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Lake St. Clair is great for battles with monster muskies

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Lynn Henning holds the 38-inch muskie he landed from Lake St. Clair.

Belle River, Ontario – On a Friday morning in mid-October, weather in southeast Michigan was more in line with hayrides than with boat trips across Lake St. Clair when temperatures were scraping the 50s and winds spun at 17-20 mph.

But at 8 a.m., with the east sky a mass of red and orange streaks, trimmed in gray clouds that shot upward, like geysers, there was promise Lake St. Clair would deliver its usual satchel of good fishing.

Muskies, hopefully.

And it did.

Muskellunge are fresh-water tigers – sharks, if you insist – that for most folks are Lake St. Clair’s most glorious fish.

Their intrigue mostly is due to size. They get big, up to 50 pounds, and can stretch nearly six feet head to tail. They have teeth that would do a crocodile proud. They eat like frat guys attacking a pizza and they are spectacularly thrilling and powerful on the end of a line, which is what we had in mind as our boat bounced across Lake St. Clair’s two-foot waves.

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

We were aboard a 35-foot Hatteras, a sparkling sport-fishing craft with twin 454 Crusader engines worth nearly 800 horsepower. At the wheel was Steve Jones, of Harrison Township, who for 43 years has been a charter-fishing captain and who heads FishPredator Charters, one of the area’s better-known outfitters when it comes to catching muskie, smallmouth bass, walleye, perch, or whatever the choice within an extraordinary, 420-square-mile fishing oasis known as Lake St. Clair.

Jones was helped this day by his son, Steve, Jr., 30, of St. Clair Shores, and Jones’ longtime business partner and crew member, Len Harbrucker, of Macomb Township, who 16 years ago retired from his auto-supply business.

Joining me was Scott Gardner, from Toronto, and an associate editor for Outdoor Canada magazine, who has been a teammate on past float-plane fishing journeys to Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and the Northwest Territories.

Our tackle was muskie-grade: 7-foot Shakespeare Ugly Stiks, medium-heavy saltwater rods, and Okuma bait-casting reels loaded with 50-pound braided Dacron line. The leaders attaching line to lure were 80-pound fluorocarbon and – surprising to some, given the muskies’ choppers – not wire, which Jones long ago learned could snap when a muskie torpedoes one of those whopping plugs we were trolling.

About those plugs that to a famished muskie look like a juicy walleye or perch: They run 10 to 12 inches and can also cost a bundle: up to $100-plus for the handmade version, which we were dragging across St. Clair’s depths, not far from the mouth of Ontario’s Belle River, which was about 15 miles and 45 minutes from our departure point, near Lake St. Clair Metropark, at the intersection of Metro Parkway and Jefferson Avenue.

'Tough fishing'

This day would not be easy.

“Tough fishing,” Jones said, knowing a cold front was pushing from Michigan into Ontario, preceded by a dropping barometer, which is any fishing trip’s worst weather news.

It wasn’t that the air or water were terrible. Dressed in a few cold-weather layers, with a stocking cap, it was comfortable bounding across a two-foot chop as temps rose from the 40s into the 50s with sunshine and white clouds twirling like dance partners.

Lynn Henning waits for a muskie strike on a windy day on Lake St. Clair.

Jones had worked his way against a southwest wind to a place where weeds and breeze promised the best venue in Canadian-side water that, depending upon depth and churn, ran the color gamut: green, gray, aqua, brown.

On one rod, line ran only 20 feet or so from the propeller wash, which is the way it goes with muskies. They aren’t bothered by boats. They don’t spook. Rather, they attack, which, now that it was lunch time, the first did at 12:15 p.m.

“Fish on!” yelled Jones, when line began spitting from one of our 10 rods, some of which had lines flanking the boat by way of planer boards.

I had caught muskies before and felt the surge, the pure power, as line began shooting and the Okuma’s star drag needed a tighter turn.

A few minutes of jousting and it was in Jones’ net, a thrashing mix of white belly, pink fins, and gray-and-white mottled artistry, accessorized by long, sharp, translucent teeth.

Victory. For all parties. Including the muskie, which was headed for a reprieve.

The beast was neatly unhooked and placed in a recovery tank, six feet by one foot by 18 inches. In the tank, cold Lake St. Clair water circulates so that the fish gets a chance to catch its breath and revive before it’s hauled out for pictures. Then the fish was returned to Lake St. Clair, which this muskie seemed to approach almost casually as it flapped its tail and swam away to chomp on something more edible than a 12-inch Nils Master Invincible plug, painted and marked in a design known as Chocolate Perch.

