Tails from the Road: Michigan Musky
Fly fishing for musky means a lot of different things to me. It means planning, tying flies and rigging gear. It means preparation, persistence, and adaptability. It means phone calls, studying contour maps and surveying forecasts. Fishing for musky also has a sentimental side. It means I’m going home. Back to the Great Lakes. Michigan, specifically. A place that I hold so very dear to my heart. Those inland rivers and Great Lakes basins represent the beginnings. The chase, the travel, the serene whispers of the wild pines. The beginning of my personal journey as a fly rod angler and fishing guide. Fly Fishing in Michigan has some of the oldest roots in the country. Those feisty brown trout we obsess over were first introduced to our country on a cool crisp April morning in 1884 into the Pere Marquette River. The first ever Trouts Unlimited organization that pushed wild fisheries over “put-and-take” was founded on the Au Sable River near Grayling. The modern streamers most of us fish today were designed by Michigan locals Kelly Galloup and Russ Maddin. Mouse fishing for brown trout at night was also developed in Michigan once anglers needed to find a way to catch fish when the big hatches dwindled. Tight lining for trout, salmon, and steelhead was also (believed to be) developed in Michigan. The list goes on and on, but Michigan was step for step one of the leading places for anglers developing innovative techniques that have generationally evolved into the black hole that we know and love as “Modern Fly Fishing”. While my personal journey did begin on this very same river our beloved North American brown trout were first introduced, that is not what this article is about. Maybe we’ll touch on the beauty and legend of Northern Michigan’s famed trout waters in a different article. This edition of my personal verbal spewage is about the journey we call “Musky on the Fly” and my recent successful adventure chasing these fabled beasts.
I once lived ten minutes from a boat launch that had access to one of the greatest musky fisheries in the world, Lake St. Clair. I spent many days and countless hours trying to get a glimpse of these trophy Great Lakes musky. As most know, musky aren’t easy to fool and most of the time you aren’t catching, but I did eventually find my way into figuring these beasts out. Unfortunately though, I’ve now moved to the wild west where these fish aren’t as plentiful. Not that anything is wrong with Colorado, in fact I love it. But I sure do miss my musky. Colorado does boast a targetable number of juvenile stocked tiger musky, but these fish rarely get the size their cousins do in the east. So a few months back I decided to book a trip to hit my once local waters and hope for a trophy. A species native to Michigan and have called these hallowed waters home for way longer than any of us have been alive.
My trip preparation began long before I booked the trip though. Picking a window where it should be best to catch a musky is utmost important. Time is our most valuable asset. Time is the master. Living over 1000 miles from my target body of water, it makes sense for me to make as much time as possible to catch one of these musky. Ask any musky casting guide, fly or conventional and I'd wager most will agree that one day's time is most likely not enough. For this specific long journey home I have about four days to accomplish my mission. That mission is to shake hands with a trophy caliber apex predator in a lake that is approximately 430 square miles in size holding 130 miles of shore line and seemingly endless open water scenarios.
Outside of my time window, gear is arguably the most important part of the equation. I got busy making sure my gear was good. Check my fly lines. Check my rods. Making sure I still have the correct tools for unhooking the fish, handling them safely, and properly releasing them to fight another day. This includes a huge net to prevent any broken (musky) backs, two sets of jaw spreaders, bolt cutters in case a hook cannot be removed (break the hook so it doesn’t have a 12-15” fly in its mouth forever), several types of heavy duty pliers(not forceps), a landing glove to protect yourself when working on unhooking and also photographing the fish. This list is seemingly endless but they’re all necessary. I also never forget my first aid kit in case things get dicey. Once I made sure all my gear was good to go, I got everything organized and accessible for when that time comes.
On the fishing side of things, my personal favorite rod I’m using in the midwest is a 12wt G-Loomis IMX-PRO-Musky with a 500 grain sink tip spooled up on a large arbor reel to match. I also have the exact same rod in an 11wt spooled up with a 450 grain sink tip. From the fly line I am using 40lb saltwater fluorocarbon tied with an albright knot to 40lb wire bite. Sometimes I will use a 200lb staylock snap swivel, sometimes I will tie the 40lb wire bite directly to the streamer.
