It's snowing again in Denver and you won't catch any of us complaining. It is winter after all and our rivers always benefit from a healthy snowpack. But, the cold and snow do have some of us yearning for the long, hot days of summer. I don't often find myself pining for the dense, humid air of a midwest summer. But here I am, reflecting fondly upon this past summer's trip to fish with one of the legends in the Midwest fly fishing game - Mike Schultz - fondly known as Schultzy.
With good reason, fly fishing for smallmouth checks a lot of boxes for an angler like myself. I love hopper eats, streamer fishing, delivering casts into cool structure, and trying to hunt down the biggest fish in a river. Just so happens that fly fishing for smallmouth in the Midwest is exactly all of those things. Aggressive popper eats, huge articulated baitfish flies, plenty of large woody debris, and big fish who have called a stretch of river home for 15 years or more.
Now, this trip has been well-documented. In fact, you may have seen our video or heard our podcast, but as we daydream of those balmy summer days when you seemingly have an excess of sunlight, we figured it was a great time to revisit our trip to Michigan.
For those not familiar with the Great Lakes region, Lake St. Clair is located about six miles from Detroit. Along with the St. Clair and Detroit Rivers, Lake St. Clair connects Lake Huron (to the north) with Lake Erie (to the south). It's a shallow, but fertile lake that produces some of the best smallmouth and musky fishing in the world.
While Lake St. Clair is technically not one of the Great Lakes, the boys at Schultz Outfitters would argue that it is indeed a GREAT Lake (I'm sorry...that was terrible). After flying into Detroit and poking around the surrounding area the day before, we were scheduled to meet up with Captain Colten Decker for a day of moon-shooting. Rick and I had our sights set on bagging a midwestern Muskellunge and as it turns out Lake St Clair is a veritable hotbed for them and is home to a startling number of trophy (over 50") fish.
For those uninitiated into the world of musky, it should be noted that any musky is hard to catch. They're often described as the "fish of 10,000 casts" because of their elusive nature. So, while Rick and I were excited to chase them on Lake St. Clair, in the back of my mind, I had both the highest and lowest expectations for the day. Like any self-respecting angler, I had visions of wrangling the largest toothy critter of my life on my fifth cast of the day, but in all reality, I was just excited to give it a shot, learn as much as a could from Capt. Colten, and experience a new and unfamiliar fishery.
We met Capt. Colten at our designated boat ramp and before long we were off with dreams of a 50" musky in tow. As Capt. Colten rigged up both the fly and conventional rods, we got a little peak into why the musky fishery is so revered. Visibility on the lake was pretty outrageous to start the day. At times it felt like a bit of an aquarium. Capt. Colten regaled us with stories of the plentiful gobies, shad, and baitfish that the lake's trophy smallmouth and musky gorge on. We heard about population densities of trophy musky and to a Rocky Mountain trout angler like myself - I was impressed - as was Rick.
The lake was relatively calm and we started our day tossing huge brightly colored flies that felt like a wet sock when airborne. Capt. Colten gave us a handful of presentation tips, and stressed the need for a good hookset and a diligently consistent boatside figure 8 presentation.
As with any pursuit of a trophy fish, a little blind faith goes a long way. We were shooting for the moon. Casting 12 weights, sinking lines, and wet socks for flies in an unfamiliar setting for us, but we were engaged. Capt. Colten wasn't feeling the calm conditions and was hopeful some wind would pick up. Why? Well, it all goes back to a concept I'm quite familiar with as a trout angler who loves throwing streamers.
Streamer Green. It's that slightly off-color tint of water that exists as runoff subsides and sediment starts to settle out. It's not blown out, but it's certainly not clear. It's a great clarity for fish to hunt down prey in any setting. More wind on the lake means more sediment getting turned up and suspended in the water column. With that, muskies would have a better chance of ambushing their prey. Giving Rick and myself, a fighter's chance.
Well, as the day progressed, Capt. Colten got his wish. The wind showed up and with it, the water clarity dropped. But, as we drifted from spot to spot, we saw no evidence of fish. Not a follow. Not a blip on the fish finder. Nothing. But, like any fishing guide who is worth their salt, Capt. Colten kept a positive mindset. Each next spot was going to be THE spot and Rick and I were engaged.
