The Southeast's Big Three Smallmouth Waters

When most people think of Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River, walleyes usually come to mind. But these waters are also home to hard-charging smallmouth bass that are easy to catch!

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The Michigan waters of Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie along with the Detroit River that connects the two are some of the most productive smallmouth bass venues in the state. And if you fish the right spots with the right techniques and lures, they're not all that hard to catch.


Jim Francis, senior fisheries biologist with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, reports that the smallmouth situation is "real good" in Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River and Lake Erie. The water is clearing and the sight-feeders -- muskies, pike and smallmouths -- are taking advantage of it.

"I was sampling on the Detroit River last year while a tournament was in progress," said Francis. "The fish were big, fat and healthy, absolutely beautiful."


That's a pretty good synopsis of smallmouth fishing in the three venues.


The improvement in water clarity is largely due to the migration of zebra mussels into the area. At first glance you wouldn't think they amount to much. After all, they're tiny, no bigger than your thumbnail. Their shell is triangular in shape, a glossy tan in color and operates with a pointed hinge. They don't look potent.

Looks can be deceiving, however. They do amount to something. They live by filtering suspended solids from the water. They do this very efficiently. A mature adult zebra mussel can filter up to two liters of water in a 24-hour period. An adult female can produce up to 1 million eggs during one spawning season.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out where we're going with this. Simple math tells the tale: millions and millions of zebra mussels, times 2 liters of water, times 24 hours per day and 30 days in an average month equals a lot of filtered, clear water.

Along with this clear water and increased feeding opportunities for sight-feeders comes the weedbeds. As the water gets clearer every season the weedbeds get bigger, thicker and grow deeper. This gives baby fish -- both forage and predator -- more places to hide, and mature predators more places to hunt. It also pumps oxygen into the water. It's a good thing all the way around.

Then shortly behind the zebra mussels came the round gobies. Most will measure around 4 or 5 inches in length but a few monsters have been known to push 10 inches. They're prolific little critters. They reproduce several times during a season and can lay 5,000 eggs at a time. On top of that they certainly don't lack for something to eat. They dine on zebra mussels for the most part. Interestingly, their invasive history is much the same. Both are believed to have entered the Great Lakes via the ballast water of trans-Atlantic ships, but probably not at the same time.

Gobies range in color from gray to black to brown -- most are splotchy colored -- and many have some green on their dorsal fins. They look much like a sculpin. The goby has a fused pelvic fin, however, and the sculpin doesn't.

All this seems to be just fine with the smallmouths. They like to eat gobies. In fact, gobies may now be the primary forage base in Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River and Lake Erie. Francis reports heavy populations of both zebra mussels and gobies in all three waterbodies. "There's really no difference," he said.

Successful local anglers keep this in mind when selecting lures and places to fish. Here are their recommendations for southeast Michigan's big three smallmouth bass waters.

LAKE ST. CLAIR

Lake St. Clair is a tremendous smallmouth fishery and is no secret to locals, but on a regional or national level, it gets overshadowed by Lake Erie. That's a shame because it'll produce super catches of smallies.

Paul Sacks (248/819-3192) is a well-known local bass angler. He believes that while St. Clair may not be producing the big fish it once did, the numbers are fantastic. And he is quick to point out that there's more to the big-fish story than meets the eye.

Some of the reduction in average size is due to the changing environment -- clearer water, proliferating weedbeds and gobies for forage. It's not that the hogs aren't there. It's that anglers haven't caught up to their changing habits. Once the anglers learn to adjust to the new conditions and new fish movements, the story is likely to be different, very different.

When talking about big fish, it's important to keep in mind that everything is relative. Sacks referred to a time when most big tournaments averaged 5 pounds per fish. They now average closer to 4 pounds. That's smaller, no doubt about it, but it's nothing to turn your nose up at either. Smallie anglers across the country would die for a 4-pound average.

Nonetheless, Sacks points out that good catches of smallmouth bass can be had by anglers fishing any of several spots on massive Lake St. Clair. Early in the summer, his top choices are the mile road endings. They're a series of roads that run up to the lake and then drop off out into the water. The ones from Eight Mile Road to Sixteen Mile Road are the most productive. Start where they end at the water's edge. Work your way along, concentrating on 3 to 16 feet until you find active fish. Sacks doesn't think there's much difference in any of the road ends. More important than which one you fish is how you fish it. He strongly recommends anglers follow the roads out and fish both sides carefully and thoroughly at various depths. "That's the only way to be successful," he said with conviction.

