By Howard Meyerson
When Michigan’s firearm deer season opened last month and thousands of hunters took to the fields with their rifles and shotguns, Will Schultz went out with a different quarry in mind. The Grand Rapids sportsman planned to spend the day hunting instead for Michigan’s largest predator fish: muskellunge.
“It’s been a tradition for a long time,” said Schultz, the founder and former president of the Michigan Muskie Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to the restoration of Michigan’s muskellunge population. “I hunt deer with a bow now, but used to hunt with a gun. It just happened that one year I had no tags left and decided to fish instead.
“I fish for everything. You have to in order to be a good angler, but this is what I spend the majority of my time doing.”
Schultz and I met up for a cold and windy day of muskie fishing on Campau Lake, a 125-acre Kent County water known for its stocked muskies. Its shoreline is largely developed. But it is listed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources as one of the better muskie waters in the state.
Campau Lake is home to northern muskies, a strain that grows and reproduces naturally in western Upper Peninsula where spawning conditions are good and where they grow naturally. Other Michigan lakes require stocking and most have no natural reproduction. The spawning habitat isn’t there.
Campau has muskies from 30-inches to 48 inches long, according to Schultz, who would land a 35-inch and 47-inch muskie this day. Three others would get away.
State records show it was last stocked in 2009. State officials say stocking was discontinued because catch rates appeared to be poor.
“We may have to reconsider stocking it,” said Jay Wesley, the DNR’s southwest Michigan fisheries supervisor after hearing of our outing. “When we did a creel census there in 2005, it didn’t look good. Of 2,428 angler trips, only 37 muskies were caught. By comparison on Murray Lake just north, the creel survey showed that of 6,867 trips, 584 muskies were caught.”
Northern muskies were the backbone of Michigan’s muskie stocking program until 2011 when the state switched to stocking Great Lakes muskies, the strain more readily found in the big lakes and connecting waters.
On the lake this day, the fishing had started slowly. Schultz and I burned up breakfast calories casting over-sized lures using heavy-action rods equipped with bait-casting reels and 80-pound test braided line. The water temperature was 39-degrees, cold enough to keep things slow.
But Schultz’s attention got piqued about an hour after we arrived. That’s when he noticed a 35-inch muskie following one of two 16-inch white suckers that were rigged as live bait. Schultz fishes live bait in the fall when temperatures are cooler. He rigs one in close to the boat and allows the other to swim further way. Its position is marked by a fist-sized float with “Bite Me” written on it.
“I will see them come in and do that once in a while,” said Schultz, who produces training videos for a living and operates a fishing guide service called Michigan Muskie Guide Service. “I will see them come up and sit there with a sucker for a half hour and have no interest in eating it. It is something to
do. He will play with it.”
It was the live bait that did the trick this day. Neither Schultz nor I got a bump for our hours of casting, but now and then the Bite Me float would drift away in earnest, or the line in close would start to shift causing the rod to tap the boat.
On one occasion, Schultz handed me the rod and offered some crucial advice. “Reel down get tension on the line and then set the hook like there is no tomorrow,” he said.
The log on the end barely moved. I set the hook again and the sucker came skyward.
“He was just mouthing it,” Schultz said with a smile.
My next opportunity proved only slightly better. The big muskie came out of the water looking like Jaws before giving up the sucker and getting away.
Muskie fishing is challenging by all accounts. Popular lore characterizes them as “The Fish of 1,000 Casts.” But Schultz’s deft handling would put two in the boat without a single cast.
Schultz developed his interest in muskie fishing as a teenager on Gun Lake where he and his young buddies managed to catch their first. He returned home after that and got his mother to drive him to Bob’s Gun and Tackle, a Hastings dealer, where he bought all of the big lures he could find.
Growing up in Okemos, Schultz learned to fish from his father. The two continue to get fish together today, but now their focus is on the big dogs.
“He introduced me to fishing and I returned the favor and introduced him to muskies and ruined him,” Schultz noted humorously. “I still bass fish, but I really began to focus on muskies when I got married. I decided you can’t do everything. Then my son Tyler came along 12 years ago and I focused even more on them and introduced him to fishing.”
Schultz tries to introduce his son to different species every year, but he’s already become an accomplished muskie angler with a 45-pound muskie to his credit.
“Fish of a thousand casts? Oh yeah. Definitely,” Schultz said when I asked. “But there are days when it’s the fish of 20 casts – and every 20 casts. In stocked waters I expect to catch one every four to six hours. In natural waters it is every 30 hours. And then you may go four days without one.”
This story appears on MLive Outdoors