ST. CLAIR SHORES, Mich. — The international boundary between the United States and Canada cuts a diagonal through the vast 430-square-mile Lake St. Clair, regarded by some as the sixth Great Lake and by many as one of the best muskellunge fisheries in the world.
But a conflict is raging here, and it doesn’t involve a dispute with our bilingual neighbor harboring any leftover hard feelings from the War of 1812. This is a purely domestic squabble, with Michigan fishermen on both sides.
This intense debate is about spearfishing.
Many states allow the spearing of rough fish, but Michigan is unique, one of the few places that permits taking gamefish with a spear. There are reams of exclusions protecting primarily trout waters and boundary waters, but for the most part Michigan allows northern pike and muskellunge to be speared through the ice from Dec. 1 to March 15 on many of its waters.
Lake St. Clair, the St. Clair River, the Detroit River, and Lake Erie are closed to spearing muskies but open for the same period to spear pike and yellow perch.
A proposal to consider taking Lake St. Clair off the muskie spearing sanctuary list is bouncing around inside the Michigan Natural Resources Commission and has been fodder for intense debate at several recent informal forums on the matter. The commission, appointed by the governor, reviews proposals for changes or additions to the rules that regulate the taking of game and sportfish, and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources would ultimately carry out those measures.
While the issue is chewed on and hashed out, the MDNR remains officially neutral on the matter. But in the hook-and-line muskie fishing camp and in the spearing ranks, this is high blood pressure inducing stuff.
“In Lake St. Clair, we have what is probably the best muskie lake in the world, and it seems like we’re doing everything we can to screw it up,” said Spencer Berman, a veteran muskie guide who concentrates his efforts on the lake. “I’ve talked to a lot of people about this, and every other state around thinks we’re crazy for even considering doing this.”
Berman, a Sylvania native, said the overwhelming majority of all of the muskie anglers on Lake St. Clair practice catch-and-release, so any fish is quickly put back in the system. He said when spearing is the approach, there obviously is no release involved.
Even with the proposal for an eight-day season in February, with a limit of one muskie per season, Berman believes opening Lake St. Clair up for spearing would have a significant detrimental impact on the muskie fishery.
“When you are spearing in February, you’re spearing females before they spawn,” he said. “And all of the studies that have been done say there is zero sustainable harvest. It would be an eight-day free-for-all, and there’s no question in my mind that over time, it would do serious harm to the muskie population in Lake St. Clair.”
Berman also points out that the state guidelines on fish consumption are the most strict when they address eating muskies. Legacy heavy metals and pollutants tend to collect in an apex predator like the muskie, seated at the top of the St. Clair food chain.
“The DNR says you shouldn’t eat muskies due to the high mercury level in their flesh,” Berman said, “so are these guys just planning on just spearing them and throwing them in the garbage.”
The Michigan Darkhouse Angling Association, which claims an estimated 20,000 members, is pushing to open St. Clair to muskie spearing. “Darkhouse” refers to the windowless shanties set up on the ice, since a dark environment allows the spear fishermen to better see into the water below. They cut a large rectangular hole in the ice and use decoys to attract fish to the area. The fish are impaled with a long-handled spear with multiple barbed points.
Mike Holmes, a resident of Iron Mountain in the Upper Peninsula, is president of the organization. Holmes, who speared his first fish at age 6, said there is a long tradition of spearfishing in Michigan and that spearers are being “discriminated against” by closing muskie spearing on St. Clair.
“This ban is in place only because of all of the muskie tournaments going on at Lake St. Clair,” he said. “They are more interested in the money from those tournaments and keeping the muskies for themselves.”
Holmes said darkhouse anglers practice “look and release” so they don’t spear undersized fish and added that they do eat the muskies they spear, usually smoking the fish. He expects to prevail in the Lake St. Clair muskie spearing firestorm.
“This is all just bias and discrimination against spearfishing, but eventually the lake will be open,” he said. “There’s no reason we can’t share the resource.”
Sarah Thomas, Lake Erie Unit Manager for the Michigan DNR fisheries division, said that prior to the implementation of regulations about 40 years ago, muskie were over-harvested and exploited on Lake St. Clair, one of the few lakes in the state where natural reproduction of the species occurs.
To protect the muskie fishery and allow it to recover, increasingly stringent measures were put in place, which included banning spearing, closing the fishing season for nearly six months to protect spawning fish, increasing the minimum size, and later limiting harvest to one fish per year.
“Once some regulations had been in place for a while, we started seeing a recovery in muskie numbers and a more healthy distribution in age and size,” she said.
Today the resource is significant, both in numbers and in the inventory of trophy-class fish found in Lake St. Clair. Its wide, shallow basin is rich in prey, making it prime muskie habitat.
“It is the best muskie fishery in the nation, if not one of the best of the world, in my opinion,” said Todd Wills, an MDNR biologist.
“Anywhere else in the world, if you catch one or two muskies per day, it’s a great day, but less than 10 a day on St. Clair is a bad day. And you have the chance to catch a 50-inch fish, which is a trophy in any view.”
Wills said it is extremely difficult to predict how a spearfishing season might impact the muskie population, since angler effort and participation are unknown variables. Berman thinks the downside is painfully obvious.
“If they allow spearing, the fish they are going to spear are going to be the big ones,” Berman said. “The fishermen — we release those bigger fish, but once you put a spear through them, they’re done forever. I guess they think the Stone Age was great and we need to go back there.”
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