilson and Christopher Legard, personal communication). Both of these hatcheries, as well as the one of Lachine, are no longer in operation.

Photo 3 - Muskellunge transport from the Lachine hatchery. Credit : MFFP
Photo 3 – Muskellunge transport from the Lachine hatchery. Credit : MFFP

From 1965 to 1986, Joseph Lake (Centre-du-Québec, Québec) was used as a broodstock source to supply the Baldwin Mills hatchery (Dumont 1991). Subsequently, from 1986 to 1997, Lake Tremblant (Laurentides, Québec) was used as the source population. Muskellunge was originally introduced in both lakes from the American or Ontarian sources (see Figure 1 – simplified stocking history in Québec). The results of the genetic study confirmed that the American source was the most likely for both lakes.

Stocking, carried out over several decades in the Montréal area, has been effective in improving the stock status and maintaining the Muskellunge sport fishery. In fact, an analysis of Muskellunge recruitment measured from 1962 to 1977 revealed that 55 % of the annual abundance of young Muskellunge could be explained by the number of yearly stocked individuals and the abundance of young Muskellunge stocked the previous year (cannibalism
and/or competition effects) (Dumont 1991). In 1998, the improvement of the Muskellunge population structure, distributed over a long time period, and the presence of natural recruitment justified the end of stocking (Cloutier 1987, Dumont 1991). Since then, no Muskellunge stocking has been done in Québec.

Figure 1 - Simplified representation of stocking in the St. Lawrence River and some inland lakes of Québec. Arrows represent stocking events from the different source populations. Full arrows show clear mentions of stocking, while the dotted arrows reflect anecdotal mentions.
Figure 1 – Simplified representation of stocking in the St. Lawrence River and some inland lakes of Québec. Arrows represent stocking events from the different source populations. Full arrows show clear mentions of stocking, while the dotted arrows reflect anecdotal mentions.

Integrating collaborative science to Muskellunge management

In parallel to the management actions undertaken by the Québec government, a general reflection on fishing practices and a growing interest in the conservation of a high quality fishery focusing on trophy-size specimens emerged, leading to the creation of Muskies Canada (Wachelka 2008a,b,c) and to the beginning of a long collaboration between muskies anglers and the Québec wildlife management authorities. Muskellunge is not vulnerable to capture by the scientific fishing gears used to monitor fish communities in the St. Lawrence River. Monitoring the sport harvest of Muskellunge through angling surveys is therefore an excellent alternative to contribute to its management and to allow evaluation of the effectiveness of the management measures.

To evaluate the status of Muskellunge stocks, a study was conducted in the 1990s in collaboration with the Montréal chapter of Muskies Canada. From 1994 to 1997, five anglers tagged and released 808 Muskellunge, mainly in the Montréal area. The results showed that a few hours of fishing were enough to catch a Muskellunge, whereas in the 1970s, an experienced angler needed approximately 100 hours of fishing to catch a single specimen. After three years of survey, 88 tagged fish were recaptured by anglers, which corresponded to a recapture rate of 11 %, considered relatively low and indicative of a total Muskellunge abundance of several thousands of specimens (Pierre Dumont, personal communication) The gradual increase in the extent of the Muskellunge size structure suggested by the fishing surveys and the presence of a natural production of young Muskellunge justified the cessation of stocking in 1998 (Dumont 1991).

To update the data on the Muskellunge fishery in the St. Lawrence River (from Lake Saint-François to Lake Saint-Pierre) and in Lake des Deux-Montagnes, a second survey was conducted from 2010 to 2013, more than a decade after stocking ended. This second study was conducted with the invaluable collaboration of three professional anglers recognized in Québec, Mr. Marc Thorpe, Mr. Mike Lazarus and Mr. Michael Phillips. A total of 2 569 Muskellunge were captured, of which 2 162 were tagged by three volunteer anglers. Of these tagged fish, 108 were recaptured. The order of magnitude of recapture rates was low in all studied sectors (3.7 % to 4.8 %). Compared to the study carried out in the Montréal area from 1994 to 1997, the recapture rate reported from 2010 to 2013 was twice lower (4.8 % compared to 11 %). Since the recapture rate is generally inversely proportional to the total abundance of a population, this result suggests that the abundance of Muskellunge in the Montréal area has increased since the stocking ended, at least for medium to high size fish, targeted by anglers.

