Panfish: the Other Side of Lake St. Clair’s Bounty

You might know that Bassmaster magazine named Lake St. Clair the best bass fishing lake in America in 2013.

To those of us who have been around St. Clair for the last 30 or 40 years, this is akin to telling Noah about the Flood. Lake St. Clair offers—and has offered for decades—outstanding smallmouth bass fishing and some pretty darn good largemouth fishing, too.

But when Joe Balog, a sometimes bass pro who works in fishing industry marketing, invited me to spend a morning with him on St. Clair recently, he had something entirely different on his mind: sunfish. Balog had been beating up the bluegills and pumpkinseeds in the shallow, weedy water of Anchor Bay.

Unfortunately, a recent rain event had turned the in-shore area into a muddy mess. We spent no more than five minutes on the spot where Balog had clobbered the sunfish a few days earlier before he decided we had to look for something else.

We pulled off from shore until we found clear water and got on a weedbed, where we started throwing small baits—beetle spins and tiny tube baits on 1/32-ounce jig heads at a weedline. First cast, smack: Balog had a rock bass. Next cast, another. Then I caught one. And over the next 30 minutes if it wasn’t one every cast, it was at least one every other.

“You could catch a million of them,” Balog said. We did. (OK, I’m exaggerating. We probably didn’t catch more than 750,000. And intermingled with them were a handful of smallmouths.)

Rock bass get no respect. Why, exactly is anyone’s guess. But even bluegill anglers look down their noses at them.

“When I fish in New York, they treat rock bass like any other panfish,” Balog said. “For some reason, they’ve got a reputation here.”

It’s undeserved. They are excellent table fare, and with their big mouths, you can catch them on anything, from spinnerbaits to jig-and-pig.

Having worn ourselves out on the rockies, Balog suggested we go into a marina, where he’d beaten up the crappies earlier in the season. Though we were well past the spawn, Balog figured there might be a few crappies lingering.

He was wrong (about the “few” part). Over the next hour, we caught a boatload—big, black crappies. I’ll bet we caught 50, probably more, mostly on a tiny tube jig suspended a couple of feet below a bobber. We tossed them up against dock pilings, and often as not, that bobber went down within seconds of hitting the water.

“These are all black crappies in here, but we’ve been seeing a lot more white crappies in the last couple years,” said Balog, who fishes St. Clair more days than anyone else I know. “A couple weeks back I caught on honest 14-inch white crappie from another marina that had all white crappies in it.”

Rather than continue crappie fishing, Balog suggested we go prospecting, hoping to find the sunfish. We fished along boat docks on the main lake and around weedbeds scattered in the shallows. We caught plenty of them—both bluegills and pumpkinseeds—though the bulk of them were runts. Every once in a while we’d boat a worthy specimen, but the bulk of them weren’t.

“I don’t know what happened to them; maybe they moved out of here,” said Balog. “I would have bet we were going to load up on pumpkinseeds.”

Meanwhile, we caught bass, more largemouths than smallmouths—that would figure as we were fishing shallow weeds—anywhere from the length of your hand to around three pounds. We probably caught 30. All on 4-pound-test. Fun.

Hoping to catch some bigger ‘gills and ‘seeds, I switched to a small spinner harness (Bo’s Bluegill Buster) with a red worm. Didn’t matter—I kept catching fish—bass, rockies, yellow perch (mostly runts but a couple of nice ones) and sunfish. But the bigger sunfish continued to elude us.

Balog was fishing a pair of small tube jigs on 1/32-ounce jig heads. The rig gave him enough weight to cast well, but the jigs fell at the slower rate than they would have with a 1/16-ounce head. It was ingenious. And productive: at one point, he hauled in a pair of ‘seeds on one cast. But on another, he hooked two smallies that broke him off. Oh, well.

In early afternoon we were debating what to do next when we noticed the wind had picked up significantly and the western sky was as dark as a terrorist’s heart. Balog gave me the options: we could continue to try to find some better sunfish, we could just go bass fishing, or we could call it before we got our butts good and wet. I opted for the latter—we’d caught a couple hundred fish of seven species—and Balog had hooked, but failed to land a small muskie to boot—and there was no reason to suffer the weather just to catch more.

(And it was a good thing, too, as several minutes after we were off the lake, the rain came down in sheets.)

We’d have plenty of time this summer to go after the bass, Balog said, and I’m sure we will. But I suspect Bassmaster only got it half right. Lake St. Clair may well be the best bass fishing lake in America. But it may well be the best fishing lake in America, period.