Hooks, habitat, muskies: Updating the muskie-tracking study at Shabbona Lake and the broader study

Illinois professor Cory Suski brings some updates on the muskie-tracking study at Shabbona Lake and the broader study it is part of.

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Illinois graduate student Katey Strailey carries a muskie used in the tracking study at Shabbona Lake. Provided by Dennis Vaupel

Illinois graduate student Katey Strailey carries a muskie used in the tracking study at Shabbona Lake.

Provided by Dennis Vaupel

Do fish personalities affect catch rates? Where do muskies go or stay at Shabbona Lake? (Cue The Clash’s ‘‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’’) What temperatures do muskies prefer? And so on.

I love these big fish questions.

So I trekked to the Plano American Legion in November for the Quad County Hawg Hunters’ monthly meeting. Illinois professor Cory Suski and graduate student John Bieber gave updates on a muskie study at Shabbona.

Giving the updates to muskie anglers who know Shabbona intimately helped because they brought up good points.

Suski, whose lab is about ‘‘ecological physiology,’’ leads the study.

The entire study, ‘‘Spatial Ecology, Habitat Use and Angling Vulnerability in Muskies in Shabbona Lake: Implications for Management of a Recreational Fishery,’’ began in July 2020 and will run until July 2023.

The focus of the meeting was on the section on movements/telemetry, ‘‘Spatial ecology and movement patterns of muskies in Shabbona Lake.’’ Suski also touched on the section about why muskies hit fishing lures, ‘‘Lure avoidance and hook learning.’’

That caught my attention. A European study about common carp ‘‘hypothesized that if the bold/active fish are disproportionately captured and/or harvested, that could leave a disproportionate number of shy/inactive fish in a population, which could cause capture rates of carp to decline.’’

So far, Suski emailed: ‘‘We haven’t seen this in the largemouth bass we’ve tested, and I don’t know if any evidence has been gathered to show that the ‘personality’ of fish has changed over time, but the concept is quite interesting.’’

An ongoing part of the study is taking small muskies from Jake Wolf Memorial Fish Hatchery and putting them in ponds in Champaign, then checking catch rates.

‘‘One (somewhat) surprising thing we found is that the capture of fish in our experimental ponds was a bit slower than we would have expected,’’ Suski emailed. ‘‘We have had great success running angling experiments with hatchery-reared largemouth bass and bluegill in these ponds in the past, but muskie capture rates were relatively lower than either largemouth bass or bluegill.’’

More on that should come this spring.

One attendee asked whether they had the data broken down by sex. They don’t because young muskies are difficult to sex. Another suggested comparing catch data for Minnesota muskies against those for ‘‘Illinois mutts.’’ Another suggested putting a listening device below the spillway, which muskies notoriously go over.

Sensors to hear the tags are anchored to the bottom of Shabbona.

Illinois professor Cory Suski discusses the muskie-tracking study at Shabbona Lake at the monthly meeting of the Quad County Hawg Hunters in November at the Plano American Legion. Credit: Dale Bowman

Illinois professor Cory Suski discusses the muskie-tracking study at Shabbona Lake at the monthly meeting of the Quad County Hawg Hunters in November at the Plano American Legion.

Dale Bowman

As to the telemetry study, Suski said: ‘‘The sensors have picked up 100% of the tagged fish, which means they move around.’’

One piece of knowledge will quantify movement and activity rates of muskies.

‘‘Are they sedentary?’’ Suski wondered. ‘‘Do they move lots? Do they move at certain times of the year but not others?’’

The tags also have temperature sensors, so they can track the temperature the muskies are in, which should help tell what temperatures muskies select at different times.

They already have noticed that bigger fish hold in cooler water. It’s not known whether that is because they prefer it or whether they chase the smaller ones away. One attendee suggested smaller ones might be shallower for the weeds.

The telemetry study should bring some answers to habitat/space use.

‘‘For example, are there areas of the lake that the muskies never use?’’ Suski wondered. ‘‘Always use? If there are habitat features that seem to be used a lot, maybe those areas can be expanded or additional habitat added to help?’’

As is the nature of studies, Suski noted: ‘‘Other questions and trends may emerge when we start poking around in the data, too.’’

Illinois graduate student (and expert surgeon) Katey Strailey works on putting a tag in a muskie used in the tracking study at Shabbona Lake. Provided by Dennis Vaupel

Illinois graduate student (and expert surgeon) Katey Strailey works on putting a tag in a muskie used in the tracking study at Shabbona Lake.

Provided by Dennis Vaupel

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