According to archived data from 1918 to 1927, 19 % of Muskellunge caught in Lake Saint-Louis exceeded the legal minimum size of 44 inches (Figure 2). In 1973, this proportion was of 16 % and then increased to almost 50 % in the late 1990s and to 54 % during the 2010-2013 period. This improvement over several decades can be explained by stocking, combined with the enforcement of a minimum legal size of 38 inches in 1986, which has been increased to 44 inches in 1998 (Figure 2). Because of the presence of large specimens, the waters of the St. Lawrence River and of Lake des Deux-Montagnes are now identified as sites of great interest for Muskellunge anglers. In the section of the St. Lawrence River between Montréal and Lake Saint-Pierre, the low abundance of young specimens smaller than 35 inches in the Muskellunge sport harvest suggests a lower recruitment, compared to Lake Saint-Louis and Lake des Deux-Montagnes (Figure 3). This result justified the realization of a study conducted by the ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs (MFFP) and its numerous partners that aims to identify the essential habitats of the species by using telemetry
(see the article of Brodeur et al. in this issue).

Figure 2 - Historical comparisons of the proportion of fish larger than 44 inches caught by sport fishing on Lake St-Louis. The year of introduction of minimum sizes to 38 inches in 1986, increased to 44 inches in 1998, is also represented.
Figure 2 – Historical comparisons of the proportion of fish larger than 44 inches caught by sport fishing on Lake St-Louis. The year of introduction of minimum sizes to 38 inches in 1986, increased to 44 inches in 1998, is also represented.

The most recent fishery survey has generated some preliminary knowledge about Muskellunge migration. Thus, between 2010 and 2013, the majority of marked individuals (95 %) recaptured by the sport fishery within six months after tagging or one to two years after, were in the same body of water where they had been tagged. The distances measured between specimens capture and recapture were generally less than a few kilometers, both on a one year scale and between years (72.7 % and 58.1 % of recaptures within 5 km from the tagging location, respectively). This result suggests that, although Muskellunge can travel long distances, particularly during the breeding season, a large proportion of individuals return to specific areas corresponding generally to large vegetation beds favorable to feeding. This result demonstrates the importance of preserving and restoring the submerged aquatic vegetation beds of the St. Lawrence River. However, large-scale movements between the various sectors of the river have been observed between Lake Saint-Pierre and the Montréal-Sorel section, with distances of up to 58 km. This result was recently corroborated by the preliminary results of the telemetry study, which shows that a certain proportion of the Muskellunge tagged at Lake Saint-Pierre migrate upstream during the feeding season (see article by Brodeur et al. in this issue). These observations of large scale movements also corroborate the connectivity existing throughout the St. Lawrence River system revealed by genetic analyses.

Figure 3 - Size structure of Muskellunge caught by sport fishing during the 2010- 2013 period in the St. Lawrence River watersheds (LDM: Lake des DeuxMontagnes, LSF: Lake Saint-François, LSL: Lake Saint-Louis, MS: stretch between Montréal and Sorel, LSP: Lake Saint-Pierre). The proportion of fish greater than or equal to 44 inches, 36 to 43 inches and 35 inches or less is shown.
Figure 3 – Size structure of Muskellunge caught by sport fishing during the 2010- 2013 period in the St. Lawrence River watersheds (LDM: Lake des Deux-Montagnes, LSF: Lake Saint-François, LSL: Lake Saint-Louis, MS: stretch between Montréal and Sorel, LSP: Lake Saint-Pierre). The proportion of fish greater than or equal to 44 inches, 36 to 43 inches and 35 inches or less is shown.

Future perspectives

To maintain the trophy status of the species, which can maintain and improve the quality of the Muskellunge fishery, a regular review of the stock status and management is required. Since 2010, a study aiming at gathering new knowledge on several aspects of Muskellunge biology has been conducted by the MFFP and its numerous partners. This vast study will contribute to Muskellunge management in Québec. To date, this initiative has led to a retrospective of historical management, reported in this article, to a genetic analysis of Muskellunge populations (see article by Rougemont et al. in this issue), and to a study aiming to identify essential Muskellunge habitats between Montréal and Lake Saint-Pierre. Some anglers report a recent decline in the quality of the Muskellunge fishery in some inland water bodies of Québec, which remains to be measured. Muskellunge studies based on angling surveys have thus been underway for some years in the Maskinongé Lake and the Ottawa River (see Deschesnes in this issue).


We thank the following people for their valuable collaboration. We would like to acknowledge the involvement of the Muskellunge anglers who participated to the 2010-2013 angling survey: Marc Thorpe, Mike Lazarus, and Michael Phillips. Special thanks to Peter Levick (Muskies Canada), Chris Wilson (Aquatic Research and Monitoring Section, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry), and John Farrell (Department of Environmental and Forest Biology, State University of New York) who shared with us many information on Muskellunge management. Thanks to Christopher Legard (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) and Christopher Wilson (Fish Culture Section, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry) for sharing the Chautauqua Lake and Deer Lake hatcheries history. Thanks to Steven Kerr (retired biologist, Fisheries Section, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources) for his invaluable advice and for sharing his knowledge on the history of Muskellunge management in Québec. Thanks to Shawn Good (Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department) and Jeffrey J. Loukmas (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) for sharing management and stocking history of Champlain Lake. We also thank the Fédération québécoise des chasseurs et des pêcheurs, Ressources Aquatiques Québec and Muskies Inc. for their financial support. Funding was also provided by the ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs du Québec and by the Canada Research Chair in Genomics and Aquatic Resources Conservation.


