By Todd Ceisner
When the calendar turns to October on Lake St. Clair, it’s typical for the smallmouth bass to be in the midst of their fall feed up. The water begins cooling off, the fish group up and fishing can be lights-out good.
At the Bassmaster Elite Series Angler of the Year Championship last week, conditions didn’t quite fall in line with seasonal expectations. The water in the lake was still in the mid to upper 60s and the fall transition hadn’t got under way just yet. The smallmouth were scattered and it was not terribly easy to predict where they’d be. The 50-man field was confronted with brutal windy conditions during practice and on day 1 of the event and that’s when it became apparent a reaction bait was going to be a key player.
As conditions improved on days 2 and 3, a dropshot become more of a player, but ultimately a crankbait in the 13- to 17-foot range in areas with a good bit of current and some sparse grass growing off the bottom wound up being the most productive scenario.
What follows is a recap of how the rest of the top 5 finishers filled their livewells each day.
2nd: Stetson Blaylock
> Day 1: 5, 24-12
> Day 2: 5, 24-07
> Day 3: 5, 22-04
> Total = 15, 71-07
Stetson Blaylock departed the Detroit area Wednesday with his head up and good feeling about how he concluded the 2019 Elite Series season. While he was disappointed about coming up short on the tournament leaderboard and finishing second in the year-long AOY points race, there’s not much he would’ve changed in hindsight.
“One thing I took away was to never count yourself out,” he said. “Just because one slip up from Scott and I’m walking away with AOY. He didn’t slip up and he’s the winner, but it very easily could’ve gone in any direction.
“It was exciting to finish the year strong like that. People can look at it and go, ‘Man that stinks you finished second in points and second in the tournament,’ but they’re still great accomplishments. I don’t think Seth was going to be beat. He’s the smallmouth ninja.”
Like Feider, Blaylock relied heavily on a crankbait to pile up more than 70 pounds over three days and secure a berth in his first Bassmaster Classic.
“It was definitely there in practice, but more because I couldn’t get bit on other stuff,” he said. “I’m the kind of guy who practices something and if it’s not working I’m not going to throw it in the tournament.”
A few other factors played into his decision to lean on a plug, which wound up producing the two biggest bags of smallmouth he’s weighed in competition (days 1 and 2).
“One was the wind,” he said. “Two, it’s September/October so the fish to me should be eating stuff that moves. And three, in the fall the fish tend to scatter out. It’s one of those deals where you have to be in the right area, but not on an exact waypoint.”
He had fish located in four or fives areas, but wound up only fishing two of them in the tournament. He said there was no sense to leave areas with biting fish for the sake of running around.
Both areas had 16 to 17 feet of water on them with varying amounts of grass.
“There were little areas I’d through where I could see it on (Garmin) LiveScope,” he said. “You could see the clusters of grass and there’d be more fish there than others.”
He tried to keep his bait just off the bottom in order to put it in the strike zone for the smallmouth.
“If I hit bottom, I switched baits,” he said.
> Cranking gear: 7’4” heavy-action 13 Fishing Envy cranking rod, 13 Fishing Concept Z casting reel (7.3:1 ratio), 12-pound Seaguar Tatsu fluorocarbon line, Norman Deep Little N, Norman NXS (bright colors).
Clark Wendlandt capped off a disappointing season with a top-3 showing at St. Clair.
3rd: Clark Wendlandt
> Day 1: 5, 18-14
> Day 2: 5, 23-14
> Day 3: 5, 23-14
> Total = 15, 66-10
Clark Wendlandt’s realistic hopes to make the Classic evaporated with a 69th-place finish at Lake Tenkiller. Even if he’d have won at Lake St. Clair, he still would have fallen four points shy of where he needed to be in the AOY standings.
Still, he headed into the offseason on a high note after riding a crankbait pattern with some dropshot mixed in to more than 66 pounds, including consecutive 23-14 stringers on the final two days.
