Introduction: Logs of fish seen on the videos allowed for enumeration of fish of different species seen for particular lakes and times of the year. In addition, each fish sighting could be later reviewed and used for a quantitative assessment of various behaviors for fish approaching the lures. However, there are some obvious cautions necessary regarding the data, as discussed below:
(a) Muskie Behavior in Clear Water Lakes – Muskies may act differently in Lake Geneva and other deep, clear lakes than they do in shallow, weedy, and murkier lakes. In addition, Lake Geneva is located near 3 major metropolitan areas, and is incredibly busy with recreational boat traffic during the open water season. It seems likely that muskies may hang out deeper in clear water lakes that are busy, and may tend to feed more at night. On the other hand, some other muskie behaviors could be similar to those in shallow and weedy lakes, including their curiosity, tendency to follow, reluctance to strike (as compared to bass), and increased activity in the fall.
(b) Observer Bias – This phenomenon relates to the effect that measuring techniques might have on the item being measured. Trolling cameras could change the behavior of the fish being observed. It is difficult to know if they scare some fish away, although plenty of fish do come up to the cameras and lures. But could they attract fish more than just the lure alone? This does seem to be the case, especially with muskies. There is the flasher and fly example from salmon fishing - the big flasher ahead of the fly attracts the fish to the fly. And would the presence of the camera change the behavior of the attracted fish? This is possible. Perhaps the attracted ones are the very curious fish, not the hungry or angry ones. They may not be as inclined to actually strike the lure. Hard to know.
(c) Individual Muskies – It is difficult to say if I am seeing different muskies each time, or the same ones over and over. Also, I usually troll 2 cameras at once, and a particular muskie may follow one and then turn off to be seen on the other. I have once observed this to happen on the videos. However, for the purposes of this study I counted all the muskie sightings as separate encounters because each was really a new event.
(d) Trolling techniques - The areas trolled for this project were generally limited to depths of about 15-30 feet (generally 20-25 feet) near drop offs into deep water. There are reasons for this choice. The cameras in their housings ran about 15 feet down when trolled 60 feet back at about 1.75 miles per hour. Therefore, if I were to stray into water less than 15 feet deep, the cameras would usually become fouled with weeds and need to be retrieved and cleaned off. If I were to troll into deeper water or away from the drop offs it seemed as if very few fish would be seen on the videos. Hence the choices of areas trolled for this project. However, muskies could certainly be found in shallow water at times, or suspended in deep water away from the shallows.
(e) Choice of Lures - I tended to use lures that were small enough to not jerk the cameras around and had slower motion so as not to blur when observed on the snapshots. These included 5.5 inch husky jerks, certain other crank baits, trolling versons of muskie bucktails, spoons on occasion, and worm harnesses with nightcrawlers or minnows. Muskies or other fish might behave differently when presented with other lures. On the other hand, it was notable that the muskies did seem to be very curious about the worm harnesses (although they never did strike one).
2. NUMBERS OF FISH SEEN
Table 1 below shows the numbers of fish observed on the videos from Lake Geneva as compared to the other lakes studied (from 19 outings each). Table 2 shows the numbers of the different species seen for 3 different periods of the year on Lake Geneva.
In total for all the trips to Lake Geneva I saw on the cameras 117 muskies, 51 northern pike, 28 walleyes, 79 smallmouth bass, 40 largemouth bass, and 25 lake trout. There were also lots of bluegills and pumpkinseed sunfish, and a few other stragglers including 1 crappie, 1 carp, 1 catfish, 3 rock bass, and an unquantifiable number of perch (they would be in little bunches here and there, and not necessarily coming to the cameras). As noted previously there were 19 trips to other lakes, including Pine Lake in Waukesha County, Lake Michigan off the Milwaukee lakefront, Ottawa Lake in the UP, and the rest being to lakes in Vilas or Oneida Counties in northern Wisconsin. In total for these trips I saw 8 muskies, 6 northern pike 7 walleyes, 66 smallmouth bass, 11 largemouth bass, 1 lake trout, 35 bluegills, 13 carp, 3 sturgeon, 44 brown trout, 1 chinook salmon, and 8 drum. The brown trout came from either Lake Michigan or Stormy Lake in Vilas County. They were generally pretty small, probably in the 12-18 inch range, but there were enough of them to derive some quantitative data.
The first question that comes to mind is why were so many muskies seen in Lake Geneva as compared to some really good muskie lakes up north? The latter did include Lake Tomahawk, Trout Lake, White Sand Lake (actually two different lakes with this name), Fence Lake, Two Sisters Lake, and Lake Laura. This finding may be a time of the year thing. I wasn’t in northern Wisconsin in October. In fact, all 8 muskies observed up there were from Lake Laura in mid-September. Even so, it is surprising how few muskies were observed in the northern Wisconsin lakes in the summer. Muskie fishing itself is really good up there at that time of year.