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Jennings, M. J., G. R. Hatzenbeler and J. M. Kampa (2011). Spring capture site fidelity of adult muskellunge in inland lakes. North American Journal of Fisheries Management, 31(3): 461-467.

Kerr S. J. and T. A. Lasenby (2001). Esocid stocking: an annotated bibliography and literature review. Fish and Wildlife Branch, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. Peterborough, Ontario. 138 p. and appendix.

Kerr J. S. and Jones B. (2017). Movements of Muskellunge in the Saint-John River based on a volunteer tagging project, 2006-2015. American Fisheries Society Symposium, 85: 39-50.

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Helping Habitat : Bill C-68

I have been invited to write a regular column on conservation issues related to Muskies and their Habitat.  So my territory overlaps well with the range of Muskies in Canada.

A bit about me first, I work for Ducks Unlimited Canada as the Director of Regional Operations for Eastern Canada.  This means I oversee DUC’s conservation work east of Manitoba. So my territory overlaps well with the range of Muskies in Canada.  I have been a member of Muskies Canada for three years and am yet to catch my first Muskie.  I hope the 2018 is my year. 

I worked with Peter Levick, then president of Muskies Canada to develop a Memorandum of Understanding between Muskies and DUC in 2015.  In this MOU we committed to ongoing collaboration to expand mutual habitat conservation projects that benefit Muskellunge and Waterfowl in eastern Canada.  Given our shared focus on habitat this was the quickest MOU that I have ever developed.  You will have seen in Chris Nielson’s Presidents message, that we are seeing good examples of working together.

Implications of proposed amendments to the Fisheries Act

One of the powerful tools supporting habitat conservation at scale is Federal or Provincial legislation or policy.  These government directions can have significant impacts on habitat and uses of habitat.  The federal fisheries act is a critical act that regulates activities related to fisheries and fish habitat.  As such, it is an important tool in conservation of habitat. 

The fisheries act underwent significant modernization and change in 2012.  Some of these changes reduced the extent of fish habitats protected across Canada.  The Federal government has introduced new amendments to the act (Bill C-68) that will have a significant impact on fish and fish habitat.  Some highlights include:

Before Proposed Amendments

After Proposed Amendments

Not all fish and fish habitat protected; only those related to a commercial, recreational or Aboriginal fishery protected

Protection of all fish and fish habitat

Uncertainty as to when authorizations are required for development projects


Clarity on which types of projects require authorizations through permitting and codes of practice


Lack of transparency regarding authorization decisions for projects; no requirement to publicly release information on these decisions


Requirement to publicly release information on project decisions through an online registry

No provisions to restore degraded habitat as part of development project reviews


Provisions to consider restoration priorities as part of development project reviews


No tools to quickly implement in-season fisheries restrictions to address unforeseen conservation and management issues


Ability to put in place targeted short-term measures to quickly and effectively respond to unforeseen threats to the management of fisheries and to the conservation of fish


 These proposed amendments are important to Muskies Canada for several reasons.  First, the changes strengthen the protection of habitat for muskellunge throughout their lives.  In addition, the proposed amendments will make is easier to know and understand if future development projects are going to impact muskellunge habitat and how developer will compensate for these impacts.  The amendments are more explicit on compensation for destruction of fish habitat.  Muskies Canada has the opportunity to guide compensation for loss of muskellunge habitat.

The act is currently moving thru the parliamentary process and the government is considering the proposed amendments.   MP and Federal Ministers respond to comments from members of grass roots organizations like Muskies Canada.

So it is time to Take Action.

You can have a positive influence on getting Bill C-68 adopted by sending a letter, email or talking to your MP and/or Dominic LeBlanc the Federal Minister of Fisheries, Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard.  The message is simple you support the positive changes to increase the protection of fish habitat being proposed in Bill C-68.

Here is the complete Bill-C68 submission.

Jock River Embayment Creation Project (2014 – 2016)

In October 2014, the Rideau Valley Conservation Authority (RCVA) constructed a fish habitat embayment at the Richmond conservation Area, located in Ottawa, Ontario. This project was done in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Shell Fueling Change, Muskies Canada Ottawa Chaper, National Defence Fish and Game Club, Community Foundation of Ottawa, Fendock and the Ottawa Flyfishers Society.

