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For the Love of Muskellunge

September through November, autumn heralds fewer but better opportunities to catch -- and release -- this most impressive trophy fish.


By Lisa M. Jensen
Autumn Issue

As Autumn settles across Lake St. Clair in northeast Metro Detroit, intrigue lurks beneath its surface.

With an average depth of only 10 feet and ample outlets to Lakes Erie and Huron, these crystalline waters are world famous for not-so-forgettable species of pike: muskellunge, the Great Lakes'' second-largest predatory fish, behind only the sturgeon in size.

Estimates suggest there are more muskies per every one of Lake St. Clair's 420 square miles than in any other North American body of water.

"It's always been a popular muskie fishery, but there are a couple of reasons why it has expanded to such word-class proportions," notes Steve Kunnath, one of the region's charter captains and the area's only full-time fly fishing guide. "In the last two decades, the environmental quality of the lake has increased tremendously due to higher restrictions on pollutions.

"The recent accidental introduction of exotic zebra mussel has filtered the once-muddy lake to an almost clear appearance, and in clear ware, it's much easier for a sight-oriented predator like the muskie to catch its prey," Kunnath added.

"But the most important factor is that more than 90 percent of the anglers and guides on Lake St. Clair now practice catch-and-release for muskie. Catch-and-release has a tremendous effect on a species that can take 20-25 years to reach trophy size."

Consequently, the new-prehistoric allure of the muskellunge right of the Motor City's most scenic suburban shoreline is magnetic.

Consider that the biggest of these creatures exceeds four feet in length and weighs more than 40 arm-straining pounds.

"From what I've seen, people who join a charter to fish muskie for the first time come to catch a big fish - but they're overwhelmed when they see how big these fish actually are," shared Byron Goggin, host of Detroit-based, Emmy-award winning "Wild Weekend."

Beyond size, the appearance of this aggressive predator incites attention. Bill-shapes jaws engulf prey -- every smaller fish imaginable, snakes, bite-size mammals and an occasional adult duck -- with razor-sharp, serrated teeth its thick, cylindrical body -- light silver, brown or green with or without darker markings -- is capable of ferocious linear speed, admirable endurance and mesmerizing aerial maneuvers. Reeling in muskellunge isn't an experience anyone will soon forget.

No the season: September through November, autumn heralds fewer but better opportunities to catch the most impressive muskellunge, which are bulking up for the winter.

"These fish are highly respected for their size and stature, as well as the fight they put up," observed Kevin Backus, one of Lake St. Clair's premier charter boat captains. "but when you really look at a trophy muskie -- a fish 50 inches long that weights more than 30 pounds -- you realize this fish is at least 20 years old, he's been around a long time: You have to respect that even more. A lot of people consider themselves lucky to boat one fish like that in their lifetime."

Backus' own appreciation for this species began when he was smaller than the average size muskie he catches. His grandfather, Homer LeBlanc, helped him reel in his fist when Backus was only a toddler. it didn't hurt that during the late ''30s LeBlanc pioneered the multiple-rod trolling technique used by charter captains on Lake St. Clair.

"He passed away at 92 in 1993," Backus said. "But throughout the years, he leaned how to entice muskies to bite."

Legendary for his knowledge of muskellunge, LeBlanc also authored "Muskie Fishing Fact & Fancy, Lore & Lures", invented the popular Swimm Whizz plug and Swimm Zag spoon and helped found the Michigan Ontario Muskie Club in 1956. At 83, LeBlanc was inducted into the National Freshwater Hall of Fame. In his honor, Backus names his own company Mr. Muskie Charters.

Like his grandfather was, Backus is driven to share the thrill of muskie fishing.

"Picking the right lures, getting in the right position for the fish to strike, it's exciting," Backus said. "But what's most rewarding is watching the looks on customers'' faces when they get to do battle with a muskie, and better still, spend some real time looking at it up close on the boat while it's being calmed in our live well. the real beauty is watching them gain a different appreciation of the four-foot fish, then releasing him and watching him swim away."

But first, the muskellunge must be hooked. The muskie hasn't been labeled "the fish of 10,000 casts" for no reason. Reputable charter services -- including Mike Pittigio''s muskie Mania Sportfishing Charters; Backus'' Mr. Muskie Charters and Tom Loy's Big Fish Charter Services -- and the aid of guides including Kunnath -- improve the odds.

"Muskies are unpredictable," surmised Pittiglio, one of the area's few full time and most noted charter boat captains, who specialize in Lake St. Clair muskie fishing in December. "One day we'll have 10 on a line by they buoy. the next, nothing. the move. they like different baits. Some days, they nip at them. other days, they crush them."

Like the lures that attract them -- Straight Lokes, Gotchas, Baby Nils, Bucktails, Mason's Zings, among countless others -- the people attracted to muskellunge come in all shapes, ages and sizes. while most are men, captains contend, women and children frequently do a better hob of reeling in a trophy muskie.

"They get more nervous when a fish is on, and let it run," Pittiglio said. "it's better that way though, They listen a little better, too. Men, a lot of times, want to just reel it in, and the lose the fish."

A moment of silence shrouds the back of a charter when a big one gets away.

The loss permeates the air like campfire smoke a forsaken bucktail lure gets reeled in with respect and regret, and a new era of waiting for The Next Strike -- maybe just minutes, maybe hours, maybe not again today -- beings.

"Waiting is a big part of the game," Pittaglio said. "But it's always worth it."

To learn about muskellunge, visit Michigan Muskie Alliance at www.michiganmsukiealliance.org.

© 2007, Michigan Blue Magazine.

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