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Muskie fever can lead to 'horrible addiction,' serious anglers say

Muskie expert Dick Pearson said the pursuit of muskies lets him combine his passions for hunting and fishing. The pursuit paid off last summer when Pearson landed this 51-inch muskie on Lake of the Woods.

Ask Dick Pearson about the thrill of fishing esox masquinongy -- the scientific name for the muskellunge -- and the admitted muskie fanatic doesn't have to fish for words.

"I love to hunt, and muskie fishing to me is like the best of both worlds," said Pearson, a muskie authority who authored the 2001 book, "Muskies on the Shield," and produced a video of the same name four years later. "You can hunt, but you can also release them."

Oh yeah, and one more thing, Pearson says:

"It's just the damn fish," he said. "What other fish follows like that?"

A retired attorney who has a summer home on Oak Island of Lake of the Woods, Pearson got serious about muskie fishing in the 1970s, when only a handful of the most fanatical anglers pursued the elusive predators. The addiction -- his words -- led Pearson to some of the top muskie waters in the Precambrian Shield of northwestern Ontario -- a region of lakes and trees and granite.

These days, Pearson spends just about every day from mid-June through the end of August slinging big lures among the islands on the Ontario side of Lake of the Woods.

All this for a fish that might not do more than follow a lure.

"It's more of a challenge than any other fishing I've ever done -- just what a mysterious fish it is," Pearson said. "The following thing blows my mind.

"I'd much rather do that than anything else."

As another season of muskie fishing gets under way -- Minnesota's muskie opener was Saturday and Ontario's season opens June 16 -- these are good times for Pearson and others like him. Spurred by a catch-and-release ethic and sound fisheries management, muskie populations are thriving in many places.

"It's gotten easier because muskie populations have grown, but it's still a challenge," said Pearson, who practiced law in St. Cloud, Minn., before retiring to northeast South Dakota. "It's really better, there's no doubt about it. Nowadays, there are more muskies in more places, and with the equipment and knowledge base, (novices) can learn over the winter on the Internet what took me 10 years."

Minnesota Mecca

If there's a Mecca of muskie fishing today in the United States, it's Minnesota. In a state where walleyes reign supreme, muskies are gaining momentum. The Department of Natural Resources now manages 116 lakes for muskies, and plans are in the works to add as many as five more in the next decade, DNR officials say.

"Anglers identify Minnesota as THE muskie destination in North America," said Henry Drewes, regional fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources in Bemidji. "Anglers have told me that used to venture up to Eagle Lake, Lake of the Woods and Lac Seul, the quality of the muskie fishing in northern Minnesota is such that they don't need to make those trips into northern Ontario to find high-quality muskie fishing.

"I think that's a testimony to where we're at with muskie management in Minnesota. It's a very strategic, very calculated program that has served us well."

Large, northern Minnesota lakes such as Leech, Winnibigoshish and Cass always have had muskie populations, but the state's management program gained momentum in the early 1980s. The turning point, Drewes said, was a research project that found Leech Lake-strain muskies grew larger than fish from Shoepack Lake in northeast Minnesota, a longtime source of eggs for stocking programs.

Eggs from Leech Lake-strain fish now supply all of the state's stocking programs.

According to Drewes, the criteria for choosing muskie waters include low abundance of northern pike, which don't coexist well with muskies; a strong population of oily forage fish such as whitefish and tullibees; and lakes that are several thousand acres or larger. Not to be overlooked, Drewes said, is public support because stocking muskies can be controversial among anglers who prefer species such as walleyes and bass.

Drewes said Minnesota's muskie program now has progressed to the stage where fish in the 50-inch range are relatively common. It's just a matter of time, he said, before someone breaks the state record, a 54-pound, 56-inch behemoth caught in 1957 on Lake Winnibigoshish.

Lakes such as Bemidji and Lake Sallie near Detroit Lakes, Minn., already have come close.

"There are people that have bumped up against it in terms of length and girth, and you hear stories of fish that were likely bigger that were released," Drewes said. "But it will be broken, there's no doubt in my mind, and people are always betting which lake it will be. One year, the buzz is that it will come out of Mille Lacs; the next year, it's Vermilion; and then I've heard when someone catches a 56-incher out of Bemidji that it will be Bemidji.

"It could come from any one of those lakes. Probably a third of our managed lakes have the potential to produce a 50-inch-class fish."

Minor species in N.D.

With fewer lakes and a fishing tradition more deeply rooted in pike, perch and walleyes, North Dakota manages only a handful of waters for muskies, including McClusky Canal and Heckers Lake, which are part of the Garrison Diversion Unit, and Red Willow Lake in Griggs County.

Still, the potential for big fish exists. Cory Bosch of Mandan, N.D., caught the state record muskie, which weighed 46 pounds, 8 ounces and measured 54 inches, in 2007 from New Johns Lake.

The North Dakota Game and Fish Department also has stocked tiger muskies -- a hybrid cross between muskies and northern pike -- in Devils Lake and other waters. Jason Mitchell, a longtime Devils Lake guide and host of the "Jason Mitchell Outdoors" TV show, said a friend saw a tiger muskie in the mid-40-inch range about a week ago while casting for pike on Devils Lake.

"A few years ago, we were seeing a handful in the summer in the 4-pound range from a particular year-class, and then they just disappeared," Mitchell said.

Muskies, whether tiger or pure-strain, just aren't a priority in the Dakotas, Mitchell said. Most muskie anglers in the Dakotas head for Minnesota.

"In the Dakotas, there's not a strong history or tradition of doing it," he said. "They just don't get fished. Besides, you can't beat northern Minnesota. You go to Cass or Leech, and you're going to see fish. You'll get enough activity to get the heart beating."

Mitchell said he's tried to film muskie segments for his TV show but the fish's elusive nature has won out. Even on prime muskie waters, success isn't a guarantee.

That, too, is part of the attraction, Mitchell said.

"We tried to film last year," he said. "We were out for two days, and it was unbelievable the number of fish we saw and we had unbelievably bad luck. We (lost) probably eight fish we had on; they just came unbuttoned. All the stars were aligned against us. They were hitting, we were seeing fish and we were moving fish.

"We just couldn't get them into the boat."

Like most anglers who've caught muskies, Mitchell says he understands the attraction. If he lived in northern Minnesota or northwestern Ontario, Mitchell says he'd fish muskies regularly.

"They're definitely a fascinating fish," he said. "They're just cool. They're big, they're a predator -- they just look so magical in the water. A 50-inch muskie, that's a 30-pound fish. There aren't that many opportunities in fresh water to hit a 30-pound fish. It's as good as it gets."

No wonder, then, that Pearson, the Lake of the Woods muskie fanatic, only targets walleyes if he's looking for a meal.

"The good news is I caught a couple of muskies," Pearson said of his introduction to muskie fishing. "The bad news is I caught a couple of muskies. It's a horrible addiction."

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