When catch-and-release became Lake St. Clair's ethic, muskies multiplied

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Muskies, as well as several other species of fish, have thrived in Lake St. Clair without any need for restocking.

Consult just about any international fishing guru — person, publication, or website.

If you want a muskie, you want Lake St. Clair.

It isn’t only muskies, of course, which make this 420-square-mile water between Metro Detroit and Ontario such a spectacular global fishery. Smallmouth bass, walleye, perch, northern pike, panfish of all species, a galaxy of smaller forage fish — even sturgeon of 100 pounds or more — all have found a self-sustaining home in this shallow (average depth: 11 feet) jewel that sits within the Great Lakes water system between the St. Clair River and Detroit River.

“It is pretty amazing, the fishery in Lake St. Clair,” said Todd Wills, an area research manager, covering Lake Huron and Lake Erie for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. “And it’s supported entirely by natural reproduction — no stocking necessary.

“It’s just the perfect combination of habitat: a lake with different contours and edges, all the wetland areas in the St. Clair flats that help with spawning, the shallower areas of Anchor Bay and rivers on the Canadian side, which bring in nutrients.

“It’s just the perfect combination needed not only for game-fish species, but also for forage-fish habitat. And one of the critical components is the lake’s aquatic plant community. It’s very diverse, and it’s expanded since the 1970s when the Clean Water Act went into effect.”

Muskies, naturally, are the lake’s sport-fishing royalty. They are prodigious — and pugnacious.

More:Lake St. Clair is great for battles with monster muskies

Credit goes to those who fish for these freshwater giants who beginning in the 1980s decided the best way to catch a Lake St. Clair muskie was to later release it.

Prior to the ’80s, a fish that legend had it required 10,000 hours to catch was viewed as such a rare trophy people tended to want them as possessions — as wall-mounts, or as a show-piece stashed in the deep freezer.

But beginning even in the latter ’70s, Wills confirms, a fish-conservation ethic began building on the lake’s Canadian side. Where 40 percent of muskies had been released, anglers began returning 80 percent.

The spirit caught on across the lake as a muskie conservation trend, fueled by groups dedicated to catch-and-release, coalesced on Michigan’s side. Muskies were caught, held for a quick photo, and eased back into Lake St. Clair.

Mother Nature took care of those who were taking care of her.

The species boomed. Reproduction soared, as did genetic quality as older, stronger fish survived to spawn.

Lake St. Clair had a world-class muskie story to tell.

“I think if you go back into the 1960s, people valued harvesting fish more than they do now,” Wills said. “Now there seems to be a shift in philosophy where people are valuing the experience more.”

Still being debated and analyzed is whether a change in Michigan law in 2018 will affect muskie numbers.

The season has expanded to year-round from its old June-to-December calendar. Charter-boat captains like Steve Jones, of Harrison Township, are dead against the extension, which runs through May when muskies are spawning. Jones and the area’s muskie-conservation clubs are upset that the DNR decided, against their protests, to open the season, especially during those vital May days when female fish are full of eggs and the spring spawn, in their view, is threatened.

“We’ve had a lot of letters from both sides,” said Sarah Thomas, who is the Lake Erie unit manager for the DNR’s Fisheries Division. “A lot of people are happy to get an early opportunity.

“We’ve heard from the other side that eggs will spill over the boat — and that probably will happen occasionally. But when you factor in the low numbers of muskies that are caught then, it automatically provides some protection.

“Time will tell how many people take advantage of the longer season.”

Thomas said creel limits and research will be constant as the DNR gets a read on benefits, or consequences, to a fishery that supports ongoing and overwhelming fish numbers.

The DNR already is tagging juvenile fish and studying muskie migration patterns that have stunned even biologists. A muskie tagged recently was found to have traveled from Lake St. Clair to Buffalo, by way of the Detroit River and two Great Lakes, and then returned home — within a year.

“Michigan is one of the premier muskie fisheries in the world,” Thomas said, “and we want to keep it that way, all while increasing the opportunity to catch muskies.

“The great news is we still have such a huge catch-and-release ethos. More than 99 percent of muskies caught are released.

“People aren’t interested in harvesting. They’re interested in catching.”


Twitter.com: @Lynn_Henning