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Fin clipping and hope that studies return Lake Shelbyville muskies to their former glory

Fin clipping, tracking and studying are among the reasons for hope that Shelbyville will rebound as a destination lake for muskie anglers.

Four dozen volunteers and workers from the IDNR, Army Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Natural History Survey worked to fin clip muskies at Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery for an ongoing project at Lake Shelbyville.
Dale Bowman

TOPEKA, Ill.--Simple truth.

``Shelbyville used to be a destination lake,’’ fisheries biologist Mike Mounce said.

That was true not only for Illinois’ muskie anglers but out-of-staters, too.

Shelbyville still holds the Illinois muskie record (38 pounds, 8 ounces). It was caught April 20, 2002 by Matt Carmean while he was walleye fishing below the Lake Shelbyville spillway. It was 50 3/4 inches long.

But in 2007 a mysterious die-off of muskies, discovered June 5, occurred. It did not seem to impact other fish. The muskie fishery at Lake Shelbyville has never fully recovered.

There have been ongoing efforts to revive the muskie fishery to its former glory.

The latest project, in collaboration with Illinois Natural History Survey, Illinois Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Illini Muskies Alliance, is examining muskellunge stocking success in Lake Shelbyville.

Part of that process came Monday with the fin clipping of thousands of muskies at Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery by 48 people, a mix of volunteers and professionals from the IDNR, USACE and INHS.

Fin clipping? I’m glad so many people asked.

``Fin clipping is a method of mark and recapture,’’ explained Randy Kramer, a first year master’s student at the University of Illinois/INHS who is heading the muskie study.

``When the fish is caught, this identifying mark allows us to say when and where a fish was stocked. The purpose is to locate better stocking sites and track their movements. We will use various methods to recapture the marked muskellunge, including electrofishing, trap nets, and angler catches.’’

Three thousand of the 11,000 had their right pelvic fin clipped off, while the rest of the fin-clipped muskie were done on the left pelvic fin.

The right-clipped group were going to the rearing pond, while the left-clipped ones were released this week. In case you are wondering, the right and left designation is the fish’s right or left. If I try to explain that any more I will end up doing a ``Who’s on First?’’ routine.

The clipping of a pelvic fin on a muskie at Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery.
Dale Bowman

As to the technique for fin clipping, I watched hatchery manager Scott Shasteen work solo, bracing the fish against the side of the trough and making a clean sharp clip.

Mounce recommended that others work in pairs, one holding the fish and the other clipping the fin.

Once while surveying the situation, Mounce announced, ``Make sure you get 100 percent of the fin off or it will grow back.’’

There was a rhythm to doing thousands of fish. One person walked over to the hatchery truck--the muskies were spawned at the hatchery from brood stock captured at Spring Lake, then raised to that 10- to 12-inch size at the hatchery--and handed an empty net up to hatchery tech Kent Lehman.

He netted a batch of muskie, then handed the net back. The net was laid in the long sections of water-filled trough. Then each muskie was removed, individually clipped, after which the fish tossed in hatchery pools while sharp-eyed counters with clickers counted the thousands.

When the net was empty, each pair doing the clipping repeated the process.

Near the end, Shasteen had Mounce and Jon Summers, operations manager for the USACE at Lake Shelbyville, measure each of the muskies they clipped. From what I deciphered, most of them were skewing toward the 12-inch size.

Jon Summers, Lake Shelbyville operations manager for the Army Corps of Engineers, works with IDNR fisheries biologist Mike Mounce at Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery on fin-clipping and measuring muskie destined for Lake Shelbyville.
Dale Bowman

Kramer talked while he worked with Carly Fenstermacher, a fisheries technician with INHS.

He said 50 muskies will be fitted with acoustic transmitting tags. A bunch of receivers have been placed around the lake, plus he said, ``I will be out a couple times a week following them around with a transmitter.’’

That is one part of the study, how the fish move.

After being fin-clipped the muskie were transported for stocking into Shelbyville or further growing at the Fin and Feathers nursery pond at Shelbyville.

This week, 4,000 were released at the Wolf Creek and another 4,000 at Wilborn Creek. Plus, the 3,000 in the rearing pond will be released in December.

Mounce said in the rearing ponds, they will be fed bluegill, gizzard shad and green sunfish, much more variety than they had been having at the hatchery on fatheads.

That is another part of the study, seeing if the muskie finished off in the rearing pond fare better.

Kramer said that if an angler does catch a muskellunge they should report it online at

``Additionally, they can email me to let me know when and where the fish was caught and if it was fin clipped,’’ Kramer emailed Kramer, whose email is

And maybe eventually the mystery of the Lake Shelbyvi

Muskies in the net before being fin clipped at Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery before being transported to Lake Shelbyville.
Dale Bowman

lle muskie will be deciphered.