First God created bass, dividing them into three groups, each to uniquely challenge man. The largemouth occupied the swamps and ponds of the South, growing to tackle-busting proportions. Spotted bass took the pure rivers and streams of the country’s mid-section, sending fishermen to the highlands in pursuit. And smallmouth were sent to the North, where they existed in great schools in the roughest conditions, filling the dreams of daring anglers.
Then, after creating smallmouth, God needed a place for them to live. So he made Lake St. Clair.
This week, we saw firsthand the potential of the world’s greatest smallmouth fishery as the Bassmaster Elite Series capped its season with the AOY Championship in Harrison Township, Mich. Scott Canterbury took the points title while Seth Feider won the individual tournament and a $25,000 payday.
The big story was likely Feider’s winning haul, surpassing a 25-pound per day average for the event. Such is the bar set by bass anglers across America as the sign of an ultimate accomplishment. Challenged regularly at places like Toledo Bend or Chickamauga, we rarely see a 5-pound average for a three-day event up north.
But St. Clair can crank them out, as it has for most of this century. I lived in Harrison Township for over a decade and witnessed the ups and downs of the lake, driven primarily by publicity and fishing pressure. Yet despite a few valleys, St. Clair continues to have more peaks.
The key is the lake’s habitat. I remember years ago when St. Clair first hit the map of the national tournament organizations, Kevin VanDam describing it perfectly:
“This lake is one big feeding flat,” he commented, “and that’s why it’s so good.”
A simple statement, but so very true. Biologically speaking, Lake St. Clair is a perfect storm for brown bass. Its latitude allows for the longest growing season of the Great Lakes chain, its current often keeping waters open all year. And that current flushes the lake regularly – it’s said all of the water in St. Clair refreshes every three days. Thus, if the water gets cloudy, it never stays that way long, allowing the sight-oriented smallmouth the option of just waiting it out until their bellies start to growl.
St. Clair is also the shallowest body of water in the big lake chain, by far, and features usable habitat across 99 percent of the surface mass. There’s grass everywhere, on nearly every inch of bottom from one side to the other – a distance of 20 or so miles in each direction.
All of that grass, and current and habitat, lends itself to the final, most important factor placing St. Clair at the top of the smallmouth nation: forage.
Crayfish, gobies, alewives, shad and perch. Oh, the perch. Everywhere you look, there’s some type of perfect morsel for a smallmouth to eat. Add in a seasonal influx of mayflies so thick they need to be swept from the local streets (no exaggeration), and we’ve got a perfect way for post-spawn bass to take down needed calories.
A big feeding flat, as far as the eye can see.
Lake St. Clair isn’t without its challenges, however. When I lived near the lake, the local beach was closed more than open due to E. Coli levels, and warnings against eating fish from the lake have become commonplace due to mega-levels of mercury.
Factor in congestion and traffic, bumpy roads, few local lodging choices and an archaic boat ramp law forbidding power loading, and St. Clair isn’t exactly bass-tournament friendly. Yet, the tournaments keep coming. How could they not?
They come for the fish.
This week, we saw wimpy finesse tactics quickly replaced by power-cranking as the best anglers stayed in the game. We saw 6-pounders replaced by 7s. AOY challengers replaced by the boss.
Canterbury took down the title as I’d hoped; a well-rounded veteran who stayed in the game for the long haul. A model of consistency, deserving of the tile. Zaldain again provided the fireworks, Feider the bronzeback mastery.
We saw lots of new names replacing household ones, and the absence of the King of Michigan. Yet, the show must go on, and it did. Next year should be even stronger, as the industry continues to upheave and settle, leaving just about every participant wondering what will come next.
While at St. Clair, the bass will be biting.
(Joe Balog is the often-outspoken owner of Millennium Promotions, Inc., an agency operating in the fishing and hunting industries. A former Bassmaster Open and EverStart Championship winner, he's best known for his big-water innovations and hardcore fishing style. He's a popular seminar speaker, product designer and author, and is considered one of the most influential smallmouth fishermen of modern times.)