Musky Fishing on Lake St. Clair Casting to the 'Water Wolfs' By: Jerry Kunnath
The 'Business' End of a Lake St. Clair Musky 'Esox Masquinongy'
Musky Fishing on Lake St. Clair Casting to the 'Water Wolfs'
Lake St. Clair - Best Musky Fishery Bar None Right in Detroit's back yard is a lake that most people in the know consider to be the world's best musky fishery. Lake St. Clair, located just northeast of Detroit, fed on the north end by the waters of Lake Huron flowing through the St. Clair River, and emptied on the south end towards Lake Erie by the Detroit River, just teams with giant, toothed, savage, eating machines called the Great Lakes Musky. These voracious hunters prowl this shallow water lake searching for their daily meals amongst the plentiful bait fish and forage fish populations present in Lake St. Clair. Without a doubt, 'Esox Masquiningy' is at the top of the predatory food chain in this freshwater lake located between the U.S. and their Canadian neighbors. There are more musky per square mile here in this lake than anywhere else in North America, albeit possibly the world. The Michigan DNR estimates, with information garnered from surveys and other data, that there are probably over 50,000 musky present in the lake that are over 30'' in length. That's right, 50,000 trophy class fish. It is just incredible that there could be so many large fish in one lake of this size. And those numbers are just the musky. Also present in the lake are great numbers of large northern pike, walleye, catfish, huge carp, countless perch and panfish, and possibly the nations best and most prolific fishery for smallmouth bass. All in all, there is one great sport fishery present in Lake St. Clair.
Why so many musky in Lake St. Clair? By all probable historical accounts, the Lake St. Clair fishery has pretty much been a perfect breeding ground for it's resident fish species since the retreat of the glaciers at the end of the last ice age. Nutrient rich waters flowing down from the upper Great Lakes team with vast weed beds and mineral rich sand and rock flats of the lake to produce some of the best shallow water nurseries for spawned and growing fish. These conditions are also the same for the myriads of bait fish that call the lake home. Plankton and other tiny creatures feed the bait fish and the bait fish feed the rough fish and the game fish eat them all. This shallow water lake, with an average depth of only about fifteen feet, is blessed with many bays and estuaries that are the perfect nesting grounds for the fish. On the north end of the lake, where the St. Clair River empties it's waters into Lake St. Clair, is found the world's largest freshwater delta [pic to left]. This freshwater delta, formed by the multitude of channels and cuts between islands with names like Harsens, Squirrel, Walpole, and many others, contains countless shallow, weeded bays that offer the spawning game fish excellent cover for their nests and later their fry. Game fish like the northern pike, musky and smallmouth bass, find just about perfect conditions in spring for their spawning rituals. The pike actually sometimes spawn under the cover of the melting ice in the shallow bays, where the warm spring sun tends to warm the waters through the ice cover. The musky though, usually spawn a bit later, after the water temps reach about 55 degrees. Then the plentiful weed beds, for which this lake is quite famous, provide cover for the newly hatched fry, where they grow quickly in the microbe rich waters.
But things haven't always been so perfect for the musky population in Lake St. Clair. Before the turn of the 20th century there are reports of many huge fish being caught in the lake. That was just the problem, too many fish were caught and kept. Then there was the ongoing problems of too much pollution coming down from the upper lakes and also pollution being fed into the lake from the surrounding environs of the growing Metro Detroit area. When you couple these hardships on a fish like the musky, who might not successfully spawn till they are five to seven years old, and who mostly take over fifteen years to reach the length of 50 inches, you can see why the musky populations dropped drastically after about 1955 or so. It wasn't till about ten years ago that local sports people, especially the die hard musky fishers of the lake, realized that to get more and bigger muskies they would have to follow a strict self-imposed system of catch & release fishing practices when they were out musky hunting. That practice, along with improvements in the lakes water quality and water clarity, and the sustaining biological programs of the Michigan DNR fisheries biologists, have drastically improved the musky fishery in Lake St. Clair. Today there are more giant musky, those over thirty to forty inches in length, than there have been for the last sixty years. And things are just getting better each year. Even the accidental introduction of the non-native invasive species, the zebra mussels, have seemed to improve conditions for the muskies. These mollusks eat by filtering water through their gilled bodies. In doing so they have cleared up the waters of the lake so much that more sunlight now reaches the aquatic plants growing in the lake, making for bigger and healthier weed beds. Thus creating more perfect conditions for the bait fish that the muskies and the other game fish feed on. And this clearer water has now made it even easier for the muskys to hunt and spot their prey. Sometimes, I guess, a bit of good does come from bad.