The wind was increasing as we moved into the afternoon and with it, the waves of Lake St. Clair were also getting pretty gnarly - especially for some Colorado guys more familiar with smaller bodies of water. Between the 3 to 4-foot waves, my lack of sea legs, and a steadily fatiguing casting arm, I finally made the move to the conventional rod - much to Rick's glee. Rejuvenated by a new approach, I started hucking that swimbait as far as I could. And...nothing.
We switched spots once more and I stepped up to the front of the boat. Admittedly, my first cast was horrible. It drew plenty of jeers from the boat. My second cast...was not as horrible. I started retrieving the swimbait back. As I readied myself to start my figure 8 presentation close to the boat, from the depths, appeared what turned out to be the largest freshwater fish I've ever tangled with. A musky. Now, I've never caught a musky. So, every musky is a big musky to me. He shot up from the depths and made the swimbait disappear. I set the hook and some version of chaos erupted.
The fight was probably a pretty short one considering the fish's size, but it felt like a damn eternity. There were a couple of "oh shit" moments. There were a couple of "I got this" moments. And then the fish was in the net...sort of. The swimbait was tangled in the net and the fish was halfway in the bag. Capt. Colten sacrificed his hand and wrastled the musky in the boat.
If "I don't know what to do with my hands" was a person, it was me.
"Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit." I kept repeating.
Capt. Colten and Rick were noting "It's pretty big."
"Well, yeah...of course, it's a musky," I thought.
"No, it's really big." Capt Colten said as he laid it on the tape.
"49.75 inches," he observed.
Damn near a trophy. After a couple of pictures, we released the fish and I sat down in the back of the boat. Stunned. Shaking, sort of. I grabbed the celebratory "Faygo" that we purchased as some Detroit champagne and took a very sugary sip.
We shot for the moon, and damn it if we didn't convert on the only opportunity we were presented with. Rick and Colten kept on grinding in the big waves of Lake St. Clair for a couple more hours. I cycled in occasionally, but I was still shaking with excitement. Eventually, we called it a day and made the run back to the boat ramp.
Day 1 was done.
After making the drive from Lake St. Clair to our cabin in Dexter, MI the night prior, we met up with the man, the myth, the legend - Schultzy himself.
Well, that's sort of a lie. Schultzy was actually our one-man welcoming party when he dropped by the cabin around 11:30 PM on Day 1. Coming in hot after a night of chasing Hexegenia-eating smallmouth, he was fully equipped with a YETI Hopper Flip's worth of cold ones. After said cold ones and some planning for our next two days on the water, we got some rest.
We got a late start on Day 2, intentionally. We had a long float ahead of us, also intentionally. Mike wanted to show us what the night fishing game was all about. But, we needed a warm-up and what better way to warm up than throwing Boogle Bugs into tight windows and letting them drift along the endless structure that exists in Mike's home river?
As it turns out, throwing big poppers in smallmouth rivers shares a lot of similarities with throwing big hoppers on our western rivers. Sure, the setting isn't the same, but the concepts are very similar. Cast it as close to the structure as you can. Give it a pop. Let it drift. Twitch. Drift it. Eventually, something will smash it. Or maybe not. Cast again. Even the hookset when you're fishing poppers is a trout set, much to our surprise.
What stood out the most to me was the tight quarters that required precise casts and presentations. There is no shortage of large woody debris to create some bomber habitat for smallies to thrive in. The fishing was steady as we worked our way downstream. Mike would call out specific casts, banks, logs, snags, and note - "There's a good one in there."
Coming from Colorado, our definition of a good smallmouth and Mike's definition of a good smallmouth are slightly different. 18" is good enough. 19" is pretty good. 20" is the mark. A 20" fish is a trophy and according to Schultzy is most likely at least 15 years old if it's living in one of their inland rivers. It's seen some stuff in its day and much like a trophy musky - they don't grow on trees. Quite the contrary, they grow UNDER trees. Very specific trees as it turns out. My mind was blown when Mike would start storytelling about specific sections of banks or specific trees and note that "There's a 21" smallmouth that lives there."
Of course, I trusted Mike when he said that, but, inquiring minds want to know more.
