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Bridge Michigan
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Where to catch the biggest fish in Michigan

So your neighbor was bragging about that big pike he caught up north. A real monster. Almost lost it but finally wrangled it into the boat.

He says he didn’t have a camera and, well, you’ll have to take his word on it. Catch-and-release and all.

But for tens of thousands of anglers, a good fish story is not enough; they want a way to commemorate their big catch.

In Michigan, you can get the state’s imprimatur through the Master Angler program and if you can prove – with a ruler and, yes, a photograph – the size of your catch, they’ll send you a nice cloth patch suitable for framing. If it’s among the biggest in the state, you’ll get a master angler certificate.

For the rest of us, the Master Angler program pays dividends by showing even novice fishermen and women, through a detailed database, where the big ones are biting.

“The Master Angler Program, to me, is the best thing the DNR has ever done,” said Pat Witherell of Ada in west Michigan. He could probably wallpaper his house in patches: He estimates he’s caught hundreds of “master angler” worthy fish since the program began in 1973; in the state’s current database of winners, he has the most, with 89. His sons Tony and Joshua have a bunch too. The trio bow and still fish for carp, gar, drum, redhorse – just about anything.

And they have the patches to prove it.

Fishing, of course, is kind of a big deal in Michigan. The state estimates that fishing pours $4.4 billion of economic activity into the state, with 1.1 million licenses issued last year. An estimated 38,000 jobs are supported by the fishing industry, which in turn is aided by the Department of Natural Resources, which stocked more than 22 million fish into the state’s waterways last year.

Fishing’s appeal is no surprise to the DNR as evidenced by the popularity of the Master Angler program and its coveted patches. For many, they’ve become colorful collector’s items and Witherell said he’s been offered $700 for his 1997 patches of a brook trout.

“That’s the most beautiful patch I’ve seen in my life,” he said. He hasn’t sold them.

“In certain instances, people go crazy for (the patches),” said Elyse Walter, a spokesperson for the DNR’s fisheries division.

More importantly to the rest of us, by collecting – and sharing – data on master anglers, the state provides anglers at all skill levels a glimpse into where The Big Ones can be found across Michigan. The database – with more than 16,000 entries since 2002 – details where the fish was caught, its size, and what kind of bait and lure were used.

The database shows, for instance, that 2009 was the best year for big fish in Michigan, with more than 1,400 caught. Lake St. Clair (where muskie is the most common species in the database) is the most likely place to catch a big fish (Lake Michigan is No. 2; Saginaw Bay No. 3). Bluegill is the most common master angler fish, and Long Lake in Grand Traverse County the best place to find them.

As for counties, Macomb waters produced the most Master-Angler-certified fish, followed by Muskegon and Ottawa counties.

And though you can use a Husky Jerk lure, a Hoochie Mama or a ball of dough (seriously), the No. 1 bait is the old tried and true night crawler. “Worm” was No. 2.

(The state also lists its record fish here)

How long

The DNR has had to make some tweaks to the program. In January it dropped the requirement that fish that are caught and kept had to be certified for both length and weight.

The state dropped the weight requirement because, it turns out, not every angler has a commercial-grade scale and apparently deli counter workers around the state got tired of weighing customers’ prized carp or walleye.

“It’s not the easiest conversation to have,” said Walter, the DNR spokesman. (The state still counts weight for state record fish, however).

Now, only length matters. But you need to bring a ruler.

Each species of fish has its own Master Angler threshold, which can found on the back of the state’s application form. If your muskie is 40 inches long, forget it; it must be at least 42 inches. And your burbot? At least 26 inches.

Rock Richard of Munising isn’t in the state database as many times at Pat Witherell, but he remembers well one of the three that got him there: a 9-plus-pound, 33 ½ inch burbot he said he speared through two-feet of ice on Big Bay de Noc in Lake Michigan.

In February 2010 he and his buddies got lucky, catching a school of fish coming in to spawn. In a magical 20 minutes; they caught 70 pounds of burbot filet. One was a prize winner.

“They came in and you had a frenzy,” he said.

Richard said he’s caught many fish that are worthy of a patch but he hasn’t put in for each of them. But there’s one he really, really wants: A yellow perch. He’s caught a couple that meet the 14-inch threshold, but that’s not good enough, he said.

“I want to put in a fish that’s a fish” he said. Fifteen inches or more. “For me if I got a master angler perch, I’d be so happy.”

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