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Rod, Gun and Game: Want a whopper of a good time? Fish for Niagara Musky

NOW THAT’S A WHOPPER — Scott McKee, a member of the Niagara Musky Association, shows off a Niagara Musky he caught.

SPRINGVILLE — Last winter, for the first time in a long time, I was privileged to attend a fund-raising and awards banquet with an organization that was new to me – the Niagara Musky Association.

Erie County Federation of Sportsmen president Chuck Godfrey invited me to join him to represent ECFS at this event and I accepted for two reasons: These big local fish, 40-60 inches long, 20-50 pounds each, have always fascinated me and these fish are generally hard to catch.Word was out that some guys in the NMA catch several dozen musky, each year. I was hoping to meet some of the big fish mentors and learn more about fishing techniques.

With a club membership of just over 100 anglers, there were about 200 folks at the event and all seemed so very knowledgeable about not just musky fishing, but fishing conservation, water quality, Niagara River projects, history and sharing their wealth of fishing knowledge.

They told us about big fishing reels, sturdy ocean-style fishing rods, foot-long lures, some with shark-sized hooks, steel leaders and 80-pound test line.

President Scott KcKee, gets the nod as chief cook and bottle washer and principal storyteller, with his editor role of the monthly NMA newsletter that more closely resembles a national musky fishing magazine. The impressive NMA newsletter offers art and photo content better than most high-quality magazines, has collected fish data and articles about local fish-catching expertise and details that top the big three outdoor magazines. McKee has pulled together NMA members as contributors and promotes one of the greatest freshwater musky fisheries on the planet, here in the Niagara River and Lake Erie.

When I was just a little boy in the 1950s, I would read the Breem’s Forrest outdoor column in the Courier Express, noting that “musky fishermen from Chet Bowman’s livery at the foot of Sheridan would score on big muskies, off Strawberry Island.” I was always fascinated by the size of the fish shown in the newspaper pictures – some 50-pounders.

Anglers ate many of the muskys caught, back then. Today, educated anglers know more; they understand the fishery for giant fish is limited to preserving and maintaining the smaller fish and NMA is passing on that master plan to everyone when it comes to musky: Catch and release!

I will admit to the joy and surprise of landing 12 or 13 of these monsters, while fishing for walleye and bass, over the years. Each time, I have noticed the eyes of the hooked musky are actually focused and turning to observe the anglers. As the fish moves around the boat during the landing process, the eyeballs and pupils of the fish turn, with every fish change of movement. We have always carefully released them, because we value our fingers and because they are such a magnificent, handsome fish. They are freshwater sharks with lots of teeth! Respect them, if you hook one.

According to McKee, “We can never stop working to make our musky fishery better and stronger.” In his most recent newsletter, McKee mentioned information presented by expert musky anglers, Scott Kitchen and John Jarosz, two avid NMA anglers that study fishing conservation and musky species information. They share that, “According to John Casselman, E. J. Crossman and C. J. Robinson, three of the most respected men in muskellunge study, harvest reduction and catch-and-release procedures, which reduce mortality, are an easier and more cost-effective way of maintaining and restoring trophy muskellunge populations than trying to supplement recruitment by stocking.” The NMA group is consistent in purpose with trying their best to improve, protect and enhance the local musky fishery. The NMA professes members and all anglers to learn about proper catch and release handling procedures, to allow the hooked fish to survive.

The NMA was instrumental in discussions with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation that resulted in a new 54-inch minimum size limit from Buffalo Harbor in Lake Erie to the Upper and Lower Niagara River to Lake Ontario, that became law on Oct. 1. “This new rule,” according to McKee, “Will adjust our fisheries to be just about as close to 100 percent catch and release as we are ever likely to see.” Local taxidermy shops can create a mounted fish from just the picture and measurements.

Still, concerns are many, among them, McKee notes, “The Niagara region encompasses two countries; USA, wherein a New York state fishing license is required, and Canada, wherein a province of Ontario fishing license is required, and four separate fisheries that have different regulations and size limits for muskellunge. The NMA recommends both a New York and Ontario license. New York’s license year runs from Oct. 1-Sept. 30. Ontario’s license year runs from Jan. 1 -Dec. 31.”

In the nearby province of Ontario, for the Upper Niagara and Lake Erie, the size limit is still just 44 inches, though it is 54 inches in the Lower Niagara. NMA realizes that big size limits are only one part of the equation and McKee addresses this in the monthly NMA newsletter publication.

