The Mighty Muskie: The Elusive King of the River

Richard Clark, Signman Charters, takes people around the St. Lawrence River to fish for muskies.

BY: Doug Buchanan
It might be impressive to catch a nice big trout or walleye, or even a hefty pike, but for north country anglers, there’s nothing that can compare to landing the most elusive fish of the St. Lawrence River – the mighty muskie.

    Routinely growing to a length of four feet or better, the muskellunge is as challenging to catch as it is wondrous to observe. With sharp teeth and an angry demeanor, some say the breed looks positively otherworldly. But all muskie fishermen agree about one thing: Once you experience what Massena-based muskie guide Don Lucas of Muskie Magic Charters describes as “the rush and the joy that comes with catching such a magnificent species of fish,” you’ll never be able to forget it.

    For Lucas, who has been boating muskies for decades and estimates that he’s caught and released more than 1,500 in his lifetime, muskie fishing began taking up more and more of his fishing time, even back when he was fishing for sustenance for himself and his family.

    “It does become an addictive passion,” he says.

    But for some, like fishing guide Rich Clarke of SignMan Charters out of Clayton, just catching a massive muskie isn’t enough.

    “I’m setting my hopes on the world record,” he said, adding that the very fish that could get him there is lurking below the surface of the St. Lawrence right now. He helped a client land a 60-inch behemoth with a 29½-inch girth several years ago – and they released it, possibly to catch again another day.

    “It’s going to die if we don’t get him back in the water,” he told his client, who agreed to return the monster to its natural environment before weighing it. “My heart said, ‘Why kill this fish?’”

    “They grow close to an inch a year,” said Rich, “so that’s got to be well over 64 inches by now.”

    The world record muskie, caught in 1949 in Wisconsin, was a fraction over 60 inches and weighed 67 pounds. Clarke didn’t get the weight of his 60-incher before putting it back in the water, but he estimates it weighed 62 to 64 pounds.

    Clarke is now in his 38th season as a fishing guide, and he says it was at least that long ago that he “got bit by the muskie bug.”

    Both Clarke and Lucas rely heavily on repeat customers to keep their guiding businesses afloat, but even the best guides, they’ll admit, sometimes bring their clients back to shore at the end of the day with nothing to show for their efforts – especially if they’re chasing the “fish of 1,000 casts.” They both have their best luck trolling for muskie, they say, as opposed to sitting in the same spot casting over and over again.

    Lucas takes somewhat of a scientific approach to his muskie fishing; for years he collected scale samples and data to send to Syracuse University for research being conducted there. Not only does he take pride in his efforts along those lines, he has used the data he collected to help him predict when and where the muskie will be biting – a system his clients well appreciate.

    “I always give people the option to move a trip up or back a day,” he explained. “People really appreciate that.”

    According to Lucas, cloud cover, barometric pressure, and wind speed and direction are just a few of the variables that must be taken into consideration when going after the beast that reigns at the top of the food chain in the river. Even so, he says, this is one fish that is not always predictable.

    “They say, ‘if the wind’s out of the east, the fish bite the least; if the wind’s out of the west, the fish bite the best,’” Lucas said, “but muskies are the exception to the rule. We’ve had some great catches on days with an east wind.”

    As for why these fish are so elusive, Clarke offers some little-known insights.

    “Muskie doesn’t swallow bait. Their initial hit is to bang that bait and stun it,” he said. “They will squeeze a fish until they’ve tired it out.”

    Also, he said, since muskie are at the top of the food chain, there are always fewer of them than anything else. And since anything in the water is prey to the muskie, if they hit your lure, they’re usually doing it out of instinct, not hunger.

    Lucas typically uses 40-pound test line and eight- to 12-inch lures.

    “Big baits for big fish,” he says, adding that you don’t have to be in deep water, or even in the St. Lawrence River itself, to catch a muskie; they’re in the tributaries as well. So if you know their spots – where they like to spawn and hunt, you’ll have much better luck at catching one. Of course, that’s where guides like Clark and Lucas – and others along the St. Lawrence River – come in mighty handy.

    Being primarily a trophy fish, most anglers catch and release muskie. But if you want to take your catch home with you, it has to be at least 54 inches long, by law. And it may come as a surprise that muskie is pretty good tasting fish, too.

    “It’s a white, flaky meat,” said Lucas. “It’s not gamey. But they do have a protective slime coating on the outside of their bodies, so you need to avoid contaminating the meat.”

    Lucas has a trick to help with that: He recommends laying your catch out in the sun for a while to let that coating dry out before you clean the fish. That way the slime doesn’t get on the meat.

    Whether you’re fishing for food or just for fun, one thing is certain: If you ever catch a muskie, you’ll never forget it – and chances are pretty good that you’ll come back for more.

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