The Lake Simcoe Muskellunge Restoration Project

Introduction

Muskellunge (Esox masquinongy; “muskie”) are native to Lake Simcoe and were once quite common.  Lake Simcoe had a commercial fishery for muskie in the 1800s, which closed in 1904.  The muskie population started to decline in the 1930s due to a number of factors, including harvest, habitat loss, and changes to the Lake Simcoe fish communities.  The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and forestry (MNRF) socked the lake with fry and fingerlings during 1936 0 1969.  The brood stock was taken from the Kawartha Lakes and this introduction proved unsuccessful, possibly because this strain was not able to co-exist with northern pike.   The recreational fishery for muskie on Lakes Simcoe and Couchiching closed in 2005.

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Brent Shirley from MNRF Midhurst District (left) and Wil Wegman from MNRF Aurora District with one of the muskie from Gloucester pool used for egg collections in the spring of 2015

By the early 2000s, a feasibility study and a habitat inventory determined that restoring the native muskie fishery to Lake Simcoe was a feasible fisheries management goal.  The study noted that efforts towards habitat restoration include broader benefits for the entire aquatic community.

Why Stock Muskie?

Muskie are a highly prized game fish.  They were once a significant member of the native fish community in Lake Simcoe and the goal is to make that happen once again.  The objective of the Lake Simcoe Muskellunge Restoration Project (LSMRP) is to re-establish a self-sustaining muskie population which does not rely on continuous stocking efforts.   To reach this objective, MNRF is stocking muskie to facilitate natural reproduction, evaluating the muskie population in Lake Simcoe through time, and enhancing muskie spawning and nursery habitats.  The Georgian Bay strain, which utilize similar spawning habitats and co-exist with northern pike, is seen to be a goo fit for Lake Simcoe stocking.  Although other populations around Lake Simcoe were tested for genetics, Gloucester Pool (near Port Severn) was the lake chosen as the most feasible source of Georgian Bay strain muskie for egg collections.

Muskie Stocking

The LSMRP began in 2005 and continues through to 2015 with support of key partners including Muskies Canada, Fleming College, Orillia Fish and Game Club and the Ontario Federation of anglers and Hunters.  During the fall of 2015, approximately 4,000 muskie were stocked; more than in any other year previously.  this brings the total number of young, hatchery-raised muskie fall fingerlings into Lake Simcoe through the LSMRP at 15,673.  Locations for the 2015 stocking included: Barnstable Bay, Talbot River, Talbot River mouth area, south side of Georgina Island, Cook’s Bay east and Cook’s Bay west.

Raising Muskie

Typically, there are two hatcheries where the fish are raised -= Fleming College in Lindsay and MNRF’s Blue Jay Creek on Manitoulin Island.  However, one of the key reasons we were able to stock more muskie in 2015 was the addition of MNRF’s Harwood Fish Culture Station.  Staff here offered to raise 700 surplus muskies (from Fleming College) and they did a great job raising these fish which contributed to the overall total stocked.  All three hatcheries experienced excellent success.  Muskie raised in these hatcheries are marked with Coded-Wire Tags.  If encountered during monitoring efforts, these Lake Simcoe muskie can be scanned with a device by MNRF staff that tells them if the muskie is stocked or or natural origin.  Genetic tests will also confirm their origin.

2015 Egg Collection

The spring eff collection on Gloucester Pool in 2015 was extremely successful.  Staff from MNRG’s Aurora and Midhurst Districts (both are responsible for managing Lake Simcoe) combined efforts once again to set six trap nets to capture muskie for the egg collection.  Staff captured 11 muskies and enough eggs were collected (~60,000 eggs) to fill both hatcheries to capacity.  All muskie captured in the nets are quickly sampled (measured, scales and spine taken for aging) and then tagged before they are carefully live released.

