It was a brisk, calm, spring morning in southeast Michigan, as we zoomed across the glass calm waters of Lake St. Clair. When we reached the shallow fishing area, Tony Yancey jumped up on the front deck of the Ranger and dropped the trolling motor into the cold, murky water. He fired his offering toward a giant shell bed on a spawning flat. After the bait settles to the bottom, he lifted his rod feeling the tight vibration the lure puts off, when it’s pulled through the water. Suddenly I see his rod tip bounce and his line go slack. Yancey jerks the rod violently back to set the hook and his rod bends double as he yells “Get the net!”
The fight is on! After scrambling around, I get the net and rush boat side where I can see the giant golden smallmouth violently shaking its broad head in an effort to dislodge the lure from its mouth. Yancey brings the fish alongside the boat and I sweep the net under the giant belly and bring her aboard. Lying in the net is an absolute tank of a smallmouth. The rising morning sun shimmers on its bronze side showing the impressive colors of the tiger striped marvelous fish.
The huge 6-pound monster smallie smacked the original Silver Buddy blade bait. Blade baits are a thin piece of metal shaped into a minnow profile. There is a lead weight attached to the front of the lure that makes it fall to the bottom, nose first. There are two treble hooks that dangle freely from the bottom of the lure. There is a hole at the top of the bait where it is attached to your line. The Original Silver Buddy has been around for generations and is a staple for cold water smallmouth.
But if your goal is to land the most fish possible you need to make a few alterations. Begin by cutting off the hook with wire cutters. Then, attach a high quality split ring and a new treble hook. The Mustad Triple Grip is an excellent choice. The size of the hook depends on the size of the lure. Make sure that the hooks are just small enough so that they cannot get hooked on each other. You should also always use the snap swivel that comes in the package. This will reduce line twist drastically compared to tying directly to the bait. Great Lakes smallmouths have an extremely hard mouth that allows them to crunch large crayfish and hold onto spiny perch. This is why the hook you use should be rugged and reliable. Paired with a sturdy split ring allows the hook to stay in place while the fish violently thrashes.
So, what’s the best time to start blade baiting smallies? The end of April and May is a hot period for blades and they are deadly on giant pre-spawn females. Right after ice-out plump butterball shaped smallies move shallow toward their selected spawning grounds. Here, they gorge themselves on bait fish while waiting for the water to warm up to 55-58 degrees. Many anglers will still catch fish on tubes, worms, and cranks, but if you want hot fishing action, concentrate on blades. Here’s why.
A blade bait has a very tight wiggle and puts off extreme vibration as it is pulled through the water. The Silver Buddy is legendary for its unique vibrating action caused by its weight distribution, which in turn provokes the smallmouths into investigating. The vibration and erratic wiggling action catches their eye and causes them to charge the lure and slam the offering with full force. There are some important tactics that you need to use if you want to fill the boat with trophy smallmouth.
When fishing the shallow flats and shell beds, Yancey elects to make the longest cast possible. This gets the lure far from the shadow of the boat and allows you to catch the spooky fish holding in the shallow water. He tells me, “The longer the cast, the better.” Once the bait hits the surface let it settle on the bottom. When your line stops sinking, tighten up slack by reeling and lift your bait up 6-8 inches off bottom. Reel up slack and let the bait work back to the bottom by lowering your rod tip. This action should not be a snap or violent jerk, rather just a lift. Keep a tight line from rod tip to lure at all times. This allows the bait to stay in the strike zone and the angler has the ability to set the hook the entire duration of the cast and minimizes missed hook sets.
When the bait is lifted, the extreme vibration attracts smallmouth and they engulf the fast action lure because they think it’s a baitfish trying to escape to safety. Many times smallies will actually eat the blade bait while it is falling, or they will pick it up right off of the bottom. With that being said if you ever lift up and something doesn’t quite feel right, set the hook. Once the school of hungry bronzebacks gets fired up a feeding frenzy ensues and strikes occur at any point of your retrieve. Smallmouths absolutely slam a blade resulting in a solid arm jerking strike like no other freshwater fish.
Boat positioning can mean the difference between a decent day and a phenomenal outing on the water. The use of a bow mounted trolling motor will allow you to stay with the fish as they move around the flats chasing bait. Trolling motors have come a long way in the past few years with the creation of spot-lock. Minn Kota makes three models of trolling motors that all have the spot-lock feature, the Ultrex, Ulterra, and Terrova. These trolling motors have a GPS heading on them and when prompted will keep your boat locked in a five-foot radius. Once you push the spot-lock feature, your motor will begin to run itself and will keep you within that five-foot radius. The motor will account for wind, waves, and current. This feature is paramount when fishing for schooling smallies on the Great Lakes where maintaining proper boat control can be a challenge.
While the trolling motor is engaged in spot-lock, you can take your foot off the pedal, move around the boat, net your fish and the boat will not move at all. As soon as you have snapped a few photos of your trophy, you can hop back into your seat and fire your lure right back into the school of fired up, hungry bronzebacks.
