But for one man's vision, the state might not be the epicenter of the fish that it is today.

His name was Gil Hamm. He lived in St. Paul and he loved to fish.

Never heard of him?

Hamm is a legend in muskie circles. He is a major reason Minnesota has become the top muskie fishery in the nation, and he and his friends helped launch the catch-and-release philosophy so prevalent in fishing today. The construction contractor founded Muskies Inc. in 1966 after catching muskie fever on a fishing trip to Ontario.

"Driving home past hundreds of northern Minnesota lakes, the thought occurred to me that a lot of these should be good muskie fishing waters, but they weren't,'' Hamm told the Minneapolis Star in 1979, five years before he passed away at age 80.

He stopped at the DNR the next day and asked about muskies.

"When someone there suggested I fish in Wisconsin, I really got mad,'' he said.

He decided to form a muskie group and rounded up 13 like-minded anglers, including Frank Schneider Jr., also a legendary conservationist from St. Paul, who died in 2005. The group got two dozen lakes designated as muskie waters, where spearing was prohibited, and stocked muskies with fish produced at the group's own hatchery.

Perhaps more importantly, Hamm and his buddies elevated the view of muskies and helped anglers — and the Department of Natural Resources — see the potential.

"I have to give them credit for awakening the people of Minnesota to the value of the fish,'' Robert Herbst, then DNR commissioner, said in a 1974 Minneapolis Star story.

Today, Muskies Inc. has about 7,500 members and 50 chapters in the United States. The Twin Cities chapter is the largest, with about 500 members. The evolution of muskie fever, and Hamm's vision, will be on display this weekend at the 19th annual Minnesota Muskie Expo in St. Paul. Nowadays, more than 100,000 anglers are estimated to fish muskies in the state, part of a $90 million industry.

It's a far cry from when Hamm and the handful of anglers met in an upstairs room over a St. Paul restaurant to create Muskies Inc.

"I guess I thought we might have chapters some day,'' he told the Minneapolis Tribune in 1980. He lived long enough to see his group flourish. "They're talking muskies and Muskies Inc. all over the country,'' he said in that interview.

Integral to the success of the muskie fishery is the catch-and-release ethic that took off under Hamm and his group.

"I think the greatest contribution Muskies Inc. has made is our muskie release program,'' he said in 1981. "The first year, our members released about 15 percent of the muskies they caught. Now our members nationally are releasing 94 percent.''

That figure is closer to 99 percent today.

Hamm also was a visionary. After stocking Minnetonka, White Bear Lake, Harriet and the St. Croix River with muskies, he was excited about the potential.

"Eventually, I think some of the better muskie fishing might be right in the metro area,'' he said in 1979.

Getting it done

By all accounts, Hamm was persistent, dedicated and knew how to make things happen.

"Gil was this short guy, but when he walked into a room, he had a booming voice and a smile and energy that just sucked people in,'' said Frank Schneider's son, John, 54, of Roseville. "He was not shy about asking people for favors.''

George Selcke, 69, of Minnetonka, has been active with Muskies Inc. since 1970 and knew Hamm, Schneider and other early leaders.

"Hamm was a kind gentleman; everyone liked him,'' he said. "But he was a good, solid businessman, honest as the day is long. He'd surround himself with people who could get the job done.''

"He thought Minnesota could be a world-class muskie fishery, which it now is. That's his legacy.''

The group's thinking evolved. "Originally it was a good ol' boys club,'' Selcke said. But members realized they needed to get women and children involved to help muskie fishing flourish.

The nonprofit group continues to focus on conservation, research and youth.

"Protecting and expanding resources is the biggest issue,'' said Shawn Kellett, vice president of the Twin Cities chapter. "We want to add more opportunity.''

The group continues to struggle politically with spearers, who want spearing restrictions on northerns lifted from lakes. Kellett said the group also would like to boost the minimum size that a muskie could be kept (now 48 inches) to 55 inches.

"We're seeing lots of pressure from out-of-state anglers who want to come here to kill a trophy,'' he said.

Meanwhile, Selkes said Hamm would be tickled to see how his group, and muskie fishing, has flourished.

In 1981, Hamm reflected on Muskies Inc.'s efforts and its catch-and-release mentality.

"I think we've done something for all of fishing. Not just for muskies, but for all fish,'' he said. "If we don't put back some of what we catch, fishermen will be out of business.''

Doug Smith • doug.smith@startribune.com