By Todd Ceisner
Where will it go down this time?
Will the Lake St. Clair Elite Series this week be won out of the waters of Lake Huron, where Chris Lane displayed his smallmouth acumen in his 2013 victory? Will it be the St. Clair River, which connects Huron to St. Clair, and can be every bit as good as the big waters? Could it happen in St. Clair, the 25-mile long by 22-mile wide “bathtub” that can be perplexing to the uninitiated angler, but also is home to endless numbers of 3- to 6-pound smallmouth and where Todd Faircloth logged his fifth Elite Series win in 2015?
Or will the Detroit River and the vast western basin of Lake Erie come into play?
We’re about to find out, but to make a long story short: The possibilities are endless for the final full-field derby of the 2017 season. With so much at stake in terms of the Angler of the Year points race, the quest for Bassmaster Classic berths and trips to Mille Lacs Lake for next month’s AOY Championship (top 50 in points), not to mention positioning for requalification for 2018, having a venue with so many juicy and tempting options only adds another layer of intrigue to the season finale.
While some will go the high-risk, high-reward route, the consensus seems to be that St. Clair will be where the winning bags are ultimately caught. Sure, some strong weights will come from elsewhere, but as far as consistency goes and taking into account the potential pitfalls that can arise because of the weather and other factors, St. Clair figures to be the safe bet this week. It also helps that St. Clair has been pumping out strong weights recently.
There were 11 bags over 20 pounds in a Lake St. Clair BFL on Aug. 5, including a winning weight of 23-06 and three other stringers over 22. Last Saturday, it took 23-09 to win a Detroit River BFL that included 11 bags of 19 pounds or more. Other local tournaments are requiring just as much or more to claim a top-3 spot.
“As a whole, all down the St. Clair River and Detroit River, it’s fishing well,” said Scott Dobson, a noted smallmouth guru from Michigan who has six BFL wins to his credit on St. Clair and the Detroit River. “It’s maybe not as strong as the 1000 Islands, but there are a lot of big fish on St. Clair.”
With very little in terms of structure and change in bottom composition on St. Clair, look for many competitors to key on grass lines and isolated patches of offshore vegetation. That’s what Faircloth did in 2015. There’s also a strong population of smallmouth that live in 4 to 6 feet of water at St. Clair, so a shallow-water pattern could emerge as well.
Elsewhere, especially in the rivers, current breaks and eddys along with typical smallmouth-holding cover will be popular.
“When you find ‘em you catch ‘em … they’re smallmouth,” Dobson added “They’re dumb. They bite and you just have to land them.”
The X-factor, as it tends to be any time it’s part of the playing field, could be Lake Erie. It’s the classic go-for-broke proposition to run down the Detroit River and either across the Ontario shoreline of Erie to the north or make the daring trip to the group of islands around the U.S.-Canada border.
Jason Christie has won an Open at Lake St. Clair before and has no plans to fish outside of the host lake this week.
The fish are there to win, but making that round trip four days in a row can be harrowing to say the least. It’s been fruitful for some in the past – Chad Pipkens fished Erie en route to a top-5 finish in 2015 – and can also be a detriment. Aaron Martens had a jack plate mounting bolt sheared off when his boat hit a huge wake on his way back from Erie, costing him a potential victory in the 2013 event.
If the weather, especially the wind, cooperates, Erie could attract a fair share of boats, but again it goes back to maximizing time and opportunities with so much on the line. The one drawback to Erie is there’s a full-blown algae bloom going on along the Ontario shoreline that has hampered water clarity in practice and might deter some from making the lengthy run.
“August is pretty stable weather-wise and the good thing about St. Clair is there are so many big fish out there,” Dobson said.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake 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: Predominantly sunny with light winds
> Water temp: Low to mid 70s
> Water visibility/color: Variable, depending on location, but generally good (down to 15 feet in St. Clair). A massive algae bloom has spread across the southern portion of St. Clair and the northern part of Erie.
