DNR biologist update on ESLA fishery

ESLA members learned from DNR Fisheries Biologist Heather Hettinger that her agency’s summer 2022 fish survey in Elk Lake revealed good, as well as concerning, results. You can watch the presentation by clicking “Play” below on the video.

The good news: Over several weeks of surveys with different methodologies, DNR crews counted more than 6,200 fish of 30 different species. More than 60% were rock bass – not exciting, but lots of fun for youngsters to catch and decent to eat. The forage base – the minnows bigger fish eat – was abundant and included many species. No diseases or otherwise unhealthy fish were collected.

The worrisome news: The survey found many quagga mussels in Elk. That wasn’t surprising, as a crew of students and staff from Northwest Michigan College’s Great Lakes Water Studies Institute also found quaggas in 2022 during ESLA-instigated research of Elk’s depths. Quaggas are arguably the most concerning invasive critter in ESLA waters.

Quaggas, like their smaller cousins – zebra mussels – arrived in U.S. waters in the ballast of ocean-going ships. They generally are found in deeper water and are voracious plankton eaters. Plankton is the critical first link on the aquatic food chain. The Center for Invasive Species Research at the University of California Riverside, reports that quaggas originated in Ukraine’s Dnieper River, while zebras were first found in the lakes of southeast Russia.

Another invasive, round gobies, have also settled in ESLA waters, the survey showed. They are problematic because they feed on the eggs in fish spawning nests. But native fish species, like smallmouth and lake trout find gobies yummy. Tradeoffs.

What’s next for Elk and Skegemog: 2023 was the fourth of the DNR’s six-year Brown Trout planting commitment to Elk Lake. More than 200,000 browns have been planted so far, but few have been caught or netted during the survey. Hettinger said she is exploring less migratory strains and possibly planting in different locations. She’s also pushing to make sure future plantings are fin-clipped, allowing identification of when and where the fish was caught. A top theory is that many browns planted at Elk’s Whitewater Park swam upstream through Lake Skegemog and the Torch River into Torch Lake.

MUSKIES, Oh My! Responding to questions from ESLA members at the Shore Thing, Hettinger revealed that Lake Skegemog would get a plant of about 2,000 juvenile Great Lakes Muskellunge. The plant was completed Nov. 8. Skegemog has superb muskie habitat and once claimed the state record. The planted fish averaged about 10’’ and start chowing down on minnows and young perch. Few lakes qualify for muskie plants. Hettinger expects Skegemog will get its batch of young muskie plants again in fall 2024.

CRITICAL TO HELP: Hettinger begs anglers to report fishing results to her at hettinger@michigan.gov. Don’t worry, she won’t reveal your secret spots to others.