Side Note: If you’re considering musky on the fly, practice your knots at home(Please). Use paracord to get them looking just right, then practice with whatever wire leader material you're going to be using(Thank you). Musky are amazing creatures and we should treat them as such.
As far as flies go I’m fishing mostly stuff I tied at home. Big flies in the twelve inch range with multiple articulations, built for swim and profile. Large deceiver like patterns and also Buford style flies. Feel free to reach out if you want to know more about streamer fly design for predator species. I will be teaching some fly tying classes coming up this winter at the Golden Fly shop. (Sign up Here) My streamer colors resemble shad and perch. I’m also a huge fan of black streamers for musky.
I got my time window setup and all my gear prepared, I’m ready to make my journey. Luckily, my good buddy Donovan is local to the area where we’ll be fishing. He owns a Walleye 170 Starcraft so getting on the water is easy even though it is a small boat for big water musky fishing. We have extra obstacles when fishing a smaller vessel. Factors that must be considered for success but also safety. We are more limited to areas closer to where we launch. A small boat and small motor, on big water, can be a very unsettling place to be when the cold east winds howl across a large body of water like this. 4’ chop and freezing rain is not unheard of. Gale force winds and small craft advisories are very real and when in doubt it's better to play it safe than sorry. During this trip I had to cancel three days of fishing in the first part of my stay due to a cold front accompanied by wind and boat advisories as well as snowy unsafe travel conditions.
Side Note: Shout out to Casey Richardson (Grateful Guide Service) Erik Peterson(Northern Drifters) and Wild Bill Bellenger(Wild Bills Guide Service). Look them up. They are some of the fishiest dudes in them there north woods. Love and miss you guys. If you’re looking for a guide on Lake St Clair hit up Eric Grajewski(Musk-E Fly Fishing Adventures).
Day one, it’s early December and the air temp is in the mid thirties when we depart the marina. 3’ chop and windy as hell. Classic big water musky fishing in the fall. Luckily this late in the season we can target some inshore areas. River mouths to the big lake, canals and even some marinas. The typical offshore fishing opportunities for these musky just are not available to us in a smaller boat when the wind blows above 20mph.
On this day we hit that sweet spot. Right as the day warmed to a balmy high of 37*F and the rain drizzled, Donovan got blessed by a musky. A small one for this body of water, but any musky is a great musky, even the small ones don't come easy. This was his first for the year on the fly. A few more hours goes by and then it happens. Boom. I go tight to a big fish. I strip into it two times, maybe three. I got into him good. I angle my rod down and to the side. I keep stripping. Pulling the fish up from about 9 feet of water. It's coming right in, heavy, lethargic. It feels like a giant log just kind of slowly dragging in as I strip. Right as the fish came into sight it exploded with a big head shake three feet down and as quickly as I hooked it, it was gone. Dang it. I fish a lot. I have lost some big fish. More than I care to remember. The sting hits differently when the fish you lose is the fish of 10000 casts, on a fly rod, when you drove 1000 miles to catch it. A big ole slice of Lake St Clair humble pie. Eat up!
When you’re casting a 12wt fly rod, 500 grain sink tip, and a 12” streamer all day, good casting form pays off big time. Double hauls and no false casting. Get it as far as you can with as little effort and movement as possible. You’re going to be repeating that action approximately 2000 times in a day fishing for musky. Day two comes and goes. I was lucky enough to see another smaller musky landed by my buddy Zack. I casted over and over. I diligently performed my figure 8 maneuver boatside every cast. I never even moved a fish that day. Some people might be discouraged by these results in exchange for the effort put in, but I have been down this road before, and I understand these fish to be the most challenging bite to tangle with in these fresh water seas. The midwest musky ocean doesn't give up its bounty easily.
As day three of my trip begins, the conditions are still pretty brutal. We’re looking at 4’ chop and blowing wind. High temps in the mid thirties, and rain rain rain. 6 hours of nearly freezing rain. Most people cringe at the thought of fishing in conditions like this but not us Michigan boys. Cold wind, clouds and precipitation, that all sounds pretty dang fishy to me. Me and my buddies, Donovan Trevas and Kyle Ording slowly traverse the freezing cold waves for a few miles until we reach our destination. Still not my first choice, but we had to adapt. This area gets a lot of pressure from musky anglers. They’ve seen it all, but we know there are fish here. For today this is the best we can do. Cast cast cast. A quick five minute break to download a Coors and a handful of trail mix, then cast cast cast. Hours go by. Hundreds of cast. My body aches from the fatigue of casting a twelve weight for nearly three days now.
