Muskies – Lake Leviathan Lying in Wait

Feared, coveted, cause of consternation, frustration, exultation and obsession.  The Muskie, aka muskellunge, from the Ojibway word maashkinooze, meaning “great fish”, or mashkinonge, meaning “big pike”…or possibly the Algonquin word “mashkinunga”, or about a dozen variations from French Canadian, tribal dialects and English mash ups, Muskie….or maybe Musky is the common term.  In Latin, it’s officially Esox Masquinongy.  Whatever you’d like to call them, the Muskie is one of the most sought after fresh water fish on most fishermen’s bucket list.

Why so desired? Well because muskies are rare in most waters, being the apex predator in their bailiwick means that they don’t occur in large schools like minnows.  They can be tough to catch, hence the moniker, “the fish of 10,000 casts”.  They fight like hell when hooked.  Even compared to their very close cousin the Northern Pike.  Pound for pound, Muskies are faster and more ballistic. Last but not least, they are BIG, or can be.  Most avid Muskie fishermen don’t get too excited until they catch a specimen in the 50” range.  Fish exceeding 50” and 30 pounds get people exited….and as muskies go they’re not uncommon.  Don’t be fooled though. Any Muskie is fun to catch. A ten pounder will out fight a 15 pound pike any day. 

Casting, trolling, jigging and dead sticking bait can all work for muskies and each method has it’s proponents, usually dictated by location and resource.  I’m lucky to live near, and fish in the world’s best Muskie fishery.  Michigans Lake Saint Clair and the adjacent Detroit and Saint Clair rivers produce more and bigger muskies than perhaps any other place on earth. We’re lucky in that we have opportunities to employ just about every method, even including Fly-fishing, which for those of us who fly fish, may be the ultimate challenge.  Sight fishing, to a 30-40 lb fish lying in 12” of water just after ice out is as thrilling as it gets, and is unique enough to dedicate and entire article to….which I promise to do.  Trolling is perhaps the most common method in our fishery.  Huge stick baits, soft plastics, flashy spinners and sometimes flys are pulled close to the boat and just below the prop wash in most cases, muskies being bold and aggressive, don’t hesitate to strike close to the boat. Huge baits mean lures with bulk, 10-14” long, or even bigger.  All Muskie fishermen have tales of catching 10 lb pike with large bite marks across their backs, or of seeing a Muskie swim by with a 15 lb pike in it’s mouth, like a dog with a bone.  Heavy rods and reels, super strong line and wire leaders are the norm. As are straightened hooks, broken gear and bruised egos if not prepared for the vicious strike and hard, fast run that a hooked musky will provide.

There are loads of charters and dedicated Muskie trollers throughout the Saint Clair fishery and a great many 50” fish are caught, and mostly released each year.  In our fishery the reality is closer to the “fish of 10 casts” as opposed to “ten thousand casts”.  It’s not unheard of to catch 5-6 big fish a day if you’re targeting them.  While I dedicate a fair amount of time and effort to targeting Muskies, most of the muskies that I catch are caught while jigging for walleyes.  It’s not uncommon to boat a dozen or so large muskies each year on pretty light walleye gear, when you’re lucky enough to hook a fish in the corner of the mouth.  Many more bite-offs are common too.  We usually tend to try to avoid the big toothy critters when jigging eyes, and it’s easier to do with modern down imaging graphs which literally can discern between a big Muskie and a walleye, but each year, before we get tired of long battles on light gear, and or bite-offs, we hook and land a number of BIG muskies while walleye fishing.  In fact they are fairly cookie-cutter fish in the 48-50 inch range usually.  That is how common big muskies are in the fishery.  In recent years my buddies and I have started to keep a special Muskie jigging rod set up to drop giant jigs and soft plastic baits down to lurking muskies when spotted on the graph.  We have our fun with the big boys between focused, hard core walleye free for alls.

If you’re a long suffering Muskie addict who fishes in a location that’s not as full of muskies as St Clair, do yourselves a favor and come visit Lake Saint Clair and the adjacent river systems that make up this incredible fishery that separates  Lake Huron and Lake Erie (both of which are incredible fisheries unto themselves).   Lake Saint Clair while not one of the Great Lakes is pretty great in it’s own right.  At over 430 sq miles of surface area that includes bays, bayou, river channels, shipping channels (yes, ocean freighters from all points of the globe can penetrate the interior of North America by traveling through the lake and the Detroit and Saint Clair rivers), and even eco-systems that could be mistaken for the Everglades, the resource is massive.  In addition to being a world class Muskie fishery, it’s also perhaps the best smallmouth and walleye fishery on the planet too.  Largemouth, huge sturgeon, catfish, perch, pike, pan fish, white bass and many other species abound as well.

Brandon Vaughan holding a Muskie

Whatever your preferred method of catching muskies is, you can do it in the Saint Clair system.  With an international border running through the lake, and both rivers that lie above and below the lake, a Canadian fishing license, in addition to a Michigan license is recommended and most fishermen in the area transition between both sides of the invisible border that splits the waterway. (At the time of this writing Covid-19 protocols have the Canadian waters off-limits to American fishermen, and vice-versa).  The Muskie hotspots vary depending on the time of year but there are plenty of opportunities in either country. For the angler traveling to the area to try for muskies, then are many charters that specialize in only Muskie fishing, and there are tons of blogs and on-line resources that can help get you up to speed.  In any event the entire fishery is really only accessible by boat. For non-locals be aware, the rivers are massive, (think Mississippi sized waterways), are not wade able and even require a fairly big boat.  A 14’ john boat is NOT recommended, although every year, I do see some brave soul out amongst the freighters and deep-V 18-20’ walleye boats, in a terrifyingly small boat.  Be warned that every year, the Coast Guard plucks plenty of people out of the water too.  Be wise and be safe!

If you have a Muskie addiction, do yourself a favor and try Lake Saint Clair before it’s too late, cross it off your bucket list.  Once you do, you’ll probably become a regular.  You’ll be in good company with thousands of others…..and there will be plenty of big Esox Masquinongy to go around.

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