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Of course other species of fish are captured in the trap nets as well and staff record their numbers before they are live released. Below are the results of the bi-catch for both 2014 and 2015

Species 2014 2015
Yellow Perch 71 21
Rock Bass 77 199
Pumpkinseed Sunfish 221 239
Bluegill Sunfish 6 22
Black Crappie 198 210
Northern Pike 150 249
Longnosed Gar 4 57
Common Carp 2 8
Brown Bullhead 1,195 1,106
Channel Catfish 3 14
Smallmouth Bass 83 132
Largemouth Bass 115 216
Walleye 0 216
Round Goby 1 0
White Sucker 1 0
Northern Map Turtle 12 26
Stinkpot (Musk) Turtle 1 3
Bowfin 7 19
Total 2,050 2,509

Total 2,050 2,509

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Muskies Canada began an Adopt A Muskie Program in 2015 that allows donors to pledge $20.00 to help pay for the expenses of raising these your fish.

During the course of the year staff from all three hatcheries network regularly with one another, which helps maximize their efforts to raise healthy young muskie.  This year, Mark Newell, the manager of the Fleming Hatchery even developed a Facebook page set up for stakeholders and the public to follow the process in his hatchery of raising muskie from eggs to 7-12 inch fall fingerlings.  Muskies Canada began an Adopt A Muskie Program in 2015 that allows donors to pledge $20.00 to help pay for the expenses of raising these your fish. To learn how you can adopt your own muskie visit:  Adopt A Muskie

Notables

  • Over the years, lessons learned from the hatcheries help build a strong science-based approach to wild muskie rearing for the Province
  • Muskie eggs, feeder fish, and a small percentage of fingerlings are tested annually for diseases including Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia (VHS). Once again, all fish came back disease free in 2015
  • In November, 2011 the Lake Simcoe Muskie Restoration Project was selected as the winner of the Canadian Fishing Hall of Fame, Conservation Award

Lake Simcoe Muskie Monitoring

MNRF has several ongoing monitoring and habitat enhancement programs in place through Aurora District and Lake Simcoe Fisheries Assessment Unit.

Prior to 2014, 1998 was the last year MNRF caught and sampled a muskie on Lake Simcoe.  In the spring of 2014 however, MNRF utilized an electro-fishing boat to target historical known spawning areas and captured, sampled, tagged and released five muskie.  DNA testing afterwards proved these fish were of Kawartha lakes strain – not the stocked Georgian Bay strain.  These individual fish likely came through the Trent System but were obviously thriving in Simcoe.  During the spring of 2015, three additional muskie were caught electro-fishing, but these to were of Kawartha origin.

Over time, MNRF has documented some anecdotal evidence of the occasional muskie catch from anglers who inadvertently caught (and released) muskie when targeting other species.  For example in 2015, a bass angler in Cook’s Bay caught and released a muskie.  This location is on the opposite end of the lake from where the Kawartha Lakes strain muskie were sampled.  Between this sighting and others that have been reported, there is a possibility that this elusive fish of the Lake Simcoe or Georgian Bay strain could be surviving in Lake Simcoe one again.

In 2016 MNRF staff and partners look forward to another successful year for the Lake Simcoe Muskie Restoration Program. Until then a BIG thank you to all the organizations who have supported this project over the years:

• Muskies Canada

• Fleming College

• Orillia Fish and Game Club

• Twin Lakes Conservation Club

• Lafontaine Fish and Game Club

• North Simcoe Hunters and Anglers

• Georgian Bay Hunters and Anglers

• Georgian Bay Bassmasters

• Gloucester Pool Cottage Association

• The Sexsmith family

• Ontario Streams

• Toronto Region Conservation Authority

• Department of Fisheries and Oceans

• Aurora Bassmasters

• Environment Canada

• Wisconsin DNR

• Midhurst District (MNRF)

• Aurora District (MNRF)

• Upper Great Lakes Management Unit (MNRF)

• MNRF Fish Policy Section

• Blue Jay Creek Fish Hatchery (MNRF)

• Harwood Fish Culture Station (MNRF)

• Lake Simcoe Fisheries Assessment Unit (MNRF)

• …AND OTHERS!

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