Few fishermen would think of a three-pound-plus smallmouth bass as bait, but don't tell that to a 48-inch muskellunge.
Such a big, toothy, predatory fish plays no favorites when it comes to easy meals. The aforementioned four-footer, for example, swallowed everything but the wiggle from that chunky bass, which itself at the time was preoccupied with disengaging itself from a white spinnerbait.
The muskie had erupted like a submarine-launched missile from beneath a fishing boat in Lake of the Woods, up in the southwest corner of Ontario. Just as a certain angler was reaching over the side to lip the bass.
The big fish presently all but burned the drag off the casting reel. The spinnerbait ended up in the roof of the muskie's mouth, a discovery made when the big fish was brought to net. Muskies can be like that - literally a big surprise.
On the other hand, as dedicated muskie anglers will attest, they also can be the fish of 1,000 casts - and one more. Moody, and then some.
Muskies in a way are a “super northern pike,” closely resembling their familiar, toothy brothers in overall body shape. Muskies, which tend to grow larger, generally are more lightly colored and have patterns of dark, vertically arranged blotches on their sides. Northern pike generally are darker in color and have patterns of light-color spots or blotches arranged horizontally, almost chainlike, on their sides.
While Ohio pike average 20 to 32 inches and 2 to 10 pounds as adults, muskie males range from 22 to 39 inches and 3 to 21 pounds. Female adult muskies typically range 22 to 50 inches and 3 to 40 pounds.
Fortunately, one need not travel to western Ontario or Minnesota to experience premier muskie fishing. It lies practically on Toledo's doorstep, to the north and to the south. In northwest Ohio it means Clear Fork Reservoir. In southeast Michigan, it is Lake St. Clair.
The 944-acre Clear Fork impoundment, near Mansfield in Richland County, is a muskie honey hole. Through the end of June it was the state's leading muskie producer among 14 bodies of water monitored by the Ohio Huskie Muskie Club, with 121 fish landed. As an indication of prevailing muskie-fishing etiquette, only three of those fish were kept; the rest were released to bite and fight another day.
“Fishing has been really hot for muskies,” said Larry Goedde, fish management supervisor of Ohio Wildlife District 2. “Clear Fork always has been one of the top two or three lakes in the state as far as muskies go.”
Clear Fork's magic lies in its habitat, with good stands of weedbeds where muskies love to lurk in ambush, and moderately shallow depths in the 10-foot range. It also has a good forage base with its gizzard shad population.
Clear Fork and Leesville Lake, a 1,000-acre impoundment in Carroll County in east-central Ohio, are “way ahead” of all others in terms of producing muskies this year, said Don Weaver, president of the Ohio Huskie Muskie Club. “And that's normal.” Through the end of June Leesville trailed only Clear Fork with 116 muskies landed, four kept, according to club records.
Another top muskie lake, West Branch Reservoir, 2,650 acres east of Akron in Portage County, is about 100 fish behind its 2002 pace, with just 31 muskies taken. Weaver is not sure why.
On Clear Fork, Weaver noted, the top muskie tactic is trolling with any of several popular lures - the Sisson, the Bagley Monster Shad or the Rapala J-13. The area past the reservoir's big island and deeper areas toward the dam are likely places to troll. Weaver uses his electronic fish locator and seeks suspended fish. He varies the lure's distance behind the boat, depending on the depth of the suspended fish.
The record Ohio muskie, 55.13 pounds and 501/4 inches long, was taken in 1972 from Piedmont Lake in eastern Ohio. The state's record tiger muskie, a sterile hybrid of the muskie and northern pike, is 311/2 pounds, 47 inches in 1999 from Turkeyfoot Lake in the Portage Lakes system south of Akron.
To the north of Toledo, on the northeast shoulder of the Detroit metropolitan area, lies what arguably may be muskie heaven, Lake St. Clair, the “little great lake.” It is renowned for having among the highest muskie catch-rates anywhere.
“It's not uncommon for them to have 10, 20 fish caught, or on, in a day,” said Bob Haas, a fisheries research biologist at the state's Lake St. Clair Fisheries Research Station at Mount Clemens. Haas noted that St. Clair anglers too mostly follow the catch-and-release policy.
St. Clair muskies tend to be lighter in color and somewhat lighter in weight than inland muskies of the same length in Michigan or Ohio, but Haas said he is not sure if that is related to food or genes. The Great Lakes subspecies found in Lake St. Clair also is well established in the St. Marys River, which connects Lake Superior and Lake Huron, Haas said. The St. Marys fish tend to be heavier for the same length, possibly because of their prime forage, herring, “one of the best [muskie] food sources you can get.”
On Lake St. Clair a 50-incher of 30 pounds is considered a fine trophy. The Michigan record muskie is 49 pounds, 12 ounces, from Thornapple Lake in Barry County in 2000. The state's top tiger muskie is 51 pounds, 3 ounces, from the upper peninsula's Lac Vieux Desert in 1919.
Haas said that more and more muskies are appearing in Lake Erie, especially the last two years, and a spawning run occurs each spring in the Huron River, just below the mouth of the Detroit River. “They may be coming back in Lake Erie. I'm optimistic about that.”
Fish biologists are concerned, however, about a newly found bacterial disease affecting some Lake St. Clair muskies. It is called Piscirickettsia, and is under study by a Michigan State University pathologist. A fair number of St. Clair muskies were found dead on the lake last year, leading to the disease investigation.
Much like the Clear Fork tactics in Ohio, trolling with large muskie plugs is the favored tactic to find St. Clair fish. Anglers used to a slow walleye-troll will perk up at the three-to-five mph speed of St. Clair muskie trolling. Favorite plugs include the Believer, Terminator and Wiley. Some anglers also cast with big bucktail spinners and plugs.
For additional information on the Ohio Huskie Muskie Club, call Don Weaver, 740-269-2122, or e-mail the club at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information on muskie fishing guides on Lake St. Clair, contact the Michigan Charter Boat Association, 1-800-MCBA-971, or visit www.micharterboats.com, and click on “Lake St. Clair.”