No Canada? No Problem(mostly) 2020 in Review
2020 was a (insert your own derogatory adjective here) year. As we wrap up the 2020 fishing season I thought I would offer some reflections on how the season went in the upper Midwest.
Back in March, when this whole mess started, Canada moved quickly to shut down their border to all non-essential travel. In boundary waters-which include 4 out of the 5 Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair, U.S. citizens have historically been able to travel freely by boat into Canadian waters with no restrictions. We have been allowed to fish to our hearts’ content, provided we have a Canadian (Ontario in my case) fishing license. The only stipulation is that we cannot go ashore or anchor at any time while in Canadian waters.
When the Canadian border shut down in Mach, that all changed. We were no longer permitted to enter Canadian waters. Canadian police actively patrolled the aquatic boundaries turning boats away and threatening $1,000 plus fines. It has been quite perplexing. I fail to see how my clients and I pose any Covid related threat to Canadian citizens while fishing, more than socially distant, off shore. I suspect it’s a sort of power play between our governments. Nevertheless, on my home waters of Lakes St. Clair and Erie, the shutdown of Canada to US Citizens decreased my fishable waters by at least two-thirds.
As a smallmouth guide, this limitation seemed daunting. Most recreational fisherman are not willing to travel the distances to reach Canadian waters, so those waters are ideal for getting clients away from the crowds and getting them onto less pressured fish, in areas less boat traffic on the weekends. So how did it all play out? Here are my reflections…
Start of the Season Through June 26th
Even in a normal year, Canadian fishing for smallmouth bass does not open until the fourth Saturday in June. It’s illegal to target bass in Canadian waters until then, even for catch and release. So from the start of the season in mid-April until June 26th, there was no real change in where we fished. Oh, except for one- boat ramp parking lots were full nearly every day- every ramp, every day. In my 24 year of fishing these waters, I’ve never seen so many people fishing. Even on week days the boat ramps were crowded. With businesses shut down, local anglers came out in droves, and anglers from other parts of the country who always wanted to fish these smallmouth-rich waters dragged their rigs to Michigan to try the fishing.
For the most part, the fish cooperated. We often played bumper boats out there, but from a fishing perspective, I really did not see any differences in this spring’s fishing compared to years past. The fishing pressure definitely affected the fish on weekends, and we worked hard at those times to stay on them, but overall, we had a successful spring at Marcel’s Guide Service.
Summertime in Southern Michigan
As that time of year approached when those of us who guide would normally start venturing into Canadian waters, we were all a little nervous. The fishing in the typical spring areas started to peter out and the fishing pressure was starting to have a bigger impact. There were still fish to be caught, but it took a lot more effort, determination, and flexibility to land them. Late June and early July typically start a bit of a lull on the American side as smallmouth transition from post-spawn to summer patterns. This lull is why most guides end up heading to Canadian waters as those fish are usually a week or two behind due to the cooler water. What happened next, however, was a pleasant surprise- fishing started to pick back up on the U.S. side. I was surprised to find fish in places that I usually don’t catch them until later in the summer. I wondered what was going on-was it that I normally didn’t fish those waters at this time of year, or were the fish ahead of schedule? It’s hard to say, but I definitely plan to find out by trying those waters again in 2021.
Although it turned out to be an excellent summer, there was rarely a day that I felt confident on my drive to the lake. I felt like I was starting each day from scratch, whereas in previous years, I felt confident we were going to catch them before I even left my driveway. Despite the daily uncertainty, the increased fishing pressure, and the decrease in available water to work, we still experienced quality fishing on nearly every outing.
Now don’t get me wrong, we definitely had to make some adjustments. One of the major adjustments was the need for increased mobility. I have never been a fisherman who likes to sit on a spot. I typically find it necessary to move around to keep clients on fish. This approach usually leads me to a school of fish we can work. With more anglers on the water, it became necessary to move even more often, dial in on small, subtle features that hold fish, and hit as many of these spots as possible during the day. Fortunately northern smallmouth are pretty willing to bite if you get around them. .
The Big Shift
I’m still not sure exactly what happened. The summer fishing life was good, everyone was catching fish. The Bassmaster Elite Series rolled onto St. Clair in late August and most guys caught them pretty well, including a few mega-bags. Then, just like that, someone flipped the
switch. That first week of September we experienced multiple days of heavy winds. The temperature dropped. Although not unusual for Michigan, it was a little early for this consistently bad conditions on the Great Lakes. The fishing plummeted. Some guys were catching fish, and at local derbies it still rook over 20lbs to win a tournament, but the weights were dropping off and numbers were going down. The consistency in the fishing was gone.
Despite this, somehow, the size of the smallmouth that were caught increased! I am not sure I have ever seen more reports on social media of guys catching five for 24 to 27lb bags. At the same time they would also report only catching 7-8 fish a day, sometimes less. Where did all the 2-3 lb. fish go? Did they all swim to Canada? Had they dispersed throughout the lake? It remains a puzzle to be solved.
All in all, we still had a good autumn at Marcel’s Guide Service with many clients catching personal best smallmouth. However, numbers of fish were lower. We also experienced more heavy wind days and colder temperatures than I remember in previous years, which seemed to constantly move the fish. I became more fervent on social media trying to note when guys
caught fish and document the weather conditions on those days. I am already looking forward to the challenge of next fall and trying to better figure out these fish.
One region that definitely fished well this fall was the Detroit River, specifically the southern end. Because of the heavy current, it can be a fickle, depending on the wind, but on the right days, it can kick out the fish. It definitely did this fall for several tournaments and several of my guided trips. I feel privileged to live in a state with so many options and so many quality fisheries.
Now We Wait
As I write this piece in early December I am staring at two inches of snow on the ground with temperatures in the 20’s. The boat is put away and the section of the basement where I store my fishing gear looks like a tackle shop blew up. But there is not time to rest. It is the season of preparation. Time to organize, cull unused tackle, clean reels, spool new line, sharpen hooks, and then study and sift through hundreds of waypoints and notes made- then organize some more. It’ll be a few long cold months. Believe me, I know how lucky I am. Southeast Michigan especially, and Michigan in general, is home to some of the finest fishing in the world- trophy class fish for many freshwater species. Our lakes, big and small, are largely fertile, clean, flowing, and beautiful. So, how about you come up and visit in 2021! I can’t wait to get back out there to #LiveThePassion!
Ryan Said is a tournament angler and U.S. Coast Guard licensed guide on Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie, as well as many of Michigan's inland lakes. He books trips through Marcels Guide Service - an affiliation that is beginning its eighth
season. In 2011, after winning the Bassmaster Northern Open points championship, Ryan had the honor of fishing the Bassmaster Classic and the Bassmaster Elite series trail. He has fished the Bassmaster Open Series several times, as well as the Costa Series. Ryan is an engineer and teaches high school math. He coaches the college bass fishing team at Lawrence Tech, and offers seminars and "on the water" instruction for high school anglers. Ryan is pro staff for Dobyns Rods, Lew's Reels, Costa Sunglasses, P-Line and Blackfish Gear