Don't neglect the weedbeds along these old roads. They're a relatively new phenomenon and many anglers fail to appreciate their importance. At times the smallies will be found cruising around the outside edges, while at other times they're buried inside the thickest, heaviest weeds they can find. Either way, the fish are frequently there.

On the roads or in the weeds they'll hit all the usual weapons -- tubes, grubs, spinnerbaits, jerkbaits or deep-diving crankbaits. Choose lures that match the hatch. Those between 4 and 6 inches long in goby colors are top choices.

Early and late in the day or when it's overcast, give buzzbaits a shot. The fish don't see a lot of them, even during the height of tournament season. On most days, smaller sizes usually work best but don't fall into the trap of believing that smallmouths only bite small lures. That's just not true. They're predators. Sometimes larger bait will get their attention.

There are a number of long rocky points in the immediate area. Fish them if the bite is slow along the roads and weeds. They'll fish much like the roads, so use the same lures and the same tactics.

Later in the summer or if the weather is particularly hot, try the dropoffs and substrate irregularities around the main channel. Sacks recommends concentrating your fishing time up toward Lake Huron. Jigs, gold blade baits and goby-colored tubes are all successful.

Dennis Belz (586/286-3523) is another well-known local bass angler. He agrees with nearly all of what Sacks had to say about St. Clair. He emphasizes, however, that anglers need to understand that St. Clair is a different body of water than it was several years ago. Location is more important than any particular technique or "secret" lure.

"It's different," said Belz. "Clear water, lots of weeds. You've got to pay attention and adapt," is how he analyzes smallmouth bass fishing on Lake St. Clair.

A word of warning from Belz: keep your head up and stay oriented when fishing the Michigan waters of St. Clair. It's easy to get careless and end up in Canadian waters or perhaps Native American Reservation waters. This can be an expensive mistake, very expensive. Each area requires a special license. Some areas are better marked than others.

If you're not experienced, buy a good map and pay attention to your GPS. Belz recommends Fishing HotSpot Maps (1-800-500-MAPS). He stated firmly that the maps are accurate, reliable and will help keep you out of trouble.

If you're fishing early in the year, be aware that the seasons vary widely from one jurisdiction to another. Make sure you know when it's legal to fish for smallmouths. The Michigan season, along with all the pertinent rules and regulations, can be obtained from the Michigan DNR's Web site at

www.michigan.gov/dnr.

DETROIT RIVER

The Detroit River flows 32 miles from Lake St. Clair into Lake Erie. It is influenced by both but still maintains its own character as a fishery. Fishing it can be an extraordinary experience if you take a little time and a little effort to learn to fish this ribbon of water like a river.

Sacks described the Detroit River as "awesome." His preference is to fish the top of the river -- the mouth -- as soon as the water warms in spring. His first targets are the huge, vast areas of ribbon rock that runs along the shoreline. Almost all of them hold fish, good fish. This should come as no surprise. Smallies like rocks. River fish like shallow structure and cover. These are river smallmouths. So, you get the picture.

Try to find a spot that's different. It doesn't matter why. Maybe it's the rock's composition, the color, a different bottom composition or an irregularity of some sort -- a point or a cut. "That's where they'll be," Sacks said.

Shallow-running crankbaits, small jerkbaits, jigs and blade baits are all top producers in the rocks. Goby colors are at the top of any angler's list of favorites, but don't overlook crayfish patterns.

At times the bass will strike a tiny jig suspended below a bobber that's allowed to float along with the current over the top of the rocks. If the water is clear, choose light, natural colors. When it's stained, try something with chartreuse on it. The technique is called float-and-fly. More on this hot tactic can be found starting on page 44 of this magazine.

On down the river, Sacks searches for small seemingly insignificant eddies behind bridge pilings, huge rocks, sunken debris or marinas. That's where a lot of his bigger fish are caught. They don't get as much pressure as those living in the more obvious spots. As a result they're more susceptible to offerings.

