Motor City smallmouths - Major League Fishing

Motor City smallmouths

June 19, 2001 • Rob Newell • Archives

DETROIT – The Wal-Mart FLW Tour has reached its sixth and final destination for regular season competition: The Forrest Wood Open on Lake St. Clair near Detroit. For many of the tour’s 175 pro and 175 co-angler entrants, Lake St. Clair is the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel.

During various stops along the tour this season, anglers could be heard echoing the same sentiments, “I can’t wait for St. Clair.” In fact, several co-anglers have admitted to entering all of the FLW Tour events primarily for the last stop on this fabled fishery that lies between Lake Huron and Lake Erie on the Great Lakes system.

What provokes such overwhelming excitement for the St. Clair event? For starters, cash prizes of $200,000 for the pro winner and $40,000 for the co-angler winner are certainly enough incentive for anglers to get out of bed early. But the money is not the only reason for such excitement. Ask any of the 350 competitors in this event why they are here and the answer would be unanimous – smallmouth bass fishing at its best.

St. Clair’s crystal blue waters are bustling with “bronzebacks.” Catching 30 to 40 smallmouths a day on this natural lake is not uncommon. Also, these voracious eaters reach terrific sizes. Several anglers have reported catching smallmouths in the 5-pound class while others have had 3-pound smallies stretching their monofilament all week.

The FLW Tour first sampled St. Clair’s wonderful resource in June 1999. The results from that tournament show the strength of this prolific fishery and provide a preview of what anglers can expect from St. Clair over the next several days.

During the 1999 event, over three-quarters of the pro and co-angler fields caught limits each day. On the pro side, the top-10 weight cut was 32 pounds, 12 ounces. In order to get a check, pros needed 26 pounds even to land in the top 75. Peter Thliveros eventually won the tournament with 5 smallmouths that weighed 19 pounds, 13 ounces.

Since St. Clair is open-water fishing, co-anglers have a chance to land some big smallies as well. In 1999 the top-10 weight cut on the co-angler side was 26 pounds, 6 ounces. John Bruce won the co-angler side with five smallmouth that weighed 17 pounds, 12 ounces. In order to cash in on the top 75 places, co-anglers needed an astonishing 19 pounds, 10 ounces.

Pros that fished here in 1999 speculate that this season’s St. Clair event will fish similar to the 1999 event. Tube lures, jerkbaits, topwaters, and spinnerbaits will head up the arsenal list as 350 competitors begin battling the bronzebacks on Wednesday.

Many pros, however, believe that St. Clair will not be as generous as it was in 1999. Kevin VanDam, who lives in nearby Kalamazoo and finished second in 1999, says that the schools of big smallmouth are still roaming around and are not quite as localized as they were in 1999.

“In ’99 we had stable weather and very little wind for two weeks preceding the tournament,” recalls VanDam. “When the FLW event took place, many smallmouths were well into their summer patterns. This year the weather has been unstable and the wind has been blowing the water around. The smallmouths are still moving and are not as established in a summer pattern as they were in ’99.”

All eyes will be on VanDam as he leads the Land O’Lakes Angler of the Year race going into the last event. Despite having a seemingly insurmountable lead of 76 points, VanDam is careful not to count his smallmouth before he catches them.

“I would not say that yet,” says VanDam to the soothsayers who predict that his Angler of the Year reign is inevitable since the last tournament is on his home water.

VanDam reasons that St. Clair will be his most difficult contest of the FLW season because of the home-lake jinx. “I know an awful lot about this lake and sometimes that can really work against me. If I get too many things going at one time it could mess me up.”

For those who do not believe that a home-lake advantage can easily turn into a home-lake nightmare, VanDam points out an example. “Several years ago we had a B.A.S.S. Top 150 tournament here and I finished 50th,” says the tournament-fishing sensation. “It was my worst finish of the year, right here on my home lake.”

Will the possibility of being the Land O’ Lakes Angler of the Year figure into VanDam’s strategy during the tournament? “Not at all,” retorts the dynamic angler. “I never think about points or Angler of the Year titles when I enter a tournament. I will fish this tournament as I fish all others – to win the event.”

The Co-Angler of the Year will also be decided at the close of the St. Clair tournament. Currently, Wesley Burnett of Hot Springs, Ark., is leading with 892 points. Only 21 points separates Burnett from two-time Wal-Mart Open co-angler champion Chris Rand of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Both anglers are looking forward to battling big smallies en route to capturing the crown.

St. Clair is also the last qualifying event for the FLW Championship to be held in September on Lake Champlain, another famous smallmouth fishery. Forty-four pros and 44 co-anglers will be given invitations and free entries to the year-end championship following this event.

Motor City smallmouth madness begins tomorrow. With 350 anglers fishing for a million dollars in payout, Angler of the Year titles on the line and championship births shuffling with each big smallmouth weighed in, the 2001 Forrest Wood Open is certain to live up to its expectations.