June 30, 2015
By Steve Ryan
The Great Lakes boast some of the finest muskie fishing in North America. Green Bay fish are extending their range; St Clair muskies continue to pack on pounds; Georgian Bay is quietly producing greater numbers than ever before; and the St. Lawrence River continues to harbor record-size fish. With expanding ranges, girthier fish, higher catch rates, and record-class fish, it's a virtual muskie wonderland.
Lake Michigan/Green Bay
Green Bay has produced as many trophy fish in the last 10 years as any fishery. It contains an excellent population of mature fish in the 45- to 55-inch range. And with the recent increase in the length limit to 54 inches, fish remain in the system for years. The population seems to be expanding and showing signs of natural reproduction. To understand the current status of Green Bay muskies, a historical perspective is helpful.
The Wisconsin DNR's program to re-establish muskies in Green Bay began in 1989. During the peak stocking years of 2002 to 2006, nearly 20,000 fingerlings and 250 yearlings were released annually. Fish were primarily stocked in the lower bay, near the mouth of the Fox River, with some in the Menominee River and Sturgeon Bay. There was a gap in stocking from 2007 to 2009, as a result of VHS concerns in Lake Michigan. Stocking has declined substantially since the peak to an average of less than 4,000 fingerlings per year from 2010 to 2014. Since 2005, fish have been stocked in additional areas surrounding Sturgeon Bay and other locations along the western shore of the Bay. In these areas, recent electrofishing surveys have found limited natural recruitment.
For a first-hand assessment of what it takes to tangle with these fish, local muskie fanatic Stephen Boulden provides a seasonal analysis of muskies on Green Bay. "Lake Michigan muskies are notorious for their constant movement," he says. "This can be intimidating to newcomers. Spots are rarely hot for more than a few weeks, so anglers need to know key areas and anticipate fish movements."
Early spring finds postspawn fish milling about on shallow dark-bottom spawning grounds in the back of protected bays and marshy river mouths. For early season action, Boulden favors small fast-moving bucktails. "My favorite is Toothy Tackle's Tid Bit, a 5-inch bucktail with two #6 blades." he says." The Tid Bit can be burned to draw strikes from postspawn fish holding in water as shallow as 2 to 3 feet deep."
As summer approaches and the shallows warm, muskies disburse northward throughout the Bay in search of more favorable water temperatures and baitfish. Boulden keys on spots with newly emerging vegetation that attracts perch. He switches to double #8 and #10 bucktails and covers as much water as possible to intercept the transitioning fish. "By midsummer, muskies are easier to pattern as they hold longer on prime structure," he says. "During this period, I focus on thick cabbage beds that have deepwater access and large amounts of forage nearby. I fish monster-sized Toothy Bullys with #11 blades and a giant 8- to 10-inch Kalin's Grub trailer. I want to push the maximum amount of water to draw fish from cover.
"During fall, fish move back toward their spawning grounds. This shift is almost exactly the reverse of their spring movement. Whitefish are spawning and gizzard shad move toward the warmer water of the lower bay. Dying vegetation leaves vast flats devoid of cover. Now it's time to break out the trolling gear and target humps, rockbars, and channel edges. To match the prey, lures like the Rapala Super Shad Rap, Storm Swimmin' Stick, and the Chad Shad are deadly when trolled at 3 to 4.5 mph. Keep your hooks sharp, drag adjusted appropriately, and a Frabill Big Kahuna net handy."
Lake St. Clair
Lake St. Clair's muskie population has been affected by a recent VHS epidemic, improved water clarity, and a booming gizzard shad population. Unlike Green Bay, where the presence of VHS curtailed muskie stocking efforts, Lake St. Clair sustained a significant VHS kill of its naturally reproducing muskie population in 2006. In the aftermath, some observers have surmised that it may have strengthened the muskie population by thinning out genetically inferior and weaker fish susceptible to diseases. In addition to VHS changing the muskie population, the proliferation of zebra and quagga mussels has dramatically increased the lake's water clarity, which has resulted in more vegetation. This has fostered better recruitment of juvenile muskies. Milder winters and the coinciding boom in the lake's shad population have transformed long thin fish into fat bellied beasts.
Seasoned muskie Guide Mike Hulbert attests to the positive changes affecting Lake St. Clair. He says it was traditionally a trolling fishery. "With improved water clarity, there are now massive weedbeds where there hadn't been any," he says. "Vegetation favors a casting approach for precision and efficiency. There also was a misconception that St. Clair was best in late fall. But now our summer fishing is most productive. For example, last June 24th we went 24 for 26 on muskies with two guys in my boat fishing bucktails. Admittedly not your typical day, but a reminder of how productive this system is throughout the season."
In early spring, Hulbert fishes tight to shore with bucktails in 10 to 13 feet of water. He focuses less on water temperature and more on the presence of bait and water clarity. He avoids muddy water, but likes stained conditions better than the ultra-clear water that makes it tougher to fool muskies.
As summer progresses, Hulbert keys on vegetation in 14 to 20 feet, fishing Dadson 9mm or Bullet bucktails. He says three colors account for 90 percent of his fish — copper/brown, gold/gold, and black/black. He's found that St. Clair monsters don't favor ultra-fast retrieves. They're more susceptible to slow-moving baits and deliberate presentations.