> Water level: A foot higher than normal
> Fish in: 2 to 40 feet
> Fish phase: Summer
> Primary patterns: Dropshotting, dragging tubes, crankbaits, jerkbaits, Carolina rigs, jigs, jighead worms, spinnerbaits, grubs, spybaits
> Winning weight: 88 pounds
> Check weight: 33 pounds (top 50 after 2 days)
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 4 for St. Clair, 3 for Erie
> Biggest factor: Time management. Do you camp in St. Clair or run here or there?
> Wildcard: Weather and wind. Any significant change in either will force adjustments.
Better This Time
Four years ago, there was some alarm about the state of the smallmouth at St. Clair. The fish were abnormally skinny and many of the tournaments staged there were won by anglers running to Lake Erie. As it happened, Lane won the 2013 Elite Series event well north of St. Clair where Lake Huron dumps into the St. Clair River.
Two years later, St. Clair was rounding back into form. The fish were healthier and the weights at the 2015 Elite Series tournament showed. The top-50 cut weight in 2015 was more than 2 pounds higher than the 2013 check weight and the top-12 cut weight was 1 1/2 pounds higher. Faircloth’s winning weight of 84-07 was more than two pounds better than Lane’s and the expectation is that the numbers will continue to trend upward this week.
“They’re going to catch ‘em good,” Dobson predicted. “St. Clair is healthy and the fish are healthy and fat. There is not a lot of numbers like in years past, which is weird, but it’s as good as I’ve seen in at least 4 years for quality of fish.”
Maybe it’s because the grass is prolific and healthy this year. Maybe it’s because there’s an abundance and a variety of forage. More than likely, it’s a combination of both factors.
“There is a lot of grass and bait in the lake this year,” Dobson added. “Perch, crayfish or if you can find where the emerald (shiners) are, that’s consistent and those will be bigger fish. There more emeralds in the lake now, especially around areas with current.”
Dobson noted emeralds and gobies are the dominant baitfish in the St. Clair River and that he’s witnessed shad starting to re-establish themselves, which could be a good thing.
Brandon Palaniuk has a prime opportunity to add to his cushion in the Angler of the Year points race.
“We haven’t seen those in years,” he said. “If guys can stay on top of that for a few days, someone might eclipse 90 pounds.”
Stability (and Sun) a Key
On Monday, competitors were treated to a picture-perfect day as far as fishing conditions go. Winds were light, the sun was blazing and the fish were cooperative. Contrast that against Tuesday when no matter where they went, anglers were battered by roiled waters and treacherous conditions. Wednesday's final practice session featured gusty winds out of the west and partly sunny skies.
The forecast for the competition days appears to be more in line with what Monday had to offer, which should bode well as abundant sunshine, Dobson says, is often a key to igniting the bite at St. Clair.
“Sun rules the smallies,” he said. “If it’s sunny, no matter if it’s windy or flat, the bigger ones bite better. It’s a known thing. We get excited when it’s sunny. They’re visual feeders and if they’re feeding up on bait you can cover a lot more water. If you can draw strikes with a swimbait, jerkbait or crankbait, you can see them chase and follow up with a dropshot.”
If the forecast holds, also expect the spybait technique to be an effective tool this week as it was at the St. Lawrence River last month.
The witching hour has arrived for those on the bubble to make the AOY Championship and those trying to maneuver closer to a Classic berth. The final regular season Elite Series tournament is always rife with increased pressure up and down the field.
At the top of the points standings, Brandon Palaniuk enjoys a 40-point cushion over Jacob Wheeler and Casey Ashley and is 43 points clear of Jason Christie in 4th. Greg Hackney is 5th, but is 71 points back.