For a final Detroit River tip, Sacks reminds anglers to never, ever pass by the foundation of a channel light. They're big, heavy and solid. They hold fish. Fishing these foundations isn't difficult. Blade baits, jigs and Carolina-rigged plastics along with deep-diving crankbaits will all provide action.

Belz looks at the Detroit River very differently. He likes the Grosse Ile area. "It's one of the best places on the river," he said. "It's full of rocky flats and deep holes."

There's a huge and productive current break near the seawall. It's often the spot where catches of a lifetime are made. A little way north of it the water splits, forcing current along both channels. Belz suggested fishing both channels thoroughly before leaving the area. He'll fish with almost any type of lure. Select one of your favorites and have at it.

LAKE ERIE

What's there to say about Lake Erie? Its smallie fishing is legendary. The number of 4-, 5- and 6-pound fish that are caught from its waters every year is extraordinary and, for anglers who haven't experienced it firsthand, almost beyond belief.

During the dog days of summer you'll want to take a close look at the numerous small islands on the Michigan side of Lake Erie. Sacks recommended heading for the reefs that circle these fish magnets.

"Look for big chunk rocks scattered around in 10 to 25 feet of water," said Sacks. "Early and late in the day they'll be shallow, but as the day wears along and the sun gets up, you'll need to fish deeper."

Contrary to some reports, Sacks believes that the fish are every bit as big as they ever were. "At this time of year you can catch some real hogs," he said with a certainty borne of personal knowledge.

Experience has taught him that the staple of Erie smallmouth fishing -- dragging tubes -- is not what it used to be. The tubes still work -- it's the technique that needs adjusting. Maybe the fish are conditioned to dragging or maybe it's the changing forage base. Either way, if you want to catch the big 4- and 5-pounders, you'll need to go with something else, most days anyway.

His bait recommendations for something else are at once simple and precise. He uses a sinker rig with a goby-colored plastic attached. Sacks reminded us that when fishing non-Michigan waters, it's legal to use a drop-shot rig without a dropper line. In Michigan waters, the rig must have a dropper line of at least 3 inches in length. This will allow for easy and quick depth adjustment, and keeps the bait up off the bottom where the active fish are feeding. Some days that may be only an inch, while on other days that may be 2 or 3 feet.

His plastic choices almost always center on Snack Daddy lures (www.snackdaddylures.com). Snack Daddy is a local company that makes a goby-imitating tube that Sacks believes is perfect for Lake Erie smallmouths. They're 4 inches long -- about the size of most of the gobies that the smallies are used to seeing and eating -- and come in a wide array of colors. Sacks' personal recommendation is to select one with plenty of green, red, purple or any combination of the three. "Try to match the gobies," he said.

Belz

, on the other hand, prefers to fish along the deeper offshore breaks out in the main lake. At times he'll fish as deep as 20 feet, especially if the sun is bright and the weather unusually hot. Under heavy, overcast skies or early and late in the day, Belz may move in somewhat shallower, between 12 and 15 feet. If his smallies are in a neutral feeding mode he goes with a tube. When they're more active he'll toss a spinnerbait or jerkbait, especially when he's looking for a bigger fish. Every now and then, when conditions are really tough, he'll swim a grub.

As for colors he opined, along with Sacks, that it's hard to go wrong with anything that resembles a goby, especially when fishing plastics. With that said, however, he reminds us that gobies aren't the only thing Erie smallmouths eat. Emerald shad are also on their menu. Hard baits and colors that resemble shad can also be productive, especially when everyone else is throwing goby-style lures.

There's a ton of emerald shad hard baits on the market. Nearly every major manufacturer has several versions. They're all a bit different but the very best, at least according to Belz, are finished in some combination of black and gold. His favorite is a solid black finish accented with gold flake. "That's the best. It looks real in the water," he theorized.

Well, there you have it, an overview of three southeast Michigan smallmouth hotspots for this season and beyond. You could have so much fun with the bass that'll forget you're also on a world-class walleye water!

FOR MORE INFORMATION

For detailed information on planning a trip to metro Detroit, go to

www.visitdetroit.com or call 1-800-DETROIT. For information about other nearby cities and towns, go to

www.travelplanner.net. For more fishing information, go to the Michigan DNR's Web site at

www.michigan.gov/dnr.

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