For anglers chasing muskies in Minnesota, bigger will have to be better.

State biologists are reporting that as the size of the fish of 10,000 casts rises, the population density is sinking.

The Department of Natural Resources estimated that there are 500 to 600 adult muskies in Minnesota’s 6,581-acre Lake Bemidji. But they’re huge. The DNR caught 80 muskies in the lake, with one in every four females turning out to be 50 inches or longer. The largest checked in at 46 pounds just eight pounds shy of the state’s muskellunge record (56 inches, 54 pounds), according to the DNR’s website.

“We started seeing this last year on Bemidji, and we were surprised by the size distribution,” said Gary Barnard, the DNR’s Bemidji area fisheries supervisor in an interview with the Pioneer Press. “So this year we spanned the entire spawning period to make sure we weren’t doing something that was biased toward capturing bigger fish. We found the same thing this year: A lot of these fish are big.”

The reason behind this trend is not clear-cut. One answer seems simple enough–it could be a case of muskie cannibalism.

The DNR has not found signs of signs of disease or a lack of food, leaving the cannibal theory as a strong option. Another possibility, according to Barnard is that the fish are delaying their sexual maturity in order to grow bigger and smaller fish are not coming into the shallow water to spawn, behavior that male bluegills have shown.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed off on a statewide increase to a 54-inch minimum for most inland waters. Making muskie fishing more of a catch-and-release sport seemed to be the motive behind the increase.

“There’s a lot of consternation in the muskie world right now,” Branard said. “We’re seeing a lot of these lakes crash, and then we see the DNR pull stocking back to see if there’s natural reproduction. The DNR did a great job creating a world-class muskie fishery, but now we need to maintain it.”

Photo: A Minnesota muskie caught by Kevin Cochran’s Guide Service.