December 12, 2023
Derek Balmas was all set to go fishing. More precisely, as a first mate for a charter service on the St. Lawrence River, he was all set to take a client fishing. But the client canceled and Balmas suddenly had a day off. He decided to go fishing anyway—a choice he'll likely be glad he made for the rest of his life.
On that early-November day last fall, Balmas climbed aboard Capt. Bob Walters' 31-foot boat that runs out of Clayton, N.Y. Walters is among a handful of seasoned guides on the St. Lawrence River who specifically targets the monster muskies that prowl the waters in and around New York's Thousand Islands Region. With Balmas (who mates for Walters) and another friend on the rods, they managed to boat a couple of muskies by midday—already a good day of musky fishing by anyone's standards.
Then, sometime around 3 p.m., another rod went off. Balmas sprang into action, expertly fighting the big fish for nearly 30 minutes. After finally slipping the net under the musky, they measured it several times and photographed it before releasing it. As it swam away, the three anglers on the boat had a hunch the 53.15-inch fish was special. More than six months later, that hunch was confirmed when the musky was certified as an all-tackle, catch-and-release world record by the International Game Fish Association.
However, Balmas' catch didn't surprise anybody in the musky fishing world. The Thousand Islands region of the St. Lawrence is a giant-musky factory with a long history of record-book entries. Every fall, muskies leave the bays of Lake Ontario and feast on the copious amounts of food in the St. Lawrence River before winter's advance. Blessed with excellent genetics and protected by strict harvest regulations, the muskies of the St. Lawrence are the fish that dreams—and world records—are made of.
Another reason why Balmas' new world record isn't much of a surprise: It was caught in November. Walters, who's been targeting St. Lawrence muskies for nearly 25 years, begins to gear up for the fall musky season in mid-September, and he'll be on the water until December. The reason is simple: "The fishery gets better as the water gets colder," he says.
Capt. Richard Clarke, who runs Signman Charters, agrees. Clarke says November and December are the two best months to fish for monsters in the St. Lawrence, but that comes with a caveat.
"I call it musky hunting, not fishing," says Clarke. "It's not like we're catching fish every minute on the water. Some days you can get five or six bites. Some days it's none at all. The odds are against you."
While many of the outdoors folks in the Northeast are passing their time in November in treestands or duck blinds, the musky maniacs of the Thousand Islands are seeking a fish of a lifetime.
YOU'RE GONNA NEED A BOAT
The western end of the St. Lawrence is where the big river begins its 530-mile flow out of Lake Ontario toward the Atlantic Ocean. The city of Clayton sits about 20 miles downstream from where the lake meets the river and serves as the epicenter of the musky fishing. Clayton bait shops sell musky-specific gear. Most of the guides who target muskies call Clayton home. Heck, the Thousand Islands Museum in Clayton even has a "Muskie Hall of Fame" room.
Whether an angler heads upstream or downstream from Clayton, there's a massive amount of water to cover that would be impossible to fish in a lifetime. It's full of shoals, inlets, unpredictable currents, structure upon structure upon structure, international shipping traffic, and, quite obviously, thousands of islands. Muskies are caught on both the U.S. and Canada side of the big river, from Wolfe Island (a 21-mile-long island that diverts the river into two large channels between Kingston, Ont., and Cape Vincent, N.Y.) downstream to Chippewa Bay.
It's not just the water that's big; so, too, are the baits used to lure these giant fish.
While anglers will catch muskies while casting among the shoals and weedbeds of the St. Lawrence, and the fish will occasionally hit well-presented jigs, far and away the most effective way to ensure success while hunting big muskies is to troll for them.
"I catch big fish because I troll with big baits," says Walters. Among them are Believer and Swim Whizz baits, some of them longer than the foot-long sandwiches you get at the local delis. Charter captains also use expensive custom baits, hand-crafted by regional artisan lure makers, painted in meticulous detail and often scooped up by passionate collectors never to be strung up on a rod.
Lake Ontario contains a wide array of food sources for muskies—another key to growing mammoth fish. "One of the reasons we have such big fish is because of the massive food base here," says Walters. "They spend all summer in the lake, where they eat plenty of salmon and trout. Then, the big females come into the river in the fall to chase baitfish when the temperature changes. They're always eating, which gives them not just length but tremendous girth."
THE NEXT RECORD
For world-record purposes, the IGFA requires muskies to be measured from the tip of the nose to the inside fork of the tail. Musky guides on the St. Lawrence will show you pictures of 60-inch fish they've caught over the years, and while those may indeed be longer than Balmas' fish, they were not properly measured, or perhaps not even submitted, for world-record consideration. But those who chase these river monsters every fall know darn well there are muskies swimming in the St. Lawrence that are bigger than the one Balmas caught.
Walters mounts a video camera on one of the downrigger balls and posts videos on the website for his charter business (stlawrencemuskiefishing.com) that show muskies emerge from the murky waters and crush the big baits being trolled. He has one video of an extraordinarily large musky that appears tempted to strike the bait but never does and just swims alongside it. Having handled hundreds of world-class muskies in more than 40 years of fishing the St. Lawrence, and knowing the size of the bait on the screen, Walters estimates that elusive fish to be in excess of 70 inches.
Clarke, of Signman Charters, is convinced more world-record muskies will be caught in St. Lawrence in the years to come.
"I am absolutely positive there are bigger fish in this part of the river," Clarke says. "And I'm not talking about just one fish, either. There is more than one. I call them the ‘mothers of all muskies.' I know they're out there."
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Things to keep in mind when planning a Thousand Islands musky adventure.
While several Thousand Islands fishing guides lead charter trips for multiple species, only a handful specialize in big musky hunting. Capt. Rich Clarke with Signman Charters (888-686-3041; 1000islandsfishing.com) and Capt. Bob Walters with Water Wolf Charters (315-529-2697; stlawrencemuskiefishing.com) are widely regarded as two of the best. The peak of the season is from late September to mid-December, and all muskie fishing is catch-and-release.
If you're planning a musky trip on the St. Lawrence River, note that early November and December is off-peak and lodging choices around Clayton, N.Y., may be limited, though Watertown, 30 minutes south, offers plenty of lodging and dining options. Also, keep in mind that early-winter weather on the St. Lawrence Seaway can be unpredictable. "The lake is staying warmer longer into the fall," says Walters, "and that's led to more lake-effect snowstorms during prime musky fishing days. It can get can wild out there."