It was really just a matter of timing, and that's all I'll say in terms of the down side of the trip.
Lake St. Clair boasts some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in the country.
Our original June date with guide Captain Brian Meszaros had to be rescheduled another two weeks down the piscatorial road. At first thought it probably wouldn't seem to make that big a difference, but on Lake St. Clair at this time of year, it makes a big difference. With our original date we would have been in the mid-to-tail end of the white bass bite (Morone chrysops) on the lower end of the Detroit River. Think a hundred fish per person per day. That's how strong the short run is. Alas, that day's weather forecast saw the probability of severe thunderstorms battering upper Lake Erie with wind gusts up to 20 mile per hour and Brian wisely suggested we reschedule. Fly fishing would be impossible, and that's what we wanted to do. It turns out on that day there were severe downpours in that area and the winds reached 25 to 30 mph. Good call!
On the re-scheduled day and with the white bass run pretty much exhausted, the next likely target species was smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu), and the quintessential game fish of Lake St. Clair. We had no complaints.
Just arriving on time to meet Capt. Brian at the nine-mile boat launch was the beginning of the unexpected events of the day. What looked like thick early morning fog on Jefferson Avenue was cut by flashing red streaks and the sirens of fire trucks. This was not fog at all but low layers of thick gray smoke widening from a smoldering house. It didn't look too serious, and the firefighters already on the scene appeared to have the blaze under control even though a news helicopter circled overhead like a white vulture.
LORD OF THE FLIES
Fly-fishing for smallmouths is great sport.
The real problem, as far as we were concerned, became partially evident just a few moments after Captain Brian launched his sleek Scout 220 bay boat. Caddis flies -- I mean thousands of them -- in the air, on the boat, in our faces -- made even breathing a conscious event. I've experienced these kinds of in-your-face clouds of bugs before and they don't bother me much, but to the uninitiated they can be quite a mouth-full (no pun intended). Yet, shortly after rigging up and with the caddis flies everywhere, I hooked a plump 12-inch "bronzeback" on a gray/white Clouser Deep Minnow in the four-foot flats just a quarter mile off the slip.
Off to a good start. Bugs and all.
I termed the problem as "partially evident" because the caddis flies were not the only bugs on the water and not nearly the biggest. The caddis were just the tip of the iceberg as they say. Somewhere around 10 p.m. the prior evening, very large aquatic insects began to wiggle their way from the lakes marly bottom to the surface. In its adult form this bug is known locally as the "fishfly," but we fishermen know it as the giant Michigan mayfly Hexagenia Limbata.
Once nearly wiped-out by pollution in the 1950's the Hex has recovered much of its original range. Today, to say the hatch on Lake St. Clair is massive is a profound understatement, and it occurs every night for about two weeks. When the nymphs wiggle upwards, bass gorge themselves on them as do panfish, perch, walleyes and even carp. These flies hatch in such astounding numbers that the clouds of mating adults hovering above the lake reflect radar images that resemble storm systems.
The feast continues when the spinners fall, flutter, die and float dead on the lake's surface. Along with the rafts of millions of nymphal schucks, the mass can appear from a distance like small tan islands. Such was the situation before us. The smallmouths were simply stuffed like sausages from feeding on the Hex and caddis flies the night before. Basically, they were sitting on the bottom, digesting what must have been to them a mega-meal of unimaginable scale.
The author with a plump bronzeback
That said, lake biologists welcome the Hex. It means that, in general, the lake is healthy and doing well. For us it meant difficult fishing.
Well aware of the situation, Captain Brian's fishing strategy for the day became what he called run 'n' gun -- quick dashes between GPS waypoints throughout the lake known to harbor smallmouths over rocky structure. Full sinking 250 and 300-grain fly lines with heavily weighted flies resembling crayfish were the ticket, and we managed to hook several 14-inch plus fish despite their feeding frenzy lethargy. But moving fast was the real advantage. If the fish weren't hitting within minutes, Capt. Brian shouted, "Wind 'em up boys, we're movin ' on!"
ADD TO YOUR LIFE LIST
Probably as important to me (in terms of fly fishing accomplishments) is the addition of a new fish species caught on fly gear to my "life-list". If you're a birder, you know exactly what I mean. Birders travel far and wide just to add a new species or two of birds to their Audubon registered life list. I'll take a new fish I can add to my life-list over a lunker of a species I've already caught every time. In this case it was the ubiquitous yellow perch (Perca flavescens), but a very challenging fish to hook on fly gear. In larger waters yellow perch normally hold too deep to attempt with a fly, but in Lake St. Clair's shallower waters, they can be found at the same depth as smallmouths. The fish I landed were about the size you'd love to harvest a couple dozen of through the ice for a late February fish fry.
A CLEAR PROBLEM
The author with a fine smallmouth from the Grindstone City area of Michigan.
Another thing you will immediately notice if you have spent any amount of time on Lake St. Clair over the years is the new clarity of the water. For better or worse, invading zebra and quagga mussels have had a very desirable impact on the quality of the lake's waters. The mussels are filter feeders, and as a consequence of their explosive proliferation the lake's water is noticeably clearer than it has ever been in recent memory. Clearer water means cleaner bottom sediments, thus benefiting the Hex nymphs, and more sunlight penetration means more and healthier aquatic plants, all benefiting the fish populations. Obviously this has had a very positive effect on smallmouth bass populations, which prefer clear lakes, pockets of vegetation, and bottoms with lots of rocky structure. In essence, Lake St. Clair.
Time for lunch and Brian suggested Jack's Water Front for bloomin' onions, big burgers and cold iced tea. After our own mega-meal of sorts Capt. Brian sends us to the southern tip of Harsens Island in search of the monster carp that cruise the vast river delta flats there. Feeding fish were spotted but wouldn't let us get within casting distance. It still amazes me how fast these gentle giants can move when they're spooked. But a typical bonus on a trip with Capt. Brian is learning a little history of the area, this time the history of "the lights." Just off the southeastern tip of Harsens Island are two tall, deteriorating lighthouse structures known as the Old South Channel Range Lights. What I didn't know is that construction of these old lighthouses was completed two years before Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as President in 1861.
As a side note, this year I also had the pleasure to fish both the Grindstone City area blue-water flats in Lake Huron and the scenic Huron River above Ann Arbor for smallmouths. At both locations I've had good-to-excellent fly fishing success, confirming that this is truly "The Bronze Age" in Michigan.
If you are interested in fly fishing for white bass, large 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 is a Fly Fishing Team Leader at Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World in Auburn Hills, Michigan.