How to Hold a Musky (and other info)

Friday, April 28, 2006

Hunting Michigan's Trophy Pike

Lunker northerns are getting harder to find, but if you target these eight great waters, you could be in for a big surprise. (March 2006)

By Jeff Kutcha

When it comes to big fish, pike can be tough to catch in areas with a lot of fishing pressure. Michigan anglers average about 19 million days of fishing a year, which is strong evidence our northerns get plenty of pressure.

Fortunately, Michigan boasts a lot of water and some great pike habitat that disperses angling efforts and provides protection for big northerns. The most consistent trophy systems are big waters connected to the Great Lakes, where fish can reproduce in shallow water and grow unmolested in the deep green void far from shore. But there also are smaller producers: quiet bays and flowages endowed with the habitat, forage and lack of angling pressure -- or religious practice of catch-and-release -- to support sizeable Esox.

Here's an overview of eight of the most dependable trophy-pike systems Michigan has to offer.

ST. MARYS RIVER
Local pike and muskie guide Bert Rimer feels strongly about the quality of fishing on the St. Marys.

"The St. Marys River holds what is in my opinion the best pike fishing in the state of Michigan," said Rimer. "Good pike fishing for big northerns can be found in many areas, including Raber, Eller, Fowler and Munuscong bays. And because of the size of this water, I recommend a 16-foot boat minimum, with 18-foot or longer boats being even better."

When asked why the St. Marys River consistently produces such big northern pike, Department of Natural Resources management unit supervisor Dave Borgeson points to the sheer size of the system.

"A lot of it has to do with the St. Marys being such a huge body of water," he said. "Northerns are susceptible to angling, particularly on Michigan's small lakes. But the larger systems hold better fish because these predators have better opportunities to find optimal prey items like perch, smelt, lake herring and, surprisingly, crayfish. Here, pike generally survive longer, so they get bigger."

According to Rimer, rocks, reeds and weeds make up the majority of pike cover in the St. Marys, and 8 to 12 feet of water produces the most fish. Look specifically for those areas where the reddish clay-stained water mixes with the green water of the St. Marys River. For big pike, he works the edge of the red water by casting a red-and-white or a five-of-diamonds Dardevle. Or else he'll slow-roll white spinnerbaits. Rimer locates scattered fish by trolling Bomber Long A's or the Long A Magnums at 2 to 2.5 mph.

Good launches to access the river are located in Raber, De Tour Village and at the mouth of the Little Munuscong River. For general news on fishing conditions or lodging, contact Bert Rimer at the Little Munuscong River Resort, just northeast of Pickford, at (906) 647-2024, or check out his Web site at www.musky-guide-resort.com. For more tourism info, call the Sault Area Chamber of Commerce at (906) 632-3301.

VAN ETTEN LAKE
This Iosco County gem represents a unique trophy-pike contrast to our typically vast, weedy systems.

A small 1,300-acre impoundment of the Pine River, Van Etten Lake receives substantial turbidity from the inflowing stream, algae blooms and persistent wave action against clay substrates. This keeps weed growth to a minimum, rarely reaching past 10 feet. The basin ranges from 20 to 24 feet, including a few slightly deeper holes, which is rather shallow for big-pike production. Though it doesn't sound like the prototypical pike lake, fish from 10 to 12 pounds are common, with monsters pushing 20 pounds available. Stewards do well to release their trophy catch on Van Etten, because the lake is closed off from the Great Lakes' replenishing stocks by a small, impassable dam.

In Van Etten, a band of success runs along the sharp and sinuous primary breakline. During most of the summer, the top of this drop is visible as a spotty weedline running parallel to shore in anywhere from 6 to 10 feet of water. Whereas smaller fish will be scattered in shallower weedy areas, most of the adult northerns cruise this ledge during feeding time.

