BELLAIRE, Mich. — Talk to Joe Seeberger and you’ll learn the meaning of “a fishing buddy.”
The Michigan angler was just launched into celebrity status after the 58-pound muskie he caught near here was certified as a modern world record.
But amid the hype and hysteria after Seeberger first displayed the monster muskellunge, he refused to have his picture taken alone with the fish, because his fishing pals had essentially made this flash of fame possible.
“That wouldn’t seem right,” Seeberger said, “because these guys went through so much to make this all happen. They deserve a good share of the credit.”
What Seeberger’s brother, Chuck, and his friend, Jason Orbeck, did was spend two hours on a cold, blustery Saturday last fall maneuvering the boat as the big muskie made run after run against Seeberger’s grossly undersized gear — he was using 8-pound-test line and a medium-weight rod, fishing for smallmouth bass.
The two fishing companions, and later a third who joined in from a nearby boat, would also play vital roles in landing the trophy, which measured just under five feet in length.
“You don’t get a fish like that in the boat without a lot of help,” Seeberger said. “And to catch this fish and end up with it being a world record, so many things had to happen just right.”
Seeberger and eight other fishing buddies were on an annual fall trip to a complex of lakes just east of Grand Traverse Bay. The day greeted them with rain, wind and hail — what Seeberger classified as “crappy weather for fishing.” They were there to fish, however, and manned the only boats out on the 1,700-acre Lake Bellaire, which has an abundance of fish-holding breaks between 10 and 50 feet deep, with 100-foot depths in the center of the basin.
As his companions fished for smallmouth with large minnows, Seeberger cast jerk baits, an artificial lure that mimics a wounded bait fish. After his pals caught several sizeable smallmouth, Seeberger decided to use what was working.
Fishing near a drop-off in about 15 feet of water, he put on the biggest bait in the bucket, a sucker minnow more than seven inches long. As the wind pushed the 17-foot Ranger bass boat along, he opened the bale on his reel to let some line out. When he flipped the bale closed, he felt resistance and set the hook.
“I thought this felt like a pretty nice smallmouth, but after about 30 seconds, we knew that was no smallmouth on the other end of my line,” he said. “The fish came up near the surface and it looked so huge, the other guys were just screaming. I thought there was no way I was going to keep this fish on the line.”
The group had experienced occasional hook-ups with muskies before, but the toothy and powerful fish usually just broke the line and quickly ended the relationship. Fishing with 8-pound-test line, and no heavy leader, Seeberger did not like his chances.
“Then it came out of the water with this amazing jump, but the line didn’t break and the hook held,” he said. “The fight was really on at that point. After about a half-hour of the fish taking line and just chasing it around the lake with the trolling motor, I asked one of the guys to get on his phone and Google the state record.”
The Michigan record muskie at that point was a 50-pounds, 8-ounce fish that measured 56 inches long, and had been caught three years earlier on nearby Torch Lake, in the same water system. Seeberger’s fish would ultimately smash that record by more than seven pounds.
As the battle moved near the one-hour mark, his muskie would make a powerful run into deep water, and then surge back into the shallower areas of the lake. Each time Seeberger retrieved line, the muskie would charge again, peeling line off his reel and making the drag sing.
The anglers then realized the massive muskie was likely three-times the size of their landing net, so they grabbed a second net from a nearby boat. When the fish got close to them after about 90 minutes, Chuck Seeberger and Orbeck tried to corral it using two nets, one at the head and one at the tail. Both broke.
They then tried to connect two lifejackets and use them to cradle the fish, but the buoyancy of the jackets proved too difficult to overcome. Finally, Seeberger’s team, which now included Derek Barnes, who had come aboard to help mid-battle, rigged a dock rope with a loop and managed to slip the rope around the fish after the struggle reached the two-hour mark. Chuck Seeberger, Orbeck, and Barnes grabbed the fish by the head, tail and with the rope over its mid-section, and brought it into the boat.
They first headed to a nearby bait shop, but had to flag down a law enforcement officer for help finding a scale that could weigh the huge fish. The only scale in town maxed out at 30 pounds, so they made a half hour drive to a grain elevator, where the muskie checked in at 58 pounds.
By this time a crowd of locals had heard about the big fish and assembled, and a wildlife officer summoned to the scene told Seeberger that the species of the fish needed to be verified before it could be considered for record status. Someone in the crowd knew Michigan DNR fisheries biologist Patrick Hanchin from the nearby research station at Charlevoix and phoned him.
“I was a little skeptical when I got the call because people tend to exaggerate these things,” Hanchin said. “But when I got to see the fish, it was impressive. It was a giant (59 inches long), with immense (29 inches) girth.”
Hanchin certified the fish was a Great Lakes muskellunge. And once it took over the top position in the Michigan record book, it was inspected by the International Committee of the Modern Day Muskellunge World Record Program, a group of muskie scientists, industry leaders, anglers, and others who use strict criteria to track record fish.
That organization recently named the Seeberger fish as the world record muskie. Hanchin said the lake system that produced the fish is ideal for huge muskies, with abundant forage and plenty of deep, cool water.
“We know they are in there,” he said. “But you don’t land a fish like this unless you really know what you are doing. Their tackle was way undersized, but these guys are experienced fishermen and they didn’t give up.”
Seeberger said he expects the mounted trophy to be finished in May or June, and that Cabela’s and several other parties have already purchased replicas of the record fish.
“I am the first to admit that there’s a lot of luck involved in this,” Seeberger said. “I set the hook early and it lodged in the corner of the mouth, because a little further down and the line would have snapped right away. And the guys moving the boat around chasing it allowed me to keep the fish on. And then landing it the way we did, then finding a certified scale, and somebody managing to locate the biologist on a weekend — it just all came together.”
The only “what if” in the story came from Hanchin, the biologist.
“Imagine if he had caught this fish in May, when it was at least five pounds heavier,” Hanchin said, noting that the big female would have been loaded with eggs and likely weighed 65 pounds, or more.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.