Musky fishing is a mental game. The physical aspect of it is obviously challenging, but it's the mental fatigue that creeps in on you. It can break you down and send you packing. For reference at this point in my trip I have been casting this extremely heavy set up for what feels like an eternity. It's easy to lose the excitement and intrigue you started with the first hours of day one. It's easy to lose the drive to keep casting that giant Musky fly as far as you can every single cast. Most importantly, it is easy to lose focus. Literally days have gone by and I have lost one fish, seen a couple small ones caught by others, but had no visible strikes or follows in so very long. Maintaining form and focus is one of the top requirements to being a musky fisherman. It doesn't matter how slow the bite has been, how brutal the weather is, how discouraged you and the rest of the boat may feel. Focus. Treat every cast with unlimited possibility. Stay diligent with your boatside maneuvers. I don't care if it's day 6 without even seeing a fish. I strive for the same focus on cast number 9,999 as I had on cast 1. These predators have a knack for inhaling your fly when you least expect it. Don't get caught with your pants down.
This is exactly when it all comes together for me. Focus, determination, repetition, and a little wishful thinking that any moment any cast could be the one. The one for me. The moment that it all becomes worth it. It’s always worth it. I am spending time with two of my best buddies. I am casting a fly rod. I am in my home state on a beloved piece of water…but now it's really worth it. I stay dedicated to fishing my fly to the best of my ability and wouldn't you know it, FISH ON! I strip set as hard as I can. Then I strip set again. I’m tight. The moment of what if comes and goes. I forget all that worry about my gear about my line about my knots, and instinct takes over. My rod is low and I have heavy side pressure on this fish. Donovan scrambles for the net, the fish is getting closer to the boat, we talk our way through the net job. Wait, wait, here it comes. I see color. It’s coming up. Ready? Now! It wasn't the cleanest net job I have ever seen, nor the biggest musky I have ever seen, but you know what? I got my Great Lakes musky in the bag. I got him. It's like a giant weight lifted off my shoulders. I finally got that monkey off my back. Target species acquired. It's a clean hookset on a great fish. Anyone that considers doing destination trips as a fly angler can relate to this feeling. I am not going home empty handed today. Not this time.
We did not measure this fish. We didn't have to. Once you have caught a handful of nice musky over the years it's not about inches. It's about moments. Moments spend grinding out the toughest bite windows and weather conditions. Moments loading and unloading the boat and gear. Moments hanging with some of my best friends back home who I regularly find myself missing dearly. I might be playing favorites but this moment is my favorite. A big fat fall musky in the bag with two of my best buds. We ready our tools for unhooking, come up with a plan for safe release, then I lift my trophy up for a quick photoshoot. This is not even in the zone of my biggest fly caught musky, but it is an amazing creature all the same. It’s the first I have been lucky enough to hold in several years. A beautiful and clean fish. Thick and built to kill. I hold the fish out of the water for about fifteen seconds then with a shake of the tail we part ways. High fives are exchanged and Coors are distributed amongst us. Yes! Stoke levels are at 100%. My boat mates get back to the program and continue casting. I sit for a moment and digest the last three days of efforts leading up to this fish. Keep dumping coins into that slot machine over and over. Keep casting, keep trying. Stay focused. Trust the process, your time will come sooner or later. Even a blind squirrel gets a nut every once in a while, and that is what it feels like landing a musky on a body of water the size of Lake St. Clair.
