Last July we had the pleasure of hosting Babe Winkelman (and crew) for a week of Musky mayhem on Lake St. Clair. Having spent hours and hours casting for “The Fish of 10,000 casts”, The Babe was brand new to trolling for musky. Captain Steve took the time to fill him in on the nuances, and a good time was had by all. Anyway, the episode is finally complete, and some of you may have seen it airing on NBC Sports all week. If you didn’t, don’t fret! See the episode on Youtube below:
Few who have spent time trolling on Lake St. Clair would argue that it is not the best muskellunge lake on the continent. On this day we’ve boated and released six up to 42 inches, along with a 32-inch northern pike.
That would be an excellent muskellunge month on many lakes, maybe even a good season. But here it’s so-so, even a little disappointing in both the numbers of fish and their sizes.
“It’s been a really good season,” said Capt. Steve Jones, one of St. Clair’s most experienced and successful muskie charter skippers. “We’re averaging nine to 15 fish a day, and if you get 15 at least one of them will be 50 inches.”
He knelt by the long live well at the stern of his 31-foot Pursuit fishing boat “Predator,” named for the lean, spotted, toothy fish that have been his obsession for 30 years. Satisfied that the 35-incher he had landed a few minutes ago was properly revived, Jones lifted the fish and threw it headfirst into the water like a silver spear and watched it swim off into the clear, green waters.
St. Clair has long been known for lots of muskellunge, although not the numbers anglers see today. Despite stories of giant muskies being caught, records from the Michigan-Ontario Muskie Club testify that even a 30-pounder was rare.
“That’s not true any more,” Jones said. “Thirty-pound fish are common. The biggest one I know of this year was a 54-inch fish caught early in the season, and it already weighed 38 pounds. By September or October that fish will be pushing 50 pounds. All it has to do is eat some bass or suckers.”
Like many muskie fanatics, Jones has been collecting lures for years and said he now has more than 15,000 of them. He usually starts the season in June trolling smaller plugs in the 6-inch range, switches to 9- to 12-inchers in July and August, and by September is trolling the 18-inch plugs that aficionados refer to as “lumber.”
“In the spring the fish are just recovering from spawning and they’re lethargic and won’t chase a lute far,” Jones said. “Right now, they’re squirrely. They’ll chase a lure and hit it, but a lot of the time they won’t get hooked. I think they’re just curious. But come fall they get serious and start feeding in earnest. That’s when they want a big bait and when you get the biggest fish.”
On this day, every muskellunge hit a plug of some kind, mostly in frog and smallmouth bass colors, trolled at 4-5 m.p.h. The hits came on both plugs trolled 60 feet behind planer boards and 40 feet directly behind the boat on down rods.
But Jones said that he has been getting many fish on big bucktails that once were a rarity in the tackle boxes of St. Clair anglers.
“I stared bringing bucktails back on St. Clair about 10 years ago,” Jones said. “They didn’t work well in the musky water, but once the water started to clear, they really did the job. They stay up high in the water, and I’d say now that’s where you get 75% of the fish.”
Muskellunge, the largest members of the pike family, can crossbreed with their northern pike cousins to produce tiger muskellunge. But pure muskies live at and beyond the southern end of the northern pike’s range.
St. Clair is ideally located for growing big muskies, far enough north that the fish here outlive their more southerly relatives in Tennessee and West Virginia by 5-10 years, putting on inches and pounds. And since fish continue to grow throughout their lives, as long as they have enough food, St. Clair muskies have the potential to reach very large sizes.
But unlike other northern havens, such as New York’s St. Lawrence River and the Chippewa Flowage in Wisconsin, St. Clair has never produced a 65-70 pound world-record fish, not even one that was challenged as a fake. St. Clair has never produced a fish over 50 pounds that was measured on a certified scale.
Jones said this could be the year that changes.
“Twenty years ago if someone said you’d get a 50-pound muskie out of this lake I’d have said never, no way. But I think someone is going to get one soon, maybe this year. Last year a friend of mine caught a fish that was over 48 pounds, and there were several 40-pound-plus fish weighed on certified scales.
“When I stared fishing muskies here, the water clarity was 3, 4 feet. The fish spotted their food silhouetted against the surface, and I think they were mostly eating minnows. Then the zebra mussels arrived, and for the past 20 years the water has been getting clearer and clearer.”
The sheer numbers of muskellunge in St. Clair might also have been be a limiting factor in the days before zebra mussels, and some anglers think an outbreak of exotic viral hemorrhagic septicemia five years ago might have helped by thinning the population out a bit.