If anyone is to close the gap on Palaniuk, this week is the time to do it because gaining much ground at the 50-man AOY event has always proven difficult. With six straight top-20 finishes, including back-to-back 3rds to start the northern swing, Palaniuk will be tough to reel in. Oh, not to mention he led after days 2 and 3 and finished 2nd to Todd Faircloth at St. Clair in 2015.
Further down the standings, David Mullins currently occupies the 50th spot with 476 points. The group immediately behind him includes perennial Classic qualifiers Skeet Reese (51st), Dean Rojas (54th) and Mike Iaconelli (55th), all of whom are within 15 points of the AOY championship cutoff.
Even further down the ledger, those who finish in the top 70 in points will be automatically invited back for the 2018 season while the remainder of the field will be subject to requalification criteria.
Here's a look at how Lake St. Clair and the surrounding water sets up, courtesy of Navionics:
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
“It’s about the same (as 2015). The fishing is decent. There have been two tournaments here in the past six weeks that have taken 23-plus to win and when you look down at 2nd through 15th, they’re all solid. They’re going to catch ‘em.
“It seems like the grass to me is further along than it was last time. The fish are still here and there is tons of bait. Monday was an awesome fishing day, but Tuesday was the opposite with the wind blowing out of the west. I quit early because I got frustrated and didn’t feel like I was learning anything.
“The worst thing to do here is spend one day on St. Clair and one day in the river and another on Erie. I’ve always fished St. Clair and that’s what I’m going to fish this year. You’re not even scratching the surface in 2 1/2 days so it makes it easy on me. It eliminates the variables like going a long way.”
“I expect it to fish pretty similar. The lake is definitely up some from then and there’s a lot of grass, but it isn’t as tall as it was when I won. That’s pretty typical for a grass lake as it changes year to year.
“It’s just human nature to check out (the spot where I won). Do I expect to win again off that spot? No, but understanding what to look for is more important than spot-fishing like that. These fish, particularly smallmouth, are notorious for roaming around. They’re day to day.
“I’ve caught some fish and I’ve caught a few decent fish, but it doesn’t seem as it easy as it was two years ago. There is not the numbers from two years ago, but I’d expect similar weights. On Tuesday, I went out on the lake but it was impossible to fish so I spent some time in the rivers. You have to here in case the wind does blow bad one day. I don’t like to get too spread out as far as going to Huron and Erie and the rivers because you can get too spread out and you can fight yourself on decisions.”
“Everything seems to be about the same, but the hardest thing about it is I always want to do too much. I’ve learned you can’t do that. I’ll pick two or three areas – I’ll fish St. Clair and hammer a couple areas pretty hard. I won’t go to Erie because it’s too big and I don’t know it that well. Plus, it gets so rough.
“You do have to fish around for them more in St. Clair. You can’t just go see them on the graph and that can be pretty confusing and be hard to deal with. I’m used to lakes with contours and points and humps and breaks. Here, you’re spending a lot of time fishing around. It’s a lot like Florida. There are some places that have some variety, but for the most part it’s either sand or grass. There is not much rock at all.
“I know the fish have the tendency to roam in St. Clair and that scares me. On a north wind, the current will speed up and anything different will change the angle of current and will shift the fish. It’s scary because it’s so vast and it takes forever to find them.”
“I’ve caught several big ones – a couple 5s – and probably had 19 pounds Monday. It’s a lot of randomness. You’ll catch a 5 and not catch anything else. Having never been here before, there’s not a lot of structure to hold them. You basically just fire around and hope they’re there. I’ve caught a few in the river fishing current like I like doing so that’s probably what I’ll wind up doing.
“I caught some in St. Clair on Monday, but it’s a lot easier to look at a spot and figure they’re going to be there rather than go out there and randomly fire around. I’ve seen guys pull up in the middle of nowhere and just fire around. I know they’re not sitting on anything because there’s nothing out there.
“As far as getting dialed on something, I am not. I’ve talked to a lot of guys who’ve caught 19 or 20 pounds, but it was one here and one there. You just have to put your head down and fish. I feel pretty decent about it.”