The project involved converting an existing grassed park area into a small wetland embayment along the shoreline of the Jock River. Raab Construction Ltd. was retained to help construct the new wetland and work couldn’t have been completed without the help of a group of dedicated volunteers.

A Spring Community tree planing day is planned for May 16th to complete the project.

For more information, contact:
Jennifer Lamoureux, Aquatic & Fish Habitat Biologist
Rideau Valley Conservation Authority
613-692-3571 ext. 1108

2017 Lake Simcoe Muskie Restoration Program

The following weekly updates were sent to Muskies Canada and Orillia Fish and Game Club reps as well as some key MNRF staff, each week during the five week trapnetting program. Periodically additional information was provided (and included in the updates) by hatchery staff after the trapnetting and our egg collections efforts were finished.

Thank you for your support of the Lake Simcoe Muskie Restoration Program – Wil Wegman


Read/download the full report by clicking the link below (PDF – 4.7 MB)
2017 Lake Simcoe Muskie Restoration Program – Combined Spring Trapnetting, Egg Collection and Hatchery Weekly Updates – Gloucester Pool and Georgian Bay-Port Severn
April 18 – June 30, 2017

Egg Collection – Week 7 Update

Week Seven Update: (June 6-10)

Wil Wegman
Resource Management Technician
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry
Aurora District- 905-713-7730

The first full week of no trap netting on Gloucester Pool in search of muskies for an egg collection is now behind us and crews from Midhurst and Aurora went back to their busy routines with other field and office work.  Both Blue Jay Creek and Fleming Hatchery staff remained very busy as well doing their utmost to ensure each precious egg and newly hatched fry was getting the best care possible. Thankfully those big muskie-to-be, have the most dedicated hatchery staff imaginable to ensure their well-being.  In this week’s update we are fortunate to have two good week-ending reports – supplied from Paul Vieira at Blue Jay and Mark Newell, at Fleming.

Blue Jay Creek::

Egg survival was poor maybe due to the late spawning?

All of the Musky have hatched and fish are living off of their yolk sacs, feeding will start soon. They look like Balsam Fir needles.

Presently we have 40 fry from the Pointe Au Baril family

1200 fry from G Pool family


Paul M still has feelers out with our lake unit colleges in case they come across any ripe fish, it is pretty late in the game though.



One of the tanks with young muskie fry


A close up of some great looking muskie fry

Paul V.

Fleming College:

Similar story here… right down to the balsam fir needles! I’ve used that comparison many times over the years!

We are expecting swim up to begin at any time. The battle of feeding strategies is on repeat in my brain as I try to figure out how to maximize success of the few fry we do have. Current count is around 1575 but there are maybe 5% of those that are really borderline… alive but bent, stunted or otherwise challenged. So call it 1500 quality looking fry.

 I wouldn’t wish this scenario on anyone, it is going to be a tough go!


5% challenged sac fry: some good quality fry with a few of their “challenged” siblings in the bottom right corner


2016 late stage sac fry: shows a good resolution shot of some of the high quality fry at Fleming


Bent Muskellunge fry. This pic taken 1st week of June shortly after hatch.  It shows some of the severely challenged fry removed by the hatchery staff.  There was a higher than usual proportion of these in this particular family.

 … warm temp at collection or old donor fish (senescence)? Combination?



Fathead Minnow Fry:

These tiny almost transparent newly hatched Fatheads can be great food for baby muskies!  However once they have a taste of these will they ever accept manufactured diet? Unlikely!

However, Mark Newell from Fleming is preparing for all eventualities saying

“It may come to the point where we may HAVE to feed the young muskie these fatheads so we are scrambling right now to figure out how to optimize our production, harvest and sorting of these young fry”.

Egg Collection – Week 6

Week Six Update: (May 22-May 27)

Wil Wegman
Resource Management Technician
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry
Aurora District- 905-713-7730


Hi Everyone,

Another whirl-wind week on the wild and wonderful trapnetting circuit for the wily egg collection crew on G Pool.

It began on the beautiful Sunday morning of the Victoria Day Long Wknd as Wil and Brent set out to open the six nets. Once open,  they could fish 48 hours until they would be checked on Tuesday. We don’t normally need to leave our nets working this late into the season so expected to see plenty of boat action on both Little Lake and Gloucester Pool, and this was definitely the case on this busy holiday wknd. Most of the boaters we encountered were cottage based recreational anglers and several struck up conversations with us. All of them seemed fully aware of … and supportive of, our trapnetting program over the last decade. Being able to engage with these important local stakeholders on a busy wknd and have a positive presence was definitely an added bonus to opening our nets on Sunday.

