Lake St. Clair is busting with muskies, and here’s how to hook ’em

There’s more than a little truth to what Capt. Steve Jones will say if he sees anyone dangling their toes off a boat in Lake St. Clair. Only a few feet below you or off your stern swim platform are perhaps the greatest number of top-of-the-food-chain predators this lake has ever produced.

And he should know. Starting with tutelage under legendary muskie hunter Homer LeBlanc, Jones is in his 32nd season of finding, catching and releasing these toothy stripe-sided critters that are as mean and aggressive as they look. And he’s only kidding a little bit about those toes.

On occasion, muskie have been known to dine on ducklings, and Jones says that on at least one occasion, he’s opened up a muskie only to have a seagull spill out of its stomach. But there’s more to these fish that he talks about almost as if they were his brothers, than that, as I and teenaged Greg Mogos of Plymouth learned on a recent Fourth of July weekend aboard Jones’ 31-foot Tiara, the Predator.

We were fishing with Mike Gustin of Canton, Ohio, and Matt Addessi of Massillon, Ohio, and Jones’ first mate/son, Steve Jones Jr. It took only an hour or so of trolling at speeds that approach what salt water charters run when they’re after marlin, to have our first hook-up.

From Jones’ canal-front home near Metro Beach Metropark near Mount Clemens, we’d run south on the lake to the Canadian shore, within sight of Detroit’s skyline, before setting lines, and our first hit like one of its salt water cousins, too, ripping line off the reel despite the heavy duty sinkers.

Ten minutes later, we had our first, a 14-pounder. Not bad, but as Jones says, these fish now run upwards of 60 inches and approach 40 pounds before they’re bragging size. By the time we pulled lines around 1 p.m., we were 5 for 10, now a typical day on the lake for any muskie angler worth his pay.

But it wasn’t always that way. Only a few decades ago, muskie hunters were lucky to boat one or two fish a season. The lake wasn’t capable of producing more. Now, Jones says, Lake St. Clair is Number One in the country. “In 1979, the biggest fish was 27 pounds. Right now, the lake has produced more fish over 40 pounds than any other,” Jones said. “I’d say 1,000 to 2,000 have been landed in the 30-pound class, so it’s safe to say that St. Clair is producing more 30-pound-class-and-over fish than all of Minnesota and Wisconsin combined. Our first 40-pounder came in 2003.”

The resurgent muskie population, Jones says, can thank the zebra mussel.

“The lake clarity used to be no more than three feet. Because of the zebra, you can see down 20 feet at times, and the clarity now averages about six feet,” he said. “Muskie also previously migrated around the lake in search of prey, which includes bass, perch, sheepshead and suckers.

That meant using up more of their energy. Because of the clearer water, there are more weeds, and more places for the big fish to hide and attack prey. That in turn means they don’t have to migrate as much, so all that energy that used to go into swimming and hunting is now making for much bigger fish.

So if you’re about to become a muskie hunter like Jones, here are a few tips on doing things the right way from the get-go, from the rods out.

The Tackle

Start with heavy action 6-to 7-foot rods, Jones says, that are stiff enough not only to handle a potential 40-pounder, but your terminal tackle, too. Use quality line-counter reels, like Penn or Daiwa. Don’t skimp on the line. You’re fishing Great Lakes big game, so 40-pound test is standard. “Everybody thinks they can go with 15- to 20-pound test line. Light tackle anglers can try getting by with 20-to 25-pound test line.

Instead of wire leaders, Jones recommends nylon. “Metal leaders just can’t take the impact of the hit of a muskie,” he says. “Of about 4,000 fish I’ve caught, I’ve lost about three because of a bad leader. But, go heavy, to stand up to the fish’s strike, and its mouthful of teeth, go with 60- to 80- pound test.”

The Lures

Muskie lures are unlike anything else used on the Great Lakes. They’re huge, made to imitate the fish’s favorite meals, from perch to bass. Jones’ favorite is the Pikey Minnow, however it’s not in production anymore and in fact is considered a collectible. So his great second choice is the Hi-Fin bucktail, made in Wisconsin, in silver and black, chartreuse and orange and natural tail along with fire tiger. The third to have is the Sucker Wiley. Hot colors include greens, yellows and browns to imitate a muskie’s favorite foods.

The Boat

If you’re careful, that is, if you always keep an eye to the weather, only go out on calm days, you can get by in a 16-foot boat, but with weather and wave worries, 18-foot and up is best. With a south wind, the lake’s south shore will be best. With a west wind, the northwest part of the lake is usually the best, so use nearby boat launches to improve your chances.

Other equipment

A good rod-holder is essential. Jones prefers those made by Down-East. They can swivel to vary each rod in relation to the boat and the wash for best results. “More important than lure color is usually the rod position in relation to the boat,” Jones says.

Always have a compass aboard, and a good fish finder helps as well. Jones also recommends a mapping GPS system, either boat-mounted or hand-held. It will tell you not only bottom contours, but will be your best friend in the event of trouble, or weather problems, and to judge trolling speed, which should be between 4 and 6 mph, with optimal speed of 5 mph. Carry a cell phone and don’t forget a pair of fishing gloves and a net. Make that a large net.

The Set

Muskie aren’t bottom feeders like walleye or lake bass. They’re most active usually in the top five feet of water, so you’ll want to set lines accordingly. “These fish will feed high. They like the sun and aren’t worried about something coming up from the bottom to eat them,” Jones reminds. Jones says he’s had some of his best fishing trolling into the sun and into the wind. He thinks that the fish face into the sun, so there’s less chance of spooking them away from his lures.

Since Michigan allows two rods per angler, Jones recommends as wide a spread of lures to present as possible. Set your longest lines out with 2-ounce sinkers and run the lines about 65 feet back. Place those on planer boards on either side of your boat. Set as many lines inside of those as you can, using slider rigs to take additional lines out. For the first row, use 8-ounce sinkers and run those about 12 feet behind the boat. For others, use a 4-ounce weight on 35 feet of line.

Now here’s the part that goes against what you might have learned, but it works on muskie. Set another line or two only a foot or two off the stern, in the boat’s wash, and keep it there with a one-pound weight. Muskie are actually attracted to boats, and they’re very aggressive, and usually, he says, either out of what Jones calls their natural curiosity, or to aggressively defend their territory, so lures set closest to the boat work best. At least two of our fish hit on those lures set closest to the boat.

The Season

Muskie season on St. Clair runs from the first Saturday in June to Dec. 15, and Jones prefers the heat of midsummer to bring out the best fishing. He often fishes right into late fall. Opening day will find good fishing in shallow areas like Anchor Bay, but as the season goes on, the best fishing develops along the Canadian shoreline, and mid-lake.

When You Go

If you’re a novice, the best thing to do is to learn from an expert the first few times out, and Steve Jones is happy to help. To book a trip, call him at (586) 463-FISH, or go to¬† Jones also jigs the Detroit River for walleye in spring and also goes after perch and walleye in summer. Jones is a firm believer in catch-and-release muskie fishing. So hook that big fish, and take a picture instead of taking it home.