By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
Lake St. Clair carries the reputation as one of the premier smallmouth fisheries on the North American continent. It lived up to that distinction throughout last year and in all likelihood will do so again at some point in the future.
But right now, as the lake prepares to host the final Bassmaster Elite Series event of 2013, it's a different story.
The big bronzebacks that inhabit St. Clair are not in peak condition – many are long, but almost grotesquely skinny. Four-pounders are hard to come by and bags weighing in excess of 17 pounds have been almost non-existent. Tournaments on the Detroit River system, even those offering relatively paltry prize purses, have been dominated by competitors making the 60-mile-plus run to Lake Erie.
What's the cause of the slowdown? And much more importantly, why do most of the fish look so unhealthy?
No one is sure, and locals say that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has yet to show an interest in the issue despite all the time and money spent annually by anglers pursuing bass. Those figures have increased exponentially in recent years as the lake now sees pressure – both recreational and tournament – to an extent that it never did in previous decades.
Expectations are that the Elite derby will play out along the lines of the EverStart, the BFL and the dozens of regional and local events that have preceded it recently and will be won on Lake Erie. However, some of the guides who are on St. Clair almost daily claim that lake has begun to produce better quality over the past week and that the tournament could be won a lot closer to the launch ramp, which sits in the Detroit suburb of Harrison Township.
Before getting into more about the bite and what's at stake in the Toyota Tundra B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year (AOY) race, here are some facts about the fishery itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Name: Lake St. Clair (along with the Detroit River system that includes lakes Erie and Huron and the St. Clair River)
> Type of Water: Great Lakes system
> Surface Acres: Nearly 10,000 square miles are available between St. Clair and Erie combined.
> Primary structure/cover: Offshore ridges, islands, isolated rock (Erie), grass, weeds (St. Clair and rivers)
> Primary forage: Gobies, crayfish, various minnow species
> Average depth: 11 feet (Lake St. Clair), 62 feet (Lake Erie)
> Species: Primarily smallmouths, a smattering of largemouths
> Length limit: 14 inches
> Reputation: One of the most-heralded smallmouth fisheries in the country
> Weather: Mostly sunny with a few clouds scattered about. Winds will get at least into the moderate range and could play a big role
> Water temp: Low to mid 70s throughout much of Erie and St. Clair
> Water visibility/color: Variable, depending on location, but generally good (up to 4 feet) in Erie and St. Clair
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: 2 to 40 feet
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Dropshotting or dragging tubes (predominant on Erie), crankbaits, jerkbaits, Carolina rigs, jigs, jighead worms, spinnerbaits, grubs
> Winning weight: 85 pounds
> Cut weight: 32 pounds (first 2 days)
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Erie-St. Clair
> Biggest factor: The sometimes-unpredictable weather (as always)
> Wildcard: The river bite (some big largemouths live there, but not a lot of them)
Pick a Place and Go
Brandon Palaniuk topped the Elite Series event at the St. Lawrence River 2 weeks ago by making a daily round trip to Lake Ontario that was in excess of 200 miles. There's a lot of talk about the eventual winner of this derby burning a great deal of fuel, too.
From a competitive standpoint, St. Clair just hasn't been the place to be this year. Excursions to the primary alternative (Erie) are accompanied by the potential pratfalls brought on by weather, and the forecast for this week, while not extremely foreboding, is calling for some significant wind.
Edwin Evers can lock up the Angler of the Year title if he logs his eighth straight finish of 30th or better.
That might mean that St. Clair will get little pressure, and former tour pro Art Ferguson III said a decision to hang around the home lake could pay off in a big way.
"The word has been that this tournament can't be won on St. Clair, but I disagree," said Ferguson, who spends his summers guiding on the lake. "There's no question that Erie's been better all year, but that could change this week just based on what I've seen in the last 3 or 4 days.
"The fish are starting to look thicker, like they're starting to eat, and we're finding pods of them. If somebody runs into the right groups, the potential (to win) is there. And anybody who fishes St. Clair will get 2 to 3 more hours of fishing time each day, and that could make a big difference."
Fellow guide and former FLW Tour pro Kevin Long agreed.
"In the last few days we've gone back to summer conditions after 3 or 4 really cold weeks," he said. "I definitely think there's more of a chance for 18-pound-plus bags than there was even a week ago.
