By Todd Ceisner
Lake St. Clair has a well-earned reputation as a top-shelf smallmouth fishery and it will, no doubt, produce some eye-popping stringers during the three-day Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year Championship, which begins Sunday.
St. Clair is certainly a fitting venue to settle the chase for the coveted AOY title – a lake slam-packed with eager-to-eat smallmouth – but it’s a big body of water and can get stirred up pretty easily, which is exactly what happened during the three-day practice session.
Windy conditions churned the water up a bit and made it difficult to get truly dialed in on where the best areas could be. That will force some to rely on past experience, but the later placement on the calendar could serve to level the playing field, which is a good thing with so much on the line.
It won’t be a cakewalk for any of the competitors near the top of the points standings or near the cut line to qualify for the 2020 Bassmaster Classic, which is projected to be around 42nd place. The 50 anglers competing can be divvied up into a few groups based on what they have on the line this week.
There are the handful of competitors – seven, to be exact – at the top with a mathematical chance to take home the AOY title and the accompanying $100,000 bonus. Then there are the next 27 anglers who can’t win AOY, but have already locked up berths in the Classic. A third group isn’t necessarily locked into the Classic, but they know they can’t afford to finish below a certain spot or else their berth will be in jeopardy.
Then there are the bubble boys hovering around 42nd. The math says everyone from Paul Mueller (currently 42nd) on down to Jay Yelas in 50th has a chance to get in the Classic, but some will need a top-15 or top-10 finish in addition to other guys struggling to pull it off.
It all adds up to an interesting backdrop against which the AOY chase will be settled. Among this week’s field, only Clark Wendlandt (48th) and Yelas have AOY titles to their credit, so BassFans will see someone capture their first AOY crown this week.
Before delving deeper into the bite, here's some intel on the fishery itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Name: Lake St. Clair
> Type of Water: Great Lakes system
> Surface Acres: 275,000.
> Primary structure/cover: Offshore ridges, islands, grass, weeds, isolated rock
> Primary forage: Gobies, crayfish, various minnow species, mayflies
> Average depth: 11 feet
> Species: Primarily smallmouth, a smattering of largemouth
> Length limit: 14 inches
> Reputation: One of the most-heralded smallmouth fisheries in the country
> Weather: Cloudy start on Sunday, then rain is expected on Monday and Tuesday
> Water temp: Low to mid 60s
> Water visibility/color: Murky in some areas, but mostly clear elsewhere
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: 2 to 40 feet
> Fish phase: Summer with a few starting to transition to fall
> Primary patterns: Dropshotting, dragging tubes, crankbaits, jerkbaits, swimbaits, Carolina rigs, jigs, Ned rigs, spinnerbaits, grubs, spybaits
> Winning weight: 65 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 4.5 for St. Clair
> Biggest factor: Wind. It’s going to vary day to day so adjustments will be key.
> Wildcard: Shallow bite.
Here's an up-close look at the lake, courtesy of Navionics:
Can Canterbury Close It Out?
The big question surrounding the season finale is can Scott Canterbury finish the job and take home his first career AOY crown. During his 11-year stint on the FLW Tour, he was always one of the more consistent finishers, but he rarely was in the mix for a points title. In 2016, when he collected his first Tour win at Beaver Lake, he finished 12th in points. His 8th-place showing last year was his first top-10 points finish.
He’s carried that momentum over to the Elite Series, staying in the top 10 in points all season long and has occupied the top spot after the last three events. His 13th-place finish at the St. Clair FLW Tour last year will only fortify his confidence as he looks to hold off Chris Zaldain, who’s been on a torrid run since a 65th-place finish at Winyah Bay in April.
Zaldain has posted five straight top-15s, including four straight top-10s (three of which were top-3 outcomes). He seems to click with the northern lakes and if he’s able to erase Canterbury’s 9-point cushion, it would cement his place as the face of the revamped Elite Series.
Cory Johnston, like Canterbury, came over from the FLW Tour following the 2018 season and finds himself in 3rd place, just 14 points out of first. The Ontario native should be in his element this week along with brother Chris, who’s 10th in points.
Chris Zaldain (left) is in position to claim an AOY title thanks to a run of four straight top-10 finishes.
History would appear to be on Canterbury’s side, though. Only once since 2012, when B.A.S.S. adopted its current points system, has the points leader entering the final tournament not gone on to win the AOY crown. That was in 2013 when Edwin Evers squandered a 30-point lead – at Lake St. Clair.
Over the past seven years, the average lead entering the final event has been 32.4 points, which was skewed slightly by Aaron Martens’ 102-point advantage he carried into the 2015 finale. Justin Lucas took a nine-point cushion into the AOY Championship last year at Lake Chatuge and turned it into a runaway 51-point win.
People are already adorning their front lawns and porches with Halloween decorations, which means fall is upon us. Someone needs to remind the St. Clair smallmouth that it’s almost October. Many of them still seem to be stuck in their summer mode and haven’t shifted into their autumn feeding frenzy.
Scott Dobson, a longtime guide on St. Clair who has dozens of top-10 finishes in tournaments there, including several BFL victories, says the fish aren’t quite in tune with the seasonal change just yet. He attributes that to the water temperature around the lake still holding in the mid to upper 60s.
“Typically, this time of year, you expect the fish to be set up to move into their fall locations at a pretty good clip, but everything is a pretty good ways behind now,” he said. “The water is just not at the temperature it needs to be to put the fish where they want to be.”
