|Fly Fishing For Smallmouth Bass
On Michigan's Lake St Clair
By Captain Steve Kunnath
Smallmouth bass sites
When it comes to fly fishing for smallmouth bass in Michigan’s lakes and
rivers, nothing comes close to the world class fishery of Lake St Clair.
Located just outside of Michigan’s Metro Detroit area, Lake St Clair has
risen to become one of the worlds premiere smallmouth fisheries and most
likely the best place in the world to go fly fishing for smallmouth bass.
In the Oct/Nov 2004 issue of American Angler, Lake St Clair was listed as
one of the top 100 most amazing fly fishing destinations in the world,
bringing in a number of national bass tournaments every year. I am
constantly reminded of how lucky we are to have this quality fishery here in
Michigan just by viewing the parking lots of the local boat launches on any
given summer day. It is normal to see boat trailers with license plates from
places as far as away as Georgia, Nebraska, or New York. They come
here just to pursue Michigan smallmouth bass.
In many of Michigan’s inland fly fishing streams and rivers such as the Muskegon, Manistee, Huron and the AuSable
Rivers, fly fisherman boast about 3-4lb smallmouth bass as being huge. Any smallmouth of that size caught on a fly
rod in a stream is surely a trophy. However, on Lake St Clair, 2-3lb fish are average, 4-5lb smallmouth can be a daily
occurrence, and 6-7 lb fish are common, with a few verified fish each year close to or toping the 8lb mark. 8lbs is
pretty remarkable considering that the Michigan state record smallmouth bass is a whopping 9.25lbs, and caught in
1906. One of these days someone is bound to hook into and land a verified 9lb smallmouth bass on Lake St Clair.
Michigan’s Lake St Clair isn’t just famous for its big fish, but also for its incredible numbers of smallmouth bass. The
population of the smallmouth bass in the lake has reached into the millions and catches of up to 50 fish a day are
frequent. In the last 15 years there have been a number of things that have contributed to the rise of this incredible
fishery. Some of the most important contributors are better pollution control and the introduction of the invasive
species, the zebra mussel, which has dramatically cleaned up the water. This has greatly benefited every part of the
food chain in the region. Another major factor is that a vast majority of the lakes anglers now practice catch and
Biologically the lake is also the perfect smallmouth bass habitat. The St Clair River enters the north end of the lake
through the St Clair Delta, bringing in a constant flow of cold and clear water from Lake Huron. The St Clair delta is the
world’s largest freshwater delta, and has an endless expanse of clear blue water with many bays, islands, deep
canals, cuts, and shallow flats that remind many of my clients of fishing in Florida or the Caribbean. The main part of
the lake covers 420 square miles with an average depth of only 10 feet, a maximum natural depth of 18ft, and a
shipping channel that has a narrow dredged depth of 27ft. With its shallow nature the entire lake is prime smallmouth
bass habitat and perfect for fly fishing. Due to the constant flow of cold water from Lake Huron the fishery stays cool
all summer and the smallmouth bass fishing continues to be excellent even during the hot days of August. I am often
told by smallmouth bass fly fisherman from Ohio and Pennsylvania who fish Lake Erie and fisherman on Lake
Michigan, that once the shallow bays heat up the smallmouth run deep and out of reach of the fly rod. On Michigan’s
shallow Lake St Clair the fly fishing for smallmouth bass is good all season from May through October! When the mid
to late summer water temperatures rise and the trout fishing slows on Michigan’s rivers, fly fishing for smallmouth bass
on Lake St Clair will surely keep you busy.
Fly Fishing For Smallmouth Bass
When it comes to fly fishing in freshwater it’s no secret anymore that smallmouth bass are pound for pound the
strongest and mightiest fighters. Hook into a nice 5lb smallmouth on a six weight fly fishing rod and it’s an experience
you are likely to never forget. Every year more and more fly fisherman throughout America are discovering this hard
fighting game fish, and fly fishing guides for smallmouth bass are popping up everywhere. Smallmouth bass are
extremely aggressive, fight like it’s the end of the world and can be as acrobatic as a steelhead. I have lost count of
the number of times I have had clients hook into what felt like a nice 40” musky on a fly rod, only to see that once it
broke the surface and leaped for the sky that it was a 22” 6lb smallmouth bass. I often joke that if smallmouth bass got
to the size of a 50” musky I wouldn’t go swimming in any Michigan waters.
