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Sylvania’s Berman is devoted to challenging pursuit of muskies

08/10/2014, 12:39am EDT
By MATT MARKEY BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR
Sylvania man in pursuit of muskies

Sylvania native and 2007 Northview grad Spencer Berman is one of the top muskie guides in the country.

LAKE ST. CLAIR, Mich. — There are a lot less stressful ways to spend your life than fishing for muskies. These quirky, temperamental and moody loners are prized for their fight and their fearsome appearance, but also notorious for their stubbornness and belligerence.

So why, Spencer Berman, are you a professional muskie guide and tournament angler?

“I like it because it’s hard,” said Berman, a native of Sylvania. “On many days, they beat you. You could say you are at their mercy, but I really enjoy the extreme challenge involved in catching these fish.”

Berman, 25, starts his work days well before the sun rolls its first straws of light across Lake St. Clair and into the suburbs northeast of Detroit where he lives. After a good outing on the lake, he and his clients are not back on terra firma until just before darkness makes the boat ramp more of a concrete ghost than a fixed structure.

He spends his days chasing, teasing, coaxing, and seducing muskellunge. He spends his nights thinking about them and trying to solve this long, powerful, Rubik’s cube of a fish. They are the apex predator in their waters, the baddest dudes on the block, but they are also very selective about when they strike. Berman yearns to understand the mysteries of that complex muskie psyche.

“I’ve fished for everything else. I’ve caught 14-pound walleyes and trophy smallmouth bass, but for me, muskie is where it’s at,” Berman said. “If you caught 30-to-40 a day, that might be nice for a bit, but not for long. With these fish, each day is a 12-14 hour adventure. You work for every single one, and I like that.”

Muskies are a torpedo made of muscle and teeth. The name muskellunge comes from the Ojibwa word maashkinoozhe, which means ugly pike. If you have ever seen a pike, that seems blatantly redundant, like labeling muskies as ugly ugliness, but that tag fits too.

All the rules seem different when muskies are involved, Berman said. When they are in the feeding mode, these fish will devour water birds, ducklings, and small muskrats, as well as fish a third their size. When the dinner bell clangs, nothing escapes those jaws cluttered with teeth lined up like crowded church pews.

“When they decide to eat something, they are incredibly aggressive,” Berman said. “But muskies are the only fish out there that if they don’t want to eat, you are not catching them. If they do not want to eat, they will not eat.”

Muskies are not as prolific as other gamefish, maturing slowly and taking several years to reach breeding age. Ohio has a daily limit of one fish, while Michigan has a 42-inch minimum size on most of its waters and a closed season during the spawning period. In Michigan, the possession limit is one fish per season, but Berman said for him and his clients, this is a catch-and-release arrangement.

“When you’re fishing for muskies, you’re not fishing for dinner. This is sport fishing. We get a picture and a measurement and they are quickly released,” he said.

Those measurements can be stunning. Berman has put a 55-incher estimated at 50 pounds in the net, and he landed a number of trophy fish in the 50-inch range this past week, giving his clients the thrill of a lifetime for many anglers. He puts them in the right place on the vast 400-square mile expanse of Lake St. Clair, and the battle of wits and attrition begins.

Muskie are called “the fish of a thousand casts,” but Berman’s reputation is for bringing them to bite much sooner than that, averaging a half dozen muskies caught per outing. Many muskie fishermen troll to cover the most territory, but Berman prefers to cast for his prizes.

“There are those long lulls between strikes, but then you get that big hit and set the hook,” Berman said. “You know right away that there’s no other rush like fighting a big muskie.”

Fishing has been Berman’s rush for a long time. While growing up in Sylvania, he was never very far from it. He fished farm ponds with his late grandfather, Nelson “Sherman” Gibson, and talked fishing with anyone who would listen.

“He was serious about fishing, and he lived it and breathed it,” said Frank Ulrich, a science teacher at Northview who had Berman in his astronomy class. “When he wasn’t working on school stuff, it was all about fishing with him.”

The young Berman fished junior bass tournaments, and moved on to muskie tournaments. Once he got a boat, he fished the top muskie waters in Indiana and Michigan. At 16, Berman was the youngest person to place as a boat captain on the professional muskie tournament trail.

He started guiding in Indiana waters, and attended college at Wisconsin-Stevens Point, where the fisheries program is regarded as one of the best in the nation. But Berman decided to stay away from majoring in piscine studies.

“I ended up with a dual degree in business and economics because I realized I wanted to run a business centered on fishing, not work at the DNR,” Berman said. “I’d rather fish.”

Berman guided on Minnesota lakes while in college, and spent long weekends on St. Clair, one of the top muskie waters on the continent. He graduated from college in 2011, and with the endorsement of his parents, started guiding full-time and fishing pro tournaments.

He now fishes for muskies 27-29 days a month during the season, and spends another 50 days in the spring fishing for walleyes and smallmouth bass before the muskie season opens. His “Spencer's Angling Adventures” has four guides on staff, and Berman also writes for several fishing magazines, and does television shows and a couple dozen seminars and sports expos each year.

“It was a dream, he chased it, and now he is living it,” Ulrich said about his former student.

Berman averages one emergency room visit a year, because of an encounter with an errant hook, or the mouth full of daggers owned by a 40-pound fish thrashing around in the boat. But he considers that just part of the risks involved in the line of work he has chosen.

“I’m a muskie fisherman at heart, so once the season starts, that’s all I target,” Berman said. “Muskie fishing isn’t easy, but when I was pretty young, my grandfather taught me the importance of patience when you’re fishing, and I call on that all of the time. I love this. Watching one of my clients catch that first muskie, and bring in that big fish — that’s a thrill. Nothing else comes close to that.”

Kreh coming to Rockwell

Legendary fly fishing pioneer Lefty Kreh will visit the Rockwell Springs Trout Club on Sept. 20-21 to host clinics for the members. His presentations are expected to include tips on casting and knots, instructional sessions and demonstrations, and certainly some colorful tales from Kreh’s nearly 70 years of fly fishing.

Kreh is regarded as one of the best fly fishing instructors around, and one who artfully blends humor with his practical approach to the sport. He is also an accomplished photographer and writer, and his “Lefty’s Deceiver,” a streamer fly he invented more than 50 years ago, is still a top freshwater and saltwater pattern found in many anglers’ fly boxes.

Rockwell, a private club located in Erie County southwest of Castalia, has been a trout fishing haven since the late 19th century. The club’s stream is fed by 48-degree water from a spring on the grounds at a rate of about 4,500 gallons per minute. Rockwell’s stream is stocked with fish from the club’s hatchery, where rainbow, brown, brook, and the hybrid tiger trout are propagated.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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