August 14, 2023
In the pre-dawn darkness of a cold fall morning, Rich Clarke will swing his legs out of bed, put his feet on the floor and prepare to set a world record.
Clarke, a charter captain based in Clayton, N.Y., spends most of his fall days guiding anglers on the western reaches of the St. Lawrence River, near where it begins its 745-mile northeastward flow from Lake Ontario to the North Atlantic Ocean. From mid-September until the north country's frigid winter arrives between the holidays, Clarke is on the big river pursuing super-sized muskies—not really fishing for them, he's hunting them.
The St. Lawrence River, in New York's famed Thousand Islands region where Clarke prowls, has a well-earned reputation as home of the best big muskie water in the world. The lore has swollen through the decades. It includes an enormous 69-pound, 15-ounce fish caught in 1957 that once stood as a disputed world record, and a behemoth caught in November 2022 recognized earlier this year by the IGFA as the world record all-tackle catch-and-release fish based on its 135 cm (53.149-inches) length.
It is that most recent record that the 71-year-old Clarke is confident he can break. Any day, at any time, when a muskie puts a bend in one of his rods he's sure the fish on the other end has a shot to be the world record. His confidence has roots. He's caught world-class muskies in his 43-year guiding career. His customized tackle set-up and carefully crafted artisan lures are specifically designed to handle the giants. He's right to believe the next fish he or one of his clients hook into will ascend to the top of the muskie world.
"I am absolutely positive there are bigger fish in this part of the river," Clarke ¬said. "And I'm not talking about just one fish, either. There is more than one. I call them the mothers of all muskies. I know she's out there."
Appetites for Destruction
The well-documented ravenous appetites of muskies suit them well for a fat and happy life in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. They share the water with native species like smallmouth bass, pumpkinseed and yellow perch alongside non-natives like round gobies, alewives, and Pacific salmon. For a muskie, all other fish are merely dinner, and Thousand Island muskies essentially swim year-round in an all-you-can-eat buffet.
"One of the reasons we have such big fish is because of the massive food base that's here for them," said Bob Walters, a muskie guide who also operates out of the Clayton area. "They spend all summer out in the lake, where I believe they eat plenty of salmon and trout. And then the big females come into the river in the fall chasing baitfish when the temperature changes. They're always eating, which gives them not just length but tremendous girth."
Like Clarke, Walters is obsessed with the apex predator of the Thousand Islands waters, and like Clarke, he's had success in the years he's spent hunting the Goliaths. Unlike Clarke, Walters does have a world record—sort of. The new catch-and-release world record—the 135-cm fish, which is almost 53 1/4 inches caught last November—was reeled in by Derek Balmas, who works as Clarke's first mate. And while his name is not in the record book, it was Walters' gear, his boat, his technique, and his intimate knowledge of the muskie-fishing game that delivered Balmas the glory.
In the wake of the catch, Balmas told a Syracuse news outlet “I’m about six foot, 200 pounds. It literally looked like me coming up from the depths. I mean it was massive.” The Balmas muskie edged out the previous world-record catch-and-release entry that was also caught in—you guessed it—the St. Lawrence River.
(Some insider info here: For world-record purposes, the IGFA requires muskies to be measured from the tip of the nose to the inside fork of the tail. Veteran muskie guides on the St. Lawrence will show you pictures of 60-inch fish they've caught over the years, and while those may indeed be longer than Balmas' fish, they were not properly measured, or perhaps not even submitted, for world-record consideration.)
"That was a tremendous fish, an absolutely beautiful fish," Walters said of Balmas’ record-setter. "But I've got to be honest, and Derek knows this as well as anybody, there are bigger muskies in that river."
Walters has a video camera that runs off the ball of a downrigger behind his boat. He posts videos on his website showing big muskies emerging shark-like from the depths attacking baits as he trolls above them. In his 30 years of fishing for them, he's seen, caught, and handled numerous massive muskies. When he tells you he has a fish on camera he estimates is 70 inches in length—nearly six feet!—you believe him.
Ticking Away the Moments
The lives of Clarke and Walters have been altered by their passion for the big muskies of the Thousand Islands. Clarke has a dedicated muskie room in his house, filled with mounts, books, newspaper clippings, and tackle. Walters loves fishing the river so much that he once bought an entire marina in Oswego, N.Y.
Both charter captains point out, in quite frank terms, that muskie fishing is not a numbers game. There are days on the river when neither man will record a single bite. While muskies can be caught by anglers who cast among the copious shoals and weed beds of the big river and will occasionally hit well-presented jigs ("They don't really attack a jig, it's a subtle bump, hard to detect, and hard to teach clients," said Clarke), the most effective way to target big muskies is by trolling.
"I catch big fish because I troll with big baits," said Walters.
Among them are Believers and Swim Whizz baits, some of them longer than the foot-long sandwiches he munches on while waiting for a rod to double over. They also use custom baits, carefully crafted by regional artisan lure makers, painted in meticulous detail, and often scooped up by passionate collectors before they're ever strung up on a rod.
The two captains will fish both the U.S. and the Canadian side of the big river, from Wolfe Island (a 21-mile-long island that diverts the river into two large channels between Kingston, Ontario, and Cape Vincent, N.Y.) downstream to Chippewa Bay. It's an enormous stretch of river—impossible to fish thoroughly in a lifetime—with shoals, inlets, unpredictable currents, massive amounts of structure, international shipping traffic, and, quite obviously, thousands of islands.
The ideal client for a Thousand Island muskie trip would possess an extraordinary angling skill set. Familiarity with fighting big fish is a plus, but an endless supply of optimism is even more important. You must be predisposed with the ability to cope with going home skunked.
"Here's how I promote muskie fishing here," Walters said with a laugh. "You're probably not going to catch a muskie. How's that for marketing?"
One fall, he said, he trolled 1,400 miles and caught one muskie.
Clarke, who keeps records on each trip, figures he averages between 12 to 15 hours of fishing per one muskie hit. Although there are days when he's had a half-dozen fish on the line, those days are outliers. And getting fish that big to the net is another matter. Five-foot-long muskies are hard to handle, and they'll unbutton just as randomly as they bite.
But the two captains, and the people who hire them for charters, revel in the scarcity and uniqueness of it all.
"I certainly don't do it because of the money," said Walters. "I do it because a big muskie is one of the most remarkable fish in the world.
Enlist The Pros
While several Thousand Island fishing guides lead charter trips for multiple species, only a handful specialize in big muskie hunting.
To book Signman Charters, contact Capt. Rich Clarke, through his website 1000islandfishing.com or by calling 888-686-3041.
To book Water Wolf Charters, contact Capt. Bob Walters through his website stlawrencemuskiefishing.com or by calling 315-529-2697.
The peak of the season is from late September to mid-December. All muskie fishing is catch-and-release.
Reel in The History
If you'd like to soak up more muskie vibes while fishing or visiting the St. Lawrence River, the Thousand Islands Museum in Clayton, N.Y., features a "Muskie Hall of Fame" display that has a replica of the 69-pound, 15-ounce fish caught in 1957 by Art Lawton as well as a collection of classic muskie lures.
In Hogansburg, N.Y., the St. Lawrence Musky Shop sells coveted handmade lures by Zach Baker, some fetching up to $200 each.
While searching local tackle shops, also keep your eyes out for DK Musky lures, another line of handcrafted muskie plugs made by local craftsman Dave Kormanyos.