November 03, 2022
Lake Saint Clair is a 430-square-mile body of water on the border of Michigan and Ontario just east of Detroit. Urban sprawl characterizes much of the western and southern portions of the lake. However, the eastern half features an extensive network of marsh, especially where the St. Clair River feeds into the north end of the lake from Lake Huron. Here, an archipelago of islands and braided channels form the largest river delta in the Great Lakes system. It also happens to be where renowned St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area and Harsens Island Managed Waterfowl Hunt Area are located.
Eventually, Lake St. Clair drains into Lake Erie via the Detroit River. This entire stretch of water amounts to a superhighway of sorts for waterfowl navigating the Mississippi Flyway, with some birds destined for the Atlantic Flyway, too. Many ducks—including most of the mallards and black ducks that use this area—come from the Great Lakes region. As many as a half-million waterfowl or more stopover on Lake St. Clair at any given time during peak migration. Ample and varied waterfowl habitat attract a wide array of species, making Lake St. Clair nothing short of a paradise for diehard waterfowlers. And there’s perhaps no better window for hunting the lake than from late October through November.
Dabbling ducks utilize St. Clair's abundant natural coastline marsh and wetlands each fall. These birds often rest and roost on refuges or the open lake, and they feed on invertebrates, aquatic vegetation, flooded crops and moist soil seeds on public and private waterfowl hunting areas. Common species during migration include mallards, black ducks, pintails, gadwalls, wigeons, shovelers, green- and blue-winged teal and wood ducks.
Divers are also quite common on St. Clair, which averages only 11 feet deep. Massive rafts of divers can often blacken the sky when they're bumped by watercraft. Lesser and greater scaup, ring-necked ducks, redheads and canvasbacks tend to highlight the show. However, hunters may also have shots at plentiful buffleheads, ruddy ducks, goldeneyes and even the occasional scoter. Long-tailed ducks—a bucket-list species for a number of hunters—have also become an increasingly important option on the lake.
Canvasbacks and redheads feed on beds of aquatic vegetation such as wild celery, as well as non-native invasive quagga and zebra mussels, while lesser and greater scaup, buffleheads, goldeneyes and long-tailed ducks primarily feed on these abundant mollusks. Non-native round and tubenose gobies have also become key foods for several diver species.
To determine when and where to hunt, you need to know where birds ideally want to be and where they go in rough conditions, which occur often on St. Clair. There are three basic options on and around the lake, and each requires appropriate equipment and decoy rigging. The first is using small crafts to hunt protected waters mostly for dabbling ducks. Alternatively, you can use larger boats in open bays and shoreline areas for dabblers and divers. Finally, you can deploy layout boats with tenders or large boats with boat blinds on the open lake for outstanding diver hunting.
Well-prepared waterfowlers often set up to target a variety of species using multiple tactics, sometimes in the same day. Because big, open-water hunting requires a decent investment in specialized gear, we’ll focus mostly on the other two options here. But, if hunting open water is desired, consider using a guide. Or, at the very least, be experienced with big-water hunting and have the equipment needed to hunt effectively—and safely.
Protected bays, marsh areas and flooded crops on public land can produce lots of dabblers and the occasional ringneck. Small watercraft such as canoes, jon boats and marsh boats transport gear, dogs, decoys and hunters. Then, hunters hide boats nearby before concealing themselves in surrounding cover, which is often flooded.
Essential items include marsh seats, dog platforms and well-insulated waders. Water is shallow and often heavily vegetated, so decoys only need short anchor lines; light Texas rigs are ideal. Given limited cargo space, most hunters employ reasonable-sized decoy spreads.
Ideally, set decoys to look like loosely-spaced contented ducks. Several clusters of three to six decoys, with a pair or two off to each side, look natural but leave room for birds to approach and land ahead of your position. Consider alternate decoy poses such as skimmers, preeners, sleepers and resters. A few decoys placed in flooded shoreline vegetation also appear natural to birds swinging over the top for a look, and they may be a clincher for heavily-pressured ducks. Just remember to pick these up after the hunt. In extremely shallow water, include a few full-body dekes for added realism.
This small-scale style is perfect for the Harsens Island Unit of St. Clair Flats State Wildlife Area. Michigan DNR wildlife technician John Darling says the property is hunted in two daily draw sessions, and harvests often run between 8,000 and 10,000 ducks per season. Draw times are 5:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. daily, and all zones are open to parties of 1 to 4 hunters.
"While our refuge typically holds between 25,000 and 35,000 birds at one time, that’s just a peak count for one day," Darling says. "Counts constantly change as birds come and go, especially during peak migration around Halloween."