The muskie was a beauty but far from trophy-sized: 38 inches or so, which meant it might have another foot or more and an additional 30 pounds to grow before someone turns a photo of it into a replica-mount destined to awe, or maybe scare, visitors.

Eight minutes later, Jones barked again:

“Fish on! Same rod.”

Gardner grabbed the Ugly Stik and now it was his turn to dally in fishing’s version of a rodeo bulldogger.

“This one might be a little better,” Jones said, watching Scott’s rod tip bend.

A few second later, faces dropped.

“He’s off,” Jones said after the muskie, which had probably taken the Chocolate Perch in the side of its mouth or lightly in the lip, escaped.

“That was a lot nicer fish,” said the captain, who in his decades has seen bundles of 50-inch-plus muskies come aboard. And who, a week later, was aboard when a 54-inch, 47-pound monster was taken – the largest caught on Lake St. Clair in 2018 and fourth-largest in the decades since the Michigan-Ontario Muskie Club began keeping records 

Smart decision

Muskies in Lake St. Clair are a world-class presence because local folks 30 years ago got smart. They agreed on a catch-and-release ethic. Catch the muskie. Put it back into the water. And watch a species proliferate.

The old axiom about muskies being a once-in-a-lifetime event, like a golfing hole-in-one – “fish of a thousand casts,” was the standard line – turned into something different and special once Lake St. Clair’s ways changed. Muskies could be caught, often in multiples, during a single day of fishing.

We were about to confirm it.

Scott Gardner caught a 40-inch muskie on Lake St. Clair.

A half-hour after pulling in our first, Scott’s line took off and this time the muskie stayed hooked.

He brought in another beauty, pushing 40 inches. After a few refreshing minutes in the recovery tank, Scott lowered it overboard and watched as it said goodbye with a hard tail-splash and dived into St. Clair’s 53-degree water.

There was another slam or two on one of those walleye-sized plugs, but nothing hooked as that bad-day barometer kept dipping. A nasty weekend front filled with lightning, sleet, and chill had done what it typically does to fish who don’t appreciate barometric dives.

“Southwest wind, with low pressure coming in,” said Jones, who is 66 and who has been fishing Lake St. Clair since he was practically a tyke.

A less volatile day and we almost certainly would have had five, maybe 10 or a good many more muskies, some of which might have touched or beat 50 inches. This is Lake St. Clair’s majesty.

It is one of planet Earth’s acknowledged fresh-water fishing bonanzas. The clean, cold water spilling down from Lake Huron, the spawning flats, the rich trove of forage fish – shad, suckers, herring, ciscoes, which in turn feed panfish, bass, and walleye, which become part of the food chain for those kingpin species, pike and muskies. All enrich a magnificent Lake St. Clair ecosystem.

“How do I know where to go?” Jones asked, analyzing how a charter captain assesses locations on a lake that stretches as far as 26 miles.

“Where you find fish on this lake isn’t the big question,” Jones said. “Really, they’re all over. Everywhere. What you want is to figure out the best conditions. So, wherever you leave from, you head into the wind, counting on finding places with improved water conditions, and where you can best deal with weeds that will be affected by wind and water.”

We were fishing late in the year when muskies are fattening up. Their instincts have told them ice and less sunlight are coming. Swallowing a smorgasbord is recommended for any fish interested in seeing future years in Lake St. Clair.

That’s why Jones uses different lures and lure ratios as the seasons change. It is why we were using those panfish-sized, 10- and 12-inch plugs rather than bucktails or smaller plugs Jones would be tossing more regularly during summer and spring.

“Why?” he asked, again beginning his lesson with a question. “The muskies know it’s going to be winter. Nature makes ’em take those bigger offerings.”

It wasn’t but three days later and Jones had heard from a colleague how good the fishing had been once that weekend front moved east: 21 muskies, two of which topped 50 inches, during a trip that lasted dawn to dark.

We hadn’t done as well. But that was more of a math issue. Gardner and I decided two guys who had just tasted eight hours of Lake St. Clair splendor, spiced by a pair of fish as majestic as the muskie, had no complaints.

Other, perhaps, than forgetting to pack two celebratory beers.

Twitter @Lynn_Henning