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DNR to consider regulation change for musky fishing on Butternut Lake

Anglers may see a change to the regulations for musky fishing on Butternut Lake, with a proposed rule change set to appear on the annual Department of Natural Resources spring hearing questionnaire on April 12, 2021.

If the proposed change sees sufficient public support, the minimum length limit for muskies harvested from Butternut Lake may increase from the current 28-inch minimum to the statewide limit of 40-inches in 2022.

The current 28-inch minimum length limit has been in place on Butternut Lake since 2012, and prior to that, it followed the then standard statewide musky limit of 34-inches (which has since increased to 40 inches).

According to DNR fisheries biologist Jeff Scheirer, fyke net surveys conducted in the spring of 2018 and 2019 showed an estimated population density of 214 adult muskellunge in Butternut Lake, or .21 musky per acre. There is a margin of error in that estimate, however, Scheirer noted, and the actual number of adult musky in Butternut Lake could range from 127-300.

Of the 116 muskellunge netted during the surveys, 101 were over 20 inches long, and 39 fish were over 38 inches long.

With this information in hand, Scheirer noted that the DNR has now met their objectives for Butternut Lake, with a population density of .21 muskies per acre, with approximately 39% of those fish at least 38 inches long.

Additionally, based on a recent creel survey in 2019-2020, it appears the number of muskies harvested in Butternut Lake by anglers is almost negligible, with natural mortality the predominant population control factor in the lake, according to Scheirer.

Based on that information, Scheirer said the proposal to increase the length limit — which originated as a citizen resolution to the Wisconsin Conservation Congress in Ashland County this past spring — has merit and is worth consideration.

There has been pushback to the proposed regulation change from a number of local citizens, including retired fisheries biologist and author of the 2005 fish management plan on Butternut Lake, Skip Sommerfeldt.

Sommerfeldt, who retired from the DNR in 2016, summarized his opinion in an email submitted to the DNR prior to a public meeting held telephonically on Dec. 3. He also provided a petition to retain the 28-inch limit which had received 57 signatures, mainly from local residents.

"I feel the 28-inch regulation is working exactly as intended," he wrote. "The musky population has been reduced to a more natural abundance, fish are in better condition, musky are achieving a larger size than in the years before the regulation went into effect, and there is still good natural reproduction."

Sommerfeldt told the Review he believes there is still a healthy population of naturally reproducing mid-size musky in Butternut Lake that do not need to be protected.

In his comments to the DNR, Sommerfeldt also pointed to what he said were improved numbers of walleye in the 14-20 inch range, improved perch fishery, expanded crappie population, development of a quality bluegill fishery, and improved forage base for musky.

Rather than restricting musky harvest to fish 40-inches or more, Sommerfeldt suggested leaving the minimum 28-inch limit in effect and instead restricting the harvest of musky between 40-50 inches to promote these fish reaching trophy lengths greater than 50 inches.

"This protects the prime spawning females (with trophy potential) and allows harvest of the more abundant smaller males (28-38 inches)," Sommerfeldt wrote.

Additionally, Sommerfeldt suggested that the number of muskellunge in Butternut Lake may be greater than the 2018-19 fyke net surveys indicate, since tiger muskie (the sterile hybrid of muskellunge and northern pike) would likely not be caught in nets like other spawning muskie.

Based on his personal experience, Sommerfeldt said he had documented numerous incidents of these hybrid muskies being captured on Butternut Lake.

Several citizens participated in the telephonic meeting on Dec. 3, including several people who either live or recreate on the lake, as well as members of the Butternut/Schnur Lake Association.

Opinion was divided between those in favor of increasing the minimum length limit and those opposed.

Some, like Sommerfeldt, expressed concern that increasing the minimum length limit would allow the musky population to increase, reducing other fish species in the lake. DNR fisheries staff responded that the past high population density of muskies in the 1990s was likely due to over-ambitious stocking, rather than a natural effect.

Others felt that increasing the length limit may negatively impact businesses that bring families with young anglers into the area, reducing the likelihood that they will be able to catch a legally harvestable fish. A number of the resort owners on the lake are also opposed to changing the existing 28-inch length limit on musky in Butternut Lake.

Those who spoke in favor of increasing the length limit to come in line with state standards — including longtime local fishing guide Brian Long — expressed their belief that reducing fishing pressure on mid-sized musky would allow more muskies to reach larger sizes before being harvested.