“We’re getting a lot of small fish now, 24-35 inchers,” Jones said. “That’s a great sign for the future. If the lake keeps producing enough food for them, we should be catching 50-inch muskies for a long time to come.”
Jones will move his boat to Ludington to fish salmon in Lake Michigan in August and return to St. Clair in September for the prime part of the muskellunge season. He can be reached at 586-463-FISH or online at www.fishpredator.com. Contact ERIC SHARP: 313-222-2511 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lake St. Clair named among top 10 Perch lakes by Steve Ryan and In-Fisherman
By: Steve Ryan
Lake St. Clair
Lake St. Clair provides incredible summer and fall fishing for numbers of 8 to 12 inch perch. Target them outside thick vegetation in 6 to 18 feet of water. By fishing shallower water, deep water mortality among sorted fish isn’t an issue. One-hundred to 200 fish days are common. Contact: Captain Steve Jones, 586-463-3474 or book a trip at: www.fishpredator.com
When St. Joe anglers normally think of salmon fishing season, late summer and fall are generally on their minds.
When charter boat captain Steve Jones swings the bow of his boat away from his usual haunt after Lake St. Clair muskies and into the waves after salmon, the date on his mind is when the ice finally leaves the port of St. Joseph in April, staying there through at least mid-May.
Such was the case last year, when I met Jones and his four Southeast Michigan anglers April Rue, her children River, 10 and Brooklyn, 12, and April’s friend Gina DeBiasi of Allen Park at the west basin of the St. Joseph municipal marina in early May last year. April had chosen to show her kids what big game fishing was like.
Jones had already been fishing Lake Michigan nearly a month when he nosed his Tiara out of the breakwall. We were headed to warmer water that morning, if you can call Lake Michigan in May warm, about six miles offshore, but where the fishing was already hot. “It’s been pretty steady here because there are three good year-classes that we’re fishing,” said Jones.
The oldest, he said, could go up to 18 pounds already after steadily dining on the lake’s offerings, but most fish, this time of year will be from 6 to 11 pounds. The lake had produced some of the best fishing in the last 20 years the previous fall, and he said this spring as already following up strong, and they were also full of bait, a good sign that these fish not only were healthy, they were looking to chow down on some springtime food. We trolled from 1.8 to 2.3 mph, Jones said, stirring these aggressive fish to hit, with lures set from 30 feet to the bottom, up to 50 feet behind us, over 140 feet of water. Others were on copper wire, too.
Jones throttled down and began to set lures on his downriggers, with Silver Streaks and Dreamweaver spoons to imitate both smelt and alewives farther down in the water column where the fish seemed to be.
Then the two kids set to work. “This was River’s birthday present, his mom said, because he loves to fish and I’m along because it was Mother’s day weekend, so it seemed like a good fit,“ April Rue said.
“I’ve never been fishing like this before, never charter fishing on the big lake,” River said as we rocked with the rollers, waiting for the first rigger to kick. “Probably the biggest thing I’ve ever caught was a 4 ½-pound bass in my dad’s pond.” April’s largest ever: a three-pound bass. They’d be a bit over those weights today.
It only took a few minutes of trolling for the first hit, a dancing, then another, both on the deepest lines in the 50-degree water. As Jones coached them, River, then Brooklyn, April battled side-by-side. First, River’s came in over the port side as April stood by.
“Oh my gosh, it’s a big one!” Brooklyn shouted, as she brought in hers on the starboard, and Jones struggled to quickly untangle the first fish from the net to shift and bring in Brooklyn’s bigger chinook.
“Raise your arm, keep reeling, slow it down, now raise up the rod,” Jones coaxed, the way he’s done hundreds of times before in his 30-plus years of chartering on the lakes.
“Look at it, it’s bigger than the other one!” she said. “I am sooo lucky today!” Translation: She was absolutely thrilled at experiencing something she and River will remember for a long time: catching their first really big fish. Kudos to mom, and to Jones, for giving her, and her brother, the experience.
More fish came that morning. “We got the first on copper wire 300 feet back, which puts them at about 100 feet down, and the others came about 30 feet down and 50 back. They’re all over,” Jones said.
They were bright, spring fish, some small, some large, as Jones predicted, and the cool Lake Michigan water made the biggest run line out, then back at the boat as only chinook can.
But the best thing about the trip may not have been the landing. The best thing may have been watching River and Brooklyn, and the catching. Indeed, they were lucky.
When You Go
Contact Capt. Steve Jones about trips near St. Joseph from ice-out through May. Jones then concentrates on Detroit River walleye, and his passion, fishing for giant muskies in Lake St. Clair. He’ll also hit the Ludington area for salmon in late summer. Captain Steve can be reached at: www.fishpredator.com