Spring and Early Summer
Spring is the perfect time of the year to go fly fishing for smallmouth bass in 1-3ft of water on the expansive flats of
Lake St Clair stripping in streamers and poppers. The smallmouth slowly start to move onto the shallows usually
around the beginning of the catch and release bass season which is the last Saturday of April. But after the water
temperatures in these areas reach fifty degrees, around May 10-15th on normal years, the smallmouth show up by the
During this time of year the flats are full of many other species that readily take a fly besides smallmouth bass, such as
pike, big carp, and the occasional musky(season opens 1st Saturday in June) to name a few. You can target all of
these species in the same area and while fly fishing you have no idea what fish species will hit your fly. We even get
into some large 13lb catfish. Check the photo page.
The best part of fishing in the shallows is that it offers some incredible site casting opportunities using floating and
intermediate fly fishing lines. I often silently stalk through the shallow flats using a 18’ push pole on my Florida style
flats boat and waiting to cast until I see the smallmouth cruising close by in packs of 5-10 fish aggressively chasing
baitfish. I love casting to these aggressive fish and watching them make a turn and swim 15ft to attack a fly. It does not
take much technical casting to fish this way, making it very enjoyable and productive whether you’re a beginner or
expert at casting a fly rod.
It is a misconception that all the bass on the flats in spring are spawning. There are masses of bass that come into the
shallows for the sole purpose of feeding on baitfish and packing on pounds after a long Michigan winter.
In the spring I spend most of my time fly fishing on the flats, however I do hit certain spots in areas such as Anchor Bay
in 4-6ft of water for post spawn smallmouth bass, pike, and musky. The small mouth fly fishing on the flats remains
great until around the last week of June as the shallow water starts to heat up and the larger smallmouth bass quickly
head into 4-12ft of cold water in the main lake. At about the same time the Lake St Clair fish flies, a type of may fly
(hexagenia limbata), start their annual hatch. In years past it was a great opportunity to go fly fishing on Lake St Clair
with hex nymphs and dry flies. But lately the increased duration and magnitude of the hatch can hinder the fishing
when the hatch is at its peak. If your lucky you can catch the right day and have some phenomenal dry fly fishing.
Nonetheless, these days are unpredictable and I now target other fly fishing opportunities besides Lake St Clair from
the last few days of June through the first few days of July.
Mid Summer And Early Fall
From early July on into late October most of my smallmouth bass fly fishing is done out in the main lake. Unlike the
flats, out here I am fishing in 4ft to 16ft of water, primarily with sink tip fly lines. There are good spots from the start of
the Detroit River right up the shoreline all the way up to the north end of the lake in Anchor Bay and the productive
channels of the St Clair River. During this time of year in these areas I fly fish for smallmouth bass from right against
the sea walls to 6-7miles from shore.
The key to finding fish in the main part of the lake is locating key underwater structure such as drop offs, points, rock
piles, weed beds, as well as finding the baitfish. The two most important tools are a good map and a gps/fish finder
combo. I HIGHLY recommend having a good gps/fish finder before coming out on Lake St Clair. Besides helping your
fishing it will reduce your chances of damaging your boat in the shallows or getting lost on this 420 square mile lake.
There are two ways that I fish this key structure. For smaller areas or on windless days I use my electric trolling motor
to maneuver where ever I want along the structure while casting. And for larger areas I throw a drift sock or sea
anchor overboard and slowly drift. This works great when you locate large areas of baitfish as well. And some of my
customers like to cast out with their sink tip and just let it drag the fly near the bottom as we drift instead of casting all
the time. This can be deadly for fly fishing for smallmouth bass using a hex nymph or gobie pattern near the bottom.
And just like with fly fishing the flats, we get many different species this way.
One unique weather pattern that is very common on Lake St Clair is that usually around 1 or 2pm each day the wind
dies to almost nothing and the lake quickly rests to a calm flat surface for about an hour. Even in the middle of a hot
sunny day the top water fly fishing action for smallmouth bass can be great when this happens. Just cast out a big
bass popper and give it a few small strips and the bass will hit the surface in as deep as 14ft of water. Some of my
biggest fish of the year are caught this way.
