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Utah anglers have learned to love tiger muskies, but that passion by at least one angler has likely led to a severe blow to the state's efforts to produce its own hybrid sport fish.

Sometime during the past six weeks as many as 100 true muskie, averaging 30 inches long, disappeared from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources' (DWR) warm-water ponds at the Lee Kay Center for Hunter Education in west Salt Lake City.

Fisheries officials had no idea who had been taking the fish until a phone call last week from an angler wondering if there were any fishing regulations at the ponds.

"He said the fishing is fantastic and then I told him it was illegal," said Drew Cushing, warm-water fish coordinator for the DWR. "I explained to him the impact. He was pretty open about it and said he felt bad. He was probably one of the honest folks. There were most likely others out there. I assume he ate them."

As it turns out the fishing was probably not illegal because there were no signs around the ponds explaining that it was a state fish hatchery and because there are no state regulations on true muskie because they only exist at Lee Kay.

A recent seine netting of the ponds turned up one male and one female muskie, a far cry from the number needed to help the state reach its goal of providing 50,000 tiger muskies each year. Cushing said there were 100 brood stock true muskie in the pond last year.

The northern pike pond seemed not to be impacted. Officials tallied 30 mature fish before stopping the count.

"This is an important program and we want to be able to continue to stock our waters with tiger muskie," said Terry Howick, who oversees Utah fish hatcheries for the DWR.

The muskie pulled out of the Lee Kay ponds were brought to Utah four years ago as fingerling to help start a tiger muskie hatchery. Tiger muskie are a mix between a true muskie and northern pike, neither native to Utah.

Tiger muskie, a voracious predator, were initially brought in from the Midwest to serve as a management tool in reservoirs with too many panfish (namely perch) or other abundant nongame fish like Utah chub.

As a hybrid, they are sterile, which biologists like because the population can be controlled.

They are also sought after by anglers as trophies. The state record, 49 inches long and 33 pounds, 9 ounces, was caught at Pineview Reservoir in 2006. The catch and release record tiger muskie was 53ΒΌ inches long and was also landed at Pineview.

"This is hard to swallow. It is just insane that they have put so much time, money and effort into this program and then they don't have signs up," said Nick Granato, an avid tiger muskie angler. "It's unbelievable that somebody was fishing the brood stock ponds, and now he isn't even in trouble? That is a real drop of the ball."

Howick says the signs now have gone up at the Lee Kay ponds. Fencing around the ponds and netting over the water will be installed soon.

In the meantime, DWR fisheries officials are canvassing the country looking for ways to create a new brood stock of true muskie and stock Utah waters with tiger muskies — a goal complicated by disease issues, which is one of the reasons the DWR wanted to start producing its own tiger muskie.

Utah's efforts to produce tiger muskie fingerling have improved over the years, but this year's total was only 750 and it was the best production so far. Fisheries biologists in Utah are the only ones in the West working to make it happen.

"We have our feelers out. We will leave no stone unturned," Howick said. "Some people have said we should be able to get fingerlings, but adults capable of spawning appear to be just about priceless."

Twitter: @BrettPrettyman

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