A day chasing muskie is a treat
Written by Detroit News   
Thursday, 13 October 2005 07:27
Dress warmly, the boat captain advised a couple of days before departing on an October muskie-fishing foray on Lake St. Clair. Our skipper, Frank Piku, was preaching to the choir. We were Michigan natives -- veterans of crisp weather and cold water.

This was a crew of tough, experienced outdoorsmen who knew how to dress for a long day of fall fishing.

We began crashing across rollers at 7 a.m. Monday, gray daylight greeting us, on a chilly, breezy Columbus Day morning aboard our 31-foot boat, Golden Streaker.

Suddenly, the thermal underwear, four layers of shirts and Gore-Tex outerwear didn't seem like overdressing.

It was cold and wet from drizzle and lake spray as the twin 300-horsepower Yamaha outboards roared, carrying eight of us on a bounding, 40-mph cruise across Lake St. Clair to a magical muskie haven on the Canadian side of Lake St. Clair.

The Dumping Grounds, as they're known, are a weedy underwater range thick with forage fish and big guys who feed on them -- muskies especially.

Michigan's biggest and -- in some books -- most majestic inland game fish is the grand prize for muskie anglers who fish one of the world's richest freshwater fish paradises, Lake St. Clair.

The fish's snowy white belly, mottled green-tan-and-brown scales, and mouth filled with enough teeth to make a barracuda blush, are cosmetic twists to a fish of great size and ferocity.

They can exceed 50 inches in length and 35 pounds. They also fight like an antagonized creditor. Reeling in a muskie is freshwater fishing's answer to hand-to-hand combat.

But it was because of their autumn appetites that our group opted for an October trek, with all its weather realities, for a fish properly known as muskellunge.

"They're fattening up for the winter," said Piku, a Sylvan Lake resident who also operates winter fishing charters out of Key West, Fla.

"They're hungry. And they don't want to expend a lot of energy on small fish."

Hence, Piku's relish at clipping onto long wire leaders 8- and 9-inch jointed plugs that pulsate and imitate by color and pattern the baitfish muskies love: gizzard shad, suckers, perch, walleye, and just about anything else that swims or falls into Lake St. Clair's chalky-green water.

Monday's fishing guests were Bayview Yacht Club members and committed sailors: John Rummel, a retired auto dealer from Sterling Heights; John Barbour, a Grosse Pointe attorney; Bill Thorpe, an attorney from Grosse Pointe Farms; Al DeClerq, president of Doyle Sailmakers, Inc., and a Grosse Pointe Park resident; and Nick Cost, a mechanical engineer from Royal Oak who was helping Piku keep six rod-and-reel outfits humming and lures clean of weeds as the big plugs danced and throbbed beneath Lake St. Clair's waves.

Muskies have been on a Lake St. Clair surge since tougher size restrictions and, most critically, a catch-and-release ethic became the rage beginning in the mid-1980s. A fish that might have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience 30 or 40 years ago is now a good bet to appear on a fishing line near you if skill and persistence are practiced.

But this isn't casting for perch or for walleye. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources estimates that catching a single muskie might require 10 hours of efficient fishing. Even professional charterboat captains who know the bottom of Lake St. Clair like they know their living rooms understand that hooking muskies is a pursuit reliant on a reasonable share of luck.

By 9:30 a.m, almost two hours into our waves-whipped muskie safari, there had been a gallon of coffee and a dozen doughnuts polished off -- and zero hits from a fish. The pace changed a half-hour later when Piku's boat crawled slowly across a 10-foot shelf covered by 9 feet of water. Cost noticed a rod-tip jerking and Piku ordered Rummel to his battle station -- a rod-holder clamped to the boat's stern.

Rummel cranked the fish close until Cost's net slipped beneath a muskie that looked like a torpedo -- a younger Lake St. Clair muskie that would weigh 10-12 pounds.

"It felt like 50," Rummel said as Piku lowered the fish overboard and sent it splashing on its way.

