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Fall musky anglers face new bait restrictions

Statewide restrictions are in place to prevent the spread of the deadly fish disease viral hemorrhagic septicemia.

Anglers who use suckers for fall musky fishing are encouraged to buy only the amount of these bait fish they need for each outing for the remainder of the season, which closes Nov. 30.

The same holds true for other anglers using live minnows or other bait fish.

Emergency rules to prevent the spread of VHS prohibit anglers from taking live fish away from any water in Wisconsin, including leftover bait minnows, suckers and other fish.

These bait fish could possibly be exposed to the fish disease while anglers are fishing if the anglers change the water in which the minnows are kept. Using leftover bait on other waters could potentially spread VHS, says Mike Staggs, fisheries director for the Department of Natural Resources.

"If we knew exactly where VHS was in the state, we could tell anglers where it was safe to take home bait minnows," he says. "But with 15,000 lakes and 44,000 miles of flowing rivers, we can't test every water for VHS so an angler doesn't know whether the water they are fishing has VHS or not.

The new rules do not apply to other kinds of bait such as leeches or nightcrawlers.

VHS has demonstrated in other countries and Great Lakes states the potential to cause large fish kills, long-term reductions in wild fish populations, and severe economic losses for aquaculture operations, Staggs says.

The disease is very new here, having been detected for the first time in May 2007.

Fish appear to be most vulnerable to VHS in the spring, when water temperatures are cold and fish immune systems are stressed from the rigors of spawning. So the spring could hold the potential for fish kills that people would notice; it's also important to note that other states have reported signs that the main VHS impact is on young fish, and fish kills of these smaller fish are not as easy to detect.

Muskies, walleye, bluegill, freshwater drum, and yellow perch are all very susceptible to VHS - they are all in the federal government's "Tier 1" category of species that have been documented to have suffered fish kills, according to Tim Simonson, the fisheries biologist leading DNR's musky team.

In spring 2006, large die-offs of musky in the Detroit River and St. Lawrence River were related to VHS. And there are signs now that the musky population in the St. Lawrence River in New York is dropping significantly as a result of VHS, which has already killed thousands of fish in the river.

More information about VHS is available on the DNR Web site.