Words by Aaron Wood
"It's a fish that will humble you. You will spend a lot of time not catching anything in hopes of hitting that pinnacle fish." — Spencer Berman
Few freshwater species are more steeped in lore than North America's native muskellunge. Sporting the nickname "The fish of ten thousand casts," musky remains unchecked on the bucket list of many casual and committed anglers. While the torpedo-shaped ambush predator is rarely seen, it is easily identified by its imposing jaw, dagger-like canines, and dark barring running along its side, eliciting visions of a stalking tiger both in appearance and behavior. Spencer Berman caught and landed his first "by accident," a fortuitous but ultimately fateful encounter.
"I got bit by the musky bug at a young age," he tells me, and it appears the bug is alive and well. One look at his expansive collection of plugs and musky lures making up the walls of his garage showcases a man invested in his trade, if not consumed by it. Many of them are large enough to make a billfish blush, every treble hook hand-sharpened and meticulously inspected.
Exhaustive preparation is only one cog of his well-oiled machine. When success is measured in follows, bites, or a single fish to hand, Spencer takes every possible action to gain favor. He also employs the most sophisticated technology on the market but notes while the technology certainly helps, pure instinct still reigns supreme. "It's a fish that will humble you." You will spend a lot of time not catching anything in hopes of hitting that pinnacle fish," Spencer says. "It's always a game of changing lures, techniques, and speeds to have the best results," citing the ever-evolving puzzle keeps him engaged, along with a healthy competitive drive.
Spencer enters tournaments when he can, previously taking team of the year and first prize on his home water of Michigan’s Lake St. Clair. But a busy guiding season doesn't allow for much time off, spending roughly two hundred and fifty days a year with clients of Spencer's Angling Adventures and remaining off days fishing for himself. "I frequently talk my clients into staying out longer," Spencer reflects, a captain whose overarching principles and dogged determination to catch fish take priority over monetary gain.
Growing up just south of the Lake St. Clair and Detroit River watershed, Spencer is understandably protective of perhaps the world's greatest density of wild musky—and Spencer refuses to lose it. "These fish take a long time to get to trophy size," he says, highlighting fish over upwards of twenty-five years old are caught. The significance of protecting a fish potentially older than his client is not lost on Spencer, pushing him to become one of the loudest voices in the room for musky conservation. "If you mishandle one fish, that ripple effect goes so far. You're not only removing that fish but also losing its spawning years."
Unfortunately, safe handling isn't always enough. Lake St. Clair and the lakes beyond are at risk from several fronts, including pushes to limit stocking, herbicide pollution, and the ominous threat of spearfishing. "If it's not one thing, it's another—you have to stay vigilant." But efforts are paying off, with Lake St. Clair's future promising big fish in the near future. "We have some massive year classes of fish coming through, and I think there is a chance the lake's record to be broken," he says, slyly remarking, "... and I hope it's in my boat."
Many anglers are stricken with the same bug as Spencer Berman—that unnerving, incessant desire we feel to pursue trophy fish. In many ways, it is the singularity uniting us across all forms and fisheries. But with lofty records within reach, Spencer is focused on doing everything he can to put the odds in his favor. He states with authority, "I want to catch the biggest fish every day I'm on the water. It drives me to be better, do better, fish longer, work harder, put more into it, do more prep work, to check each and every component," he says, forever and always willing to make "one more cast."