Hunting zones vary from crops to marsh, but the best usually consist of flooded standing corn. Except for the ADA access near the check-in station, zones do not have blinds. Posted no-wake restrictions make the area ideal for small craft, but rules and regulations frequently change, so always check current guidelines.
Hunters can access Harsens Island by way of a ferry that departs from Algonac, Mich. Long lines often form as hunters head to the draw, so arrive early. Round-trip fare is $15 per vehicle, and trailers are $10 per axle. With the right winds, the St. Clair River gets rough, and the ferry ride can get a little wet, so be sure to plan accordingly.
Hunting large bays and the open lake usually requires heftier equipment. This is especially true when high winds whip the lake's shallow water into a frenzy. A lee behind a point or an island is an ideal place to intercept waterfowl attempting to escape rough conditions. However, these spots are at a premium due to the number of waterfowl hunters. If choosing this option, arrive at a given location very early and fully understand the routes and any navigational challenges to getting there. This situation is perfect for boats equipped with blinds that can be pulled into submerged reeds. On calm days, ducks often head into the backs of bays to rest and feed, so, pick your spot according to the conditions.
Use a mix of mallards, black ducks, bluebills, redheads and canvasbacks for decoy spreads. Water might be shallow, but waves and current can wreak havoc on decoys, so consider lengthier anchor lines and heavier anchors. You might not need them, but when you do, it's nice to have them.
The classic "J-hook" spread works great. Set a diver string with the densest decoy placement near your hunting position and run the puddlers off the wings on either side. Leave space between the base of the divers and the puddlers to create an inviting landing zone for approaching birds. Divers follow the string in, while puddlers work around and land off either side in the holes. For visibility, use your brightest diver decoys where you want birds to land.
While this is a great setup, there are no steadfast rules with big-water ducks. Sometimes a big, loose blob of mixed species works, too, especially later in the season when ice comes into play and birds are grouping up. It never hurts to throw out some Canada goose floaters, as the surrounding region has thousands of geese, and these birds often bounce around a lot when snotty weather arrives.
The last option is hunting the open lake via layout boat or boat blind. This specialized style of hunting often occurs during the season's second half, when inclement weather and ice are common. You don't just jump into layout hunting; doing it right takes time and a big investment, which is why many go the guide route.
Experienced diver hunters—like Jeremy Ullmann, the guide and owner of MI Guide Service—often employ huge decoy spreads, most rigged with easily deployed and retrieved long-line setups. Ullmann guides waterfowlers on both Lake St. Clair and Lake Huron and runs around 250 foam-filled decoys. He also stresses the safety concerns associated with the often rough conditions of open-water diver hunting—one reason why he hunts out of a custom-built 24-foot Great Lakes Duck Boat with two layouts.
A handful of unfortunate waterfowl hunters have met their demise while pursuing waterfowl on these hallowed waters. I've witnessed such calamity first-hand while hunting St. Clair near Harsens Island. The lake's treacherous waters can take a boat to the bottom within seconds. It's also extremely important to understand shipping traffic and where it occurs. Don't take chances, and use your best judgement when venturing out. When in doubt, go to the draw to hunt the marsh and corn units, or call it a day. Be flexible enough to adapt to the conditions at hand, and you can find waterfowling bliss somewhere on or around Lake St. Clair.
If you grow tired of the duck-hunting grind or simply want to mix things up, give Lake St. Clair’s muskies a try.
Besides great waterfowl hunting, Lake St. Clair also supports a vibrant fishery, and some of the best opportunities of the year overlap with waterfowl seasons. One is the fall's hot musky bite when fish binge-feed as the water temperature drops. This fishing can be productive right up until ice-up.
Focus on trolling or casting large-body baits and other hefty lures. Diehard fly-anglers should cast outsized flies in productive areas. Stable, deep-V boats with a bow-mounted electric trolling motor and open deck space are best for all these techniques. You'll also want a very large net to handle potential record-class muskies. St. Clair supports a dense musky population, and these big predators can be caught throughout the watershed. Fish exceeding 50 inches are not uncommon, and much larger specimens are caught—or at least seen—occasionally.
Aaron Hartman, who spends each fall musky fishing and waterfowl hunting, suggests new technologies like side-scan sonar, Livescope and satellite imagery have made it easier to target areas of the lake with the right combination of depth, cover and water clarity. However, he also points to the dangers of late-fall/early-winter water conditions on St. Clair. He says a comprehensive disaster plan is a must to address situations like a man going overboard or a sinking boat.
"Rescue options are limited that time of year, and it's very possible a Coast Guard helicopter will be required," he says. "When the conditions exceed safety thresholds, we duck hunt the safe confines of the Harsens Island managed area or protected bays nearby."