Then came Tuesday.  We were anxiously expecting fuller than normal nets … based on the water temperature spiking to 16 degrees and a 48 hour set, but unfortunately this was not the case… With the exception  of one net that had over two dozen long nosed gar for us to deal with.  Gar typically move inshore as the weather warms and the water temps reach 15C. They love swimming near the surface on bright sunny days so we could see some cruising along before we even checked our nets. These prehistoric fish are extremely cool looking and we enjoy seeing them, however they can be a bit of a challenge when many of them have their long bills sticking thru the nets.  While we were hauling out gar from our nets we encountered what may be a first for this program… A few VERY ripe females that were very happy to see Brent so they spewed their small white, very sticky eggs all over him and the boat. If only we could find muskie that were so ripe and free flowing … but that’s typically not the case at all.


Longnose Gar eggs sticking to our paddle


Kate Gee with a small G Pool Gar

Kate Gee who was with us that day let us know that these gar eggs are unlike most other fish eggs in every respect in that they should never be eaten as caviar . They are quite toxic and can cause fairly severe illness—such as vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pain, etc.  Some other interesting factoids about Longnose gar include:

Longnose Gar Facts

  • The Longnose Gar can survive in low oxygenated waters because of a highly vascularized swim bladder.  This swim bladder allows the Longnose to breathe air.  It usually uses both its swim bladder and its gills to breathe.  It surfaces and releases an air bubble to take in another before returning underwater.
  • Shy’s away from the surface when water gets colder.  But, when oxygen is low it cover its gills and uses the bladder only.  This allows for the organism to live outside the water for awhile if it is kept wet.
  • The Longnose Gar’s eggs are poisonous to humans, other mammals, and birds.
  • Longnose Gar scales were used by native Americans as arrow heads, ornaments, and tools.
  • Longnose Gar have been around since the time of dinosaurs.
  • Longnose gar have a year round open season and no limit in most parts of Ontario, but most anglers find them extremely difficult to catch so overall angler effort targeted at this species is very low. Their long, very hard snouts do not have conventional teeth like other fish – so most hooks don’t penetrate well to land these fish. Some fly fishers do have success, occasionally they can be caught on 3-4 inch jerkbaits if the lure is engulfed sideways … and some anglers have even had success using a strip of Velcro instead of a lure – as their small jagged teeth seem to clasp on.


As water temps warmed up more bowfin were caught in the nets … including several males like this one held by Wil … It’s in full spawning colors with characteristic spot on tail

The next day (May 25)  the crew set out again … and the overwhelming sensation of another “Groundhog Day” (from the movie) was upon them. Low net catches were dominant from one set to the other … and no muskie were showing up. To add insult to injury the 2nd last net had one very big aggressive snapping turtle in it, that decided not to vacate the premises despite tearing several big holes in the net.  As we were repairing those … a call came in from Paul Methner of Blue Jay Creek Hatchery.  Despite Georgian Bay  originally being recognized earlier this spring as an unlikely back-up source for muskie eggs, more recent discussions between hatchery and other managers, field crews and MC, recognized that time was running out for Gloucester Pool to produce. One of the  trapnetting crews that was doing telemetry research in partnership with McMaster University up on Georgian Bay near Point Au Baril had a ripe male and two ripe female muskie in their nets. The crew did not have any egg sampling gear, and were not trained to take eggs, but the offer was made to hold those muskie, should Brent and Wil be able to drive up, meet the crew and go out on their boat to get the job done.  Special arrangements were made with the health lab and the two hatcheries … some evening family plans were quickly altered and off the they went to fish their last net on G Pool, before hitting the road north to hopefully …. finally get some eggs! As many Muskie Canada veterans may recall, the first couple of years of the Lake Simcoe Muskie Restoration Program, we relied on Georgian Bay families and it was only a few years in that the switch was made to relying more on G Pool, so using these eggs would be nothing new.

A couple hours later, Wil and Brent met up with fellow MNRF staffers and master trapnetters Lawrence and Stephen from MNRF’s Lake Huron Fisheries Management Unit. On their big beautiful steel boat we travelled out to the nets and quickly picked up one male, deposited him into a big tub with fresh water and  then headed to the other net where a smaller male and two females were anxiously awaiting to donate their contributions to the cause . Although the females were both quite small, the crew still hoped plenty of eggs could be collected … but unfortunately only one small family from each – one for Blue Jay Creek and the other for Fleming was all they had in them.  The male did his job for both … the eggs were hardened with hatchery water, transferred from bowl to jars, disinfected with ovadine, rinsed and rinsed again and again and again until it was time to deliver them to shore and the hatcheries.


