Lake St. Clair panfish

Thanks to the Traverse City Record Eagle for this:

HARRISON TOWNSHIP — Think of Lake St. Clair and what pops into your mind?

Smallmouth bass or muskellunge? It’s world-class for both.

Bassmaster magazine has named Lake St. Clair the best bass fishing lake in America.

Walleye or perch? Both can be good to excellent.

But what receives far less attention is the big lake’s panfish opportunities.

panfish is an edible game fish that usually does not outgrow the size of a frying pan. The term is also commonly used by anglers to refer to any small catch that will fit in a pan but is large enough to be legal.

Few anglers think of any Great Lakes waters, bass excluded, for sunfish.

Lake St. Clair panfish


But Lake St. Clair, which is largely shallow, offers outstanding opportunity for bluegill, pumpkinseeds, and crappie fishing.

Lake St Clair is probably one of the best places to fish for sunfish in Michigan, if not the United States,” said Zack Watts, a St. Clair regular. “It’s absolutely chock full of bluegill and sunfish.”

I joined up with Watts, father-and-son combo Ed and Blake Stringer and my sometimes angling partner Theron Hoffman for a day of fishing in the canals along the edges of the sixth Great Lake. It was excellent.

We were fishing the canal because, frankly, the ice is almost nonexistent on the main lake this winter. Guys who didn’t put up their boats for the winter are still trolling for walleye. And though it was mid-February when we went, it was still almost first ice because of the weather this winter.

And the bite was just like first ice, too. We all managed limits of fish and could have stayed and caught more.

Watts, a civil engineer at nearly Selfridge Air National Guard Base, says the panfish congregate in the canals at first and last ice and except for the dead of winter – which we may not arrive in southern Michigan this year – they’ll be there and cooperative.

Watts, whose limit catch was made up of two crappies and about three-quarters bluegills, said he actually prefers targeting the pumpkinseeds best.

The sunfish are so much more aggressive,” he said. “They have more meat on them and I think they taste better than the bluegills; I always rinse my fillets a couple of times and after the first rinse there’s like a sheen of oil on the water of the sunfish that isn’t there with the bluegills and crappies, and I think that oil gives them a better taste when you fry them up.”

There’s more.

“They fight just about as good as bass,” he continued. “And they’re beautiful fish.”

Watts recommends that anglers try to find as deep of water as they can, but that turned out to be about five feet in this particular set of canals. He says it’s important to fish the entire water column, but unlike most, he starts at the top and works his way down, because crappie are often suspended up high and you’ll never catch them if you are catching fish on or near bottom.

Like most panfish anglers, he uses small, heavy-metal jigs, but he mostly eschews live bait, favoring micro plastics made by Roadside Minnows.

“I mostly use the Perch eye and the Wiggler,” he said. “They look a lot like the bloodworms or dragon fly larva or other little bugs that they’re feeding on. And the 1-inch minnow is great for sunnies (pumpkinseeds). They’re aggressive fish and they’ll feed on minnows up to about an inch and half long.

“When I was really smoking them, I was using the perch eye. I usually catch bigger fish on plastics (than bait). Most definitely.”

We got on the canal around 10 a.m., and began hitting fish almost immediately, thug it slowed about an hour into it, perhaps because the sun was bright and we were so shallow. But by mid-afternoon they were on again, and we smoked ‘em. We all caught limits.

“You want to fish the whole water column because it depend on where the zooplankton are in the water column because that’s where the bluegill’s prey feeds – the bluegill and perch fry,” Watts said. “The best bite is morning and evening and that’s when the zooplankton is moving up and down the water column.”

The canals are among his favorite places to fish, Watts said because there are so many of them — thousands of them — to fish and while the deepest canals are the best, the current high water levels in the lake have moved fish into all of them. In an ordinary winter, he moves out to the main lake to fish weed beds when the winter doldrums set in, but there’s no getting out there this winter.

“Once you find them in a canal system, you can pretty much go back there are catch them there again,” he said.

The fishing in the canals picks back up at last ice, he said, and continues in open water until the canals begin warming up.

We were fishing in a canal with weeds on the bottom, which held the fish. In canals without weed beds, the fish will relate to any sort of cover, like dock pilings or any brush.

“I like to fish as close to the pilings as I can,” Watts said. “You don’t find bluegills on sand flats. And water clarity doesn’t matter; they’ll bite just as good in dirty water if not better, but you have to get right on top of them.”

Ed Stringer, who has been fishing Lake St. Clair for 37 years — since he moved from California to Michigan — says that when the sunfish begin spawning, usually by June, you can find them stacked up on weed beds, often just a couple of hundred yards from shore.

“This year, with the water level up high, you’ll be able to find them even closer,” he said.


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