Your best bet is to troll the breakline, using a variety of lures in an attempt to strain the lip from top to bottom. This is exclusively crankbait territory, so begin by working the top edge near the weeds with shallow-running crankbaits. Storm ThunderSticks and F-13 Rapalas are good choices for covering water down to about 6 feet. This shallow, fish will actively pursue anything that resembles potential cuisine, so don't worry about presenting the lure off bottom.

Deeper work requires more careful attention to lure placement. For midrange depths to about 12 feet, go to Shad Raps, jointed J-18 Rapalas and Lil' Ernies to stay in the zone. Depth Raiders and 700 series Spoonplugs will easily reach the lower edge of the breakline around 18 feet. Due to the turbidity, the key to big-pike success in the deeper water is staying close to bottom.

Just north of Oscoda, Van Etten Lake sports a concrete launch with good parking on the lake's south shore off State Road F-41. Call the Oscoda Chamber of Commerce at (989) 739-7322 for more area information. Contact the DNR Gaylord office at (989) 732-3541 with additional fishing questions.

ST. CLAIR RIVER
Although metro Detroit's Lake St. Clair is typically noted for world-class muskie fishing, its northern population is sensational as well.

Pike nearing 20 pounds are taken regularly, and in 2000, one lucky angler reported a 51-inch monster that pushed the scales over 27 pounds. The difficulty is that at over 450 square miles, St. Clair northerns have a lot of room to spread out. That makes isolating productive cover particularly challenging.

Beat the odds by getting off the lake and working structure in the lower sections of the St. Clair River. Pike anglers do well to stay near the cool waters of the various canals that wind through vast, shallow flats. A quick look at the river delta shows acres of shallow rushes and emergent weeds, which are important elements for attracting baitfish, providing cover and holding big pike. All channels hold good numbers and big fish, but pay particular attention to river sections around the Middle Channel and Strawberry Island in the U.S., as well as the entirety of Walpole Island and Mitchell's Bay in Canada, where you'll need a license purchased in that country.

In lowlight hours, check the skinny water from the edge of the rushes out to the channel drop by casting high-running lures like bucktails or jerkbaits. As the sun moves higher, switch over to precision trolling runs with crankbaits along the deep weed edge, making both upstream and downstream passes. Because of the high water clarity, it's easiest to use both electronics and visual inspection to keep the trolling pass on track.

Good DNR launch facilities for the St. Clair River exist in Algonac and farther west off Anchor Bay Drive. For more information on area accommodations, call the Anchor Bay Chamber of Commerce at (586) 725-5148. Direct additional fishing questions to the DNR's Livonia office at (734) 953-0241.

MICHIGAN CENTER CHAIN
In the low rolling hills of southern Michigan flows a small, quiet, yet significant pike fishery.

At over 1,500 acres, the Michigan Center Chain of lakes near Jackson plays home to a strong population of surprisingly large fish. Northerns from 8 to 12 pounds are common. They range loosely throughout this winding maze of swamps and basins. Most anglers elect to release big fish because of the small, closed nature of the system.

The chain comprises nine major basins. At the western end, the Michigan Center impoundment is wide and shallow, with large weedflats and few scattered holes. Big and Little Olcott lakes hold deeper waters, less weed mass and more silted bottoms. Big and Little Wolf lakes are the deepest lakes in the system and feature substantial weedy breaklines with numerous hard-bottomed points and cuts. The real beauty here is that because good pike thrive throughout the system, anglers can use any presentation to score. Simply match your fishing style to a specific lake.

Spinnerbaiters do well by working the weeds in Michigan Center. Stay with 3/8- or 1/2-ounce heads with large willow-style blades. Use a fast retrieve to keep lures thumping just above the vegetation. Large, single-hook spoons work well here, too. Try Johnson's Silver Minnows, or doctored Dardevles whose trebles have been replaced with a single heavy hook. These tactics work well in the smaller middle lakes of the Michigan Center Chain as well. But because of the deeper waters, heavier lures with smaller blades become necessary to push baits down into the strike zone.

