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Muskie Fishing and Boyhood Dreams


By Tim Mead
September 2010 Midwest Outdoors

Not all boyhood dreams are realized. I never played first base for the Detroit Tigers.

Some dreams, however, are.

Homer LeBlanc ranked among my heroes along with Hal Newhouser and George Kell, both Hall of Fame Detroit Tigers. How did LeBlanc reach such storied heights?

On Thursday evenings my family watched Mort Neff’s “Michigan Outdoors” on television. LeBlanc was a frequent visitor on Neff’s show, displaying giant muskies he or his clients caught on Lake St. Clair. I knew, deep in my bones, that if I could get to Lake St. Clair, I too could catch a trophy muskie. Of course, kids with no boat and no driver’s license cannot go to Lake St. Clair – or much of any place else for that matter. Over all these years, the memory of Homer LeBlanc and the lure of St. Clair muskies lingered.

Imagine my surprise, then, some 55-years later when I got an e-mail from Captain Kevin Backus. Captain Kevin introduced himself to me as Homer LeBlanc’s grandson. Backus is now among the elite muskie guides on Lake St. Clair. He follows his grandfather’s methods – to a T. And, Backus added, he would be delighted to take me fishing for muskies on Lake St. Clair. Who says dreams don’t come true?

Backus and I met early one morning. Backus fishes out of Jefferson Beach Marina, located in the midst of the famed “Nautical Mile,” the stretch of Jefferson Avenue that claims to have more boats registered than any comparable distance in the U.S.

Backus started fishing with his grandfather at an early age. He said, “I caught my first muskie when I was two or three years old. By the time I was 10, I was kind of burned out on fishing. Going with Grandpa was just a big boat ride. But after Grandpa died in 1993, I began fishing muskies again. And I just did all the things he taught me.” Backus named his boat “Mr. Muskie Too” to enhance following in his grandfather’s trolling runs.

We started the day by repeating LeBlanc’s “muskie prayer.” It goes, “Dear Lord, may we catch a Muskie so big that when telling about, we will have no need to lie. Bring us back safely with our limit or Muskies per each, especially since we will be fishing with Homer LeBlanc tackle. Amen.”

“Do you believe?” When I told Kevin, “Yes,” he said, “You’re supposed to day, ‘I believe.’”  So I did. And the dream came true.

We did use Homer LeBlanc tackle. LeBlanc invented several lures. Among the most famous is the Swim Whizz. LeBlanc was unhappy with wooden lures. Muskies could grab a wooden lure, sink their teeth into the wood and anglers could not set the hook. At least twice in my muskie angling career, a big fish I was about to net, opened her mouth and the wooden lure floated free and the muskie was gone.  To overcome this obstacle, the Swim Whizz was, and still is, a round, hard plastic lure.

As Backus was rigging gear, I noticed that one of the Swim Whizz lures he was tieing on had “Homer LeBlanc Tackle” on the side. When I commented to him that this was one of the original LeBlanc lures, he said, “Sure it is. My grandpa would roll over in his grave he if knew I was not using the lure he gave me. He did not give me this stuff for me to build a shrine. It was to go fishing and that’s what I do. I can honor Grandpa more by using his lures than by setting them aside.”

LeBlanc may not have been the first but he certainly was the one who made famous trolling for muskies with short lines, catching muskies in the prop wash. LeBlanc wrote a short book, Muskie Fishing: Fact and Fancy, Lore and Lures, published in 1957, which outlined the method. Backus set up just as his grandfather suggested.

Sideboards carried some rigs away from the path of the boat. These lines had 1- to 4-ounce sinkers.  Lures on the sideboards were run about 40-feet behind the boat. Essentially, we were fishing a swath 80-feet wide.

Several rods ran with lures more directly behind the boat.  One long rod had a 2- to 10-ounce sinker, depending on the assessment of how deep the lure should run, with a lure about 40-feet behind the boat.  A short rod pointed down toward the water, with a 10-ounce to 1-pound sinker, trailing a lure 10-feet behind the boat. A final rod was trailing a lure 20-feet from the boat and in the prop wash. One of the muskies we caught was on a Homer LeBlanc Swim Zag, a spoon with a large bucktail on the treble hook, right in the prop wash.

Backus makes no excuses for using his grandfather’s technique. “Homer was not a millionaire,” he said,” but he lived like one. I figured he might be on to something. So for me, guiding for muskies was a career change.”

Backus also has LeBlanc’s original maps of Lake St. Clair, with all the prime trolling runs marked. “Homer,” Backus explained, “was about the first to chart Lake St. Clair. He spent thousands of hours with a weight on a line, dropping it over the side to measure the depth.”  How many of you, other than me, remember the days before electronic depth finders?

Backus now has prime trolling runs stored on a BPS unit. When we started, he explained, “Yesterday we did real well right off the marina, so that’s where we’re going to start.”  The route was saved on the GPS and we followed it precisely. Homer LeBlanc did not have his trolling runs stored on a GPS.  We did “real well,” too. In half a day, we had six hits and caught three.

In addition the LeBlanc lures, Backus also relies on other lures manufactured in the St. Clair Shores area by local craftsmen. They include the KB, Teache’s Bait, the Loch Ness Monster, the Lapper Lure, and the Loke. Backus claimed, “We’ve got the best lure makers in the country, probably in the world, right here on Lake St. Clair.”

All the lures we used were subdued colors. Lots of muskie anglers, including me, have some pretty garish colors in our boxes. Backus, however, relied on natural colors. He said, “I use natural colors to match what muskies prefer eating – walleyes, perch, suckers. If it’s overcast, I prefer a bait with a white belly and if it’s bright I use a yellow-bellied lure. The best rule is to use what the muskies want.”

One of Backus’ grandfather’s rules was, “Think like a Muskie.” He wrote, “To catch a big Muskie, you fish hard! And think like a Muskie. I’m often asked, how do you think like a Muskie? I answer, fishes [sic] don’t have any brains [obviously not biologically true], and so it shouldn’t be too hard to think like a Muskie.” Backus follows his grandfather’s wisdom.

One of the muskies I caught fishing with Backus was a nice fish, pushing 20-pounds. It took line several times against the drag, shook its head, and generally gave a good account of itself. At Backus’ instructions, the mate threw the boat into and out of gear to aid in keeping the line tight. Backus coached  me, “When you get sufficient line in so that the sinker is just below the rod tip, lift the rod and back up. Then I can reach the fish with the net.”

A couple of quick pictures and the muskie was back in the water to be caught another day. From my youth, I don’t recall that Homer LeBlanc released many. Could be I’m wrong, but it was a different time.

Backus told me, “There’s no question in my mind – there are record fish in this lake. It’s shallow so it heats up early. There are lots of bait and lots of weeds. Those conditions – plus catch-and-release like we just did – combine. There are numerous trophy fish here.” Indeed, several times during Homer LeBlanc’s career, Percy Haver claimed the muskie world record for Lake St. Clair, though those records are now in dispute.  Haver’s claims whetted my dreams of going to Lake St. Clair.

So, boyhood dreams sometimes do come true. Though I did not get to fish with Homer LeBlanc, I got to fish with his direct angling heir. (If you want to contact Captain Kevin Backus go to Mr.MuskiesCharter.com or call 586-771-8817.) Good thing for me my dream came true late. My first boat, a small, wooden row boat was not a match for Lake St. Clair. And a competent guide really helps locate fish on such a large body of water. Yup, some boyhood dreams come true. And lucky me, I found someone who could fulfill one of my dreams. (As for the Tigers – I think they missed a bet!)

© 2010, Midwest Outdoors Magazine.

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