The Hunt For Giant Muskie
March 01, 2018
Muskie records are embroiled in controversy like no other fish. Most historical lists of the largest muskies ever caught are dominated by a handful of names such as Spray, Lawton, and Hartman. By some accounts, more than a third of the top-50 muskies of all time were registered by these individuals, primarily from the late 1930s to early 1960s. Most of those fish were claimed to be over 60 pounds, with Art Lawton, Louis Spray, and Robert Malo each claiming fish of nearly 70 pounds.
Uninitiated muskie anglers might conclude that this was the golden age for record muskies. In reality, many of these fish have since been discredited for various reasons, including not being caught legally (netted, blasted, or bought), being stuffed with water, sand, or metal objects to make them heavier, or being outright fabrications as to their claimed weights. There were even "death-bed" confessions acknowledging personal misdeeds. An attempt to sift through the sordid history of muskie records is beyond the scope here, but this brief reflection helps establish a more realistic measure of the likely top-end size of muskies. It further establishes reasonable expectations for today's muskie anglers.
To my knowledge, only two legally-caught muskies weighed over 60 pounds in the last 50 years: Ken O'Brien's Canadian record 65-pounder caught in 1985 and Martin Williamson's 61-pounder caught in 2000. Even these fish are not without their detractors. However, these fish, along with credible catch-and-release fish, provide evidence as to the upper echelon of muskie growth potential.
Some of the more notable recent giants caught and released include Dale MacNair's 57- X 33-incher (2008), David Polniak's 60 X 29.5 guided by Capt. Rich Clarke (2011), Ed Barbosa's 54.5 X 30.5 guided by Mike Lazarus (weighed 58.5 pounds prior to being released) (2012). Significant kept fish with verified weights topping 55 pounds include Jeff Gardner's 59 X 27 weighing 55.4 pounds (2006), Ed Beers' 59 X 28-inch 56-pounder guided by Capt. Bob Walters (2010), and the Michigan state record caught by Joe Seeberger weighing 58.5 pounds and measuring 59 X 26 inches (2012).
While no serious muskie angler would promote killing a trophy, the occasional mega fish that cannot be released despite all best efforts, or the rare fish kept to establish a new record, provides helpful evidence of the length and girth necessary to produce a muskie legitimately topping 50 pounds. Also, the cited fish were measured without extreme tail pinching or questionable girth measurements, which are seemingly more prevalent in recent years.
The moral of the story is that, even with today's more protective regulations and better release practices, a true 50-pounder is a beast that doesn't exist in most fisheries. Where they do, they're in extremely low densities. Also, not every 55- to 57-inch muskie weighs 50 pounds. For those undaunted by the task, however, the following fisheries will keep you in the quest for a legitimate 50-pound-plus muskie.
St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers/Thousand Islands Region
The area consisting of eastern Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers is without question the region with the greatest probability of producing 50- to 60-pound muskies. It seemingly does so on an annual basis — often several times in the same year. This self-sustaining population of world-record-class muskies has undergone significant changes in the last decade, including a VHS epidemic that killed as much as half of its adult population from 2005 to 2008. This tragedy may have also benefited the fishery by reducing competition among the remaining stock and possibly strengthening the gene pool.
Captain Rich Clarke has over 35 years of experience fishing the Thousand Islands region for the biggest muskies on the planet. His accomplishments include guiding David Polniak to one of the largest released muskies of all time at 60.125 X 29.5 inches. At the time of the catch, Clarke was both confident that the fish wouldn't challenge the 70-pound mark and that the fish was perfectly healthy for release. As such, Clarke and Polniak agreed without hesitation to release it, which Clarke estimated between 62 and 64 pounds.
"That fish didn't show any signs of stress, and if she's still alive today (six years later) she could best the all-tackle muskie record," Clarke says. "Since that time I've personally caught a 58.75- X 27.5-incher and have seen two mega fish that appeared to surpass 60 inches. One chased in my lure while bass fishing and I got a good look at her length and girth. The second fish was while we were muskie fishing and again this fish turned away without biting. I know where they live and am out to catch a fish topping 60 inches with a girth better than 30. This time I'll get a weight on that fish.