After reviewing the feedback submitted both in person at the meeting and via email and phone calls outside of the meeting, DNR staff determined further public input was required. As such, the proposed length limit will appear on the April 12, 2021, questionnaire presented at the annual spring hearing hosted by the DNR and the Wisconsin Conservation Congress.


New COVID numbers continue to slow in Price County

The total number of test-confirmed COVID-19 case numbers in Price County stood at 889 as of Monday morning, up by 32 new cases since seven days previous. There were 37 people who had active symptoms of the virus as of that date.

According to statistics published by the Wisconsin Department of Public Health, Price County has averaged a total of 5.14 new cases over the past seven days. Thus far, there have been 157 new cases in December.

Price County Public Health is releasing numbers for people who likely have COVID-19, but haven't yet been confirmed by a formal test. These individuals are presumed COVID-19 positive after receiving a positive antigen test (also known as a rapid test) or after developing symptoms of the virus after exposure to someone with a confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. As of Monday morning, there were 72 probable cases in Price County, nine of which were considered active.

There have been five Price County residents hospitalized due to the virus in the past seven days, with the county now standing at 74 COVID-19 hospitalizations since the start of the pandemic. Citizens of Price County who become ill with the virus have an 8% chance they will end up in the hospital, based on information released by Price County Public Health on Dec. 18.

Hospital capacity in north central Wisconsin continues to gradually improve, with hospitals in the region at 82% capacity as of Dec. 20. There were 823 of the region's 1,006 hospital beds in use as of that date, with 146 patients with a test confirmed COVID-19 diagnosis. Thirty of those patients were requiring intensive care, and 51 needed the assistance of mechanical ventilation in order to breathe.

Statewide, hospitals are 81% full, with 8,920 of the state's 11,034 hospital beds in use as of Dec. 20. There were a total of 1,268 patients with COVID-19, 292 of which were in the intensive care unit and 499 requiring mechanical ventilation. An additional 52 patients were awaiting the results of a COVID-19 test. The statewide hospitalization rate stands at 4.4%.

Wisconsin stood at 457,177 confirmed cases of the virus as of Dec. 20, with 36,736 people currently ill. Since the start of the pandemic, 20,120 people have been hospitalized with the virus, and 4,417 have died.

In Price County, 303 cases had been confirmed in people with a Phillips zip code as of Dec. 18, up by four new cases

from the week previous. The Park Falls area saw a steeper increase of 19 new cases, standing at 230 total. Confirmed cases in the Ogema area were up by one for a total of 87; up by two in Fifield for a total of 37; up by one in Kennan for a total of 36; up by three in the Brant wood and Tripoli area for a total of 27; and up by two in Price County residents with a Butternut zip code. With 69 total cases, Prentice had not had any new cases, and neither had Price County residents with a Hawkins or Rib Lake zip code. The Hawkins area has had six confirmed cases, while Rib Lake has had four.

Of the counties neighboring Price, Oneida had 2,695 confirmed cases as of Dec. 20, resulting in 119 hospitalizations and 47 deaths. The county was averaging 12.29 new cases per day in the seven days previous, according to information released by the Wisconsin Department of Public Health.

Lincoln County had 2,301 confirmed cases, resulting in 90 hospitalizations and 38 deaths. The county was averaging 15.71 new cases per day in the seven days previous.

Taylor County had 1,522 confirmed cases, resulting in 59 hospitalizations and 13 deaths. The county was averaging 8.71 new cases per day in the seven days previous.

Vilas County had 1,507 confirmed cases, resulting in 81 hospitalizations and 21 deaths. The county was averaging 11.14 new cases per day in the seven days previous.

Sawyer County had 1,127 confirmed cases, resulting in 46 hospitalizations and 10 deaths. The county was averaging 11.14 new cases per day in the seven days previous.

Rusk County had 1,054 confirmed cases, resulting in 59 hospitalizations and 11 deaths. The county was averaging 5.86 new cases per day in the seven days previous.

Ashland County had 943 confirmed cases, resulting in 41 hospitalizations and 14 deaths. The county was averaging 9.86 new cases per day in the seven days previous.

Iron County had 406 confirmed cases, resulting in 20 hospitalizations and 10 deaths. The county was averaging 1.14 new cases per day in the seven days previous.


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