Our Southeast's Super Smallmouthing

When you combine Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and the two major rivers in the metro Detroit area, you have more quality smallmouth bass fishing opportunities than just about anywhere else. Here's where to start. (July 2006)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Those good ol' boys from down South will tell you that the best bass fishin' in the world is below the Mason-Dixon Line. That may be true, but what those ol' boys may not realize is there's some pretty darn-tooting-good bassin' right here in Michigan. You are not going to find better smallmouth bass fishing with regard to size or numbers than you will on Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair and their connecting waters. It just doesn't get any better -- plain and simple.

"Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie both produce some tremendous smallmouth fishing," claimed professional tournament angler Gerry Gostenik. "But while there are a lot of things that apply to both fisheries, there are a number of things that are very different, too."

"Both lakes are excellent smallmouth waters," said Lake Erie Management Unit fisheries biologist Jeff Braunscheidel. "The habitat on Lake Erie is much more concentrated and it holds fish in deeper water. Lake Erie is also not as clear as Lake St. Clair."

Braunscheidel pointed out that unlike Lake St. Clair, Lake Erie has many rivers that dump nutrients and sediments into the lake. The water column of Lake Erie is filled with algae, zooplankton and other microorganisms that make it very fertile and much less clear. Because of the relatively hard substrate of Lake Erie, it isn't conducive to growing weeds like Lake St. Clair. Weeds filter out sediments and nutrients, thus making the water clearer, which in turn promotes more weed growth.

With clearer and cleaner water in Lake St. Clair, weed growth has exploded. Consequently, sight-feeders like smallmouths have benefited tremendously. The food chain has exploded. There are more insects, minnows, crawfish and, of course, gobies. Bass can be found scattered throughout Lake St. Clair because ideal bass habitat is abundant and widely distributed. In Lake Erie, the story is much different. Smallies are much more concentrated around the available habitat. In Lake St. Clair, weeds are also home to zebra mussels. The mussels not only colonize the weeds, but the bottom, too. More zebra mussels mean more water is being filtered and becoming clearer. Weeds aren't nearly as plentiful in Lake Erie. Find them and other habitat on Lake Erie and you will find the bass.

On Lake St. Clair, good spawning habitat abounds and is found extensively in the shallows. Lake St. Clair's more protected nature and abundance of weedbeds buffer wave action, thus making the shallow water more hospitable and productive for spawning bass.

"In Lake Erie, the good spawning habitat is disturbed by wave action or often covered with sediment," said fisheries biologist Jeff Braunscheidel. "A lot of times in Lake Erie, smallmouths will use much deeper spawning habitat than fish in Lake St. Clair. Lake Erie smallmouths also have a tendency to spawn in the rivers that feed the lake."

Zebra mussel populations have pretty much stabilized in both lakes. With Lake Erie's hard substrate, the mussels can be found just about everywhere. The mussel and clam beds found in Lake Erie have become critical spawning habitat for smallies.

Many Lake Erie bass and resident smallmouths spawn in the Detroit River. The rocky substrate and riprap found around islands -- like Grosse Ile -- offer ideal bass spawning habitat. Just about anywhere bass can find a current break and a coarse bottom will be used for spawning. Anglers would be wise to search out such places, especially early in the season when the bass are still spawning or during post-spawn.

The calm and mussel beds in Lake Erie not only provide critical spawning habitat, but also habitat for a smallmouth's favorite foods -- crawfish and gobies.

"This is just a theory of mine," suggested Gostenik, "but I catch so many Lake Erie smallmouths that have their noses all scraped and beaten up that I have to believe that those bass get all cut up from rooting out the gobies and crawfish out of the clam beds. I mean it's just way too frequent to be caused by anything else."

It's easy to see why locating subtle structure can be so key in Lake Erie. Structure in Lake Erie is mussel and clam beds that smallies use for spawning, and it is home to their favorite foods. You can find some of that type of isolated structure in Lake Erie's Brest Bay.

