St. Clair and Superior anglers know late season Muskie and Splake fishing is some of the very best
Put away your summer fishing gear yet? Too bad. Because you’re missing the boat, literally, bypassing two outstanding fall fishing opportunities tapped by only a handful of locals and those in the know.
I’m talking big mutha muskies on St. Clair, and a hush-hush splake bonanza in the tiny harbors at the tip of the UP’s Keweenaw, action that locals would rather keep to themselves.
So, keep those rods and reels handy, and let summer hang on a bit longer to explore these seasonal hotspots.
Normally out after walleye most of the summer prepping for AIM Tournament Series events across the country, Mark Martin was on vacation in the Keweenaw Peninsula and launched his Lund in roily harbor at Copper Harbor, as a nasty northwest wind whipped up a mean cocktail of waves and cold.
But neither he, nor we, cared. Dressed for it, we were after what only a few people standing on shore knew about: the tremendous run of splake that occurs here each October, and that continues until spring ice-out.
The first question is why are the fish so plentiful here?
Whether splake can reproduce is debatable. Google the question, and there are several answers. First, yes, they spawn, often in the same location as lake trout. Second, no. Third, maybe. Fourth, well, rather sheepishly, they were supposed to be sterile. The fourth seems to be the correct answer.
Splake continue to be planted in Lake Superior, and anglers like Martin are convinced they’re also spawning.
“The ones we’re catching are full of eggs and may only go through the motions, but their numbers are increasing up here, and they used to say the same thing about salmon in the Great Lakes that they don’t spawn. Well, guess what?” Martin said with a laugh. The answer, of course, is that salmon do spawn, but splake?
“They’re spawning at that time, or getting into position to be near their spawning beds, and they’re really aggressive, even following our lures to the surface,” he said, as we bounced through the three and four-footers in the harbor while larger waves crashed along rocks at the entrance to begin our wind drift. We witnessed that aggressiveness in short order.
Our party of five quickly tossed out our lines, both dead rods and casting. On the dead rod, Fireline attached to a half-ounce Northland Rock Runner sliding bottom bouncer, a Vanish 8-pound leader, and a free-swimming creek chub on a Daiichi bleeding No. 2 hook.
We were also tossing Thunderstick Juniors, shallow diving to keep them out of the rocks, and Blue Fox or Cleo spoons, reeled fairly quickly for the same reason. We let the strong late October winds push along, and cast and retrieved into the swells.
It didn’t take long to see what Martin was talking about. Right next to the boat, a splake came up, licked the surface with its tail for some reason, and headed back down to see what’s what. Then another at the other end of the boat. Then it was fish on, one of several that hit either the spoon or our dancing minnows straight under the boat.
It was huge. And beautiful. Dressed in a brook trout’s spawning colors, this cross between a brookie and a lake trout seemed almost too pretty to keep. But we did, and went back for more.
Martin said that the use of both a dead rod and casting was greatly increased our chances of hooking a fish. “Splake will use the boat as cover,” he said. “It’s a shadow in the water. They’ll go under the boat and as they come back out, and boom, they see the minnow and say ‘now that’s just want I want right there.’ And a dead rod is easy to use because you’re drifting with the wind so it keeps the presentation straight under the boat and away from your casts.”
“Putting down that minnow’s like putting a crawler on a bass bed,” Martin said. “They’re going to pick it up. And they follow lures right to the surface.”
As I cast my Cleo, I was about to get a demonstration. Reeling it in fast enough to keep it off the bottom, I was jolted by the hit of a splake headed for the bottom and taking my spoon with it. It was another beauty, about six pounds, dressed too in its fall finery.
“We’ve also caught a few coaster brook trout mixed in and I’ve also caught lakers up to 16 pounds because they’re spawning here at the same time,” he said.
Plan on finding very good splake in most of the small harbors from Eagle Harbor to the other side of the peninsula. “They’re found off Lac La Belle, in front of the Montreal River, off Bete Grise. I’ve caught ’em trolling on planers with crank baits, casting shallow shoreline areas and reefs in the middle of nowhere, on shoreline structures. Move along real slow and when you’ll get into ’em, they’ll let you know.”
Muskies in St. Clair
October may be shoulder season for fishing on Lake St. Clair, but for Captain Steve Jones, it’s just another great time to be on the water, after the king of that lake’s food chain, the muskie.
September to the last week in October produces some of the season’s biggest muskies. This year, the lake offered up outstanding action throughout the summer, with several fish up to 56 inches landed and released. On our trip off Belle River last October, we landed five in only four hours.
These huge predators are at their best and biggest come fall when they fatten up for winter on baitfish, near the mouths of rivers along the Ontario shore within sight of downtown Detroit, and elsewhere on the lake.
Granted, the weather has to be right to fish that Canadian water off Belle River, generally with the wind blowing west southwest, Jones says. But there are lots of muskie honey holes to choose from.
“We fish the American side too, but it depends on conditions,” Jones says. “I never know where I’m fishing from day to day, so when we leave the dock, we check the winds and fish the best spots.”
“The rule for trolling musky is to head into the wind, so we go where the best water is each day. If it’s blowing from the north, we often head out by the firecracker (the mid-lake channel marker),” he said. “You also you have warmer water in the fall there so it’s a good spot and you’re protected from any north wind.” On this day, the winds favored fishing the Ontario shore.
“The Belle River area is always a good, summer or fall,” Jones said, as he slowed to a trolling speed of around 3.9 mph. In summer, he trolls around 4.5 mph. You might expect these biggies to be in deeper, but not necessarily. After he set lines, Jones steered for clean water about a half-mile off shore, in about 10 feet of water.
Jones set his rods just as he does in summer, including one “down rod” on each side, on a one-pound weight only feet back from the boat and three feet down. A second tier is about six feet back, and others are 15 to 20 feet behind, and depending on the lure, without weight.
“You can’t fish too high out here or too close to the boat when you’re after muskies,” Jones said. Lures on top pique their curiosity, he said. “They eat like pigs all day and then want to come out to play.”
We began at 10:30 and shortly after, landed our first, a hefty 22-pounder. About a half-hour later, a monster snake hit. It took Len Harbrucker of Macomb Township several minutes to first gain line, and then winch in the beast.
It was 30 pounds and 50 inches long. Its mouth was so gaping, you could probably stick a clenched fist into it, but I wouldn’t recommend it. This was the size, Jones has said, that make the St. Clair legend of fish that like to eat ducks for breakfast ring true.
The fish kept hitting every half-hour or so until we left for home at around 2 p.m. After taking photos, we released them all. Most had hit while trolling downwind, but Jones said generally an upwind troll is best.
That’s the kind of action to expect at two of the state’s unheralded fall fishing hotspots.
When You Go For Splake
Mark Martin advises heading to the Keweenaw starting in September, but the fishing gets hot in late October, through ice formation. Ice fishing for splake continues through winter. To charter a splake trip, contact Larry Smith of Mohawk, 906-289-4481. Smith also fishes for UP bass, another UP fall treat.
When You Go For Muskies
Captain Steve Jones charters trips in mid summer, then heads for Lake Michigan salmon at Ludington in late summer. He is back in St. Clair after Labor Day after St. Clair muskies through October. Depending on conditions, you’ll need a Canadian license, which Jones can purchase for you. To book a trip, call 568-463-FISH, or go to fishpredator.com.