He said the key indicator of when the fall fishing starts to turn on in the lake is when the water flowing out of the St. Clair River (from Lake Huron) is warmer than the water in the lake.
“The river’s in the mid 60s and the lake’s in the high 60s,” he said. “Once the lake drops below the river, things will pick up.”
For now, he says, he’s comfortable referring to his home waters as “Lake Random.”
But a few degrees on the thermometer won’t turn the event into an all-out grind, he said. Big fish and hefty stringers are still anticipated. At the two-day BFL on the Detroit River last weekend, there were 20 bags of 20 pounds or more weighed in, including two on day 1 that exceeded 26 pounds.
With much of the Detroit River off limits, which also takes Lake Erie out of play, the field will be penned into Lake St. Clair and Dobson thinks the challenge will be finding an area that will produce quality fish for three days in a row. At the same time, if someone can generate seven to nine bites, the best five will likely result in a 20-pound bag.
“With the winds they’ve had, you’re going to need a lot of stamina to fish in the big water,” he said, referencing the lake ache some anglers experience after bobbing around for long stretches. “It’s not about who’s going to catch big ones, it’s going to be are the fish going to be in one area for three straight days or will guys have to bounce around.”
Depending on the wind direction and intensity, Dobson expects the following areas to see their share of fishing pressure:
> Anchor Bay, located in the northwest corner not far from the launch ramp;
> Mitchell’s Bay, located on the eastern (Ontario) shoreline;
> South shore, where most of the lake’s rock-bottomed features lie;
> The Mile roads, a section along the western shoreline halfway between the mouth of the Detroit River and where the tournament launch ramp is.
The last time Brock Mosley fished at Lake St. Clair in 2017, he went home with a runner-up finish.
“There are good, quality fish out there, but will they consistently be able to weigh-in good bags is the question,” Dobson added. “The lake is healthy. I’m just not sure what all this wind will do. It will be about key adjustments and not so much about soaking a dropshot.”
Notes from the Field
Following are some practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll compete this week.
“You just can’t go anywhere. Some of those guys will but I’m not one of them. This is a free derby for me. I don’t stand to gain or lose anything. On day 1, I’m going somewhere the wind’s been blowing in on and hope that nobody’s been messing with it.
“In practice, I tied on a tube and crankbait and went and had as much fun as I could in five-footers. If I don’t catch them on that, so be it. In the FLW (tournament) last year, it seemed like there were a whole lot more fish than now. I don’t know if they’ve just been beat on or it’s a time of year thing, but I’m not catching as many.”
“I’m not getting as many bites as I did two years ago and they don’t seem like they bite very well in the afternoon. On Thursday, when the sun popped out, the bite slowed down. The water is pretty dingy, too, and I’m not sure if that’s because of the wind or high water, but Thursday I was in some deep, blue, clear water and thought it was the deal, but I didn’t get any bites.
“I have it figured out that I just need to catch one fish to secure a Classic. I can’t really move up any more in (AOY) money. Once I get a fish in the boat, I’ll fish to win, but we’re coming back next year, so I’d like to treat this as a normal tournament. I also may try to fish some areas to learn something if the wind will allow it. This is my first time here this late in the year and there are not as many fish out at the depth we were at last time.”
“I can fall more than I can climb. I’ve made the Classic and that’s a good thing because the lake is fishing funny. I haven’t been able to get out here and do what you need to do because of the wind. I’ve fished the river and other stuff and (Friday), I thought I could get offshore. I don’t know what the heck I was thinking.
“I figured this time of year, we’d find bait grouped up. I figured we’d find fish grouped up, but they’re doing all kinds of stuff. There are still stragglers from where they were this summer and some trying to sniff around to go shallow. We’re going to have to adjust each day. We’re supposed to get a different wind direction each day, but it’s St. Clair and there are a lot of big smallmouth. They’re going to catch ‘em.”
A Few to Keep an Eye on
With the above in mind and more, here are a few anglers whom BassFan believes could fare well in this event.
> Chad Pipkens – He’s in a comfortable spot in points (29th) to make the Classic, but can’t afford a big stumble. Any sort of slippage would be a big surprise for the Michigan native, who’s won at St. Clair before in September (2014 Northern Open). He also finished 4th in the 2015 Elite Series stop there.
> Garrett Paquette – Rookie from Michigan gets his chance to shine on waters he’s very familiar with. He’s 22 points above the projected Classic cut line, so every bite will matter to him as he tries to reverse a second-half slump.
> Jamie Hartman – He’s already won twice this season and his spot in next year’s Classic is locked down, but what better way to cap off a career year than claiming another blue trophy on one of the top smallmouth fisheries in the country?
> Chris Zaldain – He’s been on an incredible tear with five straight top-15 finishes, including top-10s in the last four outings. He’s as close as he’s ever been to winning an AOY title and his smallmouth prowess will need to be on point if he’s to overtake Canterbury.
Anglers will launch at 7:10 a.m. ET each day from the Lake St. Clair Metropark (31300 Metro Parkway, Harrison Twp., MI). Weigh-ins all three days will also be held at Lake St. Clair Metropark. All weigh-ins will begin at 3:30 p.m.
> Sun., Sept. 29 – Morning Showers – 68°/60°
- Wind: From the E at 11 mph
> Mon., Sept. 30 – Morning Showers – 79°/70°
- Wind: From the SE at 10 mph
> Tues., Oct. 1 – Morning Thunderstorms – 83°/66°
- Wind: From the SW at 13 mph