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The mighty muskie hunter

MUSKIE GUIDE JERRY SONDAG landed this 53-inch muskie Tuesday afternoon on Big Detroit Lake.

A solid blue bar suddenly appeared on the map of Detroit Lake on Jerry Sondag's fish finder.

"Must be a glitch in the map," he said. "But maybe it's a sign."

Being a very superstitious muskie fisherman, Sondag kept the boat within the boundary of the blue box for the next 20 minutes, looking for a bite.

"You won't think I'm crazy when we catch a big one," he said.

The bite never came and the blue box was abandoned, but it had to be tried.

"There's a certain level of insanity that one must have to do this day in and day out," Sondag said.

Sondag has been fishing for most of his life. He grew up in Chicago, but fished the lakes area in the summers, staying at his grandfather's cabin. His father and godfather were also avid fishermen. He started getting into pike fishing, chasing the fish every May for the opener. That's where he got a thirst for muskie.

"As time went on, I got more and more into (muskie fishing). My lure collection grew, had more than one rod and started catching (muskies)," he said.

Sondag said he enjoyed fishing for muskies, but sometimes lacked confidence when he would fish all day without a bite.

Dan Craven, a Leech Lake guide, changed Sondag's life.

"He really gave me that confidence. There's just something about him," he said. "The next thing you know, the fever was on. I put down every other rod, and I really, really focused on muskies and found myself very successful at it."

He started guiding for muskies in 2004 after fulfilling a promise to himself to not start guiding until he caught 100 muskies in 100 days. He started Headshaker Guide Service, guiding anglers for the elusive big muskie.

"I started feeling a little more automatic. When I went on the water, I knew I was going to catch a fish," he said.

Since then, his fish numbers have been going up every year.

"I learned along the way where the little fish were and where the big fish were," he said.

Sondag practices 100 percent catch-and-release.

How to catch 'em

The way to a trophy muskie varies by season. In the spring, Sondag says to look for the baitfish on your locator and that's where they will be.

"On DL, there's big schools of sunnies and perch and usually the big (muskies) are chasing those schools," he said.

Also, look for the greenest weeds in both the spring and fall.

"You really just need to be patient and be aware of what you're doing," he said.

All sorts of factors can go into catching a big muskie -- the time of day, the color of the lure or whether it's cloudy or sunny.

In the spring and fall, Sondag switches to live bait and uses three- to four-pound suckers to catch the really big muskies.

Getting networked with a muskie organization like Muskies Inc. will also help your chances, he said. Having a group mentality with friends who will tell you where the fish will be can really be a big help.

Heated competition

Muskie fishing is not all fun and games. Many of Sondag's clients, along with himself and every other muskie angler on the lake, are looking to land a trophy fish.

"We're all looking for that record or that trophy, and a lot of people will go to any cost to do it," he said.

Competition between muskie anglers is sometimes heated. Fishermen will sometimes fish right on top of another boat, get in their way or cut them off while fishing.

"I had a write-up in the police blotter because I cast my lure in somebody's boat when they got too close to me," Sondag said.

The popularity of Detroit Lake for muskies has also brought an influx of anglers, which has strained the muskie population, according to Sondag. Five years ago, there were very few boats on the lake with him. Just a few weeks ago, when the biting was hot, Sondag counted 35 boats.

"These fish are suffering," he said. "Luckily, the Minnesota DNR and groups like Muskies Inc. are taking measures to improve the fishery with stocking, raising size limits, and doing invasive species studies."

With other lakes going through hot and cold cycles, Sondag said anglers will jump from lake to lake looking for the fish.

"This area, from Alexandria all the way to Bemidji, is just getting pounded," he said.

Sondag said muskie fishing sometimes puts a strain on his personal and professional relationships.

"This sport is such an addiction that it destroys friendships, not only between friends but guides, too," he said. "There's a fine line between muskie fishing and insanity. It's a financial burden, it puts stress on relationships and friendships and that's a shame because it's a great sport."

Word has gotten out about the big muskies that can be caught in Detroit Lake, and out-of-the-area guides have muscled in on Sondag's territory. He feels he has a leg up on the out-of-towners, though.

"The benefit of knowing the area is even when the fishing is tough, we still manage to put fish in the boat," he said.

Sondag doesn't travel to muskie guide. He'd rather get really good at catching the big fish in this area.

"It would be great if I could just go to any lake I wanted to and guide -- follow the hot bite -- but in a big way, it makes me a better fisherman because I don't. I stay here and stick it out when it's tough," he said.

According to Sondag, focusing his efforts on one body of water, he's learned every nuance of Detroit Lake and knows exactly where the big trophy muskies can be found.

Praying doesn't hurt, either. Sondag says his prayers before every fishing trip.

Those prayers were answered once again last Tuesday afternoon when he caught a fish he'd been tracking for several days -- a 53-inch muskie.

"As long as they keep coming in like that, I'll keep praying," he said.