“I feel St. Clair is different every time I go,” he said. “It’s not necessarily totally different, but you have to figure out where they are and a lot depends on whether there is some grass, no grass or a lot of grass. Then it’s about what will trigger bites. Is it a tube or dropshot? Do you have to jerk the tube or drag it? And what kind of winding baits will work?”
He was able to boil down the variables pretty easily in practice as he found a handful of areas that seemed to be holding groups of fish.
“I had no idea I would catch what I did,” he said. “In practice, since you can’t sit there and wear on them, you can’t tell how random it is or if they’re holding on a little spot. I dialed them in during the tournament.”
He said some sparse grass in the areas he fished seemed to be a bigger key than water clarity. He also employed his Garmin Panoptix LiveScope as a tool to precisely locate where he needed to be casting.
“I didn’t catch much where there was nothing on the bottom,” he said. “I caught a good many on a crankbait, especially the bigger ones, and I caught a lot on a dropshot.”
> Cranking gear: 7’ medium-heavy Bass Pro Shops Crankin’ Stick casting rod, Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Platinum Signature Series casting reel (8.3:1 ratio), 14-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, Strike King Series 5XD crankbait (chartreuse sexy shad).
> Dropshot gear: 7’1” medium-action Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Platinum Signature Series spinning rod, Bass Pro Shops Johnny Morris Platinum Signature Series spinning reel, 12-pound Sunline Super FC Sniper fluorocarbon line, #1 Owner mosquito hook, Strike King 3X ElazTech Baby Z Too soft jerkbait (the deal), 1/2-oz. Strike King Tour Grade Tungsten dropshot weight.
Cliff Prince secured a spot in the 2020 Bassmaster Classic with a top-5 finish last week.
4th: Cliff Prince
> Day 1: 5, 21-03
> Day 2: 5, 22-00
> Day 3: 5, 22-13
> Total = 15, 66-00
Cliff Prince collected his first top-five finish since the placing third at Lake Okeechobee in early 2017 and it came at the perfect time. Prince’s father, who suffers from Parkinson’s Disease, is current hospitalized in Florida and following the tournament at Tenkiller, Prince drove to Detroit, then flew home to spend time with his dad. He then returned to Detroit and “went through the motions” in practice.
“I got bites in one area and saw a couple locals catch a couple,” he said. “That told me there are some fish here.”
Rather than battle the weather and run around the lake in search of other spots, he decided to stay where he was. He produced an average of 22 pounds per day to solidify a spot in next year’s Classic.
In practice, he was dialed in to mostly finesse presentations like a dropshot or ned rig, but a tip from fellow competitor David Mullins had him digging out his deep-diving crankbait box before long.
“That place is incredible,” Prince said. “I wasn’t catching numbers like some others, but when they hit that crankbait, there’s not another bite like it.”
Being from Florida, Prince said it’s taken some time to get the right mindset to have success on northern fisheries, especially when smallmouth are part of the equation.
“That’s what killed me in the past there – not having confidence in what I’d found,” he said. “What I’ve figured out about smallmouth is if you get more than one bite in an area, there’s a bunch of fish there generally. It’s the same with the St. Lawrence and at Oneida. Any place with a number of smallmouth, that’s been the case. It took me a couple years to really think about it. After I’d have a bad day and I’d go back and it’ll be like, ‘Dude, I should’ve never left.’”
He caught a couple weigh-in fish on day 1 on a ned rig in the morning, but the windy conditions were way more conducive to cranking so that’s when he made the switch and never changed back. His key depth range was 15 to 17 feet in an area that had a little bit of scattered grass.
“I figured the bait was getting down to 13 or 14 feet,” he said. “If you hit bottom with it, you couldn’t get bit. It’s not like they’re on a rock and you’re trying to hit it. I wanted to get it down to them and put in front of them. Obviously, there’s a reason they’re in those spots because I could call the cast where I would get a bite, but I couldn’t catch them on repetitive casts. I’d catch one and then go back 30 or 40 minutes later and get another one.”
> Cranking gear: 7’4” medium-heavy Fitzgerald Fishing Bryan Thrift Signature Series cranking rod, Fitzgerald Fishing Stunner casting reel (6.3:1 ratio), 12-pound Seaguar Rippin’ monofilament line, Strike King Series 5XD crankbait (various colors).
