A Fishing Story by Capt. Brian Bowers
Updated: Mar 28
It's Not Always About the Numbers
The trees lining the freeway bowed in submission to a stiff western breeze, a sure indication of two to three foot swells on Lake St Clair. Today would be a good day to stay ashore. During the forty-minute drive out to the lake, my thoughts were of getting the boat spruced up, considering it was left in a pretty cruddy condition after the last outing. Seated alongside me was an impressive array of chemical weapons.
At the conclusion of the drive I greeted my mom in the house that I grew up in and we chatted about family, friends and other topics close to the heart and soul. Occasionally I’d take a sideways glance out the window, anxious to get started on my cleaning mission while suppressing thoughts of going fishing. In time, the topic of weather came up as it always does here. Living on the lake will tune you in to nature’s rhythms more so than almost anywhere else. Today it looked deceiving. The wind was blowing steadily out of the west with waters calm inside, but a mile or so out was a display of churning white-capped waves. They weren't the big rollers that can come crashing in at the conclusion of their 25-mile journey from the southwest, but formidable nonetheless in a small bay boat.
In time, I grabbed my cleaning supplies from the car and headed out to the boathouse, ready for battle. As I walked through the door, I immediately noticed a bobbing plastic garbage can that my uncle had left for me in the boat well. Was it possible that some bait might still be alive after several days in the shallow oxygen depleted water? Oh well, this was not a day to fish.
After an hour or so of elbow grease I had the white gel coat topside shining brightly. It was now after 7:00 pm but I wasn’t ready to head home yet. I glanced out at the bay, it was still calm inside, but rough outside. Curious, I walked over, yanked the plastic can out of the water and released the neatly fastened bungee straps and popped the top. Inside was a mess of dead shiners. Hold on... is that some wiggling in there? I fished out 7 or 8 remaining live ones and transferred them to another bucket of lake water. Closer inspection revealed they weren’t long for this world. It would sure be a shame to waste them. Again, I glanced out into the bay and there wasn't a boat in sight. The lake is mine if I want it.
Ten minutes have gone by and I’m nudging the Whaler up on plane. I’m really not ready for this. After hastily grabbing a rod from the boathouse rack, I had carefully placed the shiners into the live well and headed out. When I was outside the protection of the leeward side of the Point, I throttled back, trying to find a comfortable ride with the waves on the beam. Under these conditions it’s a twenty-minute ride to my first spot, accompanied by the spray pelting my right side. Predictably though, blood pressure drops and any remaining tension evaporates as I go on mental autopilot. I’ve been making this trip across the bay for over fifty years now.
Timing the swells, I settled the boat into a rhythm by continuously working the throttle. I’m headed for a spot that just might hold fish this late in the season. It’s late September and the water temp is starting to take its annual dive, so I’m not exactly brimming with confidence that I’ll get a hook up.
Fishing is in my blood. My dad and three uncles were all smallmouth bass guides at some time during their lives. One of them has (arguably of course) been called the most famous smallmouth bass guide on the Lake, with a former U.S. President as one of his clients. He occasionally guided for Herbert Hoover (aptly named “The Fishing President”) for bonefish and permit in the areas surrounding Key Largo. So it was that I grew up in the shadow of these great fishermen, cleaning fish and washing boats for summer spending money. Needless to say, some of their experience and knowledge had rubbed off on me.
The alarm on the GPS goes off, telling me I’m a tenth of a mile from my first spot. I see one dedicated Muskie troller working the nearby break. That’s it. Not unusual though, as the lake seems more and more becoming a fair weather boating spot. This late in the year, most of the boats disappear and Lake St Clair becomes an introverted bass fisherman’s paradise.
With the line baited and in the water, I make three passes along side the first hot spot. Nothing. It’s tough holding position with the wind. The Whaler likes to weather helm, and you have to stay ahead of it on a windy day like today to put the bait where the fish likely are. No luck. Time to pick up, hit the gas and try elsewhere.
