Many consider muskellunge to be the premier game fish in Michigan. They grow big, have impressive teeth, and fight hard. They are also hard to catch, referred to as the “fish of 10,000 casts.”
Yet, they can be the fish of zero casts if you fish with a charter captain such as Kevin Backus on Michigan’s Lake St. Clair.
That’s because Backus, who runs Mr. Muskie Charters, trolls for them–no casting involved. And Backus, like a lot of experienced muskie trollers on this massive lake shared by Michigan and the Province of Ontario, catches a lot of fish.
I joined Backus aboard his 31-foot Tiara Open for a hot summer day of trolling. It was only the second time I’d pursued these fish, considered by many to be the premier freshwater species, and I’d yet to catch one that was close to a keeper. Not that any true muskie angler would consider keeping a muskie–catch-and-release is the rule.
Backus is the grandson of Captain Homer LeBlanc, a legend among muskie anglers, who guided Lake St. Clair in days of yore. LeBlanc was also a troller, and might be best known for creating the Swim Whizz lure, a long-bodied bait that’s curved at both ends (and has been much imitated by other companies over the years).
Backus set out an array of lures on planer board lines, covering a wide swath. Big ball-shaped sinkers went in front of the lures to take the offerings several feet down without a lot of line out. He rigged some of the rods with large, bucktail spinners; others received crankbaits, including some Swim Whizzes of his grandfather’s design. These lures fell out of production for a while, but were resurrected by Matt Serbenski of Big Bear Products of Paw Paw, Michigan, a friend of mine who was also along on this trip with our mutual friends Al Malsch and Kelly Bennett.
Before joining Captain Backus at his dock, we bought Ontario licenses at Lakeside Fishing Shop, just in case our trolling route took us across the Canadian border. Lakeside, run by Captain Dan Chmielak in St. Clair Shores, is a great place to find out what the muskies are biting on and where, and offers a fishing report hotline at 586-777-7008.
In the summer, the muskies hang in the deeper parts of this shallow lake–in 13- to 18-foot depths, Backus said.
“This lake doesn’t have a whole lot of structure so we try to find the bait,” he explained. “In the spring we may fish a little shallower and as the water heats up the bait moves out a little deeper and the muskies follow.”
“Bait” in St. Clair covers a lot of different species, anything from mooneye shad to walleyes.
“They’ll eat anything they can get their mouths around,” Backus says, and a look at his huge array of lures shows patterns that mimic shad, smallmouth bass, perch, walleyes, northern pike, and even small muskies. As for size of the lure, he starts the year with six-inchers, and goes up in size as the season progresses. By fall, he’s using 10-inch lures.
Backus spools heavy-duty baitcasting reels with 40- to 50-pound monofilament line and adds a sinker that varies between an ounce and a pound. He says he wants to target the top 10 feet of the water column, with some lines just a foot or two under the surface. While many muskie anglers use a wire leader to hold up to the muskies’ maws full of razor-sharp teeth, Backus prefers a longish leader of fluorocarbon between 50- and 100-pound test.
He trolls the spread of lures at a good clip–between 3.9 and 4.5 miles per hour.
St. Clair is known for producing large numbers of smaller fish, and on our trip we caught seven, up to 38 inches long. This year, the action on big fish has been noteworthy. When interviewed this week, Backus said he’d landed five fish longer than 50 inches in the past 10 days. He noted the first spring tournament was won by a 37.5-pound fish, and that in early summer, a 45-pounder came to a lucky angler’s net.
For a guy trying to catch St. Clair muskies for the first time, the shortcut to success is to hire a charter to get a feel for the trolling program before attempting it on his own. But due to the sheer numbers of fish available in this muskie factory of a lake, even first-time muskie trollers have a good chance of connecting with one or more of these storied fish. And I guarantee you won’t have to cast 10,000 times before you catch one.
Images by Dave Mull