Fishing For Musky Both Spin & Fly Fishing Over the years the most productive method for catching musky on Lake St. Clair, and most other waters where musky were present, was trolling. It used to be that the dedicated Lake St. Clair musky fisher spent hour upon hour sitting in a motor boat watching the rods for a strike. It wasn't uncommon to only average one strike for every fifteen hours of trolling. The most common method of trolling used to be, and pretty much still is, to troll large crank baits, spinners, and plugs directly behind the boat in the foam and prop wash while maintaining a fairly quick pace. And as far as casting to musky, well, the common saying was that the musky was 'a fish of a thousand casts'. Needless to say, most people preferred to troll. All that is changing today though.
'Figure eight' In todays Lake St. Clair, with it's increased populations of large musky, casting is becoming a more viable method to catch the voracious predator. More and more people are trying casting for musky, realizing that they can have a bit more fun than just sitting in the back of their boat, bored out of their mind, waiting for a fish to strike. Most musky casters also have the added experience of seeing large musky and pike follow their baits right to the boat, many times striking as the lure is raised from the water only inches from the rod tip. Now that's what I call excitement. Two of todays premier musky guides that offer casting trips for musky on Lake St. Clair are the legendary guide 'Musky' Bob Brunner, a member of the Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame, and Captain Steve Kunnath, a fly and spin fishing guide [authors son]. Both of these gentleman often help their clients connect on multiple musky's and more than regular 'follow ups'. Musky Bob Brunner has been fishing for musky on Lake St. Clair since before the invention of bricks, well, almost. Bob has over 76 years of experience, 40 of those years guiding. And if I remember right, he caught his first musky on Lake St. Clair as a lad in 1931. Over the years Bob has collected his share of musky stories and yarns. One of his favorites is about how he has had more than a handful of clients who have come completely unglued when giant musky take their lures at the last moment right at the side of the boat. One got so scared, Bob says he was a famous local politician, that he literally wet his pants as a musky grabbed his lure right next to the boat and almost dragging him into the water. That's why both Bob and Captain Steve recommend that you end each retrieved cast with a movement called the 'figure eight'. While you retrieve your lure through the water keep a close eye on the area around the lure for trailing musky's. Many have a real propensity for following the lure to the boat. Many times you will see their huge forms, sometimes to the side of your retrieval line, eying the lure. Often they will actually follow the lure to within inches of the side of the boat. Figure Eight Method - Before you raise your line from the water, stop retrieving the line when the lure is about a foot from the rod tip while leaving the lure and rod tip in the water. Then move the rod, with the tip just under the water, in a large figure eight pattern a few times. This movement sometimes will entice a flashing strike form both pike and musky that have either followed the lure closely, followed it near the bottom, or perhaps from those that have been hiding under the outline of your boat. In either case it is quite a heart stopper. Captain Steve Kunnath says that while fishing with a fly rod and streamer, like his 'Fire Tiger' musky streamer [pic to the left-clickable to the recipe], it is easier to work a circle instead of a figure eight, seeing that most fly rods are quite a bit longer than spinning or bait casting rods. The results can be the same. An arm wrenching, line stretching, drag screaming, rod bending, finger numbing, run of brute power, followed by cursing and oaths as you miss the hook set. :} :}
Spinning lures/plugs For Musky Some of the best lures for musky don't always look exactly like any of the resident bait fish in the area where the musky live and hunt, just as some of the best lures do look like what they eat regularly. Musky Bob Brunner has developed his own musky lure called the 'Brunner Runner'. [pictured to the left] It's a very large bucktail streamer with lots of deer hair, hammered brass blades and a giant treble hook. This streamer kind of resembles the famous Mepps spinner. Bob says that maybe the musky might think that it is a muskrat. Bob and Captain Steve [Steve offers spin and fly fishing trips for musky on St. Clair] both say that they have also caught many musky on Red Eye spoons, plugs and Daredevils. Just whatever lure you use though, just make sure that it looks big and fat. Those big fish want a real hunk of protoplasm to sink their teeth into. They usually aren't interested in a small tidbit. This isn't the time to use a 1/8 ounce Little Cleo or an egg pattern fly. I am always amazed, while out on the lake fishing for 'giants' with my son Steve, when he clips a plug or streamer onto my line for me that is over ten inches long. It almost seems ridiculous that we would use such a giant lure. I always think that if the lure hit one in the head it would probably knock em' out. But my smirks always turn to giggles, screams and groans as that giant lure or streamer is slammed by one of those monster eating machines.
