ST. CLAIR SHORES — The original plan was to fish for muskies, but my brother Phil, who booked the excursion, said his freezer was empty and asked the captain, Steve Van Assche, if it would be OK to fish for walleyes for a bit before we started after the ‘skies.
Van Assche, who also charters for walleyes, was all about it.
Van Assche shut down his 27-foot Tiara about halfway across Lake St. Clair — we were en route to the Canadian side of the lake, where most of the summertime muskie fishing takes place — near the shipping channel, started a slow troll at about 1 mph, and put out some bottom bouncers with spinners and crawlers.
It was slow; in the first half-hour we caught just a couple of ‘eyes, largely because the perch (most of which were about as long as your finger, though we did boat a couple of keepers) wouldn’t leave us alone.
So Van Assche switched gears, hauled in the live-bait rigs, and started trolling with artificials. He kicked the motor up to about 2.5 mph and put out rigs with three-way swivels with deep-diving minnow baits (Bandits) on a leader on the bottom of the three-way and smallish salmon-style spoons (Silver Streaks) on the top leader. It’s an old standby rig that, in truth, I haven’t seen in many years.
It made all the difference; over the course of an hour we put seven more walleyes in the boat and a couple more perch. About half the fish took the spoons, half took the crankbaits.
“They like the spoons more in the summer, but in fall we just run crankbaits,” Van Assche said
Despite the good fishing, Van Assche said it was slow compared to the way it had been.
“Walleye fishing has been phenomenal,” said Van Assche, who’s been skippering a charter boat for 22 years. “Limits every day. It’s really good now, as good as it was in the ‘80s.”
That’s a change. At one time, Lake St. Clair was a top-notch walleye fishery, but it went into decline — who can say why? — and just about everybody in southeast Michigan moved over to Lake Erie, which has been on fire for more than 30 years. But the St. Clair walleye fishery is back after about 15 years of doldrums.
Satisfied with what we had in the ice chest, my brother suggested we get to our mission. Van Assche piloted us another 10 miles or so and we commenced.
We were trolling at a good clip (around 4 mph) and running large body baits (mostly Lokes — pronounced like the Norse god — and Ziggies) off of planer boards with clip-on weights (2 ounces on the outside rods, 4 ounces on the inside rods) about 20 feet up the leader from the plugs. Less than an hour into it, we connected. Nick Lehnerts, my brother’s stepson who was visiting from out of state, handled the rod and brought the sizable fish to the boat, but just after Van Assche unclipped it, the fish jumped and threw the lure. Oh, well. That isn’t the first time that has ever happened.
But Lehnerts made up for it with the next fish. It was a beaut — Van Assche guessed it at 44 inches — and after it was netted, unhooked and photographed, he dropped her back into the lake.
It was the first of four muskies we’d boat by noon, which was quitting time because of other engagements.
And, from all appearances, that first fish was a tiger muskie, a pike/muskellunge hybrid.
“We’ve been catching a fair number of tigers this year,” Van Assche said.
At one time, the Department of Natural Resources had a significant stocking program for tiger muskies, because they were faster growing than northern muskies, which the DNR was using in the stocking program (as opposed to Great Lakes muskies) at the time, but that effort was abandoned about 30 years ago as the department shifted to purebreds.
Van Assche said he thought he was catching a lot of tigers this year and theorized that the pike population was up and led to interbreeding — which is known to occur naturally — but I called a DNR fisheries biologist about it and he told me he was on a fish survey once when they netted a bunch of what they thought were tiger muskies, sent them to the university for genetic testing, and found that they were purebred pike (though this one looked more like a muskie than a pike). So whether it was a tiger or simply a muskie with unusual markings is an open question.
By the time we quit, we’d gone four for seven, which I thought was pretty good fishing for a short day, though Van Assche said he’s been averaging better than five muskies a day in recent years. This year “numbers are down a little bit, but the fish are bigger — fatter,” he said.
Assche will fish for muskies into December, he said, but will fish more on the Michigan side of the lake later in the season.
“All summer we fish the Canadian side,” he said. “Overall it’s better. You won’t get the numbers of fish on the American side in summer.”
You can reach Van Assche at (586) 524-2827.