MACOMB COUNTY, Mich. — Lake St. Clair is one of the premiere smallmouth bass fishing destinations in the world. But as with most lakes, timing is crucial.
If the bass are in transition from the spawning areas to their summer haunts, they can be tough to pin down. If the weather is nasty, certain areas can be virtually inaccessible.
A lot can change in a few weeks. But for the moment, it looks like the 108 anglers taking part in the Bassmaster Elite at Lake St. Clair might be hitting the lake at just the right time.
That’s good news for Brandon Palaniuk of Idaho, who loves smallmouth fishing and certainly hopes they will help him widen his lead for Bassmaster Angler of the Year. Palaniuk has a 40-point advantage over 2015 Bassmaster Classic Champion Casey Ashley and Elite newcomer Jacob Wheeler, who are tied for second, and 43 points over Jason Christie of Oklahoma.
Unless one or more of those three challengers closes the gap in this, the final regular-season Elite event of the year, Palaniuk will be virtually impossible to overtake in the postseason Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship on Mille Lacs Lake, Minn.
The Lake St. Clair tournament is scheduled for Aug. 24-27, with daily take offs at 6:30 a.m. ET from Lake St. Clair Metropark. Weigh-ins will be held back at the park each day at 3:15 p.m.
“There have been a lot of big fish caught this year,” said Gerry Gostenik, a former regular on the Bassmaster Tournament Trail and owner of Great Lakes Fishing Guide Service. “I had one that was over 6 pounds Monday (Aug. 14). One of my partners did as well.
“I would say if the conditions are ideal, you’ll probably see a 23- to 24-pound limit come in. I don’t think anybody can do that three or four days in a row. But if a guy can stay in the vicinity of that 20-pound mark and have one day when he clobbers them, that’s probably what it’s going to take to win.”
Gostenik said he wouldn’t be surprised if it takes a four-day total of 80 to 85 pounds to claim the $100,000 first-place prize. He’s been catching 50-plus fish a day on his guide trips for more than six weeks — and much of that is because the weather in the region has been ideal this spring and summer.
“Sometimes when you get toward late August, the fish are in transition and it can be tougher,” Gostenik said. “But we’ve had a funky spring and a cooler-than-normal year, so it seems like the fish are behind a little bit — which is a good thing.
“That puts them right where a lot of these guys are going to want to catch them on drop-shot rigs, deep-diving crankbaits and deep-diving jerkbaits — baits that will catch not as many, but bigger fish.”
The bass have been relating heavily to baitfish, Gostenik said, including perch and tiny threadfin shad that measure barely 2 inches in length. He said giant bait balls have been obvious on his electronics, and the winning angler will likely find one general area with several spots that are holding that kind of bait.
The biggest X-factor could be the wind.
“It would be perfect if we could have about a 1-foot chop where you can actually hold your boat in place when you find some fish in a clump,” he said. “When there’s 3- to 4-foot waves out there, it makes it really difficult to do that, if not impossible.
“We’re having really good summertime weather right now, and I hope that holds up for this event.”
Besides a coveted Elite Series trophy and large cash prizes, anglers will be vying for points that could lead to the Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year title and a berth in the 2018 Bassmaster Classic.
Palaniuk, who currently leads the AOY standings with 729 points, said he’s trying not to think about the possibility of winning what some say is bass fishing’s highest honor.
“I don’t even want to look at the standings,” said Palaniuk, who has six Top 12 finishes this season, including a win on Sam Rayburn Reservoir in May. “That’s something I don’t want to think about until it’s all over.”
Ashley said his main focus is making the Classic, which is scheduled for Lake Hartwell — a lake in his home state of South Carolina where he claimed a Classic title in 2015.
“Making that Classic is all I’m worried about,” Ashley said. “I want to get all of the points I can — and if that happens to mean I get enough points to win Angler of the Year, that’ll be great.”
A special festival will be held at Lake St. Clair Metropark on Aug. 25-27 in conjunction with the tournament and Bassmaster Elite Series Outdoors Expo, featuring music, vendors, food and more. The festival will be free and open to the public from 1 to 6 p.m. Aug. 25-26 and from 1 to 5 p.m. Aug. 27.
Macomb County and the Detroit Sports Commission will host the event.