"A large girth is important to produce a record. The St. Lawrence River is full of forage — the latest of which are gobies that have now fueled 7-pound smallmouth bass, 12-pound walleyes, and possibly a new record muskie. Abundant forage is a double-edge sword, though. It grows muskies to incredible sizes but also makes them hesitant to chase a lure great distances. So even if I don't catch one more record fish, I've had a great career and am fortunate to have caught more muskies topping 55 inches than most."
Captain Marc Thorpe is a master at targeting muskies on 120 miles of the Ottawa River and over 160 miles of the St. Lawrence. He puts in the time both on and off the water studying fisheries and their fish. He's constantly on the move, racking up miles on his truck and boat to put his clients on the best possible water. If he doesn't like conditions at one spot, he moves without wasting time waiting for a bite. This philosophy pays off for his clients to the tune of an average of 6 to 9 muskies over 55 inches per year. His best year was 14 fish over 55 inches, with some 57 to 58 inches.
While he believes that multiple fisheries across North America have the ability to produce record-caliber muskies, some are more blessed. The Ottawa and St. Lawrence are massive fisheries with diverse habitat and 73 different species of baitfish. Here, muskies can optimize growth by readily finding food and conditions to their liking throughout all calendar periods.
Even though a fishery has the potential to produce trophy fish, it doesn't mean that it sustains trophy catches. As such, Thorpe professes the need for good handling and release practices. "It typically takes a muskie 15 to 18 years to grow to 48 inches or more, with most having a life expectancy of around 22 to 24 years with a maximum age of 29 years," he says. "With a 12-percent post-release mortality rate within 72 hours of release, and more sophisticated anglers catching and releasing muskies, the need for improved handling practices becomes apparent, especially with large fish and during warm-water periods. Note that only about 10 percent of dead fish float; 90 percent sink and go unobserved." For these reasons, Thorpe has advocated "in-the-water" photos and releases as much as possible to keep everyone on the quest for ever-larger muskies.
Lake Huron has produced two of the heaviest muskies in recent history: Ken O'Brien's 65-pounder and Martin Williamson's 61-pounder. Last December, In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer authored an insightful article for Outdoor Canada Magazine advocating that the time is right to catch a giant muskie. One of the reasons he cited was climate change as supported by the research of Dr. John Casselman, a renowned Canadian fishery biologist. Casselman has devoted a considerable amount of time studying the sensitivity of fish to climate change. He believes that warmer-water species like muskies have benefited by the planet's recent warming trend through increased recruitment and accelerated growth rates.
In speaking with veteran Georgian Bay muskie guide Graham Bristow, all indications are that the muskie population there is in good shape. Bristow explains, "I've noticed more and bigger fish over the last 10 years, which is in part due to the increased 54-inch length limit." On a good day, it's not uncommon for his clients to have action from 6 to 10 muskies over 40 inches. The challenge is finding that special fish.
To locate and catch trophy fish throughout the muskie season, Bristow advocates using big baits. At the start of the season, he uses lures in the 8- to 11-inch range along weedlines and weed-rock transitions. During late summer, he casts bucktails and topwater lures over weeds, but also trolls large crankbaits for big fish suspended in open water. Favorite trolling lures include the Tackle Industries 11-inch Mag Shad deep and Fish-all Lures' Rippen Mag Shad. Bristow explains: "Contrary to what most anglers think, late summer, not late fall, is the most productive time for huge muskies on Georgian Bay. This is when most of my customers' 50- to 57.5-inchers are caught each year. In late fall, muskies become less active in these waters and scatter over open water. To target fall muskies, troll areas with concentrations of baitfish, or lake trout, whitefish, and cisco spawning areas."
Green Bay has produced as many trophy fish in the last 10 years as any fishery. Unlike the St. Lawrence and Georgian Bay, however, which have historic populations of naturally reproducing trophy muskies, Green Bay is the "new kid on the block." It's benefited from reintroduction efforts by the Wisconsin DNR beginning in 1989 and currently contains an incredible population of mature fish in the 48- to 56-inch range. With a recent increase in the minimum length limit to 54 inches, most of these fish will remain in the system for years to come and have yet to reach their maximum size.
