How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Making a Muskie Cradle

By Ian Smith

Muskie live 25 years or more, and many anglers now release them to grow, spawn, and be caught again, relying on photographs or replica mounts as mementoes. Muskie fishing is improving because of catch-and-release, but to be a useful management tool it must be done in a way that fish actually survive long-term.

Faced with handling these large toothy critters, fisheries biologists designed a mesh cradle strung between two poles to fit the body shape of muskie and pike. Fish lay straight and can be measured and have scale samples taken. Dr. Robert Strand of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is generally credited with developing the cradle 20 years ago. Since then, it's slowly gained favour among muskie anglers.

Should an angler always use a cradle instead of a standard big net? No. In some situations a big net makes more sense. In a large boat with high sides a net's long handle makes landing fish easier. A deep bag on a big net allows the handle to be laid flat across the gunwales while a fish is trapped in the water, where hooks can be removed. When you are fishing alone is also a good time for a net, because using a cradle is a two-person operation at the best of times, let alone in rough water or high winds.

Large nets, however, take up a huge amount of space in a small boat. A decent muskie net has a 36-inch (91-cm) hoop and a 6-foot (1.8-m) handle, making it tough to store. A cradle rolled up is 5 feet (1.5 m) long and no bigger around than a rod tube. It's easier to store.

Another problem with all nets, even rubberized ones, is that they split fins if a fish is hoisted into the boat - a temptation when water is rough or hooks are deeply embedded. Because a fish lies flat in a cradle, there's no fin damage and the soft mesh doesn't rough up the skin or remove its protective slime. Another advantage when unhooking a fish is that if you drop your pliers, glasses, or dentures, they often fall into the cradle and not to the lake bottom. Finally, a cradle floats flat, allowing a fish to recover next to the boat or until you've taken photographs. You can buy cradles. Expect to pay between $50 and $150, depending on the size, construction, and features.

Cradle manufacturers often use fabric to form sleeves, then sew mesh onto the fabric. Other designs place the mesh between two pieces of flat wood, which are epoxied or screwed together to hold the mesh in place. Others use wooden dowels.

You can make your own cradle from dowels in a couple of evenings. The major challenge is finding appropriate netting. Look for a 4- by 4-foot (1.2-m by 1.2-m) piece of soft, knotless .75- to 1.5-inch (19- to 38-mm) netting with .08- to .12-inch (2- to 3-mm) fabric. Muskies Canada members in Tweed and Ottawa bought a roll of minnow seine for cradle netting. When hooks put too many holes in it, they cut a new bag and re-use the poles. Other anglers have used soft netting such as the nylon mesh used for archery backstops or the top of hospital room dividers.

Start with two 5-foot pieces of 1-inch (2.54-cm) maple dowel and a piece of mesh 36 inches wide by 48 long (91.4 by 122 cm). You can use one 5-foot length of 1 1/2-inch dowel if you cut it down the middle to form two poles. Fold over the mesh along the long edges to form sleeves to hold the dowels, sew securely with heavy Dacron or other braided line, add a couple of screws to keep the netting from sliding off, and you're done. If you want to get fancy, cut out a second piece of mesh to form a bag blocking off one end and sew it into place. The finished bag should be about 12 inches (30.5 cm) wide between the dowels and as deep as the netting. Without a bag, fish sometimes scoot right through a cradle.

Other nice touches are marking a ruler on one dowel, so you can measure a fish right in the cradle, or adding a little pouch to hold a plastic seamstress' tape. A muskie measuring tape produced by the Ministry of Natural Resources is available from its information centre (705-755-2000) or local district offices for $2 and works nicely for this too. Finally, a 6-foot piece of rope with loops at either end to slip over the dowels allows you to weigh a fish suspended in the cradle. Just subtract the wet weight of the cradle. The rope can also be used as a leash to prevent the cradle from drifting off while you're getting a camera out and to wrap it up for storage in the bottom of the boat.

Whether you buy or make a cradle, a few tips will make it easier to use. First, make sure the person holding it wears eye protection. When cradling a muskie, you get down and wet with the fish, and if a hook pops out, you'll be glad you wore glasses. When you hook a fish, throw the cradle into the water early to wet the mesh so it sinks more quickly (some commercial cradles have weights in the mesh). Spread and sink one end of the cradle while the fish is led into position. Once fully into the mesh, simply close up the wooden handles. A high wind makes landing a fish more challenging if the boat is drifting, in which case point the cradle into the current so that it will stay down. Finally, don't worry about getting hooks tangled in the mesh, because the first thing the cradle handler should do is grab the fish by the tail and turn it onto its side to keep it from thrashing. Work the hooks loose or, better yet, snip them with bolt-cutters and then untangle the lure. If the fish thrashes, no hooks are attached to it.

A word on photographing muskie. After getting a fish to the boat, it will be tired. Leave the muskie cradled in the water while you unhook it. This allows the fish and you to recover somewhat. Once the camera is ready, you can lift the fish for photos while supporting its weight horizontally, but don't keep it out of the water for more than 10 seconds. Studies show that "air" time is a major factor in fish mortality. Lift, snap a pic, and then put the fish back into the cradle. With care, you can take several photos without overly stressing the fish.

That's about it. This winter, purchase or make a cradle. They might be big, green, and mean, but the next big muskie you catch and release would appreciate a little tender loving care.

Netting sources

ABC Netting Inc., Mississauga, Ont., phone 905-795-2520;
Le Industries Fipec, Grand-Riviere, Que., Phone 418-385-3631, website;
or try your local yellow pages under "netting."