By John Johnson
BassFan Senior Editor
The 2018 FLW Tour regular season is set to go out with a loud bang.
Lake St. Clair, perhaps the premier smallmouth bass fishery on the planet, will host the last of the circuit's seven stops this week. The bronzeback population, which continues to grow in average individual size if not in overall numbers, is fresh off the spawning ritual and groups of willing biters can be found in many places at various depths.
It's real difficult to find anybody who'll poor-mouth the lake right now. About the worst that any of the anglers will say after 3 days of practice is that it can be tough to keep congregations of 4-plus-pounders pinned down.
"The fishing's been good – real good," said former Tour pro Art Ferguson, owner/operator of the Art of Fishing guide service. "The lake's in good shape and the fish are healthy. You're going to see a ton 17-pound limits."
Anglers with designs on contending for the victory will need to average considerably more than that hefty number over the course of 4 days.
"The weights are going to be a little bigger than I originally thought," said Marcel Veenstra, another ex-Tour competitor who runs Marcel's Guide Service. "I could see somebody popping 23 or 24 pounds one day and holding a 21-pound average the rest of the way. Somebody's going to end up with 84 or 85 pounds."
Mark Rose, who's in his 20th Tour season and is a six-time winner on the circuit, will attempt to nail down his first Angler of the Year (AOY) title. He holds a 64-point edge over Scott Martin, so even a duplication of his worst showing in the previous six events this year (62nd at the Harris Chain) would bring him the crown regardless of where anybody else finishes.
Other competitors will look to either remain inside or climb into the top 40 to secure a berth in the Forrest Wood Cup, which will take place in August at Arkansas' Lake Ouachita.
Before delving deeper into the bite, here's some intel on the fishery itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Name: Lake St. Clair (along with the Detroit River system that includes Lake Erie and the St. Clair River)
> Type of Water: Great Lakes system
> Surface Acres: Nearly 10,000 square miles are available between St. Clair and Erie combined.
> Primary structure/cover: Offshore ridges, islands, grass, weeds (St. Clair and rivers), isolated rock (Erie),
> Primary forage: Gobies, crayfish, various minnow species, mayflies
> Average depth: 11 feet (Lake St. Clair), 62 feet (Lake Erie)
> Species: Primarily smallmouths, a smattering of largemouths
> Length limit: 14 inches
> Reputation: One of the most-heralded smallmouth fisheries in the country
> Weather: A mix of clouds and sun with daily high temperatures ranging from the mid 80s to low 90s
> Water temp: High 60s to low 70s
> Water visibility/color: Variable, depending on location, but generally good (down to 15 feet in St. Clair)
> Water level: Normal
> Fish in: 2 to 40 feet
> Fish phase: Mostly post-spawn
> Primary patterns: Dropshotting, dragging tubes, crankbaits, jerkbaits, swimbaits, Carolina rigs, jigs, jighead worms, spinnerbaits, grubs, spybaits
> Winning weight: 88 pounds
> Check weight: 33 pounds (top 60 after 2 days)
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 4.5 for St. Clair
> Biggest factor: Time management. Do you camp in St. Clair or run here or there?
> Wildcard: Weather and wind. Any significant change in either will force adjustments.
Here's an up-close look at the lake, courtesy of Navionics:
No Need To Run
Unlike in past events on the Detroit River system, there likely won't be a plethora of competitors making the long run to Lake Erie. The average size of the smallmouth in St. Clair now rivals that of the Great Lake nearby and there's less of an incentive to risk everything that such a journey entails.
Also, it'd be a much longer trip this time, as this tournament is launching out of St. Clair Metropark on the north end of the lake. Many previous derbies launched from Elizabeth Park on the south end of the Detroit River – essentially at the place where the river empties into Erie.
Both Ferguson and Veenstra agree that one seasonal phenomenon – the mayfly hatch – will play a big role in this tournament.
Michigan resident Scott Dobson is definitely an angler to keep an eye on this week.
"It's got the fish in some weird places doing weird things, but they're definitely biting," Ferguson said. "You have to really pay attention to the bugs – wherever they're hatching and landing, there will be fish feeding.
"A lot of it depends on the wind. It's been kind of from the east/northeast all week, but now it's supposed to switch to the northwest. That could mean that the fish won't be in the same places where guys found them 2 days earlier."
Said Veenstra: "The mayflies will definitely come into play. On a flat day, you can visually see the fish breaking the surface (while slurping them up). They help people locate fish."
Catching mayfly-oriented smallmouth isn't a complicated match-the-hatch, trout-type situation. Standard brown-fish fare will work in those situations, just as it does when they're keyed on other forage.
"It's always a dropshot/tube deal here for the most part, but a lot of other baits can be effective," Veenstra said. "Swimming a grub or throwing a soft jerkbait/fluke can be good and a swimbait will be a major player."
Added Ferguson: "A lot of times you can throw moving baits because the fish's focus is toward the top of the water. You can try anything you have confidence in, from a spinnerbait to a swimbait to a jerkbait to a fluke to a tube. There are endless options."
The spawn has all be ended on the lakes, but there could still be some sight-fishing opportunities in other places.
"There's still a chance some could be found in a few of the bays on the Canadian side and in some of the backwaters on the St. Clair River," Veenstra said. "I would not rule it out because there will definitely be some stragglers."
