Fishing pros and local anglers alike are flocking to Lake St. Clair

Fishing on Lake St. Clair can be full of adventures. Just ask Don Murray of Harrison Township; he's been angling there since he was a young boy. 

A retiree who spent the bulk of his career with U.S. Army Tank Automotive Command in Warren, Murray now works part-time with several fishing charters,Don Murray including Steve Jones' Fish Predator charter. Like many fishermen, he has some fantastic fish stories. One of his favorites took place while he was out on Lake St. Clair with his friend Bob looking for sturgeon. 

"We were anchoring in the North Channel," he says. "There's only two boats out there. And the next thing you know we see the Coast Guard. I said, "Bob, they're going to come talk to us next.'"

It was just a routine stop. But while Murray and his friend are starting to grab their paperwork, they see they've got a tug on one of their fishing rods. After a bit of a fight, they end up catching a three-foot sturgeon and throwing it back. 

The account doesn't end there, though. A few minutes later, another of the boat's rods begins whiplashing up-and-down, and Murray knows they've got something really big. Bob starts struggling to pull whatever-it-is they've got in, and the Coast Guard personnel, who were from other parts of the country, are trying to figure out what's going on.

"When you catch these sturgeon, sometimes they come out of the water like a missile," says Murray. "So sure enough, the sturgeon got behind the Coast Guard boat, jumped straight out of the water in front of this guy, scared the hell out of him. We finally get it in, it's a five-footer, and these Coast Guard guys are just going crazy [about how big the fish was]. It was wild!"

Lake St. Clair'An Incredible Resource'

Lake St. Clair is full of wonderful tales like Murray's, and not without reason. Connected to Lake Huron by the St. Clair River and Lake Erie by the Detroit River, it's certainly Southeast Michigan's most popular fishing destination. In fact, Lake St. Clair and its tributaries account for 34 percent of the total annual angler hours spent in Great Lake waters, even though they only make up less than one percent of the entire system, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

As the DNR's Lake Huron-Lake Erie Area fisheries research manager, Todd Wills has a lot of experience studying the different types of fish that populate Lake St. Clair's ecosystem. Of these, the four most common fish—and the biggest attraction for anglers—are smallmouth bass, muskellunge, walleye and yellow perch.  

"The smallmouth bass fishing and muskie fishing is just about the best that you're going to find in North America, if not the world," he says. "The walleye fishing over the past few years has been absolutely exceptional, due to really strong walleye reproduction in the region. And we find that the yellow perch draws anglers from across the state."

Anglers are active during all four seasons on Lake St. Clair. When the weather is cold enough to support it, ice fishing tends to be in vogue. At other times of the year, fishing enthusiasts will take to docks and shorelines and venture out on boats for open-water angling. 

Generally, catch-and-release fishing of smallmouth and largemouth bass is open all-year-round, while other types of fishing are governed by a series of regulations. It's also worth noting that the State of Michigan requires anyone over the age of 17 to purchase a fishing license. International border crossing restrictions are something to keep in mind as well. While Canada recently relaxed COVID restrictions related to allow access for pleasure fishing under certain conditions, anglers interested in doing so should stay updated on the latest developments as the pandemic evolves. 

Keeping all this in mind, Wills thinks fishing on the lake is an experience that shouldn't be missed.

"It's just an incredible resource that we have here in southeast Michigan," he says. "So I would encourage anybody and everybody to try fishing on Lake St. Clair, because you won't be disappointed."

Inside Lakeside Fishing ShopKeeping Anglers Stocked

For those who are curious about fishing on Lake St. Clair, Captain Dan Chimelak is a great person to know. He's the co-owner of Lakeside Fishing Shop, a St. Clair Shores institution that has been assisting local anglers since 1968. He also runs hisLakeside Fishing Shop own fishing charter and provides a free fishing report that is recorded daily and can be accessed over the phone.

After all his years fishing Lake St. Clair, one thing Chimelak is sure of is that the water there is just full of surprises.

"Anything that swims out on fresh water you can find here: Great Lakes muskie, smallmouth bass, largemouth bass, walleye, sunfish, bluegill, carp, dogfish, bowfin, sturgeon and on and on. You can even catch salmon and steelhead [trout]. It's rare, but it does happen. It's a potpourri.
Like Moes' Bait Shop in Detroit and Angler's Point in New Baltimore, Lakeside Fishing shop has a long history of helping Southeast Michigan fishing enthusiasts meet their needs. Set up to provide one-stop-shopping for anglers, it has an impressive inventory of hooks, lines, sinkers, rods, reels, bait and other fishing-related accessories. 

