Editor’s Note: Rich Clarke and his wife Georgeen started their charter business in 1980. Sign Man Charters is a very- successful, full-service, business serving the Thousand Islands. Their home port is French Bay Marina in Clayton, New York. Rich’s season starts in May and runs until December 15th. Muskie, Northern Pike, Walleyes and Bass are the prize catches. This past December their charter brought in a giant Muskie. We thank ABay.com for linking us up with Rich and his “muskie story”. The fishing news story was captured in the local press and caused reinforced fishing pride in the region.
When TI Life asked Rich to tell us about this fantastic catch, he was quick to say, “ I released the fish unharmed making it possible to publish the fact that the potential next world record is alive and swimming in the St. Lawrence. It will be bigger by next season.” We thank you Captain Rich.
Chasing the World Record Muskie…An Adventure that Lasts a Lifetime
The St. Lawrence River is a mystifying place to fish. As a young boy growing up on “The River” it was a most mysterious place where I dreamed about catching the mother of all muskies.
First time Musky angler Daniel Polniak Jr. of Ogdensburg, NY was fishing with his friend Jeordi McEwen aboard "Sign Man" on November 27, 2011, when history was made. Capt. Rich achieved his personal best when he guided Daniel to this GIANT 60" x 29-1/2" Musky. She was safely released after the photo. Photo courtesy Sign Man Charters.
There was “The River” and all the stories. Deep clear water, more than 1,700 Islands, dangerous shoals lurking just under the surface, sunken ships, water depths to 300 ft., fishermen and fishing stories galore. There were all of the older guides and muskie fishermen who I looked up to with great respect. I would hang out and talk fishing with them… I wanted to be just like them someday. And of course there was Art Lawton’s world record musky 69 lbs. 15 oz. fish that was caught near Clayton on Sept. 22, 1957. It was later contested as a world record but is still officially the largest muskie ever caught in New York State, and is still the fish that all others are compared to. This is all the stuff that my boyhood dreams were made of.
And there was the three people who influenced me most. They were Loyd Higgins, Sam Guardino - “Mr. G” who was my wrestling coach at Clayton High School, and my future Father-in-Law Pat Marshall Jr. All of these men helped give me direction and got me started on an adventure that would last me a lifetime. Loyd Higgins was my buddy Dave’s Dad and when I was 16 years old he took Dave and I musky fishing for my first time. He put me on my first musky a 52”, 32lb. beauty that hangs on my wall to this day. Needless to say I was hooked… I had contracted MUSKIE FEVER.
Sam Guardino coached me all through high school. He somehow magically instilled in me his winning attitude and honest example of how to work hard to earn success. Work harder than anybody else, pay attention to basics, practice your craft and never ever quit. His voice of encouragement still rings in my head whenever things get tough “Guts it Out!” His wisdom was not only good for winning on the mat it was good for winning in life! Anyone who plays this musky game knows that it can be very very tough and quite often you just have to “Guts it Out”.
I was dating the love of my life Georgeen way back in Junior High and eventually we became partners for life. Her Dad’s muskie stories would have me on the edge of my seat. I would ask him to repeat them over and over again and he never seemed to mind.
There was the time when Pat Marshall Jr., Chuck Youngs, Bob Brown and Snuffy Garnsey almost landed the world record near Psyche Island. Pat was playing the fish and “it looked like an Alligator next to the boat” he told me. All Chuck could say was “this fish is not going to fit in this boat Pat”. But it was not meant to be. The steel line parted after hours of battle and this giant muskie broke free to became a legend that I would never forget. Pat gave me that rod and reel and I landed many of my first muskies on it. Now it is displayed in my muskie room and to this day serves as a reminder of that giant. The mother of all muskies, the one I want to catch someday, the world record.
I have always prided myself in targeting trophy muskies. I have spent my last 31 years as a professional guide and have been blessed to have guided my clients to some of the largest muskies in the world each year. With my sites set on the world record I have to keep reinforcing myself by focusing on achievable goals that will move me in that direction. I am always looking to land a fish bigger than my biggest.
Up until November 27 of this past 2011 season a 59” muskie that I guided Tom Grant of Clayton, NY to on September 23rd 2001 was my largest fish ever taken aboard Sign Man. Since that time I have had my sights on a 60 incher and finally reached that goal. Here is how we did it.
My day started at 5:00, I got dressed and headed to the boat and was getting my gear ready for the day’s trip. The day before I had missed a hit at the end of the day and it bothered me all night. During one of my toss and turn sessions I figured it out! The new rods that I was using were too stiff and the muskie had gotten slack in my no stretch Power Pro line and was able to shake the plug before I could set the hook.