Following are practice notes from some of the anglers who'll compete this week.
"A lot of people are going to catch them pretty good. The numbers might be down a little bit because I don't think they're all that grouped up yet, but it's not that hard to catch five smallmouths and when you do, the weights are strong.
"All the rivers and lakes and even some canals are in play because we're here so early (in the summer) and even a 17- or 18-pound bag of largemouths is probably doable, but you're going to have to catch smallmouth to have a chance in a 4-day tournament. That can be done in a lot of different places right now and it's going to be interesting to see how it plays out."
"I've fished for largemouths here before and had a pretty good event doing it in the (FLW Series) last year, but that's not what I'm after this time. You look at the weights of all the tournaments they've been having here and the smallmouth are just incredible. I made the decision early on that I need to target smallmouth. I don't want to say I'm going to fish conservatively, but I need about a top-130 or better to make the Cup so I'm going to stay in St. Clair and just fish.
"Everyone I talk to has the same stories – you don't get a ton of bites like you used to, but your bites are good ones and if you catch five, they're going to weight really good. It's not like the past when you could catch 15 fish at one spot. They're kind of scattered and it could take all day to get five. That's the one thing that's a little bit of a concern."
"I've had some success here in the past, but I've always gone to Erie. I'm on the bubble for the Cup this time and I don't want to take a chance on the long runs, so I'll stay in St. Clair. I'm certainly not an expert on St. Clair, but I think it's fishing pretty darn good. The fish aren't everywhere and you can go a few hours without a bite, but there's a lot of good ones.
J.T. Kenney hooked up with a lot of nice smallmouths in practice.
"I've been weighing a lot of the fish I've caught because smallmouth are hard for me to judge, and I've caught a lot in the 3-06 to 3-12 range. You get in some areas and there's a lot of 4-04s to 4-10s. You don't catch 50 of them a day, but if you get in the right area you can catch 10 that size."
"About all I can say is this lake is full of big ones. I've come up here quite a bit just fun-fishing and sometimes it can be hard to find where they're grouped up, but they're really big and healthy.
"From my past experiences here, I don't have as many places as I'd like to have. I've got five or six and one of them's got really big ones. Now the problem is going to be how many other people have found it.
"It's been pretty windy and if anybody goes to Erie, they're going to really have to want to go. It dies down a little in the afternoon, but it's been hard enough to get around (on St. Clair)."
Top 10 to Watch
Here, in no particular order, are BassFan's recommendations for the top 10 to watch in this event.
1. Scott Dobson – The Clarkson, Mich. resident might just be the biggest of all St. Clair aces. A big showing in this one would be the perfect way for him to finish off a strong second half of the campaign.
2. Chris Johnston – At No. 4 in the points, the Canadian isn't totally out of the AOY picture and could have a shot if Rose falters. He's a smallmouth-catching machine and should produce some massive bags in this setup.
3. Cory Johnston – He knows all the same things about catching bronzebacks that his brother does, but it's even more important for him to turn in a good finish, as he's right on the cut line for the Forrest Wood Cup. He should be comfortably inside that mark but the time the weekend's over.
4. Scott Martin – He could claim his second AOY title in 4 years if he posts a high finish and Rose ends up at the bottom of the field, but that won't be his focus. He loves smallmouth fishing and the present scenario suits him well.
5. Austin Felix – The Minnesotan has had an up-and-down season, but is coming off a strong outing at Kentucky Lake and is in position to lock up a Cup slot. He's an electronics-reading expert who should do well in this home-region derby.
6. Bryan Thrift – St. Clair's fish are moving around a lot and that fits the defending AOY's style. He'll visit a myriad of places each day and some of them are bound to be holding a 5-pounder or two.
7. Larry Nixon – With the exception of one strong outing in Florida, it's been a tough season for the Hall-of-Famer. Nonetheless, he was the winner the last time the Tour visited this venue in 2012 and if he can find the right fish, he can certainly catch them on soft-plastics.
8. Jeff Gustafson – He's had another excellent year and has already posted three finishes of 7th or better. A fourth such showing wouldn't surprise anybody.
9. Matt Stefan – At No. 26 in the points, the Wisconsin resident is in prime position to claim his second straight Cup berth. His best finish of the year was a 21st and there's a good chance he'll improve upon that.
10. Jim Moynagh – The veteran from Minnesota has finished 100th or worse and uncharacteristic four times this year. He could salvage something from the campaign with a single-digit showing and the current scenario should be to his liking.
Anglers will take off at 6:30 a.m. EDT each morning from the Lake St. Clair Metropark, located at 31300 Metro Parkway, in Harrison Township, Mich.. Thursday's and Friday’s weigh-ins will be held at the park beginning at 3:15 p.m. Saturday and Sunday’s weigh-ins will start at 4 p.m.
> Thurs., June 28 – Partly Cloudy - 84°/65°
- Wind: From the WNW at 8 mph
> Fri., June 29 – Sunny - 88°/72°
- Wind: From the S at 10 mph
> Sat., June 30 – Mostly Sunny - 92°/74°
- Wind: From the SSW at 12 mph
> Sun., July 1 – P.M. T-Storms - 90°/71°
- Wind: From the SSW at 15 mph