Because of the larger size of Big and Little Wolf lakes, trolling crankbaits is crucial for finding big northerns, and getting down deep is the key. Starting at around 12 feet, work the base of the weedline by using electronics to keep your boat just off the maddening salad. Work progressively deeper with large-profile baits, like Bucher Depth Raiders and the Storm Stretch Plus series, to tempt big fish in the darkest hiding spots.

The best access points for the chain are on Michigan Center Lake proper. There is a gravel launch on the west end with good parking off Fifth Street, and a well-maintained DNR-paved ramp on the lake's west end, accessible from Napoleon Road. For fishing information, call The Minnow Bucket in Jackson at (517) 764-1909; and for tourism guidance, try the Greater Jackson Chamber of Commerce at (517) 782-8221.

MUSKEGON RIVER
Typical discussions of western Michigan trophy-pike waters usually focus on drowned river-mouth lakes like Manistee, Mona and Macatawa, but there is a less conspicuous system that quietly produces respectable numbers of big fish.

A quick look at DNR Master Angler Award data shows that Newaygo County's Muskegon River and its impoundments consistently produce some of Michigan's largest pike of the year, and they're all locked into a relatively small area. According to DNR fisheries biologist Rich O'Neil, part of the reason such good fish result from that area is due to the large amount of water in Croton Pond (1,380 acres), Hardy Pond (3,971 acres) and the Muskegon River.

"Neither lake holds the abundant aquatic vegetation that pike prefer, but I think the large size of these systems makes a big difference," said O'Neil. "Although pressure is fair and pike populations are not dense, the lakes do produce some big fish. Forage in the impoundments is good, with abundant yellow perch and minnow species, and the river is full of soft-rayed fishes like white and redhorse suckers, so there is plenty of food to grow large predators."

By launching on Croton Pond just west of the dam on Croton Road or at Hardy Pond's Newaygo County Park near the dam off Elm Avenue, anglers will see that the abundant zebra mussels have created moderately clear water. Patchy weed growth reaches about 25 feet in some locations. Short, sandy shelves extend to the breaklines, which fall quickly into the deep water of the old river channel and comprise a major fish-attracting feature in both impoundments.

Use electronics to find deep weeds, woody cover or steep breaks on the outside bends of the river channel for best chances. Start fishing near bottom in about 20 feet of water and work progressively deeper. Because of the clarity of the water, natural bait presentations account for the majority of big catches. Five- or 6-inch suckers or shiners fished under large slip-bobbers or pinned to quick-strike rigs and worked along bottom make good monster-pike treats in these systems. When that trophy finally comes to net, remember that the pike population in the Muskegon River is at low density, so catch-and-release greatly improves the future of the resource.

For more information, contact the DNR Muskegon office at (231) 788-6798; or for general tourism-related questions, call the Newaygo Chamber of Commerce at (231) 652-3068.

HOUGHTON LAKE
For the uninitiated, Houghton Lake can be highly intimidating. At 22,000 acres, this traditionally weedy, shallow basin forms the headwaters of the Muskegon River. Before the dawn of the logging industry, it must have acted as a crucial spawning grounds and nursery for northern pike from Lake Michigan to Roscommon County. Today, the many dams on the Muskegon River prevent access to Houghton from the lower sections, but big northerns continue to show up in the Master Angler Award data.

Although Houghton is our state's largest lake, the fish really can't hide from intelligent anglers. With relatively little basin area exceeding 18 feet -- and with recent chemical treatments designed to destroy the thick mats of milfoil -- predator and prey are squeezed into relatively small cover zones.

