By Todd Ceisner
The unseasonably warm weather much of the country has enjoyed this year has certainly had a positive impact on fishing and the industry as a whole.
Several industry types remarked last week at ICAST that if you couldn’t make a dime in the fishing industry this year, it may be time to explore other business ventures.
One place where the effect of the warming trend has been seen and felt is Lake St. Clair, the patch of water that sits between Lakes Huron and Erie and connects to Erie via the Detroit River. It’s long been a haven for smallmouth seekers who maybe aren’t inclined to jump on its Great Lake neighbors and this year, it’s been on fire.
Smallmouth guru and longtime St. Clair ace Joe Balog checked in with BassFan earlier this week for the latest installment of the BassFan Pro Fishing Tip and to share his take on summertime smallies at St. Clair. He also revealed his approach to breaking down the lake (hint: it takes time) and what he might be throwing at this week’s Bassmaster Detroit River Northern Open.
“The only major change that I’ve seen and I don’t know if it has to do with the weather, but the fishing on St. Clair has been phenomenal,” Balog said. “If it’s not the best smallmouth fishing in the country, I find it hard to believe there’s any place that cranks out more 3 1/2- to 5-pound fish than St. Clair.”
Years ago, in the lake’s heyday of the late 1990s, 18-pound stringers were considered a good day’s work. Nowadays, bags in the low to mid-20s are needed to sniff a win.
“The lake has a tremendous population of fish in that size class,” he added. “With it being so warm this year, we had tremendous fishing earlier than we’ve ever had. There was an extended pre-spawn window. I fish a lot for walleye and panfish, too, and the fishing is probably the best I’ve ever seen.”
It’s no secret smallmouths are like expectant fathers – they have a hard time sitting still. They’re also apt to roam around in packs. The brownbacks at St. Clair are no different and Balog says the main challenge, especially for out-of-towners fishing this week’s tournament, will be locating and staying on fish.
“With St. Clair, the best way to find fish is to pick up a crankbait, wait for the wind to blow and put it at your back and try to go 2 miles an hour cranking and then crank and crank and crank until you catch a big one,” he said. “Then go back and dial it in when it’s calm and try to find the sweet spots.”
Easier said than done. It’s expected that the best stringers will be caught by guys who know the lake and river well – those who have logged hundreds of hours on the water tracking the movements of the fish.
“It’s a matter of covering water here,” he said. “The hard thing is you can get on this lake and you can drive around all day on your electronics and rarely will you see much of anything. It’s pretty flat and the fish will relate to breaks in the grass and sandy spots more than anything. The only way, usually, to find them is to fish.
“That’ll be the biggest challenge for most guys,” he added. “Not only is it hard to find stuff other than fishing and putting in time, but even when you do, the fish move around quite a bit and you have to re-find them every day and you have to have confidence you’re in the good areas.”
At 25 miles long and 22 miles wide, St. Clair offers plenty of fishable water – Balog estimates 90 percent of it is suitable bass habitat. The Detroit River also offers fertile fishing grounds, but the popular sentiment is the winning fish will come out of St. Clair.
“So if you put your trolling motor on high and throw a crankbait all day you’ll fish less than 1 percent of the lake,” he said. “A lot of places you’ll go out in the middle of the lake and there’s not much there, but at St. Clair, you can go out in the middle and it’ll be 18 feet and there’ll be grass and perch and crawfish so they could be anywhere.”
When some folks hear “Great Lakes” and “smallmouth” in the same breath, they tend to reach for their spinning gear, light line and dropshot rig, provided the conditions allow them to get far enough offshore. While that’ll certainly put fish in the boat when the water’s clear and the fish aren’t inhaling reaction baits, Balog won’t be focused on finessing them this week.
He’ll be throwing a Rapala DT-16 crankbait and maybe mixing in the Goby Replica swimbait that he designed, mining the depths where the fish tend to hang out during the summer. Sure, he’ll have a dropshot rod rigged with Trigger-X plastics at the ready, but he’s banking on the better fish going after the plug.
“Traditionally this time of year, the majority of fish are either relating to current around the St. Clair River or the channels that come into the lake or they’re in the deeper basins of the lake from 16 to 20 feet,” he said.
That doesn’t rule out shallow water, however. Balog said there’s a strong population of fish that live in 4 to 6 feet of water and there will be a contingent of anglers targeting those fish with spinnerbaits and jerkbaits.
“You can do whatever you want here,” he said. “If you go to Lake Erie this time of year, you’ll need two rods. Here, you can catch them on 25 different things all year round.
“I think a lot of guys will find different patterns.”