We had expected the muskies to be ravenous Monday. Cooler weather and water and decreasing sunlight alerts fish to the task of fattening up for winter, when a lake's food chain goes into slumber. Those wobbling, flashing plugs would be looked at by a muskie as the equivalent of a gift certificate to Outback.

"In general, a lot of fish species go on a feeding binge in the fall, and muskies are a good example of that," said Mike Thomas, a Michigan DNR fisheries research biologist, based at the Lake St. Clair station in Harrison Township. "It's a time when they're fairly vulnerable to fishing -- if you can find them in a place where there's not a lot of food around."

Here muskies differ from Lake Erie's walleyes, which can be notoriously tough to catch in the fall. The reason is walleyes are filled to the brim with young gizzard shad that happen to be at their ideal size -- three to four inches -- for walleye-dining during autumn along Lake Erie's west basin.

Muskies aren't privy to quite the same all-you-can-eat banquet.

"Muskies in Lake St. Clair don't enjoy that level of forage abundance," Thomas said. "This late in the year, October into November, among the ardent muskie fishermen is considered to be the time to catch big fish -- big fish that are more vulnerable now than the rest of the year."

Other than the occasional passing freighter, it seemed as if we were the only boat on Lake St. Clair early Monday. A lone sailboat glided across water near the Canadian shore, not surprising given that it was Canada's Thanksgiving Day.

But by midday we were downing sandwiches and counting Rummel's fish as the only muskie on the scorecard.

Piku revved the engines and headed for new water a couple of miles from the Detroit-Grosse Pointe border. As those who have fished Lake St. Clair know, the lake is stunningly diverse for the species that live here. Whether one fishes near on the Canadian side near the in-flowing Belle River, or in the shadow of Grosse Pointe mansions, you can theoretically catch, depending upon the time of year, smallmouth and largemouth bass, northern pike, perch, walleye, bluegill, sturgeon, steelhead, sheepshead, carp and about any other fish that lives in fresh water. But the target Monday was muskies as Cost and Piku re-plugged the lines and sent them plopping into Golden Streaker's wake.

We were trolling home, slowly, to a dock mooring on the Clinton River, as the big plugs wobbled a couple of miles from the shoreline's intersection with a line extending from about 11 Mile Road.

At 2:30 p.m. Cost spotted another rodhead bending and bouncing.

It was Thorpe's turn to tangle with a muskie that had already broken the surface 40 yards off the starboard-side stern.

"Look at him jump!" Piku yelped. "Nice muskie."

The rest of the party got busy reeling in lines and planer-boards that might otherwise have fouled Thorpe's line and cost us what clearly was going to be the biggest muskie of the day.

"Don't pump -- reel!" Piku barked as Thorpe rocked with the rod, taking in short stretches of 30-pound test line. "Keep reeling. Don't stop."

The muskie was 25 feet away when it jumped for a second time. A gorgeous fish was closing in on Cost's net.

"Watch it now," Piku yelled to Cost. "He's a big one."

The muskie was in Cost's net and within a few seconds freed from the plug's treble hooks. It was considerably longer than 40 inches and, Piku estimated, 22-23 pounds.

Thorpe was busy shaking hands as Piku eased the fish back into the lake. With a flick of its fat tail the muskie was back to hunting for perch and shad.

"I don't know who looked more whipped," Cost said, grinning. "Thorpe or the fish."

It had been a terrific day. On the leeward side of Lake St. Clair, water was calmer, the air warmer as late afternoon set in. We trolled home sipping beverages, munching snacks. Summer muskie-fishing on Lake St. Clair might be the conventional way to land a fabulous freshwater fish. But there is something special, indeed, about enjoying an autumn day on a treasure of a lake, catching a game fish so regal it leaves an angler in awe. Eight men from the United States were tempted Monday to join their holiday-celebrating friends on the Canadian side in saying thanks for the blessings.

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