Musky are Territorial....and Hungry Many times lures get struck because they do resemble fish that the musky eat, and that includes other musky. They aren't too particular and will readily eat their cousins and brothers. But keep in mind that musky are very territorial fish and that they will protect their home turf. Sometimes they will just lash out at a lure that looks like another fish edging too close to them. They will also just come near just about anything to see if it is edible. Last year my son had the outdoor author Bob Linsenman out on his charter boat. Bob was writing a story about fly fishing for musky and went out with Captain Steve to get material for his piece, and to maybe get a chance at hooking a musky on a fly rod. I was with them out on Lake St. Clair that day. Steve had us drifting over one of his favorite musky infested weed beds in mid lake. I was sitting over the motor up on Steve's poling platform [his charter boat is a 'Scout' flats style boat with a raised poling platform] trying to spot any muskys that might be rolling on the water, as they often do. I pointed out what I thought to be a floating fish ahead of us in the water. The object was bright white and it looked fairly large. While the three of us watched the object a musky came right behind it in the water. We could see the huge fishes head very near the large white spot, with his menacing eyes prominent in the clear water just under the surface. This fish, according to Steve's experienced eye, was over fifty inches in length. He just came up to it, hovered right behind it as Steve and Bob tried casting streamers in front of him, and then he just sank out of sight back into the lake. When we got to the object, which till this time we still thought that it might be a dead, floating sheepshead or carp, our 'white object' turned out to be a plastic supermarket grocery bag. [which we retrieved to be thrown away] We were sure that the musky came up to see if the bag could be dinner. Kind of made me glad that I wasn't treading water in the lake wearing a white t-shirt. I guess that musky wanted paper instead of plastic that day. So you never really know with these fish. Some strikes may be for food, some for territory and sometimes I think they just try to eat something because they can. Doesn't matter to me though. Whatever makes them happy.
Fly Fishing for Musky on Lake St. Clair Capt. Steve says that, 'it is a pretty good bet that the next world record musky to be caught on a fly rod is going to come from Lake St. Clair.' That is a very real possibility. The lake is full of healthy, growing fish. More and more people are venturing out onto it's waters each year with a fly rod in their hands hunting for musky and tossing streamers. Many really nice, big fish have been taken and released. It's just a matter of time before one of these fish breaks the current records for line class and/or overall weight/length. But, in my opinion, even a smaller musky is a trophy fish when caught on a fly rod. If you are lucky enough to tie into one of the fish over fifty inches, you will be in for a real fight to land one of these giants. Like any large, strong fish, keeping a cool head and not making any mistakes while fighting the fish will improve your chances of getting them in the boat. As soon as the fish takes your streamer you will need to forcefully set the hook since these larger musky do have a pretty hard jaw. That's one of the reasons that Capt. Steve recommends using a ten weight fly rod while fishing for musky. The stronger rod will have more backbone enabling you to more easily drive a hook into the muskys' hard jaw. You need a ten wight to fight these larger fish. After setting the hook you will also have to make sure that you don't let your line go slack even for a second. Last season on one of my trips out on the lake with my son Steve, we were drifting over one of the mid-lake weed beds that had been producing really well for his clients for over a month. I cast a streamer off the back of the boat and managed to really get some distance on it that time. I wasn't expecting to connect into a fish that soon after hitting the water with the fly, but almost immediately I felt pressure as soon as I started to strip line in on the rod. I laid back on the rod setting the hook and we both gasped in surprise as a musky that must have been over 50 inches went airborne, thrashing back and forth as it leaped over five feet into the air and came crashing down in a fan of spray. As soon as it hit the water I felt my line go completely slack and realised that the huge musky turned 180 degrees and was swimming right straight at us and the boat. I reefed line as fast as I could but to no avail. It was all over almost as fast as it happened. The fish was gone. However, the rush of seeing that fish hit the clouds with my streamer in it's mouth kept me geeked for the rest of the day. Over the next three hours or so we hooked three more musky [I should say Steve did] and had follow-ups to the boat by at least fifteen more fish. Each time we saw a fish coming behind the streamer they were almost right on it, but they just seemed to not be that interested that day in taking a good clean bite. All in all though it was a real treat to see that many 'fish of a thousand casts' in one, short afternoon.
