New York's St. Lawrence River Muskies
October 04, 2010
Looking for world-class muskie fishing? The St. Lawrence River is the place to be this month. A 55-pound specimen was taken last season, and bigger fish are out there waiting for you! (August 2007)
Photo by Pete Maina.
The waters of the St. Lawrence River are legendary when it comes to muskie fishing. The 112-mile river, separating New York and Canada, is often touted as the best trophy muskie fishery in New York -- and for good reason. Fifty-inch-plus fish surpassing 40 pounds are routinely taken from its waters every year, from the heart of the Thousand Islands in Clayton to the upper reaches of the river in Massena.
Just ask Jeff L. Gardner of Richfield Springs. While fishing the St. Lawrence for walleyes last June near Louisville, Gardner hooked into a massive 55-pound, 6-ounce muskie on 10-pound-test line. Close to two hours later, Gardner had it boated.
"It's the biggest fish I've ever caught. It really is a fish of a lifetime," said Gardner, who has fished the St. Lawrence for many years and caught other muskies, but none even close to the size of his latest monster.
For good reason, muskies are known as the "fish of 10,000 casts." They are tough to find, hard to hook and once on the line, they are fierce fighters.
Don Lucas of Massena, N.Y., is one of those who are driven to catch the elusive fish on his home water of the St. Lawrence. He's fished for them for over 40 years, and on one trip, he caught seven muskies in one day.
Lucas said that unless you have scouted the St. Lawrence and know the prime feeding areas, these large predators could be difficult to locate.
"It's such a big expanse of water. The muskie fishing is excellent if you know the areas."
To find muskies, he said to search for transitional structure on your depthfinder or look for schools of baitfish. "Fish where you have proximity to different depths and types of structure," he advised. "On a bright sunny day, muskies tend to go deeper, and then move into shallower water to feed."
An example of transitional structure is the sandbar located several hundred yards from where the Oswegatchie River meets the St. Lawrence in the city of Ogdensburg.
Anglers fish the depths along the sandbar for muskies that suspend there while feeding on baitfish. The fish have structure -- the sandbar -- to cling to, a deep dropoff to venture into and a large expanse of water in which to find prey.
That's why for some anglers, the only time to fish for muskies are the fall months. That's when they'll start to congregate in certain areas, mainly those that hold transitional cover and large schools of baitfish. With quantities of baitfish, you can bet that muskies will be nearby.
Steve Litwhiler, spokesman for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Region 6, said that the St. Lawrence is full of muskie prey: White and redhorse suckers up to 7 pounds provide the perfect diet for the big game fish.
St. Lawrence River muskies also feed on yellow perch and other panfish, bullheads, alewives and even smallmouth bass.
The entire river holds muskies, but some areas are better than others. Popular muskie-fishing spots include 40-Acre Shoal in Alexandria Bay, American Island in Morristown, the sandbar and the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge in Ogdensburg, the islands near Waddington and the water near the Robert Moses Power Dam in Massena.
Due to the St. Lawrence River's immense size, trolling a large minnow bait is popular among muskie anglers because it can cover more water and increase the chances of a hookup.
There are plenty of access points to fish this river. Public boat launches are at Clayton, Alexandria Bay, Hammond, Lisbon, Chippewa Bay, Morristown, Ogdensburg, Waddington, Coles Creek, Wilson Hill, and Massena.
TROLLING IS THE KEY
Due to the St. Lawrence's immense size, trolling a large minnow bait is popular among muskie anglers because it can cover more water and increase the chances of a hookup.
"Trolling is the most productive method because you can fish over different holding areas," said Lucas. "I seem to be more successful when I cover more water."
When he trolls, Lucas uses four muskie rigs -- one off each side of the boat, and two off the back. This setup allows him to put out as many lures as possible while keeping the number of foul-ups to a minimum.
Lucas likes to have at least two plugs go through what he calls "clean water" that is not affected by the prop wash of the boat, which could spook feeding muskies, especially in the clear water of the St. Lawrence River.
Muskies are sight feeders, so on a calm day, a trolled bait may get the attention of hungry fish that might not normally be able to see the lures or bait you offer if the water wasn't as clear. "When the water is clearer, I honestly think that you can draw a strike faster," said Lucas.
But clear water can also be a hindrance, spooking fish with strong prop wash or heavy line and thick wire leaders.
When he trolls, there are several factors Lucas takes into consideration. First, he wants to spook the least number of fish as possible in the clear water. Therefore, he uses a zigzag pattern to avoid going over the heads of the fish.
Changing directions will also change the presentation of the lures. When you make a turn, the outside lures will speed up and force them to dive. Meanwhile, the inside lures will slow down and -- depending on the lures -- will start to rise up in the water column. These changes in presentation will often motivate a following muskie to strike.
The speed of the troll is also important. Lucas trolls at an average of 3 to 4 miles per hour. However, if the river is cold or if there's an extreme warm front, he'll often run his lures slower. That gives muskies, which may be lethargic, a chance to locate the bait.
The opposite occurs if there is a drop in barometric pressure or there is a slight increase in water temperature. These factors make muskies more active. Therefore, Lucas will speed up the troll.
Throughout his trolling, he uses a variety of speeds to alter the runs of the lures. Lucas said that a steady, monotonous troll speed isn't natural. For instance, he may speed up the lures for several se
conds to get the plugs to accelerate and dive deeper.
He may also stop the boat completely in the middle of a troll, letting the lures float slowly to the surface. That often triggers a strike. He'll wait until the lures reach the surface and then hit the throttle again, sending the baits down deep, fast.
Those kinds of variations -- in speed and depth -- will often be just what you need to draw a strike.
THE NIGHT BITE
In the heat of summer, some avid muskie anglers will avoid the bright daytime sun, waiting for cooler temperatures and reduced boat traffic under the cover of darkness.
One benefit to night-fishing is that you needn't worry about a muskie seeing heavy line or wire leaders.
Also, at night your choice of lure isn't as important as it may be during the day. Lures that work well at night cause a lot of vibration and commotion in the water, which often attracts hungry muskies.
Although fishing at night can be productive, muskie anglers need to learn the water they'll be fishing. Study it during the day to learn where the transitional cover is, as well as where hazards like sandbars or rocks may be found. A GPS unit can aid you in planning your attack.
RELEASE YOUR CATCH!
Over the past two years, the St. Lawrence River's muskellunge population has taken several hits. In June 2005, dozens of female muskies died before spawning from bacterial infections. Their bodies piled up on shores from Waddington to the eastern basin of Lake Ontario.
Then in May 2006, a number of muskies were found dead, victims of viral hemorrhagic septicemia or VHS. This was the first time the virus had been found in Empire State waters.
On St. Lawrence River muskies, the minimum-length limit is 48 inches. However, New York Department of Environmental Conservation fisheries biologists say that catch-and-release -- especially after these most recent events -- will be extremely important in sustaining the muskie population in the St. Lawrence River.
For more information about muskie-fishing opportunities on the St. Lawrence, call the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce at 1-877-228-7810, or visit them at www.northcountryguide.com.