Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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St. Clair’s smallmouth fishery never disappoints

By Mike Gnatkowski

Contributing Writer

The Bass Angler Sportsman Society (BASS) puts together a list each year of the top 100 bass lakes and reservoirs in the country. Michigan’s Lake St. Clair is a regular on the list. Lake St. Clair has been pegged as the top lake in the country for bass fishing in the past and typically makes the top five in any given year. It’s hands down one of the best destinations for both numbers and quality of smallmouth bass in the country. What makes it even more astounding is Lake St. Clair is in the backyard of millions of anglers. 

Changes that have taken place over the past couple of decades have enhanced Lake St. Clair’s smallmouth bass population. The gloom and doom once forecast for the lake after exotic invaders like zebra mussels and round gobies were found in the lake never materialized. In fact, many experts now agree the invasive species have contributed to the boom in Lake St. Clair smallmouth. 

Zebra mussels filter the water and consequently made Lake St Clair much clearer. With more light penetration, weed growth increased and weeds can now be found in deeper water. Weeds are the foundation of the food chain. Insects colonize the weeds. The insects provide increased amounts of forage for baitfish and panfish and the food chain explodes. 

Another ingredient for the Lake St. Clair smallmouth explosion was the invasion of round gobies. Gobies came into the system via ship ballast water, just like the zebra mussel. It was originally thought that gobies would adversely affect the entire ecosystem, but the opposite appears to have happened. Gobies flourished for a time, but their population has now leveled off. In the meantime they have provided a whole new food source for bass and other game fish. Initially, gobies overwhelmed native darter and sculpin species, but those species have now rebounded providing more forage than ever for smallies. Native emerald and spot-tailed shiners also are flourishing. 

With the explosion in smallmouth numbers has come increased popularity. Boat launches around Lake St. Clair are crowded with trailers from all over the country. Local anglers are not happy about it, but it comes with the territory when you’re one of the top destinations in the country for smallmouth. 

I get to fish for a number of different species of fish over the course of a year, but my favorites are the trips I make to Lake St. Clair to fish for smallmouths. Few fish pull like a smallmouth, and the fact you’re casting and hooking the fish makes it even more fun. The fact you can catch them a number of different ways keeps things interesting. 

I joined friend and bass pro Scott Dobson on a Lake St. Clair smallmouth excursion. We got on the water at first light and caught bass until the sun set. It was a long, rewarding day. 

Because Lake St. Clair bass feed on minnows, crayfish, gobies, insects, perch, and just about anything else they can swallow they can be caught using a variety of techniques and methods. One of the easiest and most productive is casting swimbaits. You simply cast the bait out and reel. It’s that simple. The paddle tail on the swimbait vibrates and wiggles like a live minnow and St. Clair smallmouths love ’em. Silver, white, and pearl are good colors, but I’m not sure we found a color the bass didn’t eat. Swimbaits are a no brainer for clients who are less experienced. 

Tubebaits always have been a go-to lure on Lake St. Clair because they imitate so many things. In pearl and white colors tubes can imitate minnows. Dark colors dragged along the bottom simulate gobies and crayfish. There’s really no wrong way of fishing them. You can hop, drag, or swim a tube and catch bass. 

Flukes work well on St. Clair smallmouths when they are in the shallows chasing minnows or spawning. Their darting, erratic movement can trigger reluctant bass. Flukes are versatile, too. You can use them when drop shotting, you can fish them on a Texas rig or Carolina rig, or plunk it on a bed and jiggle it like a shaky worm. Either way, it’s a must-have bait for Lake St. Clair brown bass. 

Crankbaits have a place on Lake St. Clair, too. Cranks are great searching lures when you want to cover water. Like all bass aficionados Dobson has a half dozen rods rigged at any time, and it amazes me when he’ll suddenly pick up a rod with a crankbait and commence to fling it and almost immediately be into a bass. I’m not sure if he saw minnows on the surface or a particularly inviting edge, but a rod with a crankbait is always at the ready. 

Crankbaits are a broad category that includes shorter crankbaits that best imitate crayfish and longer, slender stickbaits or jerkbaits that look like a minnow. The longer jerkbaits can be burned to get deep or fished on a stop-and-go retrieve. 

Because the fishing on Lake St. Clair is so good it’s a great place to try new baits that you’ve never fished. I’d never caught a fish on a Ned rig until my last trip. Not only did I catch bass on the Ned rig, but also a few bonus walleyes. 

Another bait I’d never heard of is called a spy bait. It’s kind of shaped like a jerkbait, but with a propeller on the front. The spy bait suspends and can be worked with erratic jerks and twitches. Not surprisingly it caught Lake St. Clair bass, too. 

Because of Lake St. Clair’s relative shallow depth bass swim just about everywhere in the lake. Known smallmouth hotspots are off the mile roads, in the Metropolitan Beach, area as well as off the St. Clair River channels, and everywhere in between. 

Dobson is busy fishing a couple of tournaments, but when he returns I’m looking forward to joining him and getting my Lake St. Clair smallmouth fix.

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