Sucker fishing has long been a tradition in the north country, especially on the Chippewa Flowage. After all, Louie Spray caught his 69 pound 11 oz musky out of these waters on that famed late fall day on October 20th, 1949. Generally, the recommended sucker fishing method that was used years ago was that of the single hook sucker rig. Although some anglers used quick set rigs during those early years, as a rule, they were seldom used.
With the single hook method, the angler waited up to a half an hour or more so that the musky could swallow the sucker and the hook. Upon the hook set, the large single hook usually hooked the musky deep in its gut. Before catch and release was a widely practiced method, it didn't much matter that a musky was gut hooked like that because they were almost always kept anyway. But when people began releasing muskys that were caught by this method, they had to cut the leader and leave the hook deeply imbedded in the musky.... and hope for the best that the hook would "dissolve" and that the fish would survive the ordeal.
Within the last decade, sportsminded anglers harbored serious doubts as to the survivability of these gut-hooked muskys and quick set sucker rigs quickly became popular. But numbers of musky men from the old school still favored the method of single hook fishing.....myself included. They had much faith in the method and were reluctant to give it up-unless hard facts could prove other wise. Well, those facts are in and - while they may not be what some of want to hear - they are telling enough to even make the staunchest single hook sucker fisherman switch over to another approach.
In 1998, a radio telemetry study was done on the Chippewa Flowage, whereby 47 muskies were caught, tagged with externally mounted radio transmitters, and then released. Among other goals of the study, I saw this as an excellent opportunity to finally get a definitive answer to the single hook sucker mortality question. Out of 9 muskies which were gut hooked in this study group, we were able to confirm that at least half of the fish had died; but because the batteries on the transmitters ran out by spring, the degree of delayed mortality couldn't be fully explored on those fish.
After this study ended, the urgency to more deeply explore this issue was realized and funding was secured from Muskies, Inc (the Hayward Lakes and South of the Border Chapters) to do a gut hooked musky study on the Chippewa Flowage.... solely to find out what percentage of fish were dying from single hook sucker rigs. After all, a substantial contingent of musky men were still using this method throughout the musky range and it was high time we found out just how bad single hooks really were.
Between October 20th and November 21st of 1999, 14 muskies ranging between 33" and 47 1/2" in length were caught on these "swallow rigs" and "transmitted" so that they could be tracked the following spring. Shockingly, we didn't even have to wait very long to begin seeing the the death toll mount. Two muskies had died of hook injury to the throat during the tagging process and two others were later discovered dead.... washed up on shore.
Once tracking began in the spring 2000, it wasn't long before all the remaining muskies were located using a radio receiver and their exact location pin pointed. At that point it was simply a matter of repeatedly going back to each musky's locations pin pointed location to check if they had either swum off...or were lying dead on the lake bottom. We soon discovered that most of the study muskies had died - two of which were actually spotted with an underwater video "fishfinder" Two of the study muskies were actually swimming around through July though. How great it would be to actually see these fish - just to be able to examine them. Ironically, it turned out that both of these muskies were caught on hook and line, photographed, and then released by anglers. In talking with them and studying the photos of these fish, it is clear to see that these muskies were not healthy. In fact, they were both dying a slow death. These fish were both much thinner then normal and - sure enough - it wasn't long before delayed mortality ended up killing them.... bringing the total death count to 100% of the 14 study muskies which had been gut hooked the fall before.
Few people realized this delayed mortality factor when it came to single hook sucker fishing and that's probably why so many anglers ended up underestimating how many fish were dying as a result of being gut hooked. Knowing this, even though I've had much success using the single hook method over the years, in clear conscience I can not continue using such a method any longer and I urge all of my fellow single hook sucker fishermen to do the same on your favorite waters as well. There are many proven quick set sucker rigs now available to use. You may not have faith in using such a new method at first but remember- Louis Spray caught his world record muskys on a quick set rig of his own design It does work!! Good luck next fall!!