It is important to put the proper size trolling motor on your boat. There are three characteristics that you need to consider when selecting the proper trolling motor; shaft length, thrust, and voltage. These are all going to depend on the size and shape of your boat. Many bass boat styles are going to use the 45 or 52 inch shaft depending on how far you want the prop to be under water.
Next is thrust. As the pounds of thrust increase, so does the voltage required to maintain that thrust. The rule of thumb to use is to use 2 pounds of thrust per every 100 pounds your boat weighs. The weight of your boat should be calculated with full tanks of gas, all of your gear, and the maximum number of anglers that will be fishing in the boat. I encourage you to round up because it is always better to have too much power and full battery levels when you get off the water, rather than not enough power and dead batteries while the fish are biting.
Lake St. Clair is legendary for producing trophy sized smallies. On a good day you will boat 50-60 bronzebacks with many tipping the scales over six-pounds. Some savvy anglers prefer fishing Lake St. Clair because they catch more fish in a day than many lakes produce in a week. There is always the possibility of landing an eight-pound hawg trophy fish. The number of five-pound plus smallmouth bass in Lake St. Clair is simply astounding.
Blades also catch large smallies on many inland lakes throughout Michigan, such as Kent, Wixom, and Gull. These lakes will also heat up quickly after ice out. Drowned river mouth lakes on the west side of the state provide excellent blade action as well. Muskegon and White Lakes draw in monster smallies from Lake Michigan. The bait fish start to pack themselves inside the protection of the pier heads preparing for the spawn. This makes the pier heads a great place to start your search for these trophies.
When you see smallmouths on your graph in deeper water, a vertical approach is hard to beat. You can watch the fish follow your bait down to the bottom and then feel a distinct thump and the fight is on. When we are searching for fish we look in areas that are relatively close to where they are going to spawn. Shell beds full of zebra mussels are a great spot. When fishing the shell beds it is important to check your line and retie often because the sharp mussels will nick and weaken your line. You will notice the section 1 to 3-inches above your bait is the first to fray.
In my pursuit of trophy Great Lakes smallmouth, quality gear is essential. My rod of choice for fishing the blade is a G-Loomis IMX Pro 893C. This 7-foot 5-inch medium heavy casting rod has quickly become my favorite. The rod has an extra fast tip which provides excellent sensitivity for feeling any subtle bites. I pair this rod up with a Shimano Curado reel. The Curado is very smooth and reliable, allowing you to make very long casts to get your bait away from the boat and the vibration from the trolling motor, which can spook these large schools of fish. I spool my reel with 15 pound Seaguar InvisX fluorocarbon. The fluorocarbon has a lot less stretch than a monofilament line. The low stretch allows you to drive your hooks into the mouth of the fish and makes it harder for them to shake free with their violent head shakes or legendary jumps.
When I am fishing Lake St. Clair, I tend to use a larger blade bait than I typically would on an inland lake, this means anywhere from ½ to ¾ of an ounce. On inland lakes where the wind and waves tend to be a lot calmer, I’ll use a smaller bait with a lighter rod and reel. When this is the case I will go all the way down to a ¼ ounce blade with a Medium action spinning rod and 8-pound fluorocarbon.
The Silver Buddy comes in both a gold and silver color. There are plenty of other blade baits on the market that come in several different colors, but they are all still going to have the basic minnow shape. The main factor that is going to dictate which color I am going to use is water clarity. When I am fishing clear water, where visibility is greater than 2 to 3-feet, I am going to use a more natural color. The minnow forage base in the Great Lakes is typically a blue or silver color, so I will use a silver or metallic color. This would include any other natural looking color patterns that are the same color as the forage base.
Smallmouths are sight feeders and tend to shy away from lures that do not look natural in the clear water. When the water gets dirty or stained where you cannot see your bait more than two feet under the surface of the water, I use the gold color. This is typically the case when fishing in the spring due to the runoff from snow and large rainfalls that occur in May. This is also a great time to use bright and dark colors such as gold, firetiger, pink, or chartreuse. These colors will give off a silhouette in the dirty water and help the smallies find the bait even when their sight is hindered.
Once the days start to get longer and the ice retreats from the lakes, you can count on Yancey and me being in hot pursuit of a 7 pound trophy smallmouth on Lake St. Clair. The first portion of the season we will be chucking blade baits towards every shell bed we can find. During spring it is not uncommon to hook up with 50 or more fish per outing, with several in the 4-5 pound range. Lake St. Clair is such a fertile fishery and is pumping out insane amounts of quality fish. You never know when you are going to set the hook on your personal best.
St. Clair is nicknamed by those in the know “Michigan’s Smallmouth Capital” and for good reason because the monster trophy bronzebacks available is difficult to beat anywhere in the country. Lake St. Clair is a massive body of water and should be treated accordingly. Make sure that you are prepared with GPS, life jackets, throwable PFD, and flares. The lake can turn violent in a matter of minutes. So watching the weather forecast, wind speed, and wind direction is crucial. There are days where getting out on this lake is simply not safe, but when the conditions are ideal it can be the best fishery in the world.
What about you, are you ready to slam some monster smallies? My suggestion is you give Lake St. Clair a try and make certain you use blades in the early spring. If catching giant 4-6 pound behemoths sounds great to you, plan now for a trip this spring.