Spot two. After a few unsuccessful minutes, I’m ready to move again. This sounds like impatience, but one thing I’ve learned is that you must move fast and often to cover a lot of ground in order to find fish on the bite. So now I’m down to four shiners. Since I wasn’t going fishing, my tackle bag sits in the basement at home and I’m stuck with what’s in the live well. I reset the GPS for one last try and inch the throttle forward. Three strikes and I’m out of there on a day like today. Five minutes later the GPS warbles again and I bring her down to idle. The final hot spot of the day. I’m at a top secret place where I’ve never seen anyone else fish, excepting of course those with the same last name as mine.
On the first pass I brought in a big perch, which on any other day would be a keeper. Back in it goes. With only three bait left I didn’t feel much like cleaning just a couple of perch. Second pass, ditto. Another nice one. This did not seem good. It’s a general rule of thumb that if the perch are thick in here, then the bass are probably absent. Another hit but this time no hook up, so I checked the bait. Still on, but not looking good. That guy went to one of the terns that just showed up. With the last minnow on, the live well is now empty. I tossed the freshly baited hook astern while letting the wind and waves swing the bow around. I pressed the spool release on the Ambassadeur 5500 and let the line play out as I lined up for another pass. The wind had pushed the boat a bit off course, so I quickly changed rod hands to move to the right side of the helm seat and put the line on the starboard side. I hadn’t locked the spool down yet when the first hit came. It was that hard whap kind of strike; feeling like the fish went after the sinker as they sometimes do. I quickly took my thumb off the spool, waited a second, and then turned the crank with my left hand to lock it down. By the time my left hand was back on the wheel and the fish struck again. This time it was on.
It’s amazing how soon you can judge a potential catch. I knew right away it was a nice fish. It had that good solid rod bending pull you get when the big ones head for the bottom. There’s nothing like watching the aerobatics of a dancing smallmouth, but experience has shown me that the big ones tend to use their amazing strength below the waterline.
This fellow was tenacious. I had to move side to side, sweeping the 7’ St Croix twice around the stern as the fish raced under the boat. The drag released once, twice, then a third time before I finally coaxed the bronze-back to the surface. As it nestled along side the hull I recognized the three qualities that big smallmouth all share in the 6th Great Lake; dark, fat and scarred, as evidenced by the telltale sign of a lamprey feeding near a gill cover. Even so, the big fish appeared none the worse for wear after having enduring the parasitic passenger and my #4 Eagle Claw.
It was a beautiful fish. The dark ones have a stunning contrast as opposed to their lighter kin that spend so much time over sand. I was fishing a thick bed of cabbage that hid a wreck from decades past. It was one of the spots that I had known about since I was a kid, having been shown it’s location on a rare weekend summer day when Dad didn’t have his main client out on a charter.
Hefting it out of the water, I turned the fish on its back, quieting it down before lipping it to gauge the weight. The bass was every bit of 5lb and more, probably a female. Not a trophy fish, but I didn’t really care. There was something very special about this fish. Without pause, I gently removed the hook and pulled her through the water a few times, speeding the revival. Soon it was full of gumption and I watched as she sped for the bottom and the safety of cover.
As I plopped back down on the helm seat, I suddenly became deeply aware of my surroundings. The waves broke across the stern in a way that was not at all threatening, even though an occasional burst of spray reached the center console and wet my face. The emotion that I was now experiencing was one that had roots going back to the earliest of times. This one fish had cast a spell over me, imparting a sense of calm and belonging that was close to a spiritual feeling. I thought about man and nature and how they are bound so tightly, even though at times the relationship is thoroughly suppressed, given the numerous distractions of the modern world.
I looked to the west and observed an image that would have made for a great postcard. The setting sun, framed by mares’ tails, cast a red glow over the lake. There would indeed be lofty sails again tomorrow. It was a sensory delight with the spectacular sky, the cool water lightly coating my face, the low moan of the wind and the familiar smell of fish on my fingers as I brushed remnants of the last bit of spray from under my eyes. To say that this short but sweet fishing trip was a success did not do it justice. One fish and one profound experience. No, it’s truly not always about the numbers.