You don't have to be able to cast a hundred feet of fly line to musky or pike to fish with a fly rod. It's not like fishing for bone fish or permit in the tropics. When you are hunting musky on St. Clair all you need to be able to do is to cast thirty to forty feet of line, if that. Anyone with normal fly rod casting skills can have a chance at connecting with a musky on a fly rod. Once again, your best bet will be to concentrate on fishing over those weed beds where these big fish hunt for their dinner. That is where the cost of a guided trip pays for itself. The guide usually knows where those beds are day to day.
In the early season you may find the musky in shallow water before the summer heat sends them to deeper climes. But for the most part your best bet is the weed beds. I'll tell you though that the only thing more exciting for me than seeing one of those toothy critters following my streamer or lure to the boat is seeing one cruising the shallows in the early season when we might be casting to smallmouth and carp in the bays. That sight can make a stammering idiot of even the calmest person. Musky Bob Brunner told us that he has had to make more than a couple of his clients sit down and try to control their breathing after a close encounter of the musky kind. I know that our friend Jeff Selser can attest to the fact that a close-by musky can make you drool.
Fly & Spinning/Baitcating Tackle for Musky
You wouldn't even think of using your squirrel rifle for going elephant hunting, well, if you're smart you wouldn't. It's the same with going musky hunting. Your three weight panfish fly rod or your ultra-light spinning outfit just won't cut the mustard.
For fly rod fishing for musky you will need at least an eight weight or a ten weight fly rod, hinging on the size of the fly/streamer, your casting ability, and the wind conditions the day you are fishing. Either a heavy wind or a heavy streamer, or both, will dictate that the ten weight should come out of the case. If you are a pretty good fly caster, and you will be tossing a lighter and smaller fly that day, you can probably get by with an eight weight fly rod. As for fly line, Capt. Steve says that he uses Cortland 400 gr. sink tip fly lines on his musky fly rods. The sink tip lines are much easier to cast and the heavy line also helps to take your fly or streamer down through the water strata to where it should be to entice a strike from the musky. Your terminal tackle should include about four feet of 20lb. Maxima that ends near the fly/streamer with either about twelve inches of bite resistant wire leader, remember that these critters mouths are full of razor sharp teeth, or a 60lb. flouro-carbon shock tippet.
For spinning/baitcasting fishing for musky you will need and should use a 7 1/2 ft medium heavy action rod. Your reel should be loaded with 50lb. test Cortland Master Braid line. Once again, the last twelve or so inches before your lure should be tooth resistant wire or a salt water style shock tippet for toothy critters. With either your fly rod set-up or your spinning/baitcasting gear, make sure that you check your leaders, line and tippets often for nicks and wear, most often caused by rocks and teeth. Check for nicks especially after having had a pike or musky on your line. It might be a good idea to check you pants also after a musky encounter. :} :}
Care of the Fish Tackle Weight Okay, so you've been lucky and have connected with a nice fish. A musky is on the end of your line. If you have prepared for this event then you have a rod, reel, and line that is suited to the task and you are able to play the fish and get it to the boat as quickly as possible. I've seen too many anglers that try to fish for the larger fish with too light of an outfit. They then have to pray as they coax the fish to the boat, causing undue stress and wear on the fish. Afterword, they are surprised when the fish can't be revived and released. Do your self and the fish a favor by using the right level of gear.