Captains Bret Alexander and Kyle Tokarski, working together last year, demonstrated the amazing capabilities of Green Bay by putting their clients on 68 muskies of 50 inches or better. That included a day in which Tokarski's clients caught and released seven fish, the three biggest going 56 X 29, 55.5 X 26.5, and 51.5 X 25. In addition, these fish were not caught in late November when their girths might have been even greater. As such, Green Bay muskies are well fed throughout the entire season and 54-inch fish have been weighed in September at over 50 pounds. Due to the incredible amount of forage in the Bay, Randy Schumacher, an avid muskie angler and 39-year veteran of the WDNR, has noted there's a good possibility of record fish already in Green Bay.
Experienced guides like Alexander have observed that as fish age in the system, they're changing their habits and behaviors. "In the early days of stocking, say prior to 2005, most muskies were stocked in the lower Bay and most fish stayed there throughout the year," he says. "Now, stocking is spread from the lower Bay to the upper Bay and along both shorelines. This has expanded their range and improved the odds of producing a record muskie in deeper areas off Door or Marinette counties. Muskies also are being affected by increased fishing pressure. They're more discriminate about what they hit. They hold in areas for shorter periods of time and you must distinguish your baits to draw strikes."
Veteran guide Jason Hammernick fishes all of Minnesota's best muskie waters and points to Mille Lacs as his state's top fishery for producing a record muskie. "The body shape of Mille Lacs muskies is unique in that they hold their girth from head to tail. Lake Vermilion gives up some long muskies, including the occasional fish in fall with a huge belly. But you need those solid fall fish with extended 29- to 30-inch girths to reach record status."
Mille Lacs' recent history backs its potential as a record producer. Hammernick has guided clients to multiple muskies in the 55- to 57.5-inch range, including a monster 56 X 29 in the fall of 2012. In 2015, Robert Hawkins caught and released a 57 X 26.5 giant on a fly rod and a few weeks later, Dominic Hoyos guided his client to a 55- X 30-inch trophy.
He points to a rich forage base, good genetics, and a low population density of mature muskies as contributing factors in the lake's ability to produce record fish. But he cautions that the lack of recent stockings has hurt the fishery and it takes fortitude to stalk trophy muskies on Mille Lacs. "You can go a week without a fish, and for that reason, I primarily only guide my regular clients there in the late fall during the tulibee spawn," he says. "These clients are aware of the risk-reward of such a fishery, and these prime periods are booked through 2020 by anglers committed to stalking a fish that could top the world record. Personally, I've hooked a fish that appeared to eclipse the 60-inch mark by a fair margin. It was a few years back. Several other anglers had seen and were working that fish in the same area for about 10 days. I was fortunate to hook it on a Pounder BullDawg about halfway back on the retrieve. But she charged to the surface with a few violent head shakes and came unbuttoned prior to making it to the net. That fish was huge."
To reinforce his point on the lack of recruitment of muskies into the system, Hammernick suggests that your odds of catching one in excess of 54 inches are greater than catching a 40-incher. He recommends focusing on the late-fall period when muskies are at their maximum weight as they follow the tulibees onto spawning reefs. "Some guys troll the mud in summer and catch the occasional fish, but there's nothing like hooking a monster with the rod in your hand while casting," he says.
Lake St. Clair, Elk River Chain, Lac Seul, Lake of the Woods — another dozen fisheries could easily make the list of potential 50-pound-muskie waters. Lake St. Clair produces amazing numbers all season long, and with its own bout of VHS, remaining muskies are reaching larger sizes. The Elk River Chain has produced the last three Michigan state records and has the ability to produce more fish of 50 pounds or better. Then again, this huge inland complex of lakes, which connects with Lake Michigan, is anything but easy to fish for trophy muskies.
Lac Seul boasts one of the top muskie growth rates in Canada. Its size, the relative isolation of key muskie areas, good genetics, and protective regulations bode well for it to produce record fish. Lake of the Woods has all the makings to grow giant muskies, including big water, diverse habitats, and a history of big fish. A few lesser known Canadian Shield lakes could also give up a few super tankers in the upcoming years. Or, one of the classic Northwoods muskie lakes or a smaller under-the-radar fishery might produce a freak fish that breaks the world record.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan pursues trophy fish of a variety of species and contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.