Lawrence of the Lake Huron Management Unit (LHMU), Wil and Brent with one of the egg donors


Lawrence and Stephen of LHMU and Brent with the male donor


Wil with the first egg collection of 2016- two very small families

 So … although the families were small the hatchery managers were thankful the skunk factor was now behind all involved. Paul Methner had already travelled down from Manitoulin Island’s Blue Jay Creek where his eggs were handed over and the trip back down to Coldwater was made to hand off the Fleming eggs to their hatchery manager Mark Newell who drove up from Lindsay.   “The family was small (est 2500-3000 eggs) but looked good with very few dead eggs to be picked once they were deposited in the incubation trays at the hatchery,” said Mark.

On Thursday May 26 the crew tried to beat out the impending weather and partially succeeded at all but one of their six net sites. By the time they got to it,  a stiff on-shore breeze was developing and just as they were about to check for fish a large rogue gust of wind blew them further onto the rest of the net …  tangled things up … and bringing them quickly within site of two very large muskie within the house portion of their net! They quickly regrouped, opened the zipper, assessed the condition of each fish … and amazingly one was a ripe male and the other a ripe female! With even heavier on shore winds threatening – the decision was made to leave the two fish for the next day when a safer and more effective egg collection could be made! Meanwhile, the first small family remained in good condition at Fleming with a relatively normal level of dead eggs to pick.

Friday May 27th.  Normally this is an office day for the crew.  However both hatcheries were anxious to collect eggs ‘whenever possible’ and the manager of Health Lab at Guelph University – Steven Lord was willing to wait around that Friday to collect fluids for disease testing. In order to expedite runs to the two hatcheries and to Guelph, two MNRF crews in two separate boats were deployed to Coldwater to get the job done. One of those crews was happy to report another female had been captured … so after all the nets were checked … she was put in the large tub and travelled from Port Severn in Little Lake with Brent, Kate and Wil down to G Pool to meet up with Stephen, Carolyn and Gabby.  The other two muskie were taken from their overnight accommodations and both were in exceptional condition. Neither had ever been captured during the trap netting program before … as tags were absent. Incredibly this was the biggest male on record … coming in at 49 inches; just a touch shorter than the Double Nickels (55+) female.  Unfortunately … the smaller female was now hard (not uncommon for smaller fish) but both big male and big female were ripe. The crew collected enough eggs for each hatchery and split them into two separate jars for each.


Carolyn Hann (foreground) holds bowl for egg collecting while Brent  extracts eggs and Wilmaintains control of this 40 pound super strong female



Brent (foreground),  Wil (background) and Carolyn (middle) caring for eggs before they are transferred to jars- below



A quick group photo after a successful egg collection and sampling with the 55.5 inch female. From left to right: Brent, Wil, Steve, Kate and Carolyn. Photo taken by Gabby


Wil is taking scale samples here for ageing and genetics, while Brent steadies the muskie and Carolyn is ready with the scale envelope


Brent (left), Wil and Kate with the largest males ever used in an egg collection = 49” long, 19.5” girth & 26.7lbs. It was the warmest egg collection ever- with air temps pushing 28C and water temps well over 18C


The icing on the cake is always a healthy live release after the muskie have been sampled and contributed to future stocking efforts on Lake Simcoe


After the egg collection was made, the team went into action to deliver the goods to the respective locations as quickly as possible. Gabby made the long trip down from Coldwater to Guelph and battled crazy traffic but got the fluid samples to the lab in time.  Carolyn drove south to Lindsay … stopping every half hour to check eggs and ensure no clumping was taking place. Then she would rinse and add fresh hatchery water before she left the eggs with Mark at Fleming.  Mark reported that, “ There was a somewhat larger than normal number of dead eggs to pick on the day of receiving (670) but not a number of significant concern.”


Carolyn checking eggs en route to Fleming before rinsing and adding fresh water. “It’s kind of like our own little tailgate party,” she said

Wil drove north to Parry Sound following the same egg-care protocol to drop the eggs with Michaela from Blue Jay Creek who drove down from Manitoulin Island. Here Wil and Michaela also met up with Ryan … who had driven from Pearson International Airport in a truck fully loaded with fish food for the muskie and other species raised at the Blue Jay Creek Hatchery. Here the three staff quickly transferred all the contents from one truck to the other … and then each was off to go their own separate ways from there.