That's why a relatively "new to Michigan" technique called drop-shotting is so productive on Lake Erie smallmouths.

"Drop-shotting is deadly on Lake Erie smallmouths because it puts the bait just off the bottom right in front of the fish's nose, and when a bass sees something that looks like it's been flushed out of a clam bed, they jump on it!" Gostenik said.

Strangely, because of some all-encompassing regulations, drop-shotting has been actually illegal in the waters of Michigan up until this year. Bass anglers on the cutting edge in other states have been using the technique for years. The DNR finally heard enough bass anglers screaming that the regulation was not intended to limit the way they fish, so they finally made changes in the law that took effect in 2006 to make it legal to suspend a weight below a hook tied directly to the main line on inland lakes, the Great Lakes and connecting waters. It will now be legal for some bass anglers to do what they've been doing illegally all along.

Another change in the regulations for 2006 will make it legal for anglers to practice catch-and-release fishing for bass before the normal season openers. Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair bass anglers have been practicing pre-season catch-and-release fishing for years, albeit illegally. "Pre-season" catch-and-release bass fishing will now be allowed from the last Saturday in April through the Friday before Memorial Day in the Lower Peninsula, including the Great Lakes and connecting waters. On Lake St. Clair, catch-and-release bass fishing will be allowed from the last Saturday in April through the third Friday in June. The regular season opens on Lake St. Clair on the third Saturday in June.

"The new regulations will provide more legal fishing opportunities, but we're not sure what effects it might cause," confided biologist Braunscheidel. "We really don't know if it will cause an increase in fishing effort. One concern we do have is about live-bait anglers and the resulting fish that will be killed."

"The bass guys have been waiting for this for a long time," Gostenik exclaimed. And for good reason. Gostenik claimed that one of the absolute hottest bass bites on Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair is during the early spring. "It's

not uncommon to have 100-fish days in April and May. The bass are in a pre-spawn mode. They're not everywhere. In fact, they're very concentrated, grouped up, and they are eating."

If you want to experience some hot spring bass action, contact Gostenik at (313) 319-0100 or online at www.greatlakesbassfishing.com.

The key on both lakes is to look for depressions or ditches created by boaters that concentrate scads of fish.

"The fish are in very specific places from year to year," Gostenik said. "The fishing is very, very easy."

Gostenik said two of his hottest techniques is to cast Rat-L-Traps and jerkbaits. "One of the best baits in recent years has been a Lucky Craft," Gostenik claimed. "They aren't cheap. They run about $15. They aren't one of my sponsors, but I buy them anyway. They are that good. They're very realistic and throw well in the wind." Gostenik advised trying solid colors like white on cloudy days and bright metallic colors when the sun is out.

Springtime is not only a good time for numbers of bass, but trophy bronzebacks, too.

"You stand a pretty good chance of landing a good fish in the 5-pound range and a bass pushing 7 pounds is not unheard of," suggested Gostenik. And while springtime is prime time for trophy fish, the smallies are available year 'round. Gostenik said to probe the protected bays the bass use for spawning on Lake Erie early in the season. Success is weather dependent, because wind will rile the water and put the bass off their feed. When that happens, the fish retreat to deeper water around old clam beds in depths from 2 to 10 feet. Hotspots in the Detroit River are wherever bass can spawn successfully out of the current.

"The spawn actually takes place at a couple of different times depending on which body of water you're on," Gostenik offered. "There might be as much as 10 degrees difference between one portion of the lake versus another. Generally, the upper portion of Lake Erie would be on the warm end of the scale."

The spawn may start as early as mid-May in Lake Erie, but fish may not spawn until July on the deeper waters of Lake Erie or in the channels of the St. Clair River or the Detroit River. Gostenik said he's personally caught bass that were still obviously spawning in late July or early August.

"Once the bass spawn, they kind of go into a funky phase," Gostenik claimed.