In recent years, however, changes in the industry have made for an independent retailer like Lakeside to keep up with chain stores like Bass Pro Shops and Cabela's. Faced with this, it's Chimelak's dedication to the shop's loyal customers that keeps him going.

"It's tough to be independent," he says. "I'm working here with very small margins to make everybody happy. [But] It's a family oriented store ... and the best part of doing this is helping get kids off their computers and onto the lake." 

"No Salt. No Sharks. No Problems!"Community on the Water

While plenty of folks enjoy fishing alone or with a small group of friends, others are looking for more community. That's where fishing clubs and associations come in. There are a bunch of these organizations in Southeast Michigan, some of which are more general in nature and other which focus on a particular type of fish.

The Lake St. Clair Walleye Association (LSCWA), to which Murray belongs, falls into this later category. "There's some top-notch guys and some who are family-oriented," he says. "I used to be in a muskie club, but walleye guys, they're more open about relating skills, telling you how to do it or where to go, things of that nature."

The nonprofit LSCWA, which currently has about 350 members, is dedicated to promoting walleye fishing in Michigan through conservation, education, and enhancing fishing opportunities.

"We formed in '75 to get commercial fishing out of Lake St. Clair, and then from there it evolved into helping promote and protect the resource," says Tim Muir, a board member and past president of the group. 

The LSCWA holds meetings with guest speakers, annual picnics, and organized fishing competitions called derbies. Beyond that, it also sponsors special kids outings twice-a-year--ice fishing in the winter and open-water fishing in the summer--at Lake St. Clair Metro Park. The event is free to participating youth and equipment and lunches are provided by the nonprofit. 

In the past, the nonprofit has also worked with the DNR to raise fish at local ponds to stock various Michigan lakes (although not Lake St. Clair). That practice did not take place in 2020, although this year the LSCWA has offered to buy minnows to help feed walleye that the DNR is raising. 

Of course, in addition to these education and conservation efforts, LSCWA members really like to fish. And when it comes to catching walleye, Muir has some tips for prospective anglers. He finds that Detroit River is a great place to hook the fish in the early spring, but later in the summer it's best to head deeper into Lake St. Clair itself. 

"The shipping channel cuts Lake St. Clair, almost down the middle, and walleye like to hang out there, because the water gets cooler, especially in the summer," he says. "So as far as giving up a hotspot, I would say find some weed beds near that shipping channel." 

Out on the waterGetting Competitive

For those who enjoy competitive fishing, Lake St. Clair is also a major attraction, drawing professional anglers from all over the world. Bassmaster Magazine ranked the lake number one for all-species fishing and number four for catching bass specifically in a 2018 poll of the 100 best fishing lakes in the United States. 

Over the last few years, Lake St. Clair has hosted numerous high-profile events like the YETI Bassmaster Elite and May Madness Walleye Tournament, and it's frequently home to smaller tournaments as well. Those interested in finding out all the competitive events happening there, can check the Michigan DNR's fishing tournament database for details. 

The next big tournament on Lake St. Clair will be the regular season finale of this year's Major League Fishing Bass Pro Tour, which is scheduled to take place Sept. 10-15. The six-day tournament will have 80 anglers competing in a live-streamed event that will eventually air on the Discovery Channel. And unlike most fishing competitions, it will feature a unique up-to-the minute format designed to keep viewers on the edge of their seats.

"We catch, we immediately weigh the fish and then release it right there," says Michael Mulone, MLF's senior director of events and partnerships. "We have officials on the boats that weigh the fish and input the score. We've really turned bass fishing into watching a game because you can know the score when it happens."

Running parallel with the tournament, MLF, in partnership with Macomb County and the city of St. Clair Shores, will also be hosting a special festival at Blossom Heath Park and Pier in St. Clair Shores Sept. 9-12. The free family-friendly event will allow fans to meet with professional anglers while enjoying various other activities. 

Through the festival and its coverage of the Bass Pro Tournament, the MLF aims at bringing greater exposure to Lake St. Clair and its surrounding communities, which Mulone feels offers a truly world-class fishing environment.

"When you put the Discovery Channel on and watch Lake St. Clair and see how great the fishing is, it's a calling card for people to come and fish in the interim," he says. "So we hope that people will do that for Lake St. Clair, because it really is one of the best small fisheries in America."

All photos by David Lewinksi.

The Macomb Parks & Trails series seeks to capture the story of the outdoor recreation, greenspace, placemaking and emerging outdoor assets that are shaping Macomb County's future. It's made possible with funding from Macomb County.
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