Day four begins. This is my final day for this trip before I start my trip back to Colorado. Like the days before, we double check all our equipment and gear, we pack accordingly and head out. Today feels different. The cold winds of December have laid down and the temps are creeping up to a comfortable 40*F. Waves are mild and we have been granted the opportunity to go try some different areas. Although the conditions are seemingly conducive to success, that is not how musky fishing works. Even though everything feels right, the bite is tough. Just because they should doesn't mean they will. We give it our all and cover water moving around within a shallow bay I have caught big musky in before. Our day on the water is slipping by with every cast. The calm waves roll beneath the boat and remind me the clock is ticking. My window of time allotted to chase these fabled creatures is about to slam shut. I caught an amazing fish and I hate to be greedy but it was not the fish I came here for. It was not the trophy sized fall giant I had pictured in my head. Musky fishing and expectations rarely coincide with reality.
In the end I would be lucky to leave with one fish of any size caught on a streamer fly I tied. I gratefully accept this and know I will be back some day. It's been 34 hours stretched across 4 days with this 12wt G-Loomis in hand. My body is wrenching with pain. My right shoulder and wrist are full of aches from hucking double hauls. My left hand is full of fatigue and cramps from ripping that big fly through the water as hard as I can every cast. We are on the wind down. We probably should have called it a day a while ago based on time spent versus fish caught.
I push through the doubt and the pain. I dip deep back into that focus and determination and that feeling of “what if”. I cast and cast and strip and I swirl my fly into big wide sweeping figure 8 moves at the boat each time. We haven't seen a fish at all today in 7 hours so far. I make big 40’ casts over and over, I let my fly sink for 6 or 7 seconds. I start making long sharp pulls on my line back to the boat. With a big strip my fly stops. I see a big shock wave type reaction happen to my submerged sink tip fly line, as I strip again I come tight to big head shakes. Big heavy headshakes. This fish feels different than the last. After all day beating on ourselves casting, hour 8 I get this amazing fish on. Action! Donny grabs the net. I lean hard into that downward side pressure rod angle. Stay tight but don't pull the hook. Keep the fish down until it's right at the boat. We exchange a few vulgarities as we talk through our plan. Here he comes. Holy shit it's a tiger! A really nice tiger! Stress multiplies quickly. We keep collected and as I dig deep into that 12 wt fly rod, the musky head comes up, Donovan goes in and executes a perfect side sweep net job, and I let out a literal war cry. We did it. A true trophy in the bag.
These are 100% naturally occurring tiger musky. Lake St. Clair gets no stocking at all for tiger or regular musky.This naturally occurring hybrid musky is the offspring of Great Lakes musky and northern pike cross fertilizing. While they do get much bigger than this, I have my new personal best tiger in the net…and wow ....she is a looker. This amazing fish shows up to our party dressed in her autumns best. The adipose fin is the size of my hand. She is literally picture perfect. It’s not the giant 50” Lake St. Clair Great Lakes musky I had imagined. It is an equally epic rarity. A wild tiger musky, measuring at 40” with the body and build of a fish every bit closer to 50”. Giant belly, giant fins, giant stripes. This is an amazing beast of a hybrid. A quick burst of photos snapped. The fish lowered back into the water. As quickly as the blink of an eye in which she came, she kicks off safely to go get much much bigger. High fives and Coors are distributed amongst us, and that's it. My trip ends here at the end of day four with a gorgeous trophy tiger musky in hand. Thank you Lake St. Clair.
A couple paragraphs snowballed into a couple pages and now I sit here wishing I could sneak away for a few days. With the warm temps lingering on, Lake St. Clair musky will continue to be caught for another week or two by those die-hards stubborn enough to brave the elements. This species is truly a next level type pursuit. Triumph and dedication. Devastating losses and lessons learned. Big ups and huge downs. It's a challenge not meant for everyone, but the ones that get it, well they get it bad. Fly fishing for musky is a very humbling pursuit that will forever ingrain the value of preparation and patience in you as an angler. Some days I can't decide if it's a pursuit of passion, or a sickness of the brain.
If you want to go fishing with me, have any questions about this article, or just want to talk general fishiness, reach out to me via email at DaleHerrimanFlyFishing@gmail.com, or call the guys in the shop at 303-330-1292. Be sure to mention this article! I am a full time fishing guide and educator. I am available for winter trout trips now, and with the 2024 season coming soon, we will be opening up for multi-species bookings. You can find my most up to date adventures on Instagram @daleherrimanflyfishing. I would like to thank all the guys at Golden Fly Shop for the opportunity to create this space to ramble on about musky! Thanks for reading.