Paul Mueller fished his way off the bubble and into the 2020 Classic with a strong showing at St. Clair.
5th: Paul Mueller
> Day 1: 5, 22-06
> Day 2: 5, 23-02
> Day 3: 5, 20-03
> Total = 15, 65-11
Paul Mueller was the Classic bubble boy coming into the AOY event. Occupying the 42nd spot in points put a target on his back, but he made it a moot issue with his second top-five finish of the season that carried him up to 37th in points.
He says he often gets miscast as a smallmouth specialist simply because he lives in Connecticut, but he said St. Clair resembles nothing about the lakes he fishes around home.
“It’s different every time and I wouldn’t say I have a good handle on the lake,” he said. “It’s challenging because the way I like to fish for smallmouth is pick out place on a map and know where they’re going to be. At St. Clair, you have to fish and wait to get bites. It’s the much more subtle things that hold fish. Other times, you can get in an area and have no idea what’s holding them there.”
He covered as much water as the conditions allowed in practice, mostly with a crankbait.
“I played the wind and got into area of the lake where I could move around the best,” he said.
He located in virtually every major section of the lake, which isn’t the ideal scenario, but that’s how it shook out. He ruled out the rivers because the water was colder than it was in the lake.
On the first day of practice, he found an area that produced a couple sub 3-pounders. He waypointed it, but figured he needed to keep searching.
“I have a lack of experience there, especially this time of year and past experience told me if you catch small fish in an area, you had to leave because small ones didn’t mix with big ones back when I was there before,” he said. “I had that mentality to build off what you know, so I didn’t give that area much thought. I figured had to find bigger fish.”
When day 1 of the tournament rolled around, he toyed with running to a spot on the Ontario side of the lake, where he could target grass and rock clusters along shore. The run was too risky, so he instead stopped on the spot where he’d caught the smaller fish in practice.
“I made a couple drifts and it was so rough it made it hard to get on the waypoints,” he said. “The win blew me wide of my marks and on my first drift I caught a 4 1/4. I might not have much experience there, but I do know this: If you catch one big one, there are other big ones around.”
The conditions made it challenging to duplicate the same drift, but when he did another big fish would get deposited into his livewell, all caught on a dropshot.
“I caught 22 pounds on one drift and that me hope that more big fish were there,” he added.
Like Wendlandt, Mueller relied heavily on his Garmin electronics to pinpoint where fish were laying in relation to the boat. He said many of the fish would get spooked if he got too close over them with the boat.
“At one point, I panned my trolling motor over to the side of the boat and saw a big mark about 40 feet out,” he said. “I made a pitch over there and caught a 5-pounder. Had I not panned over, I never see that fish. It also let me see fish in the grass.”
On day 2, he was able to get his area on the Ontario side and caught a quick a limit throwing a Rapala DT-10 crankbait (Caribbean shad). Once the wind slacked off and the cranking bite subsided, he went back to where he had success on day 1.
“It was close to calm when I got there and that’s when instead of drifting and figuring them out I put my trolling motor down and scanned left to right and put my trolling motor on mid speed,” he said. “If I’d see a fish, I’d troll to it, get 30 feet away and pitch to it.”
His 23-02 stringer included a largemouth that he caught on a spybait.
He spent the majority of day 3 on the same spot, catching three on a dropshot and one on a spybait there before catching his fifth weigh-in fish on a dropshot on another waypoint close by.
> Dropshot gear: 7’2” medium-action Dobyns Xtasy sprinning rod, Team Lew’s Speed Spin 2000 spinning reel, 10-pound Gamma Torque braided line, 6-pound Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line (leader), 1/0 Gamakatsu splitshot/dropshot hook, Berkley PowerBait MaxScent Flat Worm (natural shad), 1/4-oz. Do-It Molds cylinder dropshot weight.
> His preferred spybait was the Duo Realis Spinbait 90 (indigo blue) fished on 6-pound fluorocarbon.