Hayward, Wis. — Most years, the baits of choice for dozens of Midwest kids enrolled in a three-day outdoor event revolving around muskie fishing on Moose Lake have been crankbaits, jerkbaits, or large suckers provided by sponsors and fishing guides from around Sawyer County.
But for this fall’s event in mid-September, participants all got this message from an Illinois-based youth group organizing the sessions: Bring your own suckers.
“We didn’t have one sucker for them to use,” said Jim Onarheim, of Mystic Moose Resort, which served as headquarters. “In a normal year about two-thirds to three-fourths of the muskies the kids catch come on suckers. This year about a third of the 57 muskies they caught and released were on suckers.”
These youths were among thousands of muskie anglers feeling the pinch of a major sucker shortage in Wisconsin’s prime muskie “sucker-soaking” season of mid-September through November.
The shortage has sent prices soaring to $7 to $10 for a 12-inch sucker, and up to $12 for a 16-inch sucker.
“It’s one of the worst (seasons) we’ve experienced, as far as muskie suckers,” said Dan Hilger, of Antigo, who supplies bait shops in north-central Wisconsin. Hilger’s parents, Ralph and Marie, started the bait business in 1936.
“It’s a supply-and-demand issue,” Hilger said. “We’re filling 60 percent of what we could fill.”
Hilger and other bait dealers point to a mix of reasons for the shortage, not the least of them the harsh conditions last winter that froze out holding ponds, and this past spring’s prolonged high water on rivers.
“On the wild (sucker) production side, we had a lot of rain in the early going – less access to trap or seine rivers,” Hilger said. “Plus, so many areas are closed off to trapping suckers (to prevent the spread of VHS) and there are fewer people trapping them. You don’t see the younger generation get into it anymore. Guys are working hard for fewer numbers.”
Another source of suckers is private ponds. Suckers raised in ponds take three to four years to grow to 12 to 16 inches. Investments in pond water supply and feeding costs for older, bigger suckers are not as great for raising and harvesting younger 3-inch and 5- to 7-inch suckers, those used for walleye, bass, and pike fishing by hook-and-line anglers year-round.
The sucker supply is getting even more strained as more states develop muskie-rearing and stocking programs, dealers said. Those states are buying more suckers at smaller sizes to feed muskies in rearing ponds. Also, better netting equipment allows more harvest of suckers, but removes suckers that normally would carry over to grow bigger.
Jay Esse, a buyer for Rollie and Helen’s Musky Shop in Minocqua, said the weather-related sucker shortage has been developing over the past several years and reflects a trend in muskie fishing to using more artificial baits.
“Fifteen years ago it was a different ball game,” Esse said. “Suckers were much more popular then, not as much so today. We used to go through a thousand a week. Now it’s under half that.”
On the other side of the issue, many anglers say they can’t cast a heavy muskie bait all day.
“For them, suckers work fine,” said Jim Onarheim, head of the Hayward Lakes Visitors and Convention Bureau. “When big muskies go into their fall feeding frenzy, individuals and groups show up to fish suckers. If they can’t get them, that hurts tourism.”