ST. CLAIR SHORES — There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Lake St. Clair is among the premier muskellunge fisheries in the world.
The massive wide spot between the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers straddles the international border and there are fish on both sides, but it’s no secret that much of the muskie fishing during July and August takes place in Canadian waters.
But once the first hints of fall are in the air, the action returns to Michigan waters.
That’s the word from Don Miller, a long-time Lake St. Clair muskie guide who hosted me for an afternoon recently. Miller typically fishes in Ontario water in the summer because there are too many weeds in the water to efficiently troll the American side.
“Detroit is the only place in the country you can look to the south and see Canada,” Miller said. “A lot of the summer weather comes from the south and pushes weeds up to the Michigan shoreline. You have to move. There’s no getting around it.
“September is a transitional time of year, when you’re moving into fall patterns,” continued Miller, who’s been fishing St. Clair muskies most of his 60 years. “Your winds shift from south, southwest to north, northwest. The wind pushes all of the cabbage and other weeds back to the other side of the lake. It allows a troller to pull lines more effectively that time of year in the U.S. waters.”
Miller, who keeps his boat along the nautical mile off Jefferson, says there is no shortage of places to fish for fall muskies on the Michigan side of the pond.
“That area from 14 mile Road to Nine Mile Road in 14 to 17 feet of water is ideal for muskies to stage in September,” he said. “Anchor Bay always has fish. New Baltimore, the Salt River and Metro Beach are good areas. And let’s not forget the dumping grounds, off the shipping channel from Peche Island up to in front of Grosse Pointe. There are a lot of things in there that hold a whole lot of fish — both size and numbers; a lot of fish that run from 30 to 40 pounds.”
Miller says anglers should change their tactics as fall arrives.
“As the temperature goes down, you’re going to want to stage your baits a little bit deeper and you’re going to want to slow down from four to five miles per hour to walleyes speeds — 2.5 to three miles an hour.
“Bigger baits work a lot better,” he continued. “They’re still hungry, but they’re slower so you’ve got to slow down and let them have it. Ten-inch baits — Nils Masters and 10-inch Believers. Slow down the baits and let those big girls have a shot at them. Give them a bigger target to swing at.”
We fished in 15 feet of water, often outside of pods of boats that were chasing other species. That’s a key said Miller, who believes smallmouth bass are the muskies’ favorite forage with walleyes not that far behind.
“In the fish world, you’re either lunch or having lunch,” he said. “That nine-dollar bass Believer is one of the best baits there is because it looks like a baby smallmouth.
“Fish outside of the bass and walleye fishermen,” Miller continued. “Those big fish sit out there and wait for strays from the schools to wander by and they get them. Places that have bass and walleyes have muskies — absolutely.”
We spent our first two hours of trolling running lines every few minutes to keep the weeds off, one of the reasons Miller runs fewer lines than some captains.
“If you can’t catch them on six or eight lines, you’re not going to kill ‘em on 10 or 12,” he said. “Six clean, trolled lines will out-fish any 12 that are choked up with weeds.”
Our first muskie, a 42-inch specimen, hit a Believer — one of Miller’s go-to baits. I handled the rod; it took me five minutes to finish the job.
We went into a two-hour lull before a fish in the same the size category slammed a Loki. We had no sooner landed the brute when another rod went off. Miller quickly put the first fish into the live well — to give it time to get re-oriented — and we went to work on the next fish, which measured 44 inches.
We fished with rods spooled with 40-pound test line, mostly Trilene XT or Big Game, though Miller did have a couple spooled with 20 pound Dacron. Behind the main line, Miller runs a length of 80-pound fluorocarbon for a leader to protect against the big fish’s teeth.
“Fluorocarbon leaders have probably increased my strikes by 15 to 20 percent,” Miller said. “It’s expensive stuff, but you’re only using a couple of yards on a leader, but over the old 100-pound test monofilament I used to use, I’ve got no beef with it. If you’ve got a really precious bait — one you don’t want to lose — you might want to go to the 100-pound leader because there is a chance you’re going to get sawed off.”
We fished another hour or so, then called it a day. Three muskies. Not bad.
Miller, who said he catches about 400 muskies a year, continues the same pattern until the weather turns cold, then he heads shallower.
“In early November you can catch them as shallow as eight feet of water,” he said.
He won’t this year, a full-time guide since he retired from his day job seven years ago, Miller said he going to shut down his operation a little bit early this year to do some of the things — fall color tours, bow-hunting for deer — that’s he’s been missing out on. But he is accepting reservations for next season.