The Northern swing of the 2023 Bassmaster Elite Series season will start with a bang as the 102-boat field heads to Michigan for the AFTCO Bassmaster Elite at Lake St. Clair at one of the best times of year to fish the powerhouse smallmouth destination.
“The end of July is almost similar to what would be early June on a TVA lake,” said Garrett Paquette, a St. Croix Bassmaster Opens pro and Canton, Mich., native. “Generally, that time of year the fish have all moved offshore to where they will be for summer and are usually in pretty big schools. They are pretty dumb and easy to catch.”
Competition days are scheduled for July 27-30 with daily takeoffs set for 7 a.m. ET at Brandenburg Park. Anglers will return for weigh-in starting at 3 p.m. After the Day 2 weigh-in, the field will be cut to the Top 50 anglers, with only the Top 10 advancing to Championship Sunday. Full coverage will be available on Bassmaster.com.
Heralded as one of the best smallie destinations in the country, Lake St. Clair has played host for the Elite Series several times in the past, with Bill Weidler winning the most recent event in 2020 and Seth Feider taking the trophy in the three-day Angler of the Year Championship in 2019.
Covering 430 square miles in the U.S. and Canada, St. Clair is a relatively small and shallow lake with an average depth of 11 feet. Anglers will be able to fish the lake, the Detroit and St. Clair rivers, the southern portion of Lake Huron and the western side of Lake Erie.
Paquette believes almost every section of the playing field could produce a Top 10, although making runs to Erie could be risky depending on the weather.
“The nice thing is, St. Clair is almost always fishable,” he said. “It would take a super-strong wind to not be able to navigate. To me, it is for the better. Wind allows you to cover water and triggers the fish to feed.
“If someone goes to Erie, that will be a huge factor. It will make the run, which is already 60 or 70 miles, a lot longer. Erie is notorious for getting really rough.”
However, for someone with the courage to make Erie part of his game plan, the fishery could be a major X factor.
“There have been some bigger bags of fish caught in Erie the last few years,” Paquette said. “For the last five years, it seemed like St. Clair was where you wanted to be. Nowadays, it is probably back to 50/50 as far as which lake it is won out of.”
In most years, Paquette said it usually takes about 25 pounds to consistently win tournaments. But so far this year, that number has dipped to around 23 pounds. There are a couple of reasons for that, he said.
For one, Michigan had several warm days early in the year followed by an elongated, cooler spring. Paquette also believes an increase in the alewife population has more smallmouth chasing these nomadic herring.
“There are a lot of alewives in the system and that can obviously change the way fish act,” he said. “You are used to fish sitting in one area feeding on perch and gobies and crawfish, but they might be becoming a little more nomadic by chasing these alewives. It isn’t making the fishing worse, I just think it is changing it.”
The invasive goby is prevalent in the system as well, and the increase in that population over the years has kept the smallmouth close to the bottom to feed. Perch also remain a staple of the smallmouth’s diet in the system.
“The gobies have made things more angler friendly. They keep the smallmouth locked down in one area, which makes them easier to target and makes them bigger,” Paquette said.
While the alewives may have some smallmouth roaming, Paquette believes the majority will be grouped up in large stretches of Lake St. Clair. With sand and grass patches being the most prevalent cover, smallies will flood football-field-long stretches on the main body of water.
“In a normal group, you are working in an area the size of a football field, but some of the schools are so big that you are working a square mile,” he said. “Those are what mega-schools are. There isn’t a fish every 10 feet, but maybe every 100 or so feet. It lets an angler work around and mill around for eight hours in that area.”
If anglers choose to run to Erie, rockpiles will be the key, while playing the current around rock, sand and grass will be important in the two rivers.
Drop shots, Ned rigs and tubes will be prevalent presentations, while deep crankbaits and spybaits could make appearances as well. Forward-facing sonar will also factor into the equation.
“I consider St. Clair to be the mecca of forward-facing sonar,” Paquette said. “It has a really clean bottom, not very many weeds and the fish seem to suspend 1 to 3 feet all the time. You will see a lot of guys hunting them down one at a time on forward sonar.”
Largemouth live in the shallows of Lake St. Clair, but Paquette doesn’t believe an angler can compete for the win with them, although they could be key to salvaging points and making the Top 50 cut.
Paquette predicted the winner will have a four-day total of around 90 pounds.
Alabama pro Kyle Welcher leads the Progressive Insurance Bassmaster Angler of the Year standings after six events with 511 points. South Carolina pro Brandon Cobb is second with 499 points, followed by Florida’s John Cox in third with 483, Louisiana’s Tyler Rivet in fourth with 467 and Georgia’s Drew Cook in fifth with 456.
Alabama’s Will Davis Jr. leads the Dakota Lithium Bassmaster Rookie of the Year race with 449 points, followed by Arkansas’s Joey Cifuentes III in second with 412 and California’s Bryant Smith in third with 405.
Bassmaster LIVE kicks off tournament coverage Thursday and Friday mornings at 8 a.m. ET on Bassmaster.com, Tubi and the FOX Sports platforms while FS1 will broadcast live with the tournament leaders Saturday and Sunday.
2023 Bassmaster Elite Series Platinum Sponsor: Toyota2023 Bassmaster Elite Series Premier Sponsors: Bass Pro Shops, Dakota Lithium, Humminbird, Mercury, Minn Kota, Nitro Boats, Power-Pole, Progressive Insurance, Ranger Boats, Rapala, Skeeter Boats, Yamaha 2023 Bassmaster Elite Series Supporting Sponsors: AFTCO, Daiwa, Garmin, Lew's, Marathon, Triton Boats, VMC 2023 Bassmaster Conservation Partners: AFTCO, Yamaha Rightwaters