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The Big Ones Get Away: the Biggest Fish in the Rideau

posted Jun 16, 2016, 9:18 AM by Hector Carranco
*(the author graciously acknowledges the assistance of Connie Downes, Noel Alfonso (Canadian Museum of Nature), Joff Cote (Ministry of natural resources) and Sean Landsman, who did his PhD thesis on Muskellunge at Carleton University under the supervision of Dr. Steven Cooke)

Another great morning! As you paddle upriver and just pass the 500 metre mark, suddenly, a huge swirl just off your bow startles you so much you almost tip. Just a reminder that you are not the only big critter out here. What is lurking down there in the murk?
The two biggest fish in the Rideau are also the two most unlike each other. One is a placid grazer of aquatic plants and slurps up aquatic insects and worms - a ‘bottom feeder’ ; the other the top predator in the Rideau’s watery jungles, the tiger of the river. One is chunky, dull coloured and slow; the other sleek and fast, a beautiful blue-grey ghost. One has no teeth in its mouth, the other teeth that are sharp like razor blades. Fishers dream about catching one and consider it a trophy; the other is considered a ‘coarse’ fish. One is the coolest of fish. If fish wore sunglasses, it would wear Oakleys. The other...well, let’s just no go there!

Of course, we are talking about the Common Carp and Muskellunge.

Consider the ‘lowly’ Carp, Cyprinus carpio. It is closely related to goldfish and Koi (actually an ornamental form of Carp), familiar in backyard ponds. It is a dull brown, with large scales. The mouth is small, with thick blubbery lips, and two barbells or ‘feelers’ hanging like whiskers from the lower jaw. It is not a pretty fish to our eyes. Our section of river is not the best for Carp, but they are present. Some years back, I saw a huge one - about 10 kg. - in a bathtub in an apartment building near Mooney’s Bay. No, it wasn’t living there. Someone had captured it in the river at Mooney’s Bay and was keeping it for a big feast. This carp weighed about 10 kg. They tenants were recent immigrants from Russia, where the Common Carp is not considered a ‘coarse’ fish at all, but rather a delicacy. Carp are native to eastern Europe and Asia, and have for centuries been a staple source of food and sport. They are a key ingredient in many European dishes, (think gefilte fish, a traditional Jewish food). In the mid 1880s, Carp were introduced to North American as a food fish. They were plentiful in the Rideau when my father was a young lad, over a century ago. He tells me of catching Carp in the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa and selling them to European and Asian immigrants. 

The biggest Carp recorded in the Rideau was 12.5 kg. (27.5 pounds) caught near Manotick in 2011. My Dad caught a big one off the dock at Long Island Locks. I was about 12 years old at the time. It took him about 30 minutes to play the fish out, and the whole time we were wondering what it could be. By the time the fish was close to shore, a crowd had gathered. I remember vividly holding the net, peering into the murky water (no zebra mussels then). Finally, the monster fish came into view. There was a collective sigh of disappointment from the crowd; “It's just a carp!” It may have just been a carp, but it also may have been a record carp for the Rideau. We’ll never know - we let it go without weighing or measuring it - after all, it was ‘just a carp’. 

But these are pipsqueaks compared to Carp in Europe, which can exceed 45 kg. and live over a century!

The best place to see Carp is in the Rideau Canal in downtown Ottawa. In early summer, you can watch them in a shallow pond just off the Canal between Fifth Avenue Ritz and Browns Inlet. In early spring, just after the ice goes out in Dows Lake, all the Carp (and that’s a lot of Carp, thousands and thousands) migrate out of the lake into the Rideau Canal. You can stand under the Bronson Street Bridge, where the Canal is very narrow and shallow, and watch the carp (not to mention other fish such as minnows, Perch, a few Pike, and if you are very lucky, maybe a Muskellunge or two) leave Dows Lake for their summer haunts in the Canal.

Let’s look at the other big fish, the Muskellunge. Now Muskellunge (commonly called ‘Muskies’) are without doubt the coolest fish in the Rideau. According to Wikipedia, the name comes from comes from Ojibwa word maashkinoozhe, meaning "ugly pike". The French common name is masquinongé or maskinongé. The scientific name is Esox masquinongy. There are two varieties of Muskie in the Rideau – the most common is silvery green, with wavy vertical dark bars or spots, like the shadows of water weeds waving with the waves and currents. . The Tiger Muskie is a hybrid between a Northern Pike and Muskie, and has much more distinct vertical stripes. 

Unlike most fish, Muskies have attitude we humans can relate to. When I was a boy, and crazy about fishing, I dreamed about catching the Big One. We would often see big Muskies, a big tail flipping at the edge of the weeds, or the reeds parting as a big one swam through them. Once,  a muskrat swimming in the water suddenly disappeared with a splash and a swirl of bubbles – ambused by a Muskie. Muskies especially like to eat other fish, like suckers and perch (careful when you reel in a perch, you never know what’s following it!). And if you are a duckling swimming across the river with your family, it’s not a good idea to be the last one in line. Muskies are territorial. They stake out a hunting ground for the summer, but seem to move around more in the fall. Radio-tagging studies done in the Rideau showed that one restless Muskie travelled in one summer season all the way from the Long Island reach down through Mooney's Bay, all the way through the canal, into the Ottawa River and was eventually found near Petrie Island in Orleans. That fish must be an expert on going through locks. 

There are Muskies present near the Rideau canoe club in our section of the river, but I haven’t personally seen one yet, but my Dad told me that Mooney's Bay was one of the top Muskie fishing areas when he was a kid growing up in Ottawa. Watch for them in the fall. Sometimes they lie quietly just under the surface, with their dorsal fin and the upper lobe of their tail just out of the water. Scientific surveys of the fish in this section captured Muskies – one was almost 12 kg in weight and a metre long, a seriously big fish. The biggest Muskie recorded in the Rideau, caught near the town of Kars, was over 23 kg. and was about as long as your sprint canoe paddle. 

One of the best places for Muskie near Rideau Canoe Club is just downstream, in Dows Lake. Researchers from Carleton university tracking Muskie in Ottawa have recorded some really big ones here – more than 1.25 metres! It’s amazing to me to think that there is a healthy Muskie population in a little lake the centre of a large city like Ottawa - like having a pack of wolves living in your neighbourhood. These Muskies spend the winter, when the water level in the Canal is lowered, in Dows lake, where there is deep water, and then disperse in the spring throughout the Canal. The big whirlpool just below Hogs Back Falls is another favorite place for Muskies to hang out. For those of you who have run the Jock River Race, it may surprise you that there is a healthy population of Muskies in the Mighty Jock River. 

One of the reasons the Muskie population is so healthy around Ottawa is that most fisherman practice ‘catch and release’. Studies done by Carleton University researchers show that the survival rate of released Muskies is almost 100%, much higher than for some other species. They are one tough fish. It looks like we will have Muskies lurking in the Rideau for some time, and they will only get BIGGER! But don’t worry. The stories of swimmers toes being sheared off by a Muskie are only urban legends. And as for the lowly Carp, with a warming climate and longer summers, carp will also continue to thrive, and grow even bigger and live longer in the Rideau. Now, if only they would eat zebra mussels...