The muskie is a slimy, toothy contradiction with a nasty disposition.
It is one of the most difficult freshwater fish to catch, yet it is the apex predator wherever it is found, attacking and feeding on other fish, frogs, snakes, ducklings, muskrats, crayfish, mice, small mammals and birds and even other muskies.
Its mouth is decked out in an array of long, sharp teeth and the muskie prefers to take its prey headfirst. It is the largest of the pike family, and the name muskellunge is derived from the Ojibwa word maashkinooze, which is translated as “ugly pike.”
Maybe they are just mad about the name.
For Spencer Berman, a top muskie guide on what is arguably one of the best muskie waters in the world, Lake St. Clair, muskies are a good match. He likes their disposition, their cantankerous nature, their power and punch, and the difficulty involved with catching muskies.
“I love the puzzle. I love the challenge. I just love fishing for muskies,” the Sylvania native said. “If it was easy, I’d get bored in a hurry and I wouldn’t do this.”
Berman, who has been guiding professionally for 10 years, said St. Clair is the ideal place for growing big muskies, and that is why he is here.
“I could fish this place 365 days a year,” said Berman, who spends part of the winter doing appearances at outdoors shows, and then hits the Detroit River early each spring to take advantage of the walleye spawning run before setting up on Lake St. Clair for the long haul.
St. Clair is a mini great lake, sitting in the drainage that connects Lake Huron and the upper Great Lakes with Lake Erie and the lower waters of the system. It is fed primarily by the St. Clair River, and drains via the Detroit River. The lake, which has 430 square miles of surface area, straddles the U.S./Canada line and more than half of Lake St. Clair sits on the Ontario side.
The lake is shallow, with an average depth of 11 feet, and a maximum depth of 27 feet. Berman said that shallow aspect is a part of what makes Lake St. Clair a muskie haven and a muskie angler’s heaven.
“St. Clair has everything a muskie needs,” he said. “Shallow water is always the key since it increases your fertility, and this lake is shallow and rich in nutrients and food. And if you drew out the ideal muskie spawning habitat and the ideal spawning habitat for shad, a primary food, then you would draw the south shore of St. Clair.”
Berman said Lake St. Clair has the best muskie numbers in the world, because of that shallow and warmer environment, and prodigious amounts of food for these marauding predators. On an outing this past week, Berman and his clients boated two muskies more than 50 inches long, a 47-inch fish, a couple of 44-inchers, and a 41-inch muskie.
“Plus, I got to see a 14-year-old kid catch a 50-inch muskie,” Berman said. “That kind of thing really keeps you going. To do what I do every day, rain or shine, wind and cold, you really have to love it or you are not going to last.”
Berman said he starts his search for big muskies by seeking out the large schools of baitfish, primarily gizzard shad. From there, he moves around to zero in on the largest fish feeding in the area.
“You are always looking for bait, and if you find concentrations of those fish, you will normally find muskies of all sizes,” he said. “If you are catching dinker-doos [small muskies] then you’re probably not in the right area and need to move. It’s a chess game with a lot of moving parts.”
Berman has a disdain for trolling so he breaks from tradition and casts for big muskies as often as he can. He is annoyed by other anglers on Lake St. Clair whom he said follow him around the lake.
“Casting is my thing. I’ll troll if I have to, but I’d much prefer to hook and catch muskies by casting for them,” he said. “So I have very few local clients, since most of the guys around here are not casters.”
His clientele is primarily from larger cities of the Midwest, with Chicago supplying many of his customers, and from overseas, from Germany and Sweden.
“A lot of guys will come from a long ways away for the chance to hook up with a huge muskie,” he said. “The European guys are all pike fishermen, and it seems like every pike fisherman wants to catch a muskie. St. Clair is the hottest lake going, so they make their way here.”
His successful pursuit of giant muskies often leaves Berman questioning the thinking behind the mythical “fish of 10,000 casts” reputation these fish have, but not always.
“There are some days when it feels like it might take 10,000 casts to catch one,” he said. “But once you hook the next muskie, the thrill is back and you forget all about that.”