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Hooked on muskies: Monster fish makes comeback Continues

Friday, September 7, 2007

Dave Spratt / The Detroit News

So Johnson did some research, found a charter boat and struck gold. He, his father, Larry, and 8-year-old son, Blake, caught four muskies in a half-day of fishing on Lake St. Clair.

"That's a great day for muskie fishing," said Johnson, 36, of Carleton. "Anybody would love to go out and boat four fish, and our total fishing day was just 4-5 hours. It''s pulling in trophies that are tough fish."


Dale G. Young / The Detroit News

Kevin Backus shows off a muskie caught in Lake St. Clair. The fierce fish can approach
70 pounds and attracts anglers from across the U.S.


To generations of anglers, muskies were the stuff of legend for their size, ferocity and above all, elusiveness. Muskies -- muskellunge, officially -- are like northern pike on steroids, a slimy slab of muscle, teeth and attitude. They can approach 70 pounds and have been known to take down ducklings, muskrats and the occasional small dog. Yet the average angler so rarely hooked a muskie it became known as the fish of 10,000 casts.

But that's not the case on Lake St. Clair these days. The muskie population is so robust that it supports an entire sportfishing industry, attracting anglers from across North America who want to test their skill against the legendary gamefish. Muskies have withstood a couple of bouts of disease and a long history of catch-and-kill fishing. They've gotten bigger and more numerous, thanks to a combination of cleaner water, better habitat and perhaps most importantly, a concerted effort by anglers to put muskies back in the water and let them grow.

It's paying off: Where a 30-pound fish was considered a monster 30 years ago, it takes a 40-pounder to really get today's muskie catchers buzzing.

"Thanks to catch-and-release, they're growing not only in numbers, but also in size," said Capt. Kevin Backus, who runs Mr. Muskie Charters and is the grandson of legendary muskie fisherman Homer LeBlanc, who pioneered many of the muskie fishing techniques still in use today on Lake St. Clair. "Back then a 30-pounder was a huge bar to set. Now people are going for 40-pounders. I want to catch a 50-pounder."


Bob Houlihan / The Detroit News

The lures used to catch the hefty muskies
can be as big as a man''s forearm. Years
ago, it was common practice to shoot or
club the fish.


More trophy muskies caught

Exhaustive records kept by the Michigan Ontario Muskie Club (MOMC) bear out Backus'' observations. From 1960 to 1988, there were never more than five 30-pound muskies caught in a single year. Since 2000 there have never been fewer than 15 trophy-sized muskies caught in a year, and the number topped 20 in 2000, 2003 and 2005.

This year there have already been 15 big muskies registered, and the fall -- the best season for catching really big muskies -- is still ahead. The largest muskie ever recorded on Lake St. Clair, a 41.85-pounder, was caught in the club's tournament last month.

"That was the biggest (muskie) I've ever seen," said MOMC Secretary Joe Finazzo, who was the tournament weighmaster. "I was in awe weighing it."

Part of the muskie population's resurgence can be attributed to the overall health of Lake St. Clair, according to Michael Thomas, a fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Beginning with the Clean Water Act of 1977, Lake St. Clair began to rid itself of the pollutants that make their way up the food chain. Invasive and destructive zebra mussels had a beneficial effect on the fishery by filtering the water and making it clearer. That, in turn, allowed more sunlight to reach the lake bottom, which promoted the growth of plants that are necessary for spawning and cover for a variety of desirable fish species.

"I think it's a pretty balanced system right now and that's reflected in the fishery," Thomas said. "The fact that you have a muskie fishery that draws people from across the country, and a bass fishery that supports tournaments, and a walleye fishery that supports a charter industry and a perch fishery that's still very viable. We have a really diverse fishery and it's a really great mix."


Future''s bright for fishing

Steve Kunnath, who leads casting and fly-fishing excursions for muskie and other fish on St. Clair, says the health of the lake could mean even better muskie fishing in the future.

"Remember that it takes a muskie 20 or 25 years to reach a huge size," he said. "The big fish we're catching right now were juveniles when the water cleared and the fishing got better. Who knows how big they can get? We might not have reached the full potential yet."

But it's the way humans interact with the resource that has made St. Clair the muskie mecca it is today. Michigan's size limit on muskies is 42 inches; in Ontario it's 44 inches. That means even when an angler decides to keep and kill a fish, it's likely that it already had a chance to spawn, Thomas said.

But more important is the break from the old days of muskie fishing, where monthly tournaments meant dozens of muskies were removed from the lake for good. The tournaments continue, but these days it's rare for more than one or two fish to die during a tournament. That's a completely sustainable percentage, Thomas said.

Backus, who takes upwards of 70 muskie trolling excursions a year, perfectly embodies the generational sea change that the practice of handling muskies has undergone. In his grandfather's day, it was common practice to shoot muskies or stun them with a billy club "to calm them down before bringing them into the boat." The fish were typically eaten or hung on a wall.

But Backus'' 31-foot boat, "Mr. Muskie Too," is equipped with a muskie-sized live well. Once a fish is boated, it immediately goes into the live well to restore oxygen to its gills and rejuvenate its muscles. Anglers are given strict instructions on how to handle the fish quickly and efficiently for pictures, then the fish is replaced in the live well. Once Backus is convinced the fish is back to full strength, it's returned to the lake.

Backus said he once jumped in the lake and spent 30 minutes reviving a fish.

Finazzo said that's fairly standard procedure for club members. He estimates that 80 percent of them have done it.

"We have no hesitation about going in the water," he said. "That's what it's about."

''It's a thriving population''

Muskie anglers had a scare in 2003 and again in 2006, when large numbers of the big fish were found floating dead once the winter ice thawed. Thomas said the 2003 die-off was probably caused by a bacterial infection. In 2006 the culprit was thought to be viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or VHS, a disease thought to have entered the Great Lakes from ocean-going freighters. The long-term impact of VHS on all kinds of Great Lakes fish is still unknown.

But St. Clair's muskies appear to have withstood both attacks.

"In hindsight what we thought was a pretty major die-off appears to have not really affected the population," Thomas said.

The muskie captains say they'e catching fish that range from 14 inches to more than 30 pounds, the best gauge that the population will remain healthy and balanced.

Thomas, the DNR biologist, agrees. "It looks like it's going to be a large part of the fishery for a long while," he said "It's safe to say it's a thriving population."

© 2007, The Detroit News. All rights reserved.

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