Mortality, dispersal and habitat use of stocked juvenile muskellunge in two western North Carolina rivers

The Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy) is a highly sought‐after sport fish that is native to the Tennessee River drainage of western North Carolina. After the extirpation of Muskellunge from North Carolina in the 1950s, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission began a stocking program to re‐establish the species and produce viable Muskellunge fisheries in North Carolina. Although stocking efforts have created a Muskellunge fishery in, for example, the French Broad River (where the species was native), there is little evidence of success in North Carolina sections of the New River (where the species was not native). Possible mechanisms inhibiting stocking success are unclear because there is relatively little information available on the juvenile life stage of the Muskellunge, especially in the southern portion of its distribution. We addressed the perceived differences in recruitment between the two fisheries by using telemetry to investigate dispersal, mortality, and habitat use by stocked juvenile Muskellunge. Fifty hatchery‐reared, age‐0 Muskellunge (282–307 mm TL) were tagged prior to stocking in the New River (fall 2013) and French Broad River (fall 2014). Three months after stocking, known survival of tagged fish was 4% in the New River and 29% in the French Broad River; the survival probability after 3 months was estimated at 9% (range = 4–17%) in the New River and 37% (range = 25–56%) in the French Broad River. Extended survival in the French Broad River was 14% at 252 d post-stocking. High dispersal was observed, with maximum individual dispersal of 67.4 km in the New River and 55.5 km in the French Broad River. Habitat suitability analyses indicated that juvenile Muskellunge in the FBR selected shallow nearshore areas with low water velocity, fine substrate, and substantial cover in the form of woody debris and overhanging vegetation. Information on the survival and behavior of stocked Muskellunge can facilitate efforts to successfully manage these fisheries.