By Steve Heiting
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show is 75 years old this year and, though it has changed with time, many would say it’s better than ever. In the meantime, fishing for Wisconsin’s state fish, the muskellunge, has evolved over the past 75 years and is also arguably better than ever.
In 1940, when the first Milwaukee Sentinel Sports and Boat Show opened its doors, an angler wanting to fish for muskies had to endure a day-long trip via rail or the crude road system of the day to reach northern Wisconsin. The muskie was king of the north, and it has been said that it was the dollars spent by visiting sportsmen that built the schools there.
The challenge of catching the long, toothy fish lured starlets, war heroes, actors, athletes, gangsters and everyday families. If someone caught one, it was taken back to the resort where it was paraded about before being put on ice, boxed up and shipped to the lucky angler’s home for a feast with family and friends. If it was large enough, its skin was preserved and mounted on the wall. A successful fisherman became a hero for a moment, but the muskie was legend.
With time, better roads brought more fishermen and more pressure on the resource, where a muskie remains a rare beast even where it is considered abundant. Technology created better fishing tackle, and the dawn of the information age made the now-better-equipped visiting angler more proficient on the water.
Fortunately, at about the same time, conservationists banded together to form such groups as Muskies, Inc., and the Musky Clubs Alliance of Wisconsin, among others, whose members celebrated the fish but also promoted the release of angler-caught muskies. This movement not only preserved muskie fisheries but made individual fish “recyclable”, meaning that more than one angler can enjoy the thrill of catching it.
Improving water quality and artificial propagation by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources spread the muskie throughout the state. Today, anglers can find sizable populations in waters where they never before existed, such as Pewaukee Lake and Oconomowoc Lake, near Milwaukee, and the Madison Chain. Even the bay of Green Bay — where the muskie had been extirpated by poor water quality and overfishing — now contains a fishery that some say will produce the next world record fish.
While still great and becoming better every year, Wisconsin is no longer the only place to fish for muskies. More restrictive size and bag limits have protected and expanded the native fisheries of Canada, Lake St. Clair in Michigan, the St. Lawrence River in New York, and the rivers and reservoirs in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. Aggressive management has expanded or created muskie fisheries in Minnesota, Indiana, and even Illinois and Iowa. This year’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show will have booths promoting most, if not all, of these locations.
Today, you don’t have to travel far to find muskies. And when you succeed at catching one, you take a picture or two and then release it. If you want a mount for the wall, skilled taxidermists can create a replica and paint it to the exact markings of your fish. You can literally have your muskie and release it, too.
Many things get better with time. All you have to do is attend the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show or go muskie fishing to see this for yourself.
Steve Heiting is the managing editor of Musky Hunter magazine, which is based in St. Germain, Wisconsin. He will present his seminar, “Analysis of a Musky Hunt,” on Friday, March 6, at 7 p.m. in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Sports Show’s main seminar area. The seminar is sponsored by Mercury Marine.