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Why muskies follow

Gord Pyzer caught a brilliant fat fall muskie trolling on Lake of the Woods while filming an episode of In-Fisherman Television. • Credit: Gord Pyzer
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Why muskies follow

Answering the question as to why muskie follow lures

I was interviewed by Bernie Barringer, a Minnesota-based outdoor writer who is working with the renowned outdoor photographer, Bill Lindner, on a glossy, hardcover, coffee table-style book about muskie fishing and Bernie asked me a question I've thought about a lot over the past decade.

Bernie wanted to know why so many muskies follow our lures to the side of the boat, often with their noses scant inches behind our baits. Are they curious, he wondered? Or, have they been hooked before and possibly have learned to avoid being captured again?

They were great questions because over the past half-century that I've been hunting the big toothy critters in Ontario's magnificent marquee muskie waters -- you don't really fish for muskies as much as hunt for them -- I've seen some interesting changes in their behaviour.

In fact, 30 years ago on my Northwestern Ontario muskie home waters of Lake of the Woods, my buddies and I used to hook about 70 percent of the fish by casting. The other 30 percent trailed our lures and we triggered them by performing the popular figure-eight motion alongside the boat.

Today, however, I'd estimate the percentages are reversed. We now probably hook 30 to 40 percent of the muskies while casting and 60 to 70 percent on the figure-8. So, are the fish more curious or smarter?

The answer, of course, is likely a bit of both.

About Muskie

As the apex predator in our Northern Ontario lakes and rivers, adult muskies fear very little. So, they never have to hurry to strike a bait, unless it appears to be getting away from them, which is why speeding up your retrieve or troll to elicit a reaction bite often works so well.

Indeed, I'll always remember an incident buddy Bob Izumi related while we were filming an episode of The Real Fishing Television Show in Northwestern Ontario's Sunset Country and a humongous fish followed -- smack dab in the middle -- between our two lures.

It was a sight to behold!

And it brought to mind for Bob, an incident that occurred the week before when he'd been fishing a bass tournament. He was throwing a spinnerbait at the time when he spotted a muskie chasing his bait, he sped up his retrieve and yanked the lure out of the water as fast as he could to avoid catching the fish. He didn't want to hook it and waste valuable tournament time, or worse yet, lose his lure to a "bite off".

But, as he was preparing to make his next cast, Bob felt a thud and then the boat shake. That is when he leaned over the front and noticed the muskie suspended just under the surface. It was so mad that it had rammed the fishy-looking black head of his electric trolling motor and had tried to eat it.

muskie We don’t want to brag about the world-class muskie opportunities that Ontario offers, but you can catch the fish almost from your living room, as Brandon Broderick displays with this well over 40-pound Ontario monster. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

As I said, there is little muskie fear.

But, the fish today are also a heck of a lot smarter.

Again, case in point: a couple of years ago I was filming a late-season muskie episode of the In-Fisherman Television Show with my good friend, Doug Stange. We were trolling on Lake of the Woods and as luck would have it, I nailed a gorgeous fish that performed like a rock star for the camera.

The fat fall, fish was in the low 50-inch range and close to, or exceeding, 40 pounds in weight. It was so gorgeous, in fact, that I subsequently asked the boys in the editing room to cut me a digital image of the fish so that I could post a picture of it online. Come to think of it, the image graces my Facebook page to this day.

Now, imagine my surprise when several acquaintances emailed me images of the same fish they had caught and released the same year, or in previous seasons. How did they know it was "my muskie"? Because the unique red lymphocytic boils around the fish's tail.

It is a testament to the fact that catch and release works.

Indeed, if the first angler who caught the fish had killed it, the rest of us would have been denied the opportunity to catch and marvel at such a magnificent animal. More importantly, however, the giant female -- virtually all muskies over 40 inches are females -- would never have laid the tens of thousands of eggs that she did each subsequent spring, passing on the remarkable wild genes that allowed her to grow so grand.

At the same time, however, I have no doubt that that muskie, which has now been caught at least three times and probably more, identifies the sound of an outboard, the whirl of an electric trolling motor and the ping of a sonar unit with danger. And I suspect she can tell you the price you paid for the Bondy Bait or Mepps H210 cowgirl that you're throwing. So, if you expect to catch her a fourth or fifth time, you better have your wits about you.

muskie Research

This brings us to the brilliant research that Bernard Lebeau carried out while working on his University of Toronto doctoral thesis under the supervision of the late Dr. Ed Crossman, perhaps the pre-eminent muskellunge researcher of our time.

muskie Who wouldn’t be happy catching a gorgeous muskie like this one that Brandon Broderick caught in Ontario? (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

Lebeau was tracking the seasonal movements of a number of giant fish in Northwestern Ontario's Wabigoon Lake using sonic tags that he had surgically implanted inside the muskies. The tracking devices were sizeable enough, however, that large adult size fish were needed. And since muskies, like all apex animals, are never plentiful in the truest sense of the word, the best way to capture the fish for study and implantation was to first catch them by means of angling.

Now, imagine Lebeau and Crossman's surprise when a pair of muskie anglers boated into the large bay where they were tracking a particularly big muskie. Before the boat had drifted to a halt and the anglers had lowered their bow-mounted electric trolling motor into the water to make their first cast, the muskie had already begun to swim out of the bay. She had obviously identified the noise with a past discomforting event.

Which begs the question. Might, the fish someday become so "smart" as to avoid ever being caught again? Before you answer "yes", consider this: every single one of the muskies that Lebeau and Crossman tracked was eventually caught by anglers before the study was completed.

So, there is no need to panic, the odds appear to rest squarely in our favour.

Better still, as Crossman and Dr. John Casselman subsequently determined from their massive decades-long "cleithrum project", in which they studied such things as the maximum age of muskies and ways to increase recruitment, we could almost double the population of wild natural muskies swimming in our waters if we could increase the survival of fish that we catch and release by a mere 7 percent.

Talk about a win/win for muskies and for muskie anglers fishing for the most magnificent fish in all of Northern Ontario.

muskie (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)
Does a world record swim in one of Ontario’s world-famous muskie waters? Feast on your eyes on this jawbone that washed up on a remote beach in one of Northwestern Ontario’s Sunset Country lakes. It dwarfs anything author Gord Pyzer has ever caught or seen, and Gord’s personal best is a 57 1/2-pound muskie that was only 8 pounds off the world record.

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