Hot Water Musky Handling
By: Pete Maina
It’s that time of the muskie season. The simple reality is that far more “floater” (dead) muskies are noted during the period of seventies-plus water temperatures. Any angler who has consistently and successfully fished muskie throughout the season is well aware of heat-related effects of fight stress and any significant out-of-water handling simply through observation – as compared to cooler water periods. Where similar fight time and handling result in a wet face upon release in cool water, a sluggish revival and slow paddle away is the best result in hot...
In the early 80’s, a client’s summer muskie died; it definitely wasn’t hooking mortality. Easy off the hook, but it had fought hard; I measured the fish on wooden ruler on the deck (standard procedure then); then it got loose for a while in the boat as client lost control trying to get a hold for a pic. It wouldn’t release.
A couple years later, during an extended hot spell, with a client’s fish … I thought the handling portion went great, though we still took out-of-water pics … a very sluggish release, but it did swim off and go beneath the surface … I recall being relieved but wondering. I guided the same lake the next day and found the fish floating. While the first experience caused me to be more careful, the delayed mortality fish really rung the bell that I had to change things.
How many other times has that happened and I didn’t know?
There are people more qualified than I to explain the why; one significant factor is oxygen levels in the upper layers in hot water are lower, and we hear about lactic acid build-up and other things. In my experience, the mid-70's is when you need to start being very careful to limit handling and time with head out of water. If the top portion of the water column is in the 80’s, it's best to give them a break, and if you do choose to fish, employ water release only.
(I should point out that calm, sunny days with no wind will cause false readings where the top foot will read hot. Truer readings are with wind and the lake mixing; a dip in the lake or lowering a temp gauge will tell the story. If temperature is or feels the same in the top 5 feet – and it’s in those ranges care is needed.)
We have some great nets available these days with deep bags that allow for muskies to remain over the side of the boat, horizontal with their head in the water. At times when netting though, hooks can get caught in mesh near the rim, causing the breathing end to be out-of-water. Remove or cut those hooks immediately to get the head in the water and the fish horizontal.
Considering eliminating common standard procedures of measuring and out-of-water hold-up photos. Release photos are very nice too and with today’s tools cool underwater photos are an easy option.
There are no exact rules, as fish are individuals and some may simply be tougher, some weaker; some will fight harder and exhaust themselves more than others. All of the factors mentioned are cumulative; extra handling adds up and in hot water is critical. You might spend 30 seconds removing hooks, 20 to measure, 20 to hold up for photos – one factor without the others and the fish may survive – eliminate as many as possible and consider water release only as temps push towards eighties.
With exception of contests, measuring is an unnecessary activity. Definitely avoid in-boat measurements in hot water; and if measuring is important with a large net bag it’s easy to do in water with a floating ruler.
Extended periods of 80+ degree water are a rarity in northern latitudes, but if they do occur, consider taking a break from muskie fishing. Finally, too, consider normal humanoid reactions to larger fish: desire for precise measuring and more photos, especially if a personal best fish. The problem is the older and larger they are – the more susceptible to all these cumulative stressors. Be aware to consider that and as another good reason to give them a break during periods of extended high heat.