Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Michigan’s Lake St. Clair panfish bite is underrated

Zack Watts (l), holds a sunfish and a crappie and Theron Hoffman hold a bluegill and a yellow perch, all caught recently on the same outing to Lake St. Clair. Well known for its bass, muskie, and walleye action, Lake St. Clair’s panfish fishery is highly underrated. (Photo by Bob Gwizdz)

There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that Lake St. Clair offers outstanding fishing opportunity.

It is perhaps the best smallmouth bass fishery anywhere – not too many years ago Bassmasters magazine named it the best bass fishery in the country. Folks come from all over the country to enjoy the muskellunge angling. And the walleye fishery is, at times, as good as anywhere.

But what you hear less about is Lake St. Clair’s panfish angling. It can be just as outstanding as the predator fishing.

I spent a day, just before the Arctic weather hit, chasing panfish with Zack Watts and Theron Hoffman, a couple of guys I’ve been fishing with the past few years, working in the canals that line the edge of the big lake.

The fishing was excellent.

It started slowly. It was a miserable day – cold and blowing like a jazz trumpeter – throwing our baits under slip bobbers, into boat houses, around docks, near boats (of which there were few left; most were out of the water already for the season) and against sea walls. We started catching fish almost immediately, but they were small perch. After about two hours I caught one big enough to toss into the live well. But the usual suspects – bluegills and crappies – were no shows.

That is, until we figured it out. Two years ago, the three of us hammered them doing the exact same thing. But the conditions were significantly different this time.

“The water’s so shallow and gin clear that we’re moving those fish around,” said Watts, a
38-year-old civilian employee at Selfridge Air Base. “I think we we’re
pushing them out of the boat wells.”

So we started hitting the outside edges of the cover, out in the canal,
and we started connecting. We still caught plenty of small fish, but by
day’s end, we had kept about 50 – we were keeping 8-inch perch, 10-inch
crappies and 7½-inch bluegills and sunfish – having thrown at least
twice that many back.

It was excellent.

Watts, who has been fishing these canals his entire life (though with a
clip-on bobber and worms for bait when he was young) says he usually
gets started around October and fishes right until ice up.

“Fall is my favorite time,” Watts said. “They’re moving in and putting on the feed bag.”

The hot fishing continues right through hard-water season and at ice-out,
but by then it’s getting to be walleye time. And in the summer, the fish
are still there, but the canals are so weed-choked and full of boat
traffic that fishing’s tough.

We fished with small plastic bodies (say 3⁄4-inch long, either
split-tailed minnows or pollywogs, made by Michigan-based Lure Lipstick)
on small tungsten Widow Maker (also a Michigan-based company) jigs. We
could have used wax worms or spikes, but the plastics kept us from
re-baiting often, which, considering the weather, was a blessing. Watts
noted that when you get them going, you want to get your bait back out
there as quickly as possible, especially if you’re catching perch.

“If you don’t keep those perch going, they’ll (move) out of there,” he said.

We fished about a foot and a half under the slip-bobber with a length of
four-pound test fluorocarbon leader attached to braided main line. Watts
said he likes about a seven-foot rod with a fast tip. Because of the
water clarity and shallow depth we had to make long casts to keep from
spooking the fish.

“If the water would have been deeper or a little bit murky, we could have sat right on top of them,” he said.

Watts likes weighted slip bobbers as it negates the need to put a split shot
on the line. A split shot just makes it that much easier to get tangled
up on the cast. Untangling not only takes time, but is a pain in the
patootie when it’s as cold as it was. It’s almost impossible to untangle with gloves on.

Our keepers were mostly bluegills, a bunch of crappies, a few perch, and some nice pumpkinseeds.

“Not many times you get into all four of those species,” Watts said. “A lot
of times certain canals have more crappies and there are times there are
more perch and I think the perch run the bluegills out of there.”

We quit well before dark as we had to get back to the launch ramp, so we
might have missed the best bite of the day, which Watts says is often the last hour.

“A good day of fishing it’s every cast, one after another,” Watts said. “Maybe
you miss one here and there, but you keep them going until you wear out a
school. Then you have to move.”

We made plans to do it again, after ice-up.

Given any choice in the matter, I wouldn’t miss it.

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