It was also interesting that I saw more muskies on Lake Geneva than any other species of fish except for bluegills. By the way, the term, “bluegill,” also included pumpkinseed sunfish for the purposes of this study. The dominance of muskies in the lake Geneva data probably can be attributed to the manner of trolling in fairly deep water off the edges of the flats, and possibly to the extreme curiosity of these fish. They definitely did seem to be attracted to the cameras and lures, probably more so than did the other species of fish. Trolling deeper may be why so few rock bass turned up, considering that these fish are very common in Lake Geneva.
Regarding fish seen for different times of the year, Table 2 has the Lake Geneva numbers listed as fish seen per trip for periods of June July August (6 trips), September October (9 trips), and November December (4 trips). Clearly, the muskie numbers peaked in the September October time. My one trip with highest numbers of muskies seen was on October 8, 2019 when I saw a total of 36 muskies on the videos. My calculations for total time and distance traveled that day indicate that one muskie was seen for every 271 yards trolled.
Table 2 also has some information about other fish. I did see 25 lake trout in Lake Geneva, but all from September on. The explanation for this finding is straightforward – in the summer these fish hang out deep (out of my camera range), but in the fall they come in to the shallows to spawn (where I could see them). Otherwise, some of the other fish, like bass and panfish and walleyes, seemed to not be found in the areas I trolled in the fall. In fact my two trips in December, 2019, revealed only 2 muskies and 4 lake trout. No pike or walleyes, or bass, or panfish at all.
One possible explanation is that the behavior of the other fish changed as water temperature decreased. They may still have been present in these areas, but just not willing to chase lures in the cold water. Or they could have been moving to deeper or more shallow water. At least some of the panfish may have redistributed to deeper water as winter was coming on, as they do in other lakes. Even so, when Lake Geneva freezes over the ice fishing can be pretty good in relatively shallow water.
Bottom Line: I saw many more muskies on Lake Geneva than on the other lakes (117 versus 8). This difference may have been due to time of year because October (when I was usually making outings only on lake Geneva) appeared to be the best time of the year for muskies. Regarding other fish seen, lake trout became visible to the cameras in the fall when they came in to spawn, and the other species were generally no longer seen on the videos later in the year.
3. PERCENT AND DURATION OF FISH FOLLOWS
To some extent, all the various fish species would follow the lures. However, some species would follow longer and perhaps more frequently than others. Table 3 below shows the percentage of fish following and the longest follow for each species, and Table 4 shows the means and standard deviations of the data from all the fish observed to follow.
For this study a follow was defined as the fish coming up to and trailing behind the lure for at least 5 seconds. Bluegills were not evaluated in this regard because they often followed in groups and tended to take turns behind the lure. Otherwise, many fish sightings did not translate into actual follows. And sometimes the fish would strike right away and then turn off. Even so the following fish species yielded good data for follows: Muskies, northern pike, smallmouth bass, lake trout, and brown trout. In order to include the latter, I used data from all the lakes in this study.
The first question was whether or not muskies would follow lures more frequently than the other species. The frequency determinations in Table 3 (calculated as number of follows divided by the number of each species seen), yielded the following percentages: Muskies 27.2%, pike 36.3%, smallmouth bass 13.1%, lake trout 26.9%, and brown trout 18.2%. These percentages did not appear to indicate that muskies followed more frequently than the other species. For all these species, there were a total of 89 follows recorded for a total of 397 fish seen, indicating an average of 22.4% for these fish following when confronted with a trolled lure (under these conditions).
But did muskies follow the lures longer? Table 3 provides part of the answer. Here we see data for the longest follow observed for each of these fish species. It contains a surprise. The longest follow at 83 seconds or 213.3 feet belonged to a lake trout, not a muskie. The longest muskie follow was for 64 seconds or 164.5 feet. Northern pike and brown trout both had longest follows of 58 seconds or 149 feet. These numbers were not all that much different and perhaps could just have related to that one particular fish doing the following.
However, Table 4 gives mean + SDs (standard deviations) of the data for each species, and these do roughly correlate with the data for longest follows. Again, lake trout seemingly come out as the longest followers, although there were only 7 determinations.
I found it necessary to do a statistical analysis. Therefore, the data for the different fish species were compared using an analysis of variance and Tukey’s tests just to make sure that no significant difference was being missed. This determination indicated that muskies were not different in this regard from northern pike, lake trout, or brown trout. This was pretty obvious from just looking at the data, but I wanted some confirmation, anyway.
On the other hand, smallmouth bass were indeed different; the data show that they followed for shorter times than muskies (p <.00001), or lake trout (p <.001), or brown trout (p <.001). (A note for non-statisticians – the p value is an approximation for the likelihood that a particular difference occurred by chance rather than a real difference between the two groups. A very low p value, usually <.05, suggests that the difference is real.) Smallmouth bass did appear to follow for shorter times and distances. As we will see below, smallmouth bass also seemed to be more likely than these three other species to actually strike the lures, and maybe these two characteristics are related.
