If you have ever wondered what it would be like to try fly
fishing for musky on Lake St Clair just picture yourself
in a boat on a warm summer’s day fly fishing and
stripping in a streamer on a large lake. At the very end
of your retrieve, you see a long and dark shape appear
near the side of the boat behind your 8” fly. It’s a musky
that is well over 40” and its only one fly rod length away
from where you are standing. Your heart rate
escalates, you stop breathing, and in one body length,
this voracious predator accelerates to almost 30 mph. It
attacks your fly right next to the boat, just under the
waters surface. Then it runs, stripping off 30 feet of line
before jumping four feet out of the water. Twelve
minutes and three hard runs later, your holding a
musky for a quick picture and acquiring a memory that
will last a lifetime. After the fish is released, everyone in
the boat takes a 15-minute break, while waiting for their
hands to stop shaking so they can cast a fly rod again.
Incidents like this are why I believe that fly-fishing for
musky on Michigan’s Lake St Clair is the most thrilling
experience you can find in freshwater.
Lake St Clair is located in the North East section of Metro Detroit. In recent years, it has gained the title as
North Americas premiere musky fishery. The lake has crystal-clear water, is 420 square miles in area, with
an average depth of only 10 feet. There are more musky per square mile in Lake St. Clair than in any other
body of water. These are the ingredients that make Lake St Clair the perfect place to catch a musky on a fly
rod. And this fishery keeps getting better every year. In the Nov/Dec 2004 issue of American Angler
Magazine, Lake St Clair was listed as one of the top 100 most amazing fly fishing destinations in the world. I
cannot believe how many fly fisherman in Michigan travel to distant locations to fly fish, but have never
experienced this world-class fishery so close to home.
Lake St Clair has always been a popular muskie fishery although there are a couple of reasons why it has
expanded to such world class proportions. In the last twenty years, the environmental quality of the lake has
increased tremendously due to higher restrictions on pollution. The recent accidental introduction of the
exotic zebra mussel has filtered the once muddy lake to an almost clear appearance. With clear water, it is
much easier for a sight-oriented predator like the musky to catch its prey and see your streamer. However,
the most important factor is that over 90% of the anglers and guides on Lake St Clair now practice catch
and release for musky. Catch and release has a tremendous affect on a species that can take 20 -25 years
to reach trophy size. Also, there is no reason to kill a musky these days, since there are so many options
with fiberglass mounts and reproduction carvings with which to remember your trophy.
In the past, fly fishing for musky was frowned upon and thought of as a waste of time. It was known then as a
fish of ten thousand casts. They were usually only caught by accident while fly casting for pike or bass. On
my Lake St Clair fly-fishing guide service, I used to try to talk my clients out of casting for musky unless they
really knew what they were getting into. It simply took a lot of time and hard work.
A great deal has changed since then, and fly fishing for musky has
become very effective. In the last few years, I have made many
adaptations and discovered some new techniques that have
completely changed how I fish Lake St Clair. It is rare that I go out now
that I do not run into some type of musky action. There are also a
growing number of isolated pockets of musky fly fisherman and guides
popping up in other areas of the Midwest, from Minnesota to New
York. Many of us are sharing information and ideas, increasing the
knowledge about this widely misunderstood fish. Our collaboration is
improving our techniques to make musky much easier to catch on a
fly. They are still not an easy fish to catch on a fly rod, and at times it
can be down right frustrating, but for those dedicated enough to take
the challenge, it can offer the trophy of a lifetime.
It used to be thought that you had to cover as much water as possible in a day to increase your chances of hooking a
musky. Personally, I am more into the quality over quantity concept. I find key areas that I have confidence in and focus
most of my time and attention on them. Some of these areas might only be the size of an acre or two, but most are
rarely ever larger than a 1/3 of a mile in width and length. When fishing these specific areas I use a Minn Kota Rip Tide
electric motor on my flats boat. While using the autopilot and mounting the wrist watch sized copilot remote control to
the cork on my fly rod, I can maneuver the boat and cast at the same time. It’s so easy it almost feels like cheating.
I will sometimes fish these key areas for 1-2 hours at a time before moving to another
spot. I might also hit the same spot 2-3 times over the course of a full day. I have
found that musky will often feed in spurts of aggressive behavior 1-3 times a day for
short periods of time. Staying in an area longer and fishing it a few times a day will
increase your odds of being at a prime area when one of these feeding frenzies start. I
have no idea what causes this feeding activity, but it usually lasts from 15 minutes to
an hour and can end as quickly as it started. When this feeding activity starts it usually
is taking place all over the lake at the same time.
