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In Pursuit of Golden Eye
written by Wayne E. Snyder

100 fish days make for fly-fishing high-adventure and great memories
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White bass on the fly

Author Wayne E. Snyder displays a white bass taken on a fly from Lake Erie

Captain Brian Meszaros glassed the horizon as though he were stalking mountain elk in Montana and masterfully steered the big bay boat through the spotty sheets of slate morning fog. A mirror image of cormorants traced their paths on the oily-calm water as the low-flying birds closely passed us and then disappeared in the haze. Approaching a broad opening in the smoke, Brian pointed.

"There's what I'm looking for!" he shouted.

Just a couple hundred yards ahead, a noisy frenzy of activity unfolded before our eyes. While a swarm of gulls cried raucously and attacked from the air, fish of considerable size were greedily ambushing baitfish from below, noisily slashing and whipping the surface of the glassy water. Brian quickly positioned his craft above the frenzy in the swift current, a tact that would allow us to drift just off the melee and begin casting. A quick look at the Lowrance Fishfinder showed signs of dozens of sizeable fish suspended high in the 10-foot water column. As my partner and I finished rigging our fly rods, Capt. Brian instructed us to tie on large poppers, cast long, and strip the flies in noisy and fast. The carnage -- and fun -- was about to intensify!
That Tropical Feeling

If you get the feeling from the opening description that the action of this adventure is unfolding in some classic saltwater location like the Florida Keys or southern Bahamas' Out Islands, it is a similarity I was hoping to convey. The location is Lake Erie at the juncture with the lower Detroit River, and the targeted species is Morone chrysops, the prolific white bass. The species descriptor chrysops is Greek meaning "golden eye" and is a very close relative of striped bass (Morone saxatilis) of Atlantic Coast surf fishing fame.

White Bass

White Bass (Morone chrysops)

White bass in the Great Lakes region stack up in massive schools in the spring as they migrate upriver from Lake Erie and move through to spawning areas in the upper Detroit River and Lake St. Clair. Males in the 10- to 14-inch range arrive as much as a month before the females which, fat with roe, can attain three pounds. White bass action is prime from mid-May through the first two weeks of June, and most guides agree the fishing is most reliable in the southern section of the Detroit River. Cruising and fishing the lower islands of Grosse Ile in the heat of this last day of May, I could easily have been convinced I was in the tropics.

I cast long using my 9 foot, 8-weight to carry the big popper and started my retrieve.

"Strip faster!" commanded Capt. Brian, "it excites the fish".

I was beginning to feel like an exotic dancer still $100 behind on tips before closing. On the third hard strip a flash of white lightning slashed the surface from below spraying water high into the air. I quickly raised the rod and the throb and dance of the rod tip above the deeply arched 8-weight signaled that a good fish was on and fighting for all it was worth. The bass bore deep twice (white bass are not surface fighters) and, finally succumbing to exhaustion, thrashed wildly just under the surface trailed closely by a half-dozen frantic schoolmates. I can honestly say that we caught bass on nearly every cast on poppers. Changing to Clouser Minnows, did nearly as well. Finally, after nearly two hours of non-stop, arm-numbing action, we abandoned the white bass bite for a shot at smallmouths in the Detroit River.
Grosse Ile's Island History

White Bass on the FlyThe Great Lakes freighter John J. Boland clipped along the downbound Livingstone Channel near Boblo Island as we powered north to the shallow bays around Stony Island. The Stony Island area is a mix of upland, wetland and swift-moving, shallow water and is one of the largest fish spawning areas in the lower Detroit River. The hard bottom shoal of limestone provides spawning habitat for 65 species of fish, including perch and walleye. Female smallies were on the beds off the south island shoreline, but were wary of the big Tequeely fly's we threw meant to induce a territorial strike. We caught only two, but the break in the action gave us a chance to rest our casting arms sore from the early morning white bass bite.

Down through "Hole-in-the-wall" and back up to Stony's east bays, Capt. Brian guided us through the ghostly, rusted remains of old ferryboat slips and sunken barges used to create the Livingstone Channel during the 1930s.

More than a dozen islands make up Grosse Ile Township. The inhabited area, which includes Elba, Meso and Swan Islands, is simply called "The Island", while Calf, Celeron, Round, Sugar, Fox, Dynamite (Powder House) and Stony comprise the uninhabited islands.

From fur trading to missile defense systems, Grosse Ile has a deep and unique history. Grosse Ile historians trace island history back to July, 1776, when Potawatomi Indians deeded the islands to two prominent Detroit merchants. During the Prohibition era, Grosse Ile became a crossing point for bootleggers transporting illegal spirits from Canada. Usually they arrived at the island via small speedboats that darted across the river at night. It was a dangerous business. While I mention speedboats, few people know that the outboard motor was invented on Grosse Ile. Island resident Cameron Waterman successfully tested his invention on the ice filled Detroit River in 1905. Also, a Nike-Ajax missile defense system was deployed at the airfield in 1954, but it was decommissioned in 1963.
Another Blitz

White Bass on the flyFiring up the big but quiet 150-horsepower four-stroke outboard, we powered south again to Meso Island. Ahead, Capt. Brian spots a swarm of noisy gulls in the distance belying another white bass blitz, and the fun begins again. Here large stands of eelgrass and milfoil flow like locks of Medusa's hair just under the surface, giving us an eerie sense of just how strong the river current is. Other than locating fish, boat control is perhaps the most important component to consistently taking fish because of the strong seven mile-per-hour current and sometimes heavy boating traffic. Capt. Brian is a master at boat control, though, and using either the outboard or the boat's dual rear electric thrusters Capt. Brian keeps the craft nearly suspended in the current or silently follow the school of fish at will.

Tying on a Rainy's Bubble-Head Popper (olive/silver, size 4), the action continued non-stop for the next hour and a half. All said, my partner and I hooked and released what we estimated to be easily over 100 bass. Now, I'm not talking total -- I'm talking 100 fish each! If you have never tried, or even heard of, the white bass blitz on Lake Erie, be sure and put it on your to-do list. This is the kind of fishing high-adventure that makes for great memories, and while the fish aren't necessarily tackle-busters, their feisty aggressiveness and willingness to hit just about any fly offered make them stars in my book. I can't wait to do it again next year.

A word of caution -- white bass have a sharp point on each gill cover that can easily cut human skin, and if you are not careful, it will shred bare hands in the course of a few hours. Also, after unhooking one thrashing fish I clumsily dropped it on my left foot where its pin-sharp dorsal spines easily pierced a prominent toe and I bled like the proverbial "stuck pig." Yes, white bass do fight back! 

Getting There

If you're interested in fly fishing for white bass, largemouth and smallmouth bass, pike or muskie, contact Captain Brian Meszaros at (734) 904-FISH. Brian runs Great Lakes Flyfishing, LLC, and has been guiding on the Lake St. Clair/Detroit River system since 1992. You'll find him on the web at www.greatlakesflyfishing.com.

Wayne Snyder fly fishes, hunts upland birds and writes (as much as he can) from his home in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

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