“Monday was really nice. I wish I’d covered more stuff actually. I don’t think there will be near the numbers of fish (as 2015), but we’ll see better quality. It’s crazy how solid the fish are. I really haven’t got on anything I like yet. I have stuff I’ve always fished here that I know I will fish, but I haven’t found anything to make any noise.
Jonathon VanDam needs a strong showing in his home state to qualify for the AOY Championship.
“I’ve been looking for big ones and I fished Erie a little Monday. I fished stuff I’ve always caught ‘em on, but didn’t catch them that great. I have a lot of places to fish, but I need that confidence first. Those 3 1/2-plus-pounders are what you’re after. Here, 3-pounders aren’t worth much.”
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Kevin VanDam – Sure, he’s won three times at the St. Lawrence River, but St. Clair is truly his backyard. His recent tear was interrupted by a 79th at Lake Champlain that took him out of the AOY race, so we don’t expect him to miss the boat in his home state.
2. Brandon Palaniuk – Possibly the best smallmouth angler on the circuit, he’s in the midst of a career-defining season that’s on track to culminate with an AOY title. He’s won at Rayburn already this year, but wouldn’t mind a little redemption at St. Clair after losing the lead on the final day in 2015.
3. Jacob Wheeler – Won the season opener and has backed it up with solid showings throughout. He’s fresh off an MLF event, also in Michigan, so he’s already in smallmouth mode and ready to give Palaniuk a run for AOY.
4. Seth Feider – It was about this time last season that he mounted a furious run at a Classic berth, only to fall short. He’s inside the top 25 in points now and, fresh off a runner-up at Champlain, the pressure is off so we expect an improvement over his 52nd at St. Clair in 2015, his rookie year.
5. Aaron Martens – After a historic day-3 charge to win at Champlain, Martens is no longer on the Classic bubble and he’s brimming with confidence heading to a venue that’s netted him two top-12s (remember, he probably would’ve won in 2013 if not for a mechanical failure on day 4).
6. Chad Pipkens – Coming off two money finishes in New York, he needs another solid showing to get inside the top 70 to avoid the dreaded requalification criteria. He’s a Michigan native who’s intimately familiar with St. Clair and the surrounding water. He won a Northern Open at St. Clair in September 2014 by running out to Lake Erie.
7. Mike Iaconelli – His hopes to make the Classic via Elite Series points are on life support (he’s 45 points out of 35th), but he can keep his chances alive with a strong finish that will put him inside the top 50.
8. Dave Lefebre – Has plenty of experience at St. Clair and on the Detroit River from his FLW days and he needs a good finish to offset three 75th or worse showings in his last four events, which has dragged him down to 35th in points.
9. Jonathon VanDam – He’ll be bent on getting inside the top 50 (he’s 59th in points) to prolong his season and this is the venue to do it. He was 8th at St. Clair in 2015.
10. Edwin Evers – Has quietly compiled yet another stellar season (7th in points, one missed check), but has yet to make a top-12 cut in a full-field event in 2017. The last time that happened was 2009. He’s 1-for-2 on cashing checks at St. Clair in the Elite Series.
> Anglers will launch at 6:30 a.m. ET all 4 days from Lake St. Clair Metropark (31300 Metro Parkway, Harrison Twp., Mich.). Weigh-ins on all 4 days will begin at 3:15 p.m. at Lake St. Clair Metropark (same address).
> Thurs., Aug. 24 – Partly Sunny - 70°/5652
- Wind: From the NNW at 5 to 8 mph
> Fri., Aug. 25 – Mostly Sunny - 73°/53°
- Wind: From the NNE at 5 to 8 mph
> Sat., Aug. 26 – Mostly Sunny - 74°/55°
- Wind: From the S at 3 to 5 mph
> Sun., Aug. 27 – Mostly Sunny - 76°/58°
- Wind: From the S at 7 to 12 mph