When this funk takes place obviously depends on when the bass spawned. The bass tend to rest and recuperate for up to a couple of weeks. Often, this transitional phase coincides with the mayfly hatch, and bass have some easy pickin's and don't have to chase for food. Gostenik said anglers can enjoy some hot topwater action during this period. The bass are widely scattered for a period after the spawn, but it doesn't take long for them to regroup into marauding packs during the summer.

Midsummer bassin' on both lakes Erie and St. Clair can be fantastic. Twenty- to 40-fish days are common, and techniques for catching smallies on both lakes are very similar in many cases.

"Tubes and drop-shotting really takes off then," Gostenik stated. "The tubes are the perfect imitation of a goby."

With a weight on the bottom and a tube jig fixed to the line about 8 inches up from the weight, the bait is constantly in the zone. It represents an easy meal. Tube colors that match gobies are dynamite. Try pumpkin-, motor oil- and avocado-colored tubes. When the bass are keying on shad or native minnows, try a silver/metal flake color.

Although most bass will have long since completed spawning chores by midsummer, Gostenik said it's not uncommon to find bass still spawning in the stable deep-water environment of Lake Erie long after most bass are done. As summer winds down, bass move back in shallow for one last feeding binge.

"The bass just pig out for about two weeks in October," Gostenik said. "The peak is hard to predict, but hit it right and you can find some incredible fishing."

Humps and calm beds located just off the mouth of the Raisin River can produce incredible sport as the smallies prepare for a long winter. Once waters begin to chill, bass begin a slow migration to where they'll spend the winter. In Lake Erie, that means rockpiles and other subtle structure found in deep water.

The bass in Lake St. Clair also move, but in the lake's more stable environment, the migration is normally not that pronounced.

"In the summer, you might find the smallies just stacked in the channel of the St. Clair River," Gostenik said. "You might find fish in 40 or 50 feet of water and need a big, heavy tube jig to get down to them." The same thing can apply to the Detroit River.

As a general rule, the stable confines and bounty of food found in Lake St. Clair promotes excellent numbers of bass. Lake Erie produces bigger, but fewer, smallmouths.

"Local tournaments are usually won by guys that make the long run to Lake Erie," Gostenik said.

The Michigan waters of the lake make up a very small portion, and it's very easy to cross the state line without knowing it. It's wise to purchase an Ohio fishing license in addition to your Michigan license, just to be safe.

Access to both Lake Erie and Lake St. Clair is good, but anglers need to use caution. These are big, shallow bodies of water that can kick up very quickly. Bass boats from 18 to 20 feet long are not designed to take on big water, so use your head when fishing either lake. Make sure you have all the necessary safety equipment on board, including a working marine radio or cell phone.

Anglers will find good launch facilities on Lake Erie at Lake Erie Metropark in Gilbraltar, at Point Mouillee State Game Area south of Rockford, at Sterling State Park on Brest Bay near Monroe, at the mouth of the Raisin River at Heildenburg Park off La Plaisance Road, at Bolles Harbor, at Otter Creek between Bolles Harbor and Toledo Beach, and at Luna Pier. For additional information on amenities and accommodations in the area, contact the Monroe County Convention & Tourism Bureau at 1-800-252-3011 or at www.thebureau@monroe.com.

Access sites abound along the Detroit River. Anglers can gain access to the river at Elizabeth Park, in the city of Wyandotte, near Zug Island and at Alter Road.

Access sites on Lake St. Clair are numerous. Contact the DNR Livonia office at (734) 953-0241 for boat launch sites on Lake St. Clair.

Prime smallmouth areas on Lake St. Clair include Little Muscamoot Bay, near Strawberry Island, the north end of Long Point Bay, the mouth of the Middle Channel, the North Channel just downstream from Decker's Landing and the mouth of the Clinton River. Metropolitan Beach on Huron Point is a popular access for bass anglers and is close to the excellent fishing that is usually found off th

e mile roads off St. Clair Shores.

* * *

Michigan bass anglers are very lucky. They have some of the best smallmouth angling in the world right at their back doors. And we don't have to contend with any 'gators like they do down South!

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