Start efforts in the expanse of weed clumps known as the Middle Grounds or in any of the remaining stands of thick cabbage and grass. Fishing for big northerns here is more like bass tactics than anything else. Either drift over the jungle, or use an electric trolling motor for propulsion and sight-fish into the holes between the clumps of weeds. Most times, pike hold tight near bottom in this type of structure, so a heavy lure does a better job of keeping temptation in the strike zone. Make short casts or vertical jig oversized plastic salamanders on 1/2-ounce leadheads or chunky spinnerbaits with small blades for relatively weed-free fishing. Heavy casting gear with 20-pound-test black Berkley FireLine is smart muscle to pull heavy fish free of deep weeds.

Access points around Houghton Lake abound, with concrete launches found in Prudenville and just west of the high school along M-55. For tourism info, call the Houghton Lake Chamber of Commerce at (989) 366-5644. Fishing advice can be had at Lyman's on the Lake Resort at (989) 422-3231.

THE BAYS DE NOC
"They get some nice fish out there, and the high point for pike fishing in the Bays de Noc is that they're quite underexploited fisheries," said DNR unit supervisor Mike Herman. "Most anglers working this area focus on the strong walleye population, so the northerns remain relatively untouched. The key is finding the weeds that pike frequent, which isn't that difficult because the zebra mussels have cleared the water enough to make weed patches stand out."

Veteran Delta County pike guide Ken Lee also knows that weeds are essential to big-pike location.

"Little Bay de Noc is basically a deep trough surrounded by shallow flats, with weedbeds all along the edge of the dropoff," said Lee. "Big Bay is just as good, but it's a little different because the water is clearer, and both the weeds and fish seem to hold deeper as a result. Clear water means spooky fish, and the winding contours make trolling tough, so my attack plan entails pretty much all casting tactics.

"We're throwing into the cabbage weeds and thick coontail, which can really foul baits with multiple treble hooks, so we use a lot of spinnerbaits for tempting pike," Lee continued. "My favorite is Northland's 3/8-ounce Reed Runner in orange sunrise or chartreuse sunrise. We just get right on the break and drift, or use the trolling motor to stay just off the deep side of the weeds. It seems that the biggest fish come from the deep weedline in 10 to 14 feet, though on cloudy days the fish can be up much higher in the water column."

Access to Little Bay de Noc is in Gladstone, Rapid River and on Hunter's Point. In Big Bay, there's the mouth of Garden Creek and Fayette State Park. For fishing pointers, contact Lee at (906) 474-6918 or www.baydenoccharters.com. For area information, try the Delta County Area Chamber of Commerce at (906) 786-2192.

PORTAGE LAKE
A quick look at DNR Master Angler Award data shows that Houghton County's Portage Lake is a consistent producer of giant northerns. Basically an inland extension of Lake Superior, Portage's deep, cool waters attract and hold monsters year-round. And according to DNR Fisheries Division technician supervisor Ed Pearce, the fishery is becoming more popular for a variety of reasons.

"Even though most of the attention from popular press and tournaments in Portage focuses on walleyes, the resulting pressure brings to light the outstanding pike potential," said Pearce. "Anglers are traveling here more frequently, and when they do, they become aware of the quality of the pike fishing.

"The potential here is easy to understand," Pearce continued. "There's quite a bit of spawning habitat in Pike Bay and the south entry channel. Some fish even make a mating run through the Sturgeon River into Otter Lake. And Portage Lake is big (nearly 10,000 acres), with ample forage in the form of spot-tailed shiners and common white suckers, so it has all the necessary ingredients of a great pike producer."

Some of Portage's best pike fishing occurs out from the launch just off U.S. Highway 41 in Chassell's Pike Bay. Good cabbage beds run from the outlet of Pike Bay, both north and south. Improving on the area is the multitude of bars and cuts jutting out from the marshy backside of Pike Bay. There's also good fishing in the north canal, which features mainly sand flats with sharp drops. Big pike cruise at varying depths along these breaks, so employ trolling patterns with large crankbaits to cover water and contact fish.

For dining and lodging information, contact the Keweenaw Peninsula Chamber of Commerce at (906) 482-5240. Call the DNR's Western Lake Superior office for more fishing information at (906) 353-6651.

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