Giant Muskies of the Ottawa River
|Walt Sapronov displays his first musky from the Ottawa River|
Fifty inch muskies are pretty rare. Lots of very successful musky anglers fish an entire career and never catch one. Yet, true lunker muskies are more common in some spots than in others, and anyone who hopes to catch one of these behemoths needs to go where they are most common.
The Ottawa River, which flows into the famed St. Lawrence River near Montreal, is one of the places where muskies in the 50-inch range are most common. The Ottawa River flows gently between rolling hills. While there are some rock piles, most of the substrate is simply dirt river bottom. Streams enter from the hills, creating subtle currents and downstream flats. Islands are abundant.
A while back Walt Sapronov, an attorney from Atlanta, Georgia, and I had the good fortune to fish several days with Marc Thorpe (www.marcthorpeguiding.com), one of a very small number of musky guides plying his craft on the Ottawa River. Marc has been guiding on the Ottawa since he was 19 years old, but in the last decades he has been “really serious” – that means giving up his “day job” to fish for muskies.
Marc trolls as his principal method of fishing for the giant muskies of the Ottawa River. “Sometimes in the spring,” Marc said, “I cast. But I have a pretty good idea of specific fish in specific spots. By trolling I can show my baits to lots more fish in a given period.”
When I asked Marc what someone had to do to become a top-flight musky angler with a focus on trophies, he laughed and answered, “Get a divorce.” Then he explained, “Time on the water is the most important factor. Lots of times someone will be learning things and not even know it. You have to put in the time.”
“A second factor,” Marc said, “is knowing the idiosyncrasies of a body of water. Where the flats, weedbeds, and drop-offs are and how large fish relate to them in different weather conditions. I’m in touch with musky guides in other parts of North America and while we are all doing lots of the same things, it is the little differences that make for success.”
At the Ottawa River, Marc thinks wind is a critical local factor. “Things are toughest,” Marc said, “when wind is out of the north, northwest or northeast. If the wind is out of the east on the backside of a passing front, you’re in trouble. Winds from the south or southwest are best.”
“Here,” Marc said, “hot, sunny days are best. Three days of stable weather bring out the big muskies.”
Another thing Marc thought important in seeking trophy muskies was the migration of bait fish. “A successful musky angler,” he said, “has to establish the bait. At this time of year, bait may be on a breakline or up on the structure. There will be some connection, and you have to find it. One good way to find bait,” Marc advised, “is to check the wind. Some bays are more affected by the wind than others.” And reading the depth finder, according to Marc, in establishing the baitfish pattern. “For example,” he said pointing at the depth finder screen, “vertical bait is likely to be emerald shiners.”
The final factor in generating trophy musky success, Marc said, “…is knowing how muskies relate to seasonal changes. Here in the fall,” Marc explained, “during warm days, we go to the weedy flats and fish. Big fish move in and out of the weedy flats. Sometime during the day , they’ll be here. This time of year, Gorillas are unlikely to be on shoals.”
As we put the boat in the water, Marc said to me and my companion, “Today we are going to fish for one big fish. We may not catch one, but,” he added with a twinkle in his eye, “we may.”
As the day turned out, we did not catch a big musky. Every hour or so we caught a pike, ranging in size between 10- and 15-pounds. From the time I was a kid, pike have been a favorite for me, so I was not disappointed. Late in the day, we lost a nice musky next to the boat when the fish leapt against the side of the boat and the whack knocked the lure loose.
Following the lead of legendary Lake St. Clair musky troller Homer LeBlanc, Marc positions four rods with different lures running at different depths. Marc explained as he set rods in holders, “Once we get a few strikes, then we can position lures at depths and choose colors that the fish tell us they want to hit.”
Rods with lures on the outside of our trolling paths were pointed down toward the water and generally the lures were 50- or 60-feet behind the boat. One rod, at a stern corner of the boat, had a lure that ran 15- or 20-feet from the boat. And the fourth rad had a lure that ran directly in the prop wash, sometimes within 20-feet of the boat and sometimes a little farther back.
Marc prefers a large bait in the prop wash. Marc said, “Sometimes a big musky comes to the outside bait – you can see them – and then notices the prop wash lure. A big lure offers a larger profile and that is much more visible to a fish than an outside lure.” Marc ran tandem spinnerbaits, bucktails and crankbaits in the prop wash. Homer LeBlanc, as far as I can determine, was the first to catch muskies trolling a lure in the prop wash. At least, he claimed he was in the period right after World War II. I was just a kid, but I longed to go to Lake St. Clair and learn how he did it. Now, I know.
When trolling, I usually picked my speed based on the lures I wanted to use. Dad used to ask when we were trolling, “Getting the wiggle?” What he wanted to know was whether he was operating the boat at a speed appropriate to my lure.
Marc makes his choices, in contrast, by selecting his boat speed first and then picking lures that will run at that speed.
Marc’s second factor in trolling success is controlling the distance behind the boat that the lures run. While we started with lures at varied distances, as time went on, Marc adjusted the lengths constantly as pike and muskies suggested they preferred one length of line compared with others.
And the third factor in trolling success is “knowledge of the structure and how fish are relating to it. Right now, fish are suspended at 2-feet, so that’s where the lures are running,” Marc said. Indeed, Marc generally fishes fairly close to the surface, even in 60-feet of water. Marc said, “While muskies might be shallow or deep, the ones hugging the bottom are tougher to catch than the ones closer to the top. Most people would be surprised at how shallow I catch fish.”
Strikes were savage! Line would start peeling off one of the reels and Marc would holler, “Fish on, there, on that rod!” The person standing closest to the offending rod would grab it and the battle would be on.
None of the muskies we caught reached the 50-inch mark. We did catch some dandy fish, however, and Walt caught his first musky ever. Though we did not catch a 50-inch musky, fish of that size are relatively (not absolutely) abundant. For an angler seeking the musky of a lifetime, the Ottawa River would be a good place to start. Chances are, I’ll be back.
Last updated on March 12, 2018