ST. CLAIR SHORES — We were just setting lines when someone asked a question and I heard those dreaded words from the first mate Brent Majors:
"We haven't been skunked yet this year."
Uh-oh. The thing about muskie fishing is, at some point, you know you are going to get skunked. It's going to happen. Was this the day?
Three hours out of port, I got my answer; Brad Utrup reeled in a smallish muskie (say, 36 inches, small by muskie standards, but still a nice fish) and we were in the plus column.
We were on Lake St. Clair with veteran muskie charter boat skipper Don Miller aboard his 30-foot Baha "Muskie Hunter." I've known Miller for going on two decades now and have fished with him a handful of time, though it's probably been close to 10 years since we last fished together.
I'd been invited by Gary Towns, a retired Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist who'd also invited a couple of DNR guys (Utrup and Roy Beasley) who work out of the Lake St. Clair Research Station. Towns, who remains active in conservation efforts, thought it'd be good for the DNR guys to get an up-close look at what is undoubtedly one of the top muskellunge fisheries anywhere.
We were doing the time-honored Lake St. Clair thing, trolling with big body baits at speeds that would scare a walleye fisherman — about four miles an hour
"The cloudier the water, the more I slow down, but I never go any slower than 3.5 in the summer," Miller said. "Late in the year, when the water's cold, I'll slow down, but in clear water I go 4.5. You can't move the bait fast enough to keep it away from them if they want it."
It was great (though hot!) day with just enough breeze to put a chop on the water and make the plus-90-degree air tolerable. We had eight lines out, mostly with Believers, which are Miller's favorite baits.
Three hours after our first, we hit another fish, this one in the 40-inch range. Towns handled the rod and was rewarded with his best-ever 'skie.
Still, Miller was not happy about the way things were going.
"Fishing has been really good this year, though you wouldn't know it by today," Miller said. "It's on a par with last year, which was my best year ever; I broke 400 (fish for the season) for the first time last year. Normally we're in the 350 range.
"It'll hurt my feelings if we don't get a couple more. I want one with a head on it like a Great Dane."
Lake St. Clair has become a go-to destination for muskellunge anglers all over America, for both numbers and size. Miller said he's done double digits several times this year, the best specimen a 52-incher.
This phenomenon — big fish and lots of 'em — is relatively recent, say, the last 20 years or so. Muskies — "the fish of a thousand casts" — used to also be the fish of a thousand miles of trolling. Back in the day, one fish in a day was good.
"Fifty years ago you might see 100 fish a year," Miller said. "And only one 30-pounder."
But lots has happened on Lake St. Clair to change the dynamic.
Zebra mussels cleared the water (muskies are sight feeders) and, as a consequence, there's more weed growth in deeper water, creating better habitat all around the lake. And just about everyone releases muskies these days, so they're no longer being yoked out of the lake as soon as they make a mistake.
There's only been one hiccup in the improvement, the viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) outbreak in '06, which, according to Towns' calculations, took about 10 percent of the muskies out of the lake.
Miller said he saw it in his catch, especially for big fish.
"We went down to three or four fish a day and a really good day, six to eight, but you weren't doing double digits any more," he said.
But St. Clair's back, Miller said.
"We're starting to see 40-pound class fish again."
So we dragged fish-colored baits (mostly perch, walleye or bass schemes, not the psychedelic colors the bass guys love) in 15 to 17 feet of water. Miller uses 40-pound test main line with 80-pound mono or 100-pound fluorocarbon leaders.
"Fluorocarbon increases your strikes, no doubt about it," Miller said. "But it's a little more fragile stuff and you're more likely to get cut off."
One interesting twist to Miller's presentation is that he uses a 25-horse outboard — sort of the same way walleye fishermen use small kickers — to propel his boat. The small four-cycle outboard is so much more fuel efficient than his 454-cubic inch power plant that he's been able to keep his rates down despite skyrocketing gas prices this year, he said
Miller runs a pair of rods off planer boards on each side, a couple just off the side, and a pair in the prop wash, none more than 30 feet back. These fish aren't boat shy, he said.
"They're at the top of the food chain — what do they have to be afraid of?"
They may not have been afraid, but they certainly didn't seem too hungry. We dragged baits around for a couple more hours but never enticed another biter.
Still, remembering the old days, a couple of muskies boated is nothing to sniff at.
And wouldn't you know it, Miller called the next evening. Caught 17 that day, he said.
At least Majors' words hadn't come back to bite us.