Speaking of biggest fish, the latter in the year you fish, the heavier the smallmouth bass get. The 4lb smallmouth bass
you caught fly fishing in May might be 1lb heavier by the end of August after feeding heavily all summer. And they
keep feeding heavily well into November!
Smallmouth Bass Fly Fishing Guides Gear
My favorite fly fishing rod for smallmouth bass is a 9ft 6 weight. It’s great for throwing bass sized flies all day, its very
light on the arm, and it is loads of fun to fight a smallmouth with. Most of your fly rod brands that are designed for salt
water fly fishing work great for smallmouth bass.
On days when you’re using larger flies, heavier sink tips, or when its windy I switch up to a 9’ 8 weight fly rod for
smallmouth bass. If you were to get only one fly fishing rod for smallmouth I would go with an 8 weight. It will cover
every situation you need.
When it comes to smallmouth bass fly fishing you really don’t need an expensive fly reel with a high end drag system
like you do when using lighter tippets for steelhead or salmon etc. Most fly fishing reel companies now offer good
budget reels well under $200 that are excellent for smallmouth bass, pike, carp, and musky. And I really like a medium
to large arbor fly fishing reel for bass.
It seems these days that there is a fly line for every type of fish and style of fly fishing. But for smallmouth bass I stick
to a few basic lines and brands. For surface flies and in water 3ft deep or shallower I use weight forward floating lines.
A basic general line will do but I prefer to use bass tapered lines. For water in the 3ft to 4ft depth I often use
intermediate lines. And for throwing streamers in the main lake in water 6ft or deeper I always use sinking lines with a
200,300, or 400 grain 24-30ft sink tip. I primarily use Corltand fly fishing lines and I am very happy with their
Unlike fly fishing for trout, you don’t have to be as technical and specific when fly fishing for smallmouth. They are not
anywhere near as line shy as trout and you can use much heavier tippets. The leaders I use most of the time are
Climax’s bass leaders in 7-9ft and tippets of 8-12lb. And at times depending on the clarity of the water I might switch
over to fluorocarbon tippets of 12 -20lb test, fluorocarbon also cuts down on the number of flies bit off by pike and
musky when fly fishing for bass. When using a sink tip line I normally just use 4-6ft of straight tippet between the line
and the fly of 8-12lb test.
Smallmouth bass flies
No matter where you go fly fishing for smallmouth bass no streamer box is complete with out a selection of clousers.
This is my favorite fly as I catch more bass on this in the spring then everything else combined. And its variation, the
half n half is high on my list as well. Some other streamers that work great are crayfish patterns, sculpins which imitate
the lakes gobies, woooly buggers, and many other flies that mimic baitfish. Don’t be afraid to go to big or to small with
these bass, when feeding they will go after anything that will fit down their throat. I use flies that are 5-6” in length with
3/0 hooks down to even ½” with size 10 hooks, but 2” is about normal. Natural colors that resemble the local food base
work best as well as fluorescent yellow, pink, purple, and fire tiger. Most flies that I use for smallmouth have red
somewhere, whether it be the gills, eyes, or sides etc.
One of the most exciting ways to catch smallmouth bass while fly fishing is by stripping a floating popper across the
surface and having a bass crash on it. My favorite type of poppers have a flat or cupped front that make noise and
fairly good disturbance on the surface. And the colors are about the same as the what I use for my streamers.
With the fish fly or hexagenia being such an important part of a smallmouth basses diet on Lake St Clair, using
nymphs and dry flies at the right time can be very rewarding. I use hex nymphs while sight casting to bass on the flats
and while drifting with sink tip lines on the main lake. Most every fish in the lake feeds on them besides pike and
musky. And during the right times at the start and at the end of the fish fly season smallmouth bass will readily take a
hex dry fly off the surface all day. When the season is at its peak the basses stomachs are very full if the flies where
active during the previous night.
If you are into fly fishing for smallmouth bass in Michigan and have not tried it on Lake St Clair I would highly
recommend it. Besides having some of the best bass fishing in America, it has some incredibly beautiful saltwater like
flats and crystal clear water. It is one of the rare places in Michigan where you can be close to the air ports and city
life, but still have some secluded natural places to go fly fishing for smallmouth bass.
Captain Steve Kunnath
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The Lake St Clair Flats
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