So I decided to change from my brand new musky rods back to my softer action rods. When Dan and Jeordi showed up at my dock I was just finishing up changing my Shimano Tekota 600lc reels over to my 7’ medium action Ugly Stiks and was tying new knots to my 36” leaders. I apologized for the delay and explained I just couldn’t fish with confidence if my set up wasn’t right. They were in a great mood and said “no problem do what you gotta do to get us a big one”. It’s always easy to fish with good people.
Knowing this was their first muskie hunt, I figured now was as good a time as any to give them my expectations for the day. I explained “the bite has not been easy and we must take advantage of any hits that might come. You have to do everything right when you get one of these big monsters on. My entire system is designed as a big shock absorber that can handle the violent hits and massive head shakes that giant muskies can generate. I will have the drag set properly for the situation. I will clear all the other lines and stop the boat. You need to take your time and play the fish to the boat. Don’t horse it, keep the rod tip up 45° to the fish, that’s your shock absorber and do not give the fish any slack line. If the fish breaks water, bow the rod to the fish until it goes back under the surface. They get heavy when they are out of the water and that’s when bad things happen. Take your time and enjoy the battle, I’ll put the fish in the net”.
The weather was classic, air temperature in the mid 30’s, surface temperature of 45.6°, rainy, south west winds gusting over 20 mph and white caps everywhere. We set out to fish the back side of Grindstone Island across from Clayton. We spent the entire day hunting around the shoals and Islands north of Grindstone. After 7 hours still nothing had happened.
I had just steered the boat past a couple small islands with shoals on them, and we crossed a deep channel that’s 118 feet deep and came up onto a 47 foot flat. I was thinking to myself, if I get a fish on right now we are going to have our hands full. Trolling into 3 to 4 ft. white caps makes things interesting.
That’s when it happened, my planner board rod released, I heard the drag rip. I shouted “there it is” and our day suddenly got super exciting.
The musky struck a 10-inch jointed Believer that I had painted in what I call a “gold-scale bass” pattern. The lure was running about 80 feet behind my planer board, putting it about 12 to 14 feet deep. The strike occurred at 3:05 p.m.
It was a really good hit, I grabbed the rod, set the hook and checked the drag. Dan was right next to me and I said, ‘Here you go, it’s your fish. Take your time but don’t give it any slack.’ The fish took about 150 feet of line right away and when I first saw it the fish was way out and jumping. It came out of the water three times in a row like a porpoise. I yelled to Daniel ‘Bow the rod, bow the rod it’s out of the water!’ and he did a great job. The fish was really ripping line but then settled down and went out of sight again. That’s when I knew it was a really big fish. Dan took his time and played the fish all the way back to the boat with lots of short runs and big head shakes that had his legs shaking. The last 25 ft. of battle were nip and tuck as the fish decided to give a couple of powerful head shakes above the surface. Finally Dan brought the giant to the net and I yelled “I got it. On three, one-two-three” and Dan helped me bring the netted giant over the rail.
I didn’t immediately realize how big the musky was until I measured it. I said the fish was at least 56 inches long. It just didn’t appear as long as it was because it was so thick and stocky. When I put the tape on it I said, “Holy smokes. This is the fish I’ve been working my whole life for.” It measured 60” with a 29-1/2”girth!
The giant had been feeding heavily. “It smelled like tuna fish and it was crapping all over the boat so she had been gorging herself on oily bait fish.”
I had always thought when I boated a 60 inch muskie with a big girth my plan was to keep it. But that all changed with this fish. That’s when I said to myself, ‘This fish isn’t hurt. I know it’s a real giant, but I shouldn’t kill this fish. It deserves to live. So I said to Dan “lets let this fish go.” He said “as long as she lives let’s do it.” I said “if she dies we’ll pick her up and take her in.” So over the side she went and the rest is history. After all the excitement we cleaned up the deck, headed Sign Man for home and went in for some cocktails and fish stories. It feels great knowing that this world class fish is still alive and swimming in the waters around Clayton, N.Y.
If your wondering what’s next for Capt. Rich Clarke, God willing… I’m going for 61 inches and still hunting for the mother of all muskies. After all… I’m still on an adventure that lasts a lifetime.
By Capt. Rich Clarke
Captain Rich Clarke graduated from Mohawk Valley Community College with a degree in Advertising Design and Production. He and his wife, Georgeen, have owned and operated Clarke Graphics for over 20 years. It is a full service graphic design business.
After completing his degree from Mohawk Valley CC he went on to SUNY Oswego and SUNY Potsdam to earn his New York State teaching certificate. He has been teaching Visual Communications at Jefferson-Lewis-Hamilton-Herkimer-Oneida Board of Cooperative Educational Services for the past 15 years. He and Georgeen began Sign Man Charters, their fishing guide business, in 1980.
Below are a series of photographs showing Rich Clarke’s favorites… If you have a fishing tale for TI Life, be sure leave a comment.