A trio of boats navigate the waters during the FLW Tour on Lake St. Clair, presented by Mercury, June 29. The event featured 180 boats, with 360 total participants choosing spots from Port Huron to Lake Erie.

A trio of boats navigate the waters during the FLW Tour on Lake St. Clair, presented by Mercury, June 29. The event featured 180 boats, with 360 total participants choosing spots from Port Huron to Lake Erie.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

Local smallmouth no match for top pros

By: Timothy Pontzer | C&G Newspapers | Published July 6, 2018

HARRISON TOWNSHIP — Some of the world’s top fishermen, scorching temperatures and thousands of pounds of smallmouth bass set the scene on Lake St. Clair June 28 to July 1 for the final stop of the season on the Fishing League Worldwide Tour.

Covering a swath of water that spanned from the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron to Pelee Island on the Canadian side of Lake Erie, 180 boats searched for the best spot to secure a catch.

With the majority of the FLW Tour’s schedule taking place in the southeast, the event offered a unique challenge to the premier anglers. Now in its 23rd season, it marked the fifth time the league came to Lake St. Clair Metropark and the seventh, and last, contest of the 2018 campaign.

“The pros get really excited to come here,” said FLW’s director of public relations, Joseph Opager. “The majority of our tournaments are held in the southeastern region, so when we got to come up here and catch smallmouth, it’s a treat for these guys. Everybody is catching them; everybody is smiling and having a good time.”

On each of the four days, anglers were tasked with catching bass, counting their top five biggest grabs of the afternoon for the competition.

“The predominant fish here is smallmouth,” Opager explained. “A few largemouth come across the stage, but 95 percent of the fish have been smallmouth. Ninety-eight percent of our tournaments are largemouth, so it’s fun to come here and catch these giant smallmouth. They’re really big up here.”

On the opening Thursday, 868 bass were caught overall, totaling 3,033 pounds, 7 ounces by 178 pros. That marked the largest single-day catch for the FLW 2018 season, with 165 anglers reaching the five-bass limit.

“The guys are able to catch so much up here. A 20-pound limit anywhere around the country is really good,” Opager said. “Here, you’re sitting in 25th place with that and may not even make the cut. The fishing here is phenomenal. The numbers and size we’re seeing are incredible. This is by far the best fishing of the season for us.”

In addition to the pros, each boat also carried a “co-angler” who fished off the back of the vessel. Co-anglers are amateurs who could compete with one another, offering a unique experience.

“One really cool thing about our sport is including co-anglers,” Opager remarked. “It’s open to anybody. We have roughly 50 co-anglers that travel around with the pros hoping to become a pro some day. But that leaves 130 open spots. We have a waiting list for each event, but here at St. Clair was larger than usual. The response here has been great, and you get two days with the best anglers in the world.”

The co-anglers competed June 28-29, with Mark Myers catching 10 total bass for a 42-pound, 4-ounce effort that earned him $20,100.

Chris Slone, a Shelby Township resident, was one of the 180 co-anglers. He had a two-day total of 17 pounds off seven fish.

“This lake is so amazing. Everyone has an even shot of winning because of just how many fish are out there,” Slone said. “It’s who gets the bite and who doesn’t. Some guys have knowledge of where the big schools sit, but they’re fish, man. They move around!”

A 2003 Center Line High grad, Slone said he came to Lake St. Clair often as a kid.

“This was the place to learn how to fish when I was growing up,” Slone said. “I have a lot of confidence here. It didn’t quite pan out for me, but it was a lot of fun. This fishery is world class; there are some giant fish out there.”

Rob Bakeman, of Rochester Hills, earned $250 on the opening day for catching the biggest fish as a co-angler with a 5-pound, 6-ounce smallmouth.

Another co-angler, Michelle Jalaba, finished with 24 pounds, 7 ounces via a seven-bass effort over the two days. A Birmingham resident, Jalaba fondly recalled coming to Lake St. Clair to learn the sport.

“A few years ago, I started fishing off the banks here,” Jalaba said. “I fished a lot of local tournaments on these waters. There was a sense of comfort on these lakes, which I think was definitely an advantage.”

A 1997 Birmingham Seaholm grad, Jalaba hit the five-bass limit on Friday, notching an 18-pound, 12-ounce total.

“I had an awesome finish. It’s really fun to be here on my home lake,” Jalaba said. “You’re getting to fish with some of the best. After coming here as a teenager and then starting to seriously fish the last five to six years, this is really full circle for me. There’s a lot of nostalgia here. I was really, really pleased with how I ended it. It’s a proud feeling for our state, town, and the local businesses and tackle shops to get this opportunity. I encourage everybody to come out here and fish. People don’t always like to go outside, and this is a chance to do something different.”

On the pro side, local favorite Scott Dobson placed fourth overall to win $20,000. A Clarkston resident, Dobson caught 20 bass to register an 89-pound, 11-ounce finish.

“It’s great to be home. I’ve been looking forward to it all year,” Dobson said. “This is fun to get all the smallmouth. Sure, it’s hot, but the weather is perfect. Bluebird skies and calm water are helping people put up big totals.”

A 1991 Trenton High alum, Dobson said it was great to see his local lake get a lot of love from the FLW.

“This is big for the area to get a stop here, especially the final one,” Dobson said. “This is probably the best tournament of the year in terms of fish caught. All the anglers are happy. We go to a lot of lakes where something may be off — whether it’s the fishing, the water or the conditions. Here, everything is perfect and it makes for a lot of fun.”

Chad Grigsby finished as the top pro, catching 20 fish for a 97-pound, 8-ounce display. He earned over $120,000 in winnings.

While he now lives in Minnesota, Grigsby grew up in Colon, Michigan, and said he frequently visited Lake St. Clair.

“I fished here for 25 years. It’s always fun to come out here, but I’ve never seen it quite like this,” said the 45-year-old Grigsby. “Guys are pulling up 6 pounds. It’s a phenomenal fishery.”

Grigsby said he used a stretch on the southern Canadian side of Lake St. Clair to put up his massive totals.

“You have to find a spot,” Grigsby said. “I concentrated on Lake St. Clair so I didn’t have to worry about the wind. Some tournaments, if you don’t run a certain distance, you can’t win. Here you have a lot of places to choose, but you don’t have to go far to find some big fish.”

The Sunday finale featured the top 10 pros to make the cut. Overall, 50 bass were caught weighing 211 pounds, 9 ounces.

Titled the FLW Tour at Lake St. Clair, presented by Mercury, the total purse was over $930,000. The event was hosted by the Detroit Sports Commission, Macomb County, the Huron-Clinton Metroparks Authority and the Sterling Heights Regional Chamber of Commerce.

“The fishery itself is fantastic, but the facilities here at Lake St. Clair Metropark are amazing as well,” Opager said. “We’ve got a great bass fishing community here. Every time we come, we draw huge crowds. Getting 180 boats in and out efficiently is easy here. We have plenty of parking, and there’s a lot that goes into choosing a venue for us. We will definitely be coming back here.”