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The haunting allure of fishing for muskie in Lake Champlain

Several men in baseball hats stand along a truck parked on a dock near a river about to stock fish into the water.
Erica Heilman
/
Vermont Public
Members of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department prepare to stock muskie fish into the Missisquoi River in Swanton.

Recently, fish biologists from Vermont Fish and Wildlife added 5,000 muskellunge fingerlings to the Missisquoi River in Swanton. Since 2013, the department has undertaken a restoration effort to restock this native species, in collaboration with a muskellunge hatchery in New York state.

Reporter Erica Heilman went along to watch these fish get introduced to their new home.

Muskellunge, or muskies, look a bit like northern pike, except that they can get a whole lot bigger. They are apex predators with really scary teeth, and they're some of the top trophy sports fish in Lake Champlain. They're also known as the fish of 10,000 casts, because they're rare and they're hard to catch. Unless, of course, you catch one by accident, which is how most anglers seem to get hooked on muskie fishing.

David Beebe caught his first muskie near his farm in Swanton by accident, and he's been fishing for muskie ever since. In 2005, his son Chris Beebe, set the record with a 38-pound, 4-ounce muskie measuring 52 inches. Whenever Fish and Wildlife stocks the Missisquoi, Chris and Dave are there to pay homage. So while we waited, David and I killed some time in his truck talking about these fish.

David Beebe: "I never realized when I was young that I could catch such a fish. And then when I caught one, I said, ‘Wow! I can do it!’"

Erica: "What's different about catching a muskie than another kind of fish?"

David Beebe: "Well, a northern pike is similar to them in size, shape and everything you know, but the muskies are rarer. And they're big fighters."

Erica: "I'm not sure I'd want to go swimming with a muskie."

David Beebe: "Once in a while you hear about somebody with feet dangling over a boat. But it's…they won't do it intentionally."

Erica: "But unintentionally, they might bite off one of my toes?"

David Beebe: "You know, it's very rare that you hear those stories. But I suppose don't sit on the dock… keep your feet going…"

Erica: "So they are apex predators."

David Beebe: "Oh yeah. They’ll eat ducks, frogs, muskrats, things that are swimming in the water, they’ll go after them."

"It's just such a high. I think part of it, part of the reason we enjoy it is the fact that not many people do it. And muskies aren't, you know, everywhere, so it makes it more interesting to fish."
David Beebe, Swanton

Erica: "What's the pleasure, or what's — what do you get when you get a muskie?"

David Beebe: "Oh, I can't even explain. I can't explain it. It's, it's just you get the adrenaline going. And it's just, it's just such a high. I think part of it, part of the reason we enjoy it is the fact that not many people do it. And muskies aren't, you know, everywhere, so it makes it more interesting to fish."

This is Chris Beebe talking about his record muskie.

Chris Beebe: "We were out catfishing actually. We were up in the Missisquoi Refuge. And I casted out and I saw another log that I wanted to cast on. So I reeled it in. And he followed the lure. He followed the frog that I had on right behind it and he hit, he hit right here at the boat."

Erica: "So you’re reeling in like, ‘another day cat fishing...’"

Chris Beebe: "Yeah, I saw another log that I wanted to cast onto. So I reeled the lure in and he came in, hit it right here next to the boat. Yeah. He was big. He was big. I turned around. I told dad, I said, ‘I got a big muskie on, I know that.’ I told dad, we only had a little bass net, and I said, ‘You gotta let him go to the bottom of that thing and try to get it over the top of the boat.’ So he did. Folded the handle in half and the whole deal getting that thing on the deck. We tackled it like two football players to hold it down."

Erica: "When you catch the state's biggest muskie, what makes you keep… I mean isn't at all — it's kind of downhill from here?"

Chris Beebe: "No. It's all a matter of how many more do I want to catch."

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Finally, the fishery truck arrived with fish biologist Shawn Good and fishery manager Kevin Kelsey. They were arriving back from a 36-hour round-trip drive to western New York, where they picked up the fish from a hatchery run by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation. For over 10 years, New York has been providing Vermont with muskies when they have a surplus. And since 2009, Vermont Fish and Wildlife has stocked over 60,000 muskie fingerlings in Lake Champlain.

Here’s Shawn Good.

Shawn Good: "They are the ultimate predator. And that's what makes them so cool. And they're a native fish species to Vermont. Lake Champlain is in the native range of muskie in North America. But it's the easternmost extent of their native range. So, Vermont is the only New England state to which muskie were native. And the Missisquoi River, Missisquoi Bay, was sort of the focal point of that native muskie population for Lake Champlain."

Erica: "Why do this? Why does this matter?"

Shawn Good: "Protecting native fish populations and native biodiversity of all of our natural resources is a key component to what we do in the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and muskie are native fish species. They belong here. They evolved here. They're part of the native fish community.

"When we take pieces and links out of our natural communities, there's something missing. And they have been eons a part of Lake Champlain's fish community. So it's really a matter of restoring something that belongs here in the first place."

"They emerge from the depths as a dark shadow behind your lure, and you never know when that's going to happen. And when it does, your heart stops, and then it immediately starts racing. Because you don't know what's going to happen."
Shawn Good, Vermont Fish and Wildlife

Kevin drained the tanks and distributed the 5,000 fish between four boats, and they set off into the Missisquoi to introduce the muskies to their new home.

Shawn Good: "So what we do is we go out here, and we look for the habitat, and we just drive very slowly along the river, and we put them out at, you know, five or 10 at a time. We're spreading them out over great lengths of the river.

"And in addition to avoiding having them be eaten by accidentally putting them on top of a school of bass or something like that, we don't want them to go into the river and be in close proximity to each other. Because they are cannibals, and they will start eating other fish immediately. And that includes their brothers and sisters. Once they key in on wild, native bait that's out here, forage small little shiners and minnows, the likelihood of them eating each other drops, you know, very low. So they're going to eat the things that they find the first time they eat in the river."

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It rained. Shawn and his team put out a few fish at a time. It rained more and it got dark. I asked Shawn to wax poetic about these fish he'd lost so much sleep over.

Shawn Good: "They emerge from the depths as a dark shadow behind your lure, and you never know when that's going to happen. And when it does, your heart stops, and then it immediately starts racing. Because you don't know what's going to happen. Is it going to try to eat my lure and then now all hell breaks loose and you have this 20- or 30- or 40-pound fish on the end of your line you have to deal with? Or is it going to silently sink out of sight and back down into the darkness?

"And that happens nine times out of 10. I know anglers who have ‘raised’ a muskie. That's what they call it… Meaning there’s a fishing lure coming back and the muskie came up off the bottom or from behind whatever log it was hiding next to or something like that and inspected the lure and then disappeared. And then you try to go after it again, and you try to get it to commit."

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Corrected: September 23, 2022 at 9:35 AM EDT
This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Shawn Good's last name.
Erica Heilman produces a podcast called Rumble Strip. Her shows have aired on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, SOUNDPRINT, KCRW’s UnFictional, BBC Podcast Radio Hour, CBC Podcast Playlist and on public radio affiliates across the country. Rumble Strip airs monthly on Vermont Public. She lives in East Calais, Vermont.
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