Michaela and Ryan unloading feed for fish at Blue Jay Creek


Update 7: Saturday May 28-Thursday June 2nd

Although the weekend of May 28th and 29th would be the first one the crew had completely off in six weeks, there was certainly no rest for the devoted hatchery staff at Blue Jay Creek and at Fleming. Critical, almost around the clock care of the precious muskie eggs is compulsory to ensure success down the road.  Even with the most experienced and dedicated staff however, Mother Nature can throw unexpected obstacles into the best laid plans – something the trapnetting crew was all too familiar with. The first text from Mark Newell to Wil came in late Saturday  afternoon letting him know things did not look good with the eggs and that he had already picked out 8,000 dead ones over the last 8 hours.

Below are further details provided by Mark Newell:

“On Saturday May 28  is when the rollercoaster went into its steepest dive. The first family of eggs showed significant (over 50%) dead eggs. The die off continued the full while that the picking was happening with eggs dying off almost as fast as we could pick them. By the end of the day we were down to fewer than 5% eggs remaining. We examined a few of the remaining eggs under a microscope and there was no sign of an embryo. This pattern of complete loss all within the 36-72 hours after spawn window is a very strong indicator of unsuccessful fertilization. Couple that with the lack of embryo in the few remaining “live” eggs at the end of the period the presumptive determination at the hatchery is that fertilization did not happen in this batch.

 Also on May 28 we saw an enormous die off of eggs from the larger, Gloucester Pool batch. As many as 8200 eggs were picked. This is an unusual, but not unprecedented loss for this stage of development. Given our already low numbers and the loss of the first small family it was pretty devastating. We had hoped this one batch was going to save the year.

 On May 29 we saw further loss, of ~4700 eggs from the second family… it seemed by the time the picking was done in the early afternoon on Sunday that the egg loss had tapered off quite a bit and examination of the remaining eggs showed signs of embryo presence.

 On May 30 we continued to lose eggs (at a much lower rate) and by day end we had picked ~600. The remaining eggs still looked good and embryos were clearly visible

 On May 31 lower mortalities gave us a break from the bad news and only 185 eggs were picked.

 On June 1 fungus had made its expected appearance, the egg shells are softening and embryos have developed a tiny bit of pigmentation. We picked just over 400 eggs today.

 The initial estimate of numbers received (~25,000) now seems to have been a bit high, so doing the math we may have as many as 3000-3500 viable eggs left as of June 1st. It is hard to estimate numbers when they are spread out over several incubator trays.”

From Paul Methner at Blue Jay Creek on the morning of June 2nd … a very promising update was provided. Similar to Mark’s issues with the first batch … they too experienced serious failure with their Georgian Bay eggs.  Paul expects about 60 of those eggs that have now hatched remain … which still would provide some genetic diversity. Additionally and even more encouraging … after a very trying Saturday May 28th with eggs dying …the situation appeared to stabilize by the next day- Sunday. “Today, we have plenty of healthy eggs left, which should provide us with more than our target of 500 muskie come fall. If all goes well, thanks to all the improvements we’ve made here at the hatchery, this number could increase,” Paul told Wil over the phone. Some of the improvements made include better lighting system, a better feeding system, a visit by several staff to Mark Newell’s successful muskie hatchery and even hiring a former Fleming student who worked for Mark in the hatchery.

On Monday May 30, two crews of Midhurst and Aurora MNRF staff figured the decision to collect trap nets that day was the right one, when the water temperature at their boats that morning was already 21 C.  One theory for the poor fertilization of eggs could possibly lie with the rapid increase in water temperatures that may have reduced the effectiveness of the male’s sperm. The two crews split up and collected all six trap nets, and then transferred them back to Midhurst district..

The first eggs from the G Pool collection began hatching the morning of June 2nd …. And both hatcheries reported that this continued on to June 3rd.  There were several of these eggs that were duds but at time of writing this an accurate number was not possible.


Back on shore Friday May 27 at the Sexsmith’s Lakeside residence after the successful egg collection.  Here for almost ten years,  MNRF Midhurst and Aurora District crews have been able to store their boats and all their gear for the duration of the spring program.  Both crews are extremely grateful to Michelle and Malcolm Sexsmith for their major contribution to this program Above, from left to right: Steve, Carolyn, Malcolm, Gabby, Kate and Brent.


Friday June 3rd … all six trapnets were spread out and allowed to bake in the sun to dry out.  Nets were cleaned with stiff brooms to remove filamentous algae, several holes were repaired, and then all were repacked for next time.


Egg Collection – Week 5

Wil Wegman
Resource Management Technician
Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry
Aurora District- 905-713-7730

May 20, 2016

Week Five Update:

Hi Everyone,

A very rainy day one began early Saturday May 14, when MNRF staff Kate, Brent and Wil checked the nets to fish the by-catch. Not wanting to lose the opportunity to catch muskie during the unsettled weather of the weekend when muskie often roam, the decision was made to maintain 48 hour net sets, so nets were not closed off Thursday as is usually the case.