So why do we generally feel that muskies are unusual in their tendency to follow lures? This reputation probably relates to the way we fish for them – often in shallow lakes where we cast out and reel lures in to the boat. Under usual circumstances we are not going to observe follows for lake trout - they are generally caught in deep water by trolling, not by casting in the shallows where we can see them. When they are present in shallow water, during the fall spawning season, they are protected and out of season in Wisconsin.
Bottom Line. The longest follow in this study was by a lake trout, not a muskie. Muskies did follow lures for significant distances, but lake trout appeared to be at least as good followers. Muskies would sometimes follow lures for over a minute, traveling distances of at least 150 feet.
4. MUSKIE DEPTHS AND ANGLE OF APPROACH
Table 5 below shows data for the depth of water when muskies were first encountered, and whether they approached the lures from below, above, or on the same plane.
The fish were generally located quite deep – 58 of 100 were first noted when the bottom was no longer visible on the videos, indicating a depth of at least 25 feet. By Chi Square analysis, significantly more muskies were first seen in >25 feet of water than in <25 feet (p = .0339 with Yates correction). However, by mistake I sometimes would drop the cameras over when the water was much too deep – say 80 feet or so – and then troll back to shallower water. Under these circumstances I never did see a muskie. Not till returning to the vicinity of the drop offs. Of course, this wasn’t a scientific study, and I didn’t spend a lot of time in the very deep water. There could be muskies out there, just not visible on the videos.
Regarding angle of approach, the data in Table 5 also show that most of the muskies approached the lure from below – that is, 57 of 100. Sometimes this happened even in relatively shallow water of 15-20 feet. Of the 14 muskies noted to approach the camera/lures in 15-20 feet, 4 were found to approach from below. Presumably they were very close to the bottom when the lure went over their heads. By Chi Square analysis, muskies approached from below significantly more frequently than from above (p < .00001 with Yates correction), or from the same plane (p <.00001 with Yates correction). These are both significant even with the Bonferroni correction of the p value needed for significance with multiple determinations.
Bottom Line. A significant number of muskies could be found in water 25 feet deep or deeper at the edge of drop offs. They seemed to most often come up to the lures from below.
5. NUMBERS OF STRIKES
It was clear from the videos that many more fish would follow the lures than actually strike. Table 6 shows some data for the tendency of each fish species to actually strike the lure.
In the present study the strikes and fish noted on the videos were counted and the data expressed as the number of fish seen per strike (that is, number of fish seen divided by the number of strikes). Data from all the lakes were used in order to get the highest number of fish and strikes possible, and to include brown trout in this revaluation.
Table 6 shows the results. For muskies, there were only 3 strikes per 125 fish seen. For lake trout only 1 for the 26 fish seen. Largemouth bass had the lowest number of fish per strike at 5.1, suggesting that they bite more readily. By Chi Square analysis, both largemouth bass and smallmouth bass struck the lures significantly more frequently than muskies (p = .000271 and .00286 with Yates correction). Both values were significant even with the Bonferroni correction of the p value needed for significance.
It was clear from the data that most of the fish seen on the videos did not strike the lures. Only 43 of 483 fish actually struck for these 7 game fish species, giving a percentage of 8.9% (therefore, less than 1 in 10 of fish seen would actually strike); for muskies the percentage was even less at 2.4%
In addition, there was another conclusion evident from viewing the videos themselves – even when the lures had intact hooks, most of the striking fish either did not get hooked, or were able to shake the hooks out if they did. Of course, when one is trolling and the rods are in holders, it is not possible to set the hooks; this factor may affect the ability of fish to free themselves once hooked.
It seems reasonable to surmise that the choice of lure may have affected whether or not the fish would actually strike. The bass species may have been comfortable attacking a nightcrawler in the worm harnesses. However, muskies often followed that lure, but did not seem interested in striking it or the other lures, either.
Bottom Line. Many more fish were seen by the trolling cameras than actually struck the lures. Muskies and lake trout seemed to strike least often, and largemouth bass most often. In total only 8.9% of the fish seen would strike, including only 2.4% of the muskies.
6. FISH CURIOSITY
Presumably if a fish followed only the lure, it was most interested in eating. On the other hand, following the camera suggested an element of curiosity in that the cameras and housings in no way resembled anything edible. At least theoretically - who knows what a muskie might consider edible. In any event, the data in Table 7 show the data for this determination of curiosity for the various fish species.
As can be seen from the data in Table 7, there were certain fish species that seemed to be interested only in the lure. Presumably they were looking for a meal. These included bluegills, walleyes, and brown trout. The two bass species also rarely approached the cameras themselves. Muskies on the other hand came to watch the cameras over half of the time. They seemed to be the most curious. Lake trout also showed significant curiosity, with northern pike doing so on occasion. Between muskies and lake trout, a Chi Square analysis gave a p value of 0.265, which was not significant. Therefore, lake trout appeared to have equivalent curiosity to muskies.
Bottom Line. Muskies and lake trout appeared to be the most curious fish, with bluegills, walleyes, and brown trout demonstrating a lack of observable curiosity.