The New River, Virginia, muskellunge fishery: Population dynamics, harvest regulation, monitoring and angler attitudes.

Although muskellunge, Esox masquinongy, fisheries in northern US states and Canadian provinces are increasingly being managed by introduction of restrictive harvest regulations (e.g. 1370-mm (54′′) minimum length limits), many southern US muskellunge fisheries continue to be managed with comparatively liberal regulations (e.g. 762-mm (30′′) minimum length limits) that are implemented statewide. We studied the population dynamics of the New River, Virginia, muskellunge fishery and used predictive modeling to determine whether restrictive harvest regulations also might prove beneficial for this southern latitude fishery. A creel survey was also conducted to learn more about angler attitudes to the New River muskellunge fishery. Muskellunge grew quickly, with fish reaching harvestable lengths (762 mm, 30′′) in 2–3 years. Muskellunge fishing pressure, harvest rates, and voluntary release rates were low compared with reports for more northern areas. Most anglers, irrespective of how often they fished for muskellunge, defined “trophy” muskellunge to be approximately 1050–1100 mm (41–43′′) in length. Although angler support for restrictive harvest regulations was low, abundance of memorable-length (≥1070 mm, 42′′) muskellunge was predicted to increase under all evaluated length limits. Muskellunge yield would remain static at 914-mm (36′′) and 1016-mm (40′′) length limits, because of the rapid growth of fish, but yield would decline dramatically with a 1143-mm (45′′) length limit, because male muskellunge rarely exceeded 1100 mm (43′′). Because of rapid growth and low release rates, implementation of higher length limits (e.g. 965–1067 mm, 38–42′′) may indeed prove beneficial for augmenting “trophy” muskellunge production on the New River. Angler support for higher minimum length limits might be increased by educating anglers about the rapid growth rates of muskellunge and the expected size structure changes that will result from a length-limit increase. Size structure changes resulting from an increase in the minimum length limit may be difficult to detect because of potential increases in fishing pressure or reduced fish growth as a result of competition for food resources. Long-term monitoring of muskellunge growth and angling pressure may therefore be needed to ensure that new regulations are indeed benefitting the fishery.