"Overall, it's been a good year from a numbers perspective – it's just that the bigger ones have been scarce. They're starting to show up, though."
Options North and South
Erie will undoubtedly be the most popular alternative destination – its rocky humps are loaded with brown fish that are usually pretty simple to catch on a dropshot rig or a tube. It's getting there and back that poses the biggest risk.
"One minute you can be out there in 1-foot waves and then 15 minutes later you're looking at 3- or 4-footers," said Ferguson. "When that happens, a guy had better know how to run a boat in those conditions."
Another possibility is heading north to Lake Huron, which is basically an unmolested smallmouth fishery. Getting to the places on that lake that actually hold fish, however, is a time-consuming endeavor as the bottom at the southern end is almost entirely comprised of sand. All of the rocks are in the middle and upper portions.
"It's not a known place, but I wouldn't be surprised if some guys practiced up there," Long said.
AOY: Evers in Control
Edwin Evers, who's been in command of the Angler of the Year race for most of the campaign, will attempt to wrap up his first career points title this week. He can lock everybody else out by equaling his season-worst finish (30th).
He can't feel too comfortable, though, considering that his closest pursuer is the white-hot Aaron Martens. If Evers were to miss his first cut of the year (i.e. finish outside the Top 50 after the first 2 days), Martens or seven-time AOY Kevin VanDam could snatch the crown. Everyone else is at least 59 points back and would require bombs from all three of those stalwarts, which is highly unlikely.
A lot of Bassmaster Classic berths will be secured or lost this week, with the final cutoff expected to settle somewhere around No. 35 on the points list. Jason Christie, who's already in due to a win earlier this year, occupies that position and Randy Howell, whose Classic berth is locked up by an Open victory, is No. 37. Those guys could both help out one of their colleagues by moving up 2 or 3 slots and becoming double-qualifiers.
Here are practice notes from some of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"I've stayed in St. Clair the past 2 days and I'm not impressed at all. I'm not having trouble catching fish, but they're so slim that it's almost like they're post-spawn. It's really weird. I've caught several that should've weighed 4 pounds, but they weigh 3 1/4.
Jonathon VanDam will be right at home this week on Lake St. Clair.
"The only other person I've seen in St. Clair is (Kevin) VanDam, and I'm sure he'll figure out how to catch 17 or 18 pounds. If you're determined to stay there, you can fish anything you want because everybody else has gone somewhere else. I'm going to go down to Erie myself (on Wednesday) and see what the difference is. In the (Bassmaster Northern) Open last year I fished St. Clair and it was really good. This year it's totally the opposite.
"It's been cooler and the grass hasn't really grown up, but that doesn't explain why the fish are so thin. In the Open last year I had several clumps where I knew I could pull up and catch 14 or 15 pounds at will. Now I don't know if I can catch 15 pounds in all of St. Clair.
"If I knew more about (Lake) Huron, I'd try up in that direction."
"It's a lot tougher than I'd imagined it would be. The fish in every place I'd planned on catching them just aren't as big. A lot of the fish I'm catching at good length and they should weigh good, but they're really skinny.
"It's not very hard to get bites, but it's really hard to catch the St. Clair-sized fish that we're used to. I went to Huron today and it seems to be the same thing there. I didn't find anything that would make me want to run that far (during the tournament).
"Coming in, I really thought you were going to have to catch 18 pounds to have a halfway decent bag. The longer I go through practice, though, 16 or 17 pounds seems really good. I think the weights are going to be a little lower than what we'd planned on."
"I'm really surprised by the condition these fish are in – they're in really bad shape. Something's going on with their weight and this was not the St. Clair I expected. This fishery typically fishes a lot better than it is right now, but it's got something going against it, whether it's the algae bloom or whatever.
"I've bounced around a little big and I haven't decided where I'm going to go yet. It depends on what I find (on the final practice day) and what the weather might do.
"I'm sure the weights will be down a little, but somebody will put it all together and make it work."
"Coming from a phenomenal fishery like the St. Lawrence River, this is a lot different. The fish there were healthy and happy and I don't want to say they were easy to catch, but the quality was definitely there. Here I've fished St. Clair, the river, Huron and I've been all the way to Erie and all the fish are very poor-looking. It doesn't make a lot of sense.
"Every fish at the St. Lawrence took 10 minutes to get in because they were so powerful, but these seem to give up right at the boat. I've caught 18-inchers that should weigh 4 to 4 1/2 pounds, but they weigh 3 or 3 12. We're used to seeing smaller mouths and big, giant bodies, but this year they've got big mouths and skinny bodies.
