For the second time in less than a month, Lake Mille Lacs has coughed up a lunker of stunning proportions that has added more mystique to an already growing wonderment in Minnesota over muskie fishing.
The catch on Thanksgiving eve of a beastly muskie, estimated at 61 pounds by Dominic Hoyos of Stillwater, eclipsed the possible world record fly-fishing muskie caught by Robert Hawkins just 16 days earlier, also on Mille Lacs.
Where Hawkins’ monster measured 57 inches long and 26½ inches around, the aptly dubbed “Queen of Mille Lacs” caught and released by Hoyos boasted a barrel-sized girth of 30 inches. At a minimum, it is considered the largest fish ever caught on Mille Lacs and is an estimated seven pounds heavier than the state-record muskie landed in 1957 on Lake Winnibigoshish. The certified world-record muskie of 58 pounds was caught on Michigan’s Lake Bellaire in October 2013.
“We always kind of dreamed there was a fish that big in Mille Lacs,” said Josh Stevenson, an Oakdale bait store owner and hard-core muskie guide who was among the first to learn about Hoyos’ big catch. “Now we know there’s that extra, extra level.”
Armed with surveys indicating that muskie fishing is one of the fastest-growing segments of Minnesota sport fishing, the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has proposed five new sites for stocking lakes with hatchery-grown fingerlings. Meanwhile muskie guides on Mille Lacs and elsewhere are catering to increased angler demand for the scarce but surreal encounters that reward those who are both studious and patient, Stevenson said.
And for the truly obsessed muskie anglers, the freezing temperatures of November are the most tantalizing. That’s when the species is gorging on high-calorie, high-fat forage fish for a winter period in which they are notably less active than other pike.
“It’s a home run mentality,” Stevenson said. “And it’s definitely an addiction.”
Brad Parsons, DNR central region fisheries manager, said the high-energy casting, seasonal extremes and trophy potential of muskie fishing have boosted the sport’s appeal among a younger demographic.
“We are seeing it become very popular, and we think it’s going to continue to grow,” Parsons said.
The 2015 muskie season ended Tuesday and will reopen June 4. Hoyos and his fishing buddy, Dean Block of Ramsey, can hardly wait. Both own property on Mille Lacs so they can target muskies as frequently as possible, from start to finish of the season, regardless of weather.
Block, an inspector of nuclear power plants, said he and Hoyos were dialed into a days-long pattern of trolling in 18 to 20 feet of water away from “community spots” where other muskie stalwarts fished. They missed on two big fish, so they kept to their plan of following congregations of ciscoes (also known as tullibees) near shallow, underwater rock shores where the forage fish had been spawning.
At 12:35 p.m. on the day of a full moon, the “clicker’’ sounded on Hoyos’ line. His heart raced as the heaviness increased. The “Queen” was hooked, but swimming in tandem with the boat, behind the stern. Now she raced ahead and Hoyos stiffened his rod to turn her back.
“When she realized she was hooked, she put on a show,” Hoyos said. “She got real aggressive.”
But within about 10 minutes, she was netted beside the boat. “This fish was just obese,” he said.
After pictures and measurements were taken, the muskie was released, swimming away “like a rocket,” Hoyos said.
The catch-and-release ethos of serious muskie fishermen also sets them apart. To qualify as a state record, the fish would have had to be killed and weighed on a state-certified scale. But as with the lunker caught by Hawkins earlier in the month, killing was never an option,
Parsons said the “Queen” was most definitely a female of the Leech Lake strain, the type of muskie the DNR started stocking in Mille Lacs in 1989. Since 2000, the Mille Lacs muskie stocking program has continued every other year with releases of 3,000 fingerlings (nearly a foot long) at a time.
Larry Dahlberg of Taylors Falls, a die-hard muskie angler for more than 55 years, said the Mille Lacs muskie story is a DNR success. But he and others, including Hoyos, Block and Stevenson, said the overall density of muskies in the lake has declined in recent years, even as the number of monster catches has increased. On the same day that Hoyos caught the “Queen,” for instance, a client in Stevenson’s guide boat caught a 53-incher, Stevenson said.
“The golden age of muskies in Minnesota actually was more like 6 to 10 years ago,” Dahlberg said. “It’s still world-class, but needs continued support.”
Parsons of the DNR acknowledged that the overall population of muskies in Mille Lacs has dwindled in recent years — for reasons not entirely understood. But he said the agency’s plan all along was for muskies to inhabit Mille Lacs in lower densities than in other lakes. The agency took an important step toward protecting muskies statewide by recently limiting anglers from keeping fish under 54 inches in length. The previous limit was 48 inches.
Meanwhile, the DNR and muskie fanatics such as Hoyos and Block steadfastly maintain that the big predators coexist with walleye and other prized sport species without upsetting the balance of those populations.
“I am not denying the fact that they [muskies] won’t eat a walleye if presented correctly, but I can guarantee they’re not out actively searching for them,” Block said.