As the day went on the winds picked up, the water temperatures dropped and it turned out to be a cold and nasty day on the water. However the hopes of the crew rose quickly at their 2nd net set when they encountered their 2nd muskie of 2016. This one came from G Pool itself instead of adjoining Little Lake where last week’s muskie came from. Unlike that ripe, previously tagged male however, this 48 inch female was still hard (green) and was a newbie- never having been sampled or tagged before by the crew. It was therefore sampled, tagged with her own uniquely numbered Floy tag, and live released in great shape.

If a ripe female was captured, the crew was prepared to carefully asses her condition in order to possibly hold her over until Monday when an egg collection could be carried out – as the hatcheries and Health Lab are not prepared to accept eggs on Fridays or weekends.


Kate Gee and Brent Shirley with the first female muskie of 2016

As they were preparing their gear for the day, on Monday May 16, the crew pictured below had guardedly high hopes that the rotten weather over the weekend would have spurred some muskie activity – and encouraged a couple (in every sense of the word) to enter their nets. However, water temperature at the dock (where their boat is moored) however read just under 11 C. Although muskie spawn (and G Pool egg collections have been made)in water temps ranging from 9.4-15C, optimum temps for spawning appear to be just under 13 C. So that first morning of week 5 saw  high hopes somewhat dashed. The snowfall and cold temps of Sunday had lasting undesirable affects possibly holding muskie out in deeper water away from the nets.

Not unlike hard core muskie anglers who may have ½ a dozen ‘hot-spots’ they like to visit and fish during the day … the MNRF muskie crew traveled from one trap net to another and every time they approached one of their 6 nets (all of which have caught plenty of muskie before), their excitement levels would rise in the hopes that a muskie or two would be waiting. As has been the case however for the duration of the 2016 program to date – disappointment was replicated with more disappointment … not just at the beginning of Week 5, but also mid-week and end-of week. No additional muskie were captured and overall with cool temperatures still dominating until Thursday when they hit a high of 13.7, overall catches of all species continued to be way down from previous years.

The following photos of Week 5 demonstrate however that despite not capturing their target species, the crew still managed to catch some remarkable fish, that contributed well to their ongoing data-set for G Pool and Little Lake.


Brent in background with our 3rd and largest walleye this season, with Wil (left) and Jason Cologna (MNRF Peterborough office) each with nice smallmouth on Day 1/Week 5



Over the years, the trapnetting crew has caught many large bragging sized channel cats but thousands of brown bullheads (right) of the size shown above.  However, to the best of their recollection, this  real small channel catfish (left) may be the first they have captured. Note the key identifying characteristic in the forked caudal (tail) fin of the channel catfish and the square tail of the brown bullhead catfish.


Here one of Canada’s longest serving and most dedicated Muskies Canada members Jim Kelly holds a nice, but not overly large channel cat along with Kate Gee from MNRF.  Jim is former MC president, is a member of the Muskies Canada Hall of Fame (inducted 2003)and represents the organization on the Lake Simcoe Fisheries Stakeholder Committee.


Here Wil Wegman (left) and Kate Gee proudly display 5 remarkable stinkpot turtles captured from one net set. This Species of Special Concern was highlighted in last week’s update


Kate and Wil with one very fat egg-laden female largemouth bass on a wet, cold day on the water.


Here, during a warmer Wednesday on the Pool, MNRF’s Melanie Shapiera  holds another good Largemouth – with Wil and Brent look on.


A male bowfin approaching full spawning color’s … indicated by the iridescent green of the underbelly





After dismal catches Monday, nets were left open and fished for 48 hours until Wednesday; then fished Thursday with some encouraging signs of warming temps bringing in more fish as the day went on. Another eagle flew overhead and was recognized as a good omen for things to come.
With the long weekend approaching, the muskie egg collection program would have typically long been completed by now, but as these weekly reports have clearly indicated, this has certainly not been a typical spring. Therefore after joint discussions among field crews, MNRF supervisors, Muskies Canada reps, hatchery staff and the health lab … a joint decision has been made to continue on to an unprecedented 6th week of trap netting in order to hopefully capture enough ripe muskie to reach our target goal of 3 families for the hatcheries.


So … nets were closed off on Thursday May 19 (a zip tie is fastened around the funnel of the trap net, prohibiting any fish from swimming thru and being captured) and will be reopened during the long weekend on Sunday May 22nd by Brent and Wil. This allows for another 48 hour net set during an anticipated heat wave until nets will be fished again on Tuesday May 24th. From there 24 hour sets will prevail until at least Thursday … and then we’ll have to re-evaluate our options.

Stay tuned … and hope everyone has a wonderful long weekend with plenty of tight lines for all who will wet one.