"How do you know that for a fact, Mike?" I asked.
"Well, we've caught that one three times over the last two years," he responded.
"In the same spot?"
"Yup," Mike would confirm.
My mind was blown. When Mike would start talking about a 20-incher that lived a couple of trees down and the specific cast and presentation that it required, you knew it was business time. It wasn't time for a sub-standard cast or lazy presentation.
Saying that is one thing. Doing it is another. While we were catching more smallies on poppers than we had all year in Colorado, we missed some opportunities at some sizable ones on our first float.
As the day came to a close, Schultzy rowed us through the water we'd be fishing that night. We fished a bit, but this was more of a preview of sorts. He noted the spots we needed to hit well and talked us through what we'd be doing in the dark. We motored back upstream, collected ourselves, and let the sun begin to tuck behind the trees.
We weren't moving until the Hexegenia mayflies started to take to the air. It was a bit of a surreal waiting game. The light was fading and Mike called a couple out. I was expecting to see a couple of big mayflies. It wasn't that kind of party. What seemed like thousands of huge yellow Hexegenia mayflies filled the sky.
You've certainly heard about the midwestern mayfly hatches measured in the billions that show up on radar. After that first night with Schultzy, frankly, I can't even begin to comprehend what billions of hexegenia look like. The air was thick with them. We started our way downstream. If you turned on your headlamp, you were absolutely mobbed with size 6 mayflies. Otherworldly to say the least.
We were fishing blind to a certain degree. You'd see the faint outline of an overhanging limb, an undercut bank, or a piece of large woody debris. Depending on sound more than sight, you'd wait to hear a smallie crash on your popper and "SET!" Who knew how big that fish would be? All smallies fight hard and until you laid eyes on the fish in the net, there was an element of mystery. We didn't tangle with any "good ones" that evening, but it was quite the experience nonetheless.
As we motored through a lake to the takeout, we talked about baseball in the good old days of our youth like any self-respecting dad would.
That was a wrap on Day 2.
It was our last day on the water with Schultzy and the crew. With overnight rain providing a little bit of angst and worry, we made an audible and decided to make a longer run than planned to a section of the river that doesn't blow out as easily. Poppers were still on the menu, but first, it was time to swim some flies.
While throwing big swimming flies like Schultz's Swinging D is usually reserved for chasing big fish in the springtime, it is still an effective technique in the summer - especially when a bump of water moves through. We were excited to swim some with the man himself. Rick was on the bow - swinging for the fences as our time in Michigan was coming to an end.
Quartering downstream, tucking casts back upstream underneath structure, throwing behind fallen trees, it was everything you expect out of throwing big flies for big fish. Looking for ambush spots for big fish to hunt down a big meal. Sure, there were differences in presentation compared to how we like to fish streamers here for trout, but the basic concepts were very similar.
It's hard to beat the visuals of a fish chasing down a big streamer and making it disappear in a flash. We kept bopping our way downstream with another night of hex fishing in our future. Rick was putting fish in the boat, but we still hadn't hit the mark.
A midwestern summer rainstorm moved in and we fished through it. As the clouds cleared, Rick made a cast quartering downstream into the soft inside of a riffle that looked downright trouty if we're being honest.
One strip. Two strip. BANG. Rick came tight.
Schultzy hopped out and netted the smallmouth of the trip. It wasn't the 21" stud that we were looking for, but we're certainly not going to scoff at 18" or 19" of wild, native smallmouth bass. They grow them different in the midwest. There's no doubt about it. They are, pound for pound, some of the hardest-fighting fish and their appearance is wildly underrated in the fly fishing world from my vantage point. The bronze base. Chef's kiss. The dark brown vertical strips. Muah.
A more talented writer could describe their cool appearance with so much more detail. So I'll just let a picture do the talking.
As the sun fell behind that midwest jungle, we found ourselves returning to a familiar stretch for a repeat of the previous night's festivities. Another late night spent dodging branches and waiting to hear a smallmouth suck down a popper under the moonlight. Hard to beat.
We can't thank Mike, Colten, and the rest of the Schultz Outfitters crew who made our stay in Michigan such a damn good time. We will be back in 2024. More information on that to follow on the Trouts Journal. Stay tuned.