To assess how the musky revitalization effort is going each year, NMA members track and report every musky they catch in the Niagara River, Buffalo Harbor and Lake Erie to their release director, retired attorney and avid musky angler, Tony Scime. Each member maintains a personal log for every fish caught and the log sheet is turned in to Scime, at the end of every season.

NMA anglers track date of catch, length from tail tip to nose, the time of catch, fishing method, if trolling, the trolling speed, depth of water in which fish was caught, water clarity in terms of visibility depth, then location is recorded using a coded DEC Angler Diary Study Map with location/position noted and lastly, fish marks noted, including any scars or injuries, old tags, and comments: kept fish, sex if known, etc. While this type of data is kept by many walleye and bass anglers too, for musky, where far fewer fish are caught by comparison, this data is priceless to the continuing DEC study of the local musky fishery.

The NMA meetings are every first Tuesday of the month. The next one is March 4 at 7 p.m., at the Eldridge Club, located at 17 Broad St., in North Tonawanda. NMA Conservation Director Jarosz said, “At our upcoming meeting, NYSDEC Tim DePriest will discuss the Strawberry Island Restoration and Habitat Improvement Project and provide an update on the Frog Island Rebuild Project. DePriest will also address the low young-of-the-year musky count in the Niagara River/Buffalo Harbor and the slack water species in Strawberry Bay.” Jarosz added, “One specific question asked of DePriest was if the Frog Island Project would enhance the musky fishery in the Niagara River. His answer was that the island was designed and is being built to provide musky spawning habitat. DEC has studied and determined the best water flow, water depth and vegetation necessary for musky spawning grounds. That island is being built to provide those things.” The meetings are open to the public.

Anyone who would like to meet this group of big fish angler experts can join them at their annual banquet on April 5, at the Pearl Street Grill. For information or tickets, call McKee at 225-3816.

DEC fishing hotline sets record

As many anglers are already aware, the NYSDEC provides anglers a unique service with fishing hotlines, updated weekly, that cover many waters of Western New York. Each year, these information hotbeds gain popularity and last year, angler visits to the hotline web pages set new records. Each fishing hotline is available on the DEC website at www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/fishhotlines.html.

Fisheries biologist Mike Todd said that audio fishing reports are available over the phone at 855-FISH and 679-ERIE. The Lake Erie Fishing Hotline page had 94,673 total visits in 2013, an increase of 15 percent over 2012. The Western New York Fishing Hotline page had 83,816 total visits in 2013, a 27 percent increase. The automated phone hotlines received a combined total of 25,345 calls in 2013. In summary, the WNY fishing hotlines were accessed 203,834 times in 2013, or an average of 558 times, each day.

Outdoor calendar

March 1: WNY Winter 3-D League Shoot, West Falls Conservation, open to the public, 7 a.m.-2 p.m., breakfast and lunch offerings. For more information, call Mike Cummins at 432-6035.

March 1-2: Niagara Frontier Gun Show, Erie County Fairgrounds, located at 5820 South Park, in Hamburg, 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Erie County handgun clerks in attendance both days. For more information, visit nfgshows.com.

March 6-9: WNY Sport and Travel Outdoor Show, located at The Fairgrounds Agricenter Building Complex.

March 15: Erie County Federation of Sportsmen’s Clubs, Annual Banquet and Awards Dinner, Father Justin Hall, in Cheektowaga. For more information, call 941-6159.

March 22: WNY Safari Club International Annual Banquet, Michael’s, on Southwestern Blvd. in Hamburg. For more information, call 570-8275.

March 22: Friends of the NRA, Annual Banquet, Salvatore’s Gardens, located at 6461 Transit Road in Depew, 5 p.m. start. For more information, call 866-7656.

March 23: John Long Sr. Memorial Outdoorsmen’s Raffle and Dinner Feast, Niagara River Anglers Association, St. Vincent DePaul, located at 2748 Military Road, in the town of Niagara, 2-6 p.m. For more information, call 628-1460.

March 29: WNY Trout Unlimited, Annual Banquet and Fundraiser, Lucarelli’s, Lackawanna, 6 p.m. start. For more information, call 826-4178.

Send information for the outdoor column 10 days in advance to nugdor@yahoo.com.
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