Regardless of an angler’s preference, they can find muskie, in good sizes and quantities, in northern Illinois. The draw of catching fish provides economic resiliency to the local economy be it restaurants, marinas, bait shops or fuel stations. Photo by Frank Jakubicek.
Muskie — From Concept to an Economic Engine
Muskellunge—commonly known as muskie, and scientifically as Esox masquinongy—are native to some parts of the United States. The thought of introducing muskie into Illinois’ lakes began in the early 1980s when muskie fishing enthusiasts vacationing in the Northwoods began talking to administrators and Fisheries Biologists from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR) about introducing muskies. Illinois biologists and anglers were familiar with northern pike, a close relative of the muskie, but the process for introducing a second apex predator was a big unknown. How would muskie compete? Would they thrive? How large would they grow? What effects would they have on the overall fishery?
The Fox Chain O’ Lakes (Chain), in Lake and McHenry counties was one of the first stocking locations chosen. A system is around 7,100 acres in size, the Chain was created in the early 1900s when a 6-foot high low-head dam was built across the Fox River. The resulting impoundment connected seven lakes and several backwaters, providing an opportunity for boaters to spend a day on the water and not see the same shoreline twice.
The Chain is a regional recreational hotspot and one of the most densely used waterbody in the nation. The lake system has more than 28,000 registered boaters (four boats per acre) and on a busy weekend an estimated 100,000-plus people cruise the system. Many boaters have no idea what prowls below the surface, but for those who do, the Chain is a gem. The lakes are fishable all summer long prior to 11 a.m., at which time the boaters take over and the lake can get a little bouncy.
Early on in its history, the fisheries mix in the Chain was low quality and panfish oriented. The typical gamefish were present but not at the quantities they are today. Northern pike were the apex predator. Extensive predator stocking efforts conducted by the IDNR Division of Fisheries over the past 30+ years, along with a couple of natural events, have shifted the forage base and, with IDNR stocking, the apex predator is now the muskie. The strategy allowed for the current balance of species to contribute to some of the best fishing in the state of Illinois.
The change to such a desirable fishery took some time. The overall fishery started to transition following a die-off of 3- to 4-inch yellow bass in 1998. Without competition from schools of egg-stealing yellow bass, populations of nesting fish, such as bluegill and crappie, began to expand. A strong presence of gamefish has minimized the dominance they once had.
The second major event to impact the fishery occurred in the mid-2000s when gizzard shad by-passed the Algonquin and McHenry dams (on the Fox River) during summer floods, which brought a reproducing population of shad to the Chain. Management wise, gizzard shad provide great forage for gamefish. Muskie, bass, and walleye have grown fatter since their introduction. Because the Chain is near the northern range of shad the fish have annual springtime die-offs. The die-off tends to be fish of the most abundant size group and attributed to spawning stress and water temperatures. One year it could be 8-inch fish, the next year it might 12- to 14-inch fish. Residents are never happy to see or smell dead fish, but dead shad do have a few up-sides. Since shad became established, large numbers of migrating birds stop by following ice-out and remain for several weeks foraging on the shad. White pelicans, common loons and bald eagles are common stopovers and appreciated by the local birding community. Prior to 2007 their presence was minimal and fleeting.
Developing a sustainable muskie fishery in a heavily used system took considerable coordination and communication with local constituents and the Illinois Fish Hatchery system. Stockings began in the Chain in 1983 with 200,000 muskie fry less than a half-inch in size. State hatchery production occasionally resulted in fingerling production but became reliable when staff placed netting over the rearing ponds (around the year 2000) to protect young fish from avian predators. The Illinois Muskie Alliance (IMA) provided key support for the netting and their continued stewardship has contributed to success of muskies in Illinois today. The netting has increased fingerling survival and gives biologists the consistent supply of fish needed to organize their stocking plans.
In preparing the fish for stocking, muskie fingerlings are fed minnows the last few weeks within the hatchery system to get them familiar to naturally swimming forage (as opposed to pelleted dry fish chow). In September, 12- to 14-inch long fingerlings are then stocked to their new homes giving them time to adjust and forage before winter. The Chain receives about 3,000 fingerlings each fall. This helps maintain their population and was derived by annual fyke-net surveys to track catch rates, their growth, condition (plumpness) and movements. Since the Chain is an open system, fish can move within the 7,100 acres of lakes. Muskies have been detected 30 miles upstream into Wisconsin and 70 miles downstream to Yorkville, Illinois.
The majority of muskie stocked in the Chain have been produced by Jake Wolf State Fish Hatchery System in Manito, and several muskie clubs have contributed to these efforts over the years. In addition to IMA, IDNR appreciates the efforts of several organizations for the aid in developing a valuable muskie fishery in Illinois: South of the Border Muskie Club and Fox River Valley Muskie Club were important early in the program to provide support for a healthy population. All totaled, the state has stocked over 116,000 muskie fingerlings.
Illinois Department of Natural Resources biologists have learned a lot about muskie management in the past 30+ years. We’ve dabbled with several strains of fish and stocked waterbodies of various sizes. We have had a lot of successes and a few trials. A few things are for certain: Muskie survive and can thrive in Illinois. And, the Chain has become a valuable and most popular location for reeling in a large, memorable predatory muskie.
Frank Jakubicek retired as an Illinois Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist in 2022. From 1994 to 1998 he worked with the Lake Michigan Program when he transferred to a District Fisheries Biologist position. There he handled the Fox Chain O’ Lakes and public waters in Lake and Cook counties where he continued managing area waterbodies for muskie. He attended Eastern Illinois University where received a B.S. in Environmental Biology and B.S. Botany and completed the coursework for an M.S. Environmental Biology with an emphasis on Zoology.