Catch & Release Now we come to the most important part of this article. I can't stress more the importance of practicing 'catch & release' fishing when hunting for musky. One of the main reasons that we have such a prolific number of trophy musky in our wonderful Lake St. Clair is the fact that years ago most fishers began releasing more musky than they kept and killed. Here is a fish that doesn't become sexually mature for more than a few years. A fish that may take over fifteen years to reach it's trophy size of over 40 to 50 inches. Please do not even think of killing these fish. Capt. Steve says that ' "while fishing for musky and pike on St. Clair we often catch incidental fish like walleye and catfish." If you want to take something home for dinner, by all means keep a legal sized fish like a walleye or catfish, or perhaps some perch. A large spawner sized musky probably doesn't taste all that good anyway. [after all, they are called musky] Please return the musky back to lay eggs and be caught again next year when they will probably be even fatter and longer.
Netting Most fishers are now probably aware of the new type of nets, the cradle nets, that have been favored for use by many of the people who chase big fish like the musky and larger pike. These nets, mostly built by straddling a couple of feet of netting fabric between two metal or wood shafts and being about three to four feet long, provide maximum support to the belly of a large pike or musky when they are boated. These long bodied fish spend all of their lives with their fairly weak bellies supported by the water they swim in. When you bring them out of the water, unless their mid-bodies are supported they may get their innards all scrunched together, damaging them internally. Even though they might be supported under their bellies by the old circle nets, these circle nets often still damage the fish. The new cradle nets provide a supported platform with which to lift a big fish out of the water. Also, landing a big fish with a cradle net is way easier than with a circle net. I've seen many a big fish led easily to swim right into a waiting cradle. One more thing about support for your huge musky's belly, keep that belly supported as much as you can also for that all important trophy picture just before you release him back to the lake or river. And never, ever, slip your fingers into the fish's gill plates [on any fish] to hold it up for a pic. Even if you don't cut your fragile pinkies off on all those razor sharp teeth, you will surely damage the fish's gills. Remember, those gills are their lungs.
Releasing Your Lake St. Clair Musky So you have caught your trophy. You have netted it in a cradle and taken the necessary trophy pics, taking care not to keep it out of the water for too long. Now it's time to release your fish. What do you do? If you can, lay the fish back into the cradle net and let it's weight settle between the net poles as you lower it into the water on the side of the boat. If it looks like the fish's gills are moving well and he is making regular efforts to swim away point it away from the boat and release the fish. Keep your eye on the fish till you see it swimming strongly away from the boat. If the fish isn't responding the way you think that it should hold it in the water, maybe by it's mouth using forceps or pliers, and gently move the fish back and forth, forcing water through it's mouth and out it's gills. This will help to get oxygen to the fish's system. Hopefully, you will be able to release your fish fairly soon.
Never, ever ,release a fish as the guys did on a program that I was watching on tv a few months ago. After getting the hook out of this fish's' mouth they just tossed it off the back of the boat head first like a spear. I'd like to have been a swimming instructor for those guys when they were young. I would have released them off a dock the same way. Maybe that happened and they were a bit brain damaged. That would explain quite a bit of what I saw.
Maybe Not a Thousand Casts - But A Few
Musky fishing has improved greatly in many places all over North America in recent history. But, it hasn't come as far as the fishery in Lake St. Clair has of late. You can catch more musky here than anywhere on the continent, possibly the world. There are more trophy musky here than anywhere else and the incidental fish that you might catch while trying to catch a musky are just the added icing on the cake. However, musky fishing still is a challenge, as it should be. We know way more about the habits of bass and other fishes than we do about the elusive musky. However, people like Musky Bob Brunner and Steve Kunnath are learning quickly. While it is easier to catch a trophy fish than anytime in recent history, the musky still can be a hard dance card to fill, especially with a fly rod. But to me that is half the fun. And having fun is why I fish. Maybe this year is the year I will catch that fish over fifty inches on a fly rod. Maybe it will be you that catches that trophy musky, perhaps on a spinning rod. I don't know, but I do know that the chances of catching that world record musky, or just a nice trophy, are far greater here in southeast Michigan's Lake St. Clair than anywhere else you may wet a line.
Jamie Kaminki's First Ever Musky A Lake St. Clair 'Water Wolf'
Capt. Steve Kunnath with a 42" Lake St. Clair Musky
A Father & Son Team with a Resident Lake St. Clair Musky
I've mentioned this many times while talking with my fishing friends here in the Detroit Area, 'We go on fishing trips all over the U.S. while right here in our own backyard we have one of the world's best fisheries.' People come from all over the world to fish Lake St. Clair. Some of