Muskies strike heavier than lightning. In a flash, deep struggle rages, tested by beasts that break free or break the line if you break focus. But this is no fight and no trophy at all, just another northern.
“They hit hard but two seconds later it’s over,” says Allan McElroy, director of the Hayward Lakes chapter of Muskies, Inc. “In the ‘70s if anything that big hit you knew it was a p Now you kind of assume it’s a northern.”
A new Pike Improvement Project unites resorts, guides and government to trade 10,000 fish for 10,000 raffle tickets, collecting unprecedented data for effective management. Sure, donated prizes are nice, but muskellunge and walleye and all who catch them are the big winners. Organizers saw strong success early and wonder which lake or species might be next for this simple means to reduce specific fish populations.
Pike’s doom is in their bones. The extra twist around those slender nuisances can be asking too much when relaxation is the whole point. This wasn’t a problem until 40 years ago when pike first had the backbone to swim into the treasured flowage, also called the Chippewa Flowage or the “Big Chip.”
Trophies lurk in the countless nooks of the Big Chip, located 15 miles east of Hayward, home waters of the 60¼-inch world record muskellunge caught by Cal Johnson in 1949. Rich rivers merge in renowned labyrinths above and below, featuring more than 200 undeveloped islands wrapped in 233 miles of irregular shoreline formed in 1923 by a dam that still generates electricity.
Being enormous and cozy means Wisconsin’s third-largest lake offers grand experiences sought in Canada and far north in the next state. Every nibble and snag is big business, especially in the coves between forest and shore. What’s biting off the deck is good reason to visit.
The Chippewa Flowage Resort Association is the leading raffle organization and the Chippewa Area Property Owners Association donated prizes of $500, $300 and $200 to those who catch the most pike by Oct. 1. The conservation department of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians is helping, and Muskies, Inc. is helping retire the adage that a mighty muskellunge is “The Fish of 10,000 Casts.”
Top anglers say the odds are much better these days. And McElroy is certain each roving hunting musky goes its way undisturbed, despite its former competitor thrashing out a loud and somewhat long farewell.
What a time for a raffle. Once landed, the fish is game. There is no size limit, but the Wisconsin bag limit is five. Can that be lifted?
“It’s been done for other species but I haven’t seen it done for pike,” said Max Wolter, fisheries biologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and project lead. The raffle is clearly working and may catch on, he says, praising its early success and predicting tickets may run out before Oct. 1, when it ends either way.
Spring tournaments boosted the early harvest, and summer is just warming up. Barb Czarnecki, secretary of the resort association, conceived of the raffle after Wolter called for community help. She says, “We have spent about $1,000 for gift certificates, pins, posters, tickets, boxes.” Filleting lessons are suddenly easy to find, luckily for her family.
“My husband likes to fish but he doesn’t like to clean. It’s always catch and release,” Czarnecki says. Now, “I like these better than walleye. I had no idea they were so delicious. I baked some of it in lemon and butter and the rest of it I cook in an air fryer,” she says, and neighbors are sharing recipes like never before.
“I have always liked it pickled, but it cooks up delightfully, too. Definitely worth the effort,” she said. Pickling dissolves those pesky bones and smoking lets the meat and bones flake apart.
Those bones helped them survive until right now, making a tough-fighting species tougher to clean and easy to throw back. Tossed away, the dangerous predators eat all they can, leaving less for the neighbors, who they also eat. Young walleye and musky are vulnerable for years, fighting to reach trophy size.
“Originally there were no northern pike in the Chippewa Flowage or its tributary streams,” reads the DNR’s fishery management plan. “Pike fingerlings from an unauthorized DNR hatchery stocking near the Winter Dam in the late 1970s may have joined other pike migrating down the East Fork system. The population expanded rapidly from east to west. Regardless of origin, northern pike were firmly established throughout the Chippewa Flowage by the early 1980s.”
Average anglers don’t know those details but stories are told and it’s never been hard to blame the DNR. Today many see new staff hit challenging targets and sometimes making management easy, especially in the next lake west: Lac Courte Oreilles.
Gathering pike by the bucket started in 2017, when 67 percent of netted pike were less than 21 inches. Last year just 15 percent were so short, and the average length grew from 20.3 inches to 23.8.
“This project was only possible because of the very special circumstances on Lac Courte Oreilles,” notes Wolter, where all pike spawning is in one bay and nets are very effective.
“Success probably depends on many factors, including the lake type, how limiting pike prey truly is, and the magnitude of the reduction in abundance,” Wolter explained. “The same programs have been done for other species, as well. There is a pretty remarkable example where they removed crappie from a lake in northern Wisconsin and had some positive, but temporary, results.” Life bounces back. Another troublesome pike trait is their early maturity, reproducing young to expand the population totals but not individual size.
McElroy praises Wolter’s work and the resorts’ efforts, saying musky anglers are confident the fishing will get better, thanks to fewer pike and more muskies.
“The fertilized eggs come out of the Chippewa Flowage here and they’re hatching in the DNR Hatchery in Spooner. They’ll go back in the fall,” he added. “The DNR starts them out on fathead minnows, which is more commonplace and fine, but in September we’ll be getting shiner minnows, which are larger and are a higher protein feed.”
A $6,000 2016 donation by Muskies, Inc. helped those young muskies exceed 13 inches before release.
“This year we’re going to double the amount of feed and hope to get them much bigger than that,” McElroy said.
It surely can’t hurt. Pike routinely eat prey half as large as themselves, but not if they’re safe in a hatchery.
Catch and keep
Lately so many pike are being harvested there may not be room on the dinner plate. Simply gilling and tossing them is illegal, wanton waste. Strict sanitation codes prohibit easy donation to pantries, but it can be done.
McElroy and six others carved through that chore shoulder-to-shoulder at a recent tournament, cleaning 350 pike in what he calls a marathon donation to the food pantry.
“There’s nothing to it,” he insists, admitting the guys who didn’t clean were cleaner and got more hugs from their wives.
The entire community seems well aware of the effort. How to fillet and register raffle catches is posted far and wide, says Jenk’s Bait & Tackle owner Mike Piccirillo. His shop on Highway B is five minutes from the boat landing and he’s also glad to teach proper fillet techniques.
“People complain about pike all the time up here,” he says, and it’s nice to team up behind a plan that works.
“They bring in the fish, we take the measurements and put their names in the box and at the end of the season we draw for prizes,” Piccirillo said, and the even the forgotten minority wins, he adds.
“There are people who fish for pike, and the Pike Improvement Project is for them as well, because we want them to catch bigger pike.”