"I ventured out into Erie a little bit and I just decided I had no business being there because I've got nothing to go to. In years past, I never fished it. That's where it'll be won, more than likely, and over half of the Top 50 will probably come from there, but I didn't want to make that 2- or 2 1/2-hour run and jeopardize where I am in the points (4th).
"I'll try go get something dialed in on St. Clair because I know they live there, but you may have to weed through a lot of little guys to get them."
"I've fished Erie a lot and it's a lot different than it normally is. There's a big algae bloom going on and I know I've gotten around some good fish, but they just won't bite.
"I'll pull up on spots I've always caught smallmouth on and see them on the graph and everything will look right, but the water's a dark, dingy green. And those fish just won't bite.
"Today my lower unit went out and I spent almost the whole day getting towed in – I fished for like an hour. I really thought this would be a walk in the park as long as I could get there and get back, but I'm not thinking that now. (Wednesday) is going to be big for me."
Top 10 to Watch
Based on the above information and more, here are BassFan's recommendations for the Top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Jonathon VanDam – He's had a fine season, but hasn't yet logged back-to-back finishes within the Top 35. The runner-up at the St. Lawrence River is enjoying a lot of home cooking this week and is primed to conclude the season with a flourish.
2. Kevin VanDam – It looked like he'd contend for the win at the St. Lawrence, but a poor day 3 sent him packing prior to Sunday once again. If he's among the leaders at the midway point in this home-state derby – which is extremely likely – look for him to stay there.
3. Aaron Martens – He could catch an 18-pound sack out of a rural highway pothole following a thunderstorm right now. He's riding what might be the hottest streak of his sparkling career and there's no reason to think he won't notch his fifth consecutive single-digit placement.
4. Brandon Palaniuk – He might suffer a letdown in the wake of his enormously significant victory at the St. Lawrence. Then again, he might not. He's supremely adept at catching big smallmouths, and this place has 'em.
5. Tommy Biffle – Smallmouths like his Biffle Bug just fine, as they showed last year at Lake Michigan (where he finished 8th). With a Classic berth already in the bag from his win at the Mississippi River, he's got no reason to hold anything back – and he won't.
6. Edwin Evers – He can nail down the AOY by equaling his worst finish of the season. He's been incredibly consistent throughout the campaign and isn't likely to falter with his long-sought goal so close to becoming reality.
7. Mike Iaconelli – He hasn't finished inside the Top 20 since April 2012 – a span of 12 events – and at 50th in the points, it's unlikely that he can get under the Classic cutoff. He may need a win, either in this derby or the final Northern Open, to compete at Guntersville in February.
8. Boyd Duckett – The Alabamian is always strong in the North and he needs to remain solid to put the clamps on a Classic slot (he's currently 34th in the AOY race). He doesn't need a win – which was the case going into the finale last year, and which he got – but he can't afford a bomb.
9. Randy Howell – He was having a lackluster season until he won the James River Northern Open, and that's changed everything for him. With the Classic in the bag, he's fishing free and easy and getting good results.
10. Ott DeFoe – The Tennessean's struggles in the North from his FLW days are ancient history. He was in danger of missing the Classic when the calendar turned to summer, and now he's a threat to return to the post-season after 15th- and 3rd-place showings. He's got this smallmouth thing dialed in.
Anglers will launch at 6:30 a.m. each day from Lake St. Clair Metropark (31300 Metro Parkway, Harrison Township, Mich.). Weigh-ins will commence at 3:15 p.m. at the same location.
> Aaron Martens has determined that he'll go to Lake Erie and battle the wind on day 1. Brent Chapman wants to go, but the prospects of a bad day so far away from the launch have him a bit concerned. To read their practice wrap-ups, click here to go to BassFan's Pro View Reports.
> Thurs., Aug. 22 – Scattered T-Storms – 81°/60°
- Wind: From the W at 10 mph
> Fri., Aug. 23 – Partly Cloudy – 79°/58°
- Wind: From the SSW at 8 mph
> Sat., Aug. 24 – Mostly Sunny – 77°/58°
- Wind: From the WSW at 8 mph
> Sun., Aug. 25 – Partly Cloudy – 80°/66°
- Wind: From the SW at 7 mph