Most of my best spots are related to some type of key structure. Some good examples would be the edges of major
web beds, drop offs with a current, as well as openings in or between weed beds that act like a natural funnel for
baitfish. There are also hundreds of areas on Lake St Clair with small rock or cement piles that have been dumped in
water 10-14 feet deep. Find any of these little humps with a fish finder and there should be musky close by. You will
often see the musky positioned right against the rocks, waiting for a meal to pass by.
It is all right to use eight and nine weight fly rods for musky, but I primarily use 10 weights. With a 10 weight, you have
no trouble casting large flies, you have the power for extra strong hooks sets, and you have more than enough rod to
fight big fish. Ninety percent of the time I am casting musky streamers with Cortland 400 grain sink tip lines. Many
people think casting a 10 weight is difficult and strenuous, but with the newer sink lines, it is much easier than it looks.
I find that most people are trying to hard or trying to cast too far, wearing their arms out quickly. If you can cast a fly
line 40-50 feet that is all you need for fishing for musky. If you can cast a line 100 feet, you still only need 40-50 feet
for musky. Don’t over do it!
Musky have a mouth full of razor sharp teeth that will slice through any monofilament line like butter. I used to use
knotable steel wire as a leader but now I exclusively use 80-pound flourocarbon. It is clear, much more durable, and
easier to use than steel wire. After switching to flourocarbon I also started hooking many more trophy sized bass and
walleye on musky streamers. When using a sink tip I normally have a leader of 4 feet of 20-pound maxima followed
by 12 inches of fluorocarbon as a tippet.
I have tried just about every style of musky fly out there from
large deceivers to bunny leeches, but I have the best luck
using a ‘musky teaser’. It’s a fly that I designed a few years
ago that is made of Icelandic sheep hair. It has low water
retention, it is easy to cast, and it has a very life like
appearance stripped through the water. The most popular
colors of the musky teaser for Lake St Clair are natural colors
like shad, sheephead, perch, and fluorescent patterns like the
More often than not, a musky will follow the fly right to the side of the boat only one foot behind your fly. Many
people that have pike or musky fished before are familiar with the technique of drawing a figure eight with the rod tip
in the water next to the boat to induce a strike before lifting your streamer out of the water. I now prefer to draw a
large circle instead. Drawing a circle is much more effective and easier, and the larger a fish is, the larger the circle
should be. Seeing these huge scary fish come up that close to you is indescribable. The hardest part is not
panicking when you first see them, and this is why I recommend doing a circle at the end of every cast. It is a bit
more work but well worth the effort. Each year some of my clients loose fish because they get excited and try to do a
circle after it is too late. The best advice is to always be alert and look behind your fly at every cast.
When musky follow a fly in close they are completely unpredictable. Some will attack the fly right away and some
seem to wait forever. I have had fish follow a fly for four circles without making a strike and then swim off. Don’t give
up if they do swim off. Make another cast in the direction they were headed. I believe a musky would not follow a fly
that far if they did not intend to eat it. Last year I even had a customer pull a fly out of the water to soon and a
musky jumped a full body length out of the water trying to grab that fly in the air right at the side of the boat. If I ever
loose the extreme adrenalin rush I get from seeing things like this, I will quit musky fishing.
After a musky is hooked, I keep the rod tip low. They like to thrash on the surface and can jump like a tarpon.
As soon as their head is above the water there is a good chance the hook can be thrown. Holding the rod low
or even under water makes it harder for this to happen. Another mistake I see a lot is that many people reel
them in to the boat to quickly. Musky are the ultimate trickster when hooked, and can give the impression that
they have given up. As soon as you try to net them, they go ballistic with only 3 feet of line to play with and then
the hook can come out. Let them make a few hard runs first to tire themselves out a little before bringing them
to the side of the boat.
We should feel fortunate that we have a world-class
musky fishery here in Southeast Michigan. The
Lake St. Clair musky has been here in these waters
since at least the last ice age. This is a naturally
reproducing fishery, as it has never been stocked.
These are wild natural fish, and just knowing that
they are there in the water hunting your streamer is
enough to elicit excitement in even the most laid-
back angler. Great trophies demand only the best
conservation practices. The best practice that I can
recommend is ‘catch & release’. By making use of
‘c & r’ we can be sure to preserve this great Lake
St Clair fly fishing for musky madness for future
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