Muskie fisherman Travis Hartman would love to have a rematch with Ole Toothless, up in the Detroit River just an hour from Toledo.
Ole Toothless is a big muskellunge with mostly a mouth full of sharp, nasty teeth. But he is missing one. It ended up with Hartman recently, speared on a treble hook of a big bucktail spinner called a Harasser.
"I was burning it [reeling really fast] under the surface when he nailed the bucktail," said Hartman, who is an Ohio fisheries biologist on Lake Erie by profession but an angler by passion. "I missed the fish but I reeled back in and found the tooth and a piece of meat on the hook."
Hartman kept the tooth as a battle souvenir, but would have preferred to have landed, photographed, and released the big muskie.
The Detroit River/Lake St Clair/Clair River, the muskieman said, "is a pretty unique system where you can go see 5 to 20 fish in a day. It s pretty rare." Only a few such waters, such as the renowned Lake of the Woods in northwest Minnesota, can match such muskie productivity, he added.
"The river is at its best in June, but good muskie fishing goes into July said Hartman, who added that muskie action usually resume as water temparatures cool in the fall. "It s amazing how many [muskie] spots there are on that river."
In fact he suggests it is easier to just hunt for fish on your own instead of trying to locate someone else s favorite fishing grounds. "What you want to look for are flat spots with weeds [submerged vegetation] next to deep dropoffs into current. You can really fish the whole length of the river."
Speaking of whole length, the Detroit River is just 32 miles long, draining the relatively small and shallow Lake St. Clair into Lake Erie. Hartman often launches his boat from Harbor Hill Marina in inner Detroit, off Jefferson Avenue at the end of St. Jean Street. But good ramps also are available downriver at Wyandotte and at the mouth at Lake Erie Metropark, the latter east of I-75 at Rockwood 15 miles northeast of Monroe.
The only area of which Hartman steers clear is around the Ambassador Bridge, where he finds too many steel breakwalls and channelization, and too much current.
He notes that while Lake St. Clair itself is a well-known muskie producer, the sport fishery there primarily revolves around trolling flatlining or running big planer boards off a mast and pulling big cigar-shaped crankbaits with square lips. Popular models include Drift Tackle s Stalker, and the Wiley.
"But you get into the river and it s more traditional muskie fishing casting to weeds and dropoffs."
His tackle is the big, strong no-nonsense stuff a smart fisherman would choose to handle tough fish that weigh, 15, 20, even 30 pounds. Hartman starts with a heavy action 7- to 8-1/2 foot casting rod and screws on a stout baitcasting reel loaded with "superbraid" line of 50- to 90-pound-test.
The angler is so refined he chooses a high gear-ratio reel, 6:1 or higher, for fishing jerkbaits and topwater lures, and a 5.3:1 ratio reel for fishing big bucktail spinners.
"You want a high gear-ratio for jerks and topwater [lures] to recover line quickly. For bucktails the reel needs power [lower gearing] to pull the bucktail." As for lures, he adds, "the weather really dictates what style lure you re going to use."
On calm, cloudy days, he uses topwater baits such as the Muskie Mania Doc, a Zara Spook-style lure about nine inches long. Hartman loves topwater work. "You can see the fish coming. One fish knocked a Doc six to eight feet out of the water."
On sunnier days, or late in the day, Hartman uses jerkbaits such as the Suick or an Ohio-made one called a Sledge. Crankbaits also can come into play here, working them like jerkbaits, including the Stalker, Believer, or even a large Rat-L-Trap.
Bucktail spinners such as the Harasser are the ticket when water surface is broken by wind and during mixed cloudy/sunny conditions. On a typical day Hartman starts with topwater and progresses to bucktails and then jerkbaits or crankbaits.
"The jerkbaits and crankbaits will always produce fish. But the topwaters and bucktails will find active fish.
On one mid-June weekend trip, Hartman, his dad, David Hartman, and brother-in-law Mike Oberski had their best day ever with muskies, raising 19 fish in eight hours. "We managed to hook six and landed four with the largest being 47 inches." A fish the latter size would be well over 21 pounds.
"The best part is that it was primarily a topwater bite. With the clear water we could watch the fish chase the bait for a long way. It was one of those days that burns memories in your head for a lifetime."
A few days later Hartman fished with Michigan fisheries biologist Elmer Heyob, whom he calls an "avid muskie guru." They hooked eight muskies and landed five between 35 and 42 inches.
"Of the eight fish hooked three came on jerkbaits, three on bucktails, and two on crankbaits. All three bucktail fish were larger and all three threw the bait about 20 feet from the boat." One of those was Ole Toothless.
"That fishery is amazing."