When the flag on one of his tip-ups sprang to life on Lake Champlain on a clear February morning, Ryan Carpentier didn’t know what was lurking on the other end.
Just before sunrise about three miles off shore, near Tyler Place in Swanton, Carpentier set up 15 tip-ups, rigging them with 50-pound test, pike minnows and a circle hook with red and blue beads.
Around 8:30 a.m., he got his first and only bite of the day.
“I knew it was one of the biggest fish I had ever caught just by the way it ran,” Carpentier said. “I thought it was huge northern [pike]. It did four or five nasty runs like I’ve never experienced before. It was definitely a fight,”
After a ten minutes struggle, Carpentier hauled a 38-inch, 14.1-pound muskellunge through the ice with the help of two friends.
After hauling the fish out of the water, the group quickly measured, weighed, photographed the fish and got it back in the water as quickly as possible.
The catch was the first muskellunge Carpentier had ever caught, but it was also one the few successful wintertime muskie catch and releases documented on Lake Champlain in Vermont.
After he released the fish and posted the photos on social media, Vermont Fish & Wildlife fisheries biologist Shawn Good contacted Carpentier.
“What I can tell you is I’ve never heard of a muskie getting caught through the ice in Vermont,” Good said. “It is important to say that because they do get caught through the ice in other states where they’re more abundant.”
Good has headed the department’s muskellunge team since 2008, a group that has spearheaded the muskie restoration movement on Lake Champlain. Lake Champlain’s muskie population was assumed lost between 1970 and 1980, Good said.
In the 1970’s-1980’s the muskie population was depleted and surveys and efforts to find any evidence of muskies in the lake by the Vermont Fish & Wildlife staff came up dry. Wildlife officials speculate the sharp decline was a reaction to poor water quality in the Missisquoi River and Missisquoi Bay after a chemical paper mill spill on the river, a tributary of Lake Champlain.
Good said overfishing did not play a role in the hurting the population, but he stressed the need for anglers to follow Vermont’s strict catch and release muskie policy.
To help revive the population, Good and his team have stocked 5-6″ muskie fingerlings. On average, Good said he stocks between 6,000 and 7,000 summer fingerlings per year. Since the start of the program, Good said he has stocked 50,620 fish in the Missisquoi River and Missisquoi Bay – the last known place where the native population was known to exist.
“We’re trying to return a species that was native to Lake Champlain back to the lake and reestablish its place in the fish community,” Good said. “We stock them in August and they’re hatched in April or May, so they’re four months old. The theory is, the larger they are when you stock them, the higher the probability of them surviving.”
Other states stock muskie at different stages including fry, which are typically 1 inch long, and fall fingerlings, which are about 10 inches. The number of fish stocked is relative to the size of the fish being stocked, Good said.
For instance, stocking muskie fry means that between 80,000 and 100,000 are stocked per year, with the expected survival rate hovering around 10 percent.
While Good noted Carpentier’s catch was uncommon because muskies are elusive, low-density predators he pointed to the instance as a larger sign that the restoration program is having a noticeable impact on the muskie population.
“At some point in the near future, there could be a recreational, targetable population of muskie that can sustain a sport fishery,” Good said. “It’s really encouraging.”
Vt. Fish & Wildlife fisheries biologist Shawn Good confirmed the catch and release of a second muskellunge, between 34-35 inches, through the ice on Lake Champlain less than 10 miles. That fish was caught by Gage Honsinger.