By fall, muskies return to river mouth areas to feed on shad. Hulbert says shad schools can be vast here, more than a quarter mile long, but they're highly mobile. For this reason, he regularly makes runs of nearly 20 miles to find baitfish, before making a cast. Once he finds shad, he tries to stay around them for the rest of the day. In early fall, he uses a mix of bucktails and large plastics. By mid-October, the bite changes almost exclusively to large plastics like Musky Innovation's Pounders and Medusas. Hulbert and his clients have caught muskies up to 56¾ inches using these tactics and he expects more monsters in years to come.
Guide Jon Bondy has been fishing Lake St. Clair for decades. With a clear understanding of the lake's dynamics and the funneling effects of the Detroit River, Bondy has designed a line of baits that are highly effective in this complex system. "Where Lake Huron's waters enter and exit Lake St. Clair, current is the most important factor," he says. "These flowing waters foster one of North America's most migratory populations of muskie. They move along deep river channels. Early in the season, movements are related to spawning, and the rest of the year by feeding opportunities."
Bondy focuses on muskies holding along the 18- to 30-foot depth break of the Detroit River. His namesake lure, the Bondy Bait, has the weight, shad-like profile, and flash (with tail spinner) to be jigged while slipdrifting in heavy current often ignored by most anglers. This tactic works all season, with the most muskies using these areas in spring and fall. During summer, Bondy also focuses on river mouths and offshore vegetation with search baits like his Hot Orba. This large softbait has a pair of Colorado blades on the rear.
Lake Huron/Georgian Bay
Lake Huron continues to yield true giants. Graham Bristow has over 30 years of experience on Georgian Bay. He says that muskie distribution on Lake Huron is both impressive and intimidating. "We find muskies from the St. Mary's River in the northern end of the lake to the St. Clair River at the south end and everywhere in between. The key is to find areas with concentrations of fish."
Bristow believes the muskie population in Lake Huron and Georgian Bay is healthy. With better management of issues such as cormorant populations, water quality, and spawning habitat, abundance and size of fish should continue to increase. "I've seen more and larger fish the last 10 years," he says, "due in part to the increased legal limit of 54 inches. Trophy muskies seem to be concentrated along the eastern and northern shorelines of Georgian Bay, areas with the best habitat and forage for big muskies. On an average day it's not uncommon for us to see action from 6 to 10 fish over 40 inches. Although some recent reports from Ontario MNR suggest there may be fewer fingerling muskies in several spawning areas due to historically low water levels, shoreline development, and loss of habitat for young of-year muskies, our catch numbers continue to rise."
To find and catch big fish throughout the season, he lives by the motto, "go big or go home." "Our musky season starts in late June," he says, "and I use lures in the 8- to 11-inch range from day-one. During the early season, I focus on areas close to spawning grounds. I fish jerkbaits and plastics like Tackle Industries Super D along weedlines and transitions from vegetation to rock, or troll these areas with fast-wobbling shad baits. When the water starts to warm, I shift to deep drop-offs, rock slopes, and weededges where big muskies feed during summer."
To find suspended fish in late summer, he trolls large crankbaits in addition to casting bucktails and topwaters. His favorite trolling lures include Tackle Industries' 11-inch Mag Shad or Fish-all Lures' Rippen Mag Shad. "Despite what most anglers think, late summer, not late fall, is the best time for huge muskies on Georgian Bay," he says. "Most of my customers' fish from 50 to 57.5 inches are caught then. In late fall, muskies here become less active and scatter over open water. When I target late-fall muskies, I troll areas with concentrations of baitfish or the known spawning areas of lake trout, whitefish, and cisco."
Lake Ontario/St. Lawrence River
Since the 1950s, the "Larry" has been synonymous with record muskies. But while some of the early records are tarnished, consider Dale MacNair's 57x33 fish caught late in 2008, as well as the behemoth 59x28 caught on Bob Walter's charter boat in 2010, and the incredible 60x29.5 muskie caught aboard Rich Clarke's boat in 2011.
This self-sustaining population of world-record-class muskies stretches from Eastern Lake Ontario well beyond Montreal on the St. Lawrence River. But the area drawing most attention each fall is from Kingston on the north shore, to Cape Vincent on the south shore, and eastward to Cornwall, New York. Although a VHS epidemic was estimated to have killed 50 percent of its population from 2005 to 2008, the river's remaining fish seem to have benefited from reduced competition for food and perhaps a stronger gene pool.
To contact these giants, most anglers troll either the channel edge that drops into more than 100 feet of water, or along fast-breaking shoals. It's never been a numbers game here. To get noticed, anglers deploy big lures like 14-inch Jakes and 13-inch Grandmas and Depth Raiders on planer boards and downriggers for greater depth. Reels are spooled with 100-pound braided line and rigged with 4-foot leaders of 200-pound fluorocarbon. The season runs until December 15th, with some of the biggest fish being caught during the last three weeks of the season when the weather can be wintry.
Big water often means big fish, and the Great Lakes fisheries don't disappoint when it comes to size of muskies. Carefully select a location, a season, and a preferred tactic. Whether casting, rigging, or trolling inspires your passion, you can make history on these legendary fisheries. –
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, Des Plaines, Illinois, is an avid multispecies angler. He regularly contributes to Pike & Muskie Guide.