DETROIT – I really like fishing and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Smallmouth bass were a modest entry on my species bucket list, and my in-laws live in Michigan. While I kind of figured the smallmouth-and-Michigan connection would eventually happen, I had no idea when it did, my favorite baseball team would also be involved.
I’d been to Michigan a few times and fished some, but I never really got after it for real. My family had been out there for over a week, and I stayed behind to cover WON Striper Derby at Lake Havasu and just caught up with them for the last four days of the trip, only one of which was a “free day” for me to play with.
Some on-the-fly Internet research led me to Gerry Gostenik of Great Lakes Bass Fishing Guide Service (GreatLakesBassFishing.com) with whom I played phone/text tag with for several days while he was on the water every day taking out clients that had their spring trips canceled due to you-know-what, and I was running around covering Striper Derby 2,000 miles and two time zones away in 110-degree heat. So, connecting was tough, but we made it happen.
My target water was Lake St. Clair, the body of water Kevin VanDam has called “the greatest smallmouth bass fishery on the planet.” It’s a round lake about 25 miles across, but it only averages about 12 feet deep. The shore opposite the suburban Detroit-area ramp I took to the water from is Canada, and the international boundary actually runs right across the middle of the lake. Currently, you can’t cross the line, and it is patrolled by our friends to the north which is a bummer for muskie anglers because that’s where the best fishing for the “fish of 10,000 casts” was going on at the time. Anyway, I figured if I want to catch smallmouth, might as well do it in the center of the smallie universe according to KVD.
The day before my trip, Gostenik texted me saying several members of his stable of guides were meeting clients at the same spot, and that I would not be fishing with him. I was a little bummed after going back and forth for a week with the guy, and I asked who I would be going with.
“Most likely you’ll be with Jeff Hamilton,” said Gostenik. “He’s an ex Dodger, so you’ll have a California connection there.”
Now, the Dodgers run deep in my family, so even though I was in elementary school for most of his career, I immediately remembered him as the third baseman on the 1988 World Series team. That’s the squad we Dodger fans admittedly cling to a little too much, since it was the last time they won it all.
Hamilton pulled up with his lime-green Phoenix bass boat in tow, and all the guides met their clients. As we idled out of the marina, I said, “Jeff, I’m just going to get this out of the way right now. I come from a Dodgers family, and I’m going to do my best to keep my baseball questions to a minimum but I can’t make any promises.”
I had no idea if Gostenik tipped him off to my fandom or not, but he did chuckle and say it was cool.
It was only a very short run to our first spot, and I was drop-shotting a Strike King Half Shell in no time, and about 10 minutes in, I was connected to my first smallmouth bass. It was a little one, and it shook off at the boat so there is no documentation of my first smallie, but it wouldn’t be my last.
I’m not a great freshwater bass angler by any stretch, and that paired with the fact that I was a long way from home made me appreciate starting off being treated like a newbie.
“Just throw it out there and get bored,” was the first bit of instruction I got. This was not pinpointing a specific structure spot with the drop-shot. It was more along the lines of setting up above a target area and drifting through it. “Get bored,” as in, let the drifting boat create the action. Hamilton even told me to feel free to stick my left hand in my pocket or even eat a sandwich with it. Simple? Sure. But my next few smallies, including number two which was more of a chunk and did make it into a photo came doing exactly that.
As the day went on, we hit a handful of other spots in the same fashion, but I got the feeling once my guide realized I wasn’t a complete rookie (you know, after I started unhooking and releasing my own fish and dealing with my own tangles), he started introducing more specifics to play with: adding action, allowing the rig to sink as vertically as possible after the cast, different angles of attack, etc.
I could tell Hamilton thought fishing was slow just a day after some high winds blasted through, so I did stick to the drop-shot program. He threw a jerkbait and spybait a bit and got a couple, and we cycled through a lot of baits including Ned rigs and Ned baits on the drop-shot, Flukes and otherwise each with some degree of success. For me, a few hours in and having tried a half-dozen different things, my confidence (for what it was worth) was with that Strike King Half Shell, which is a pretty unique bait that I can’t wait to try out here. Just about everything Strike King did get bit, though, which is refreshing considering their stuff is so everywhere-available and reasonably priced.
I think I finished the day with about 14 smallmouth. I did get a little largemouth which even surprised Hamilton since “there are probably 1,000 smallmouth in here for every largemouth,” so I had that going for me. Guys like him in lakes like that shoot for 50 or even triple-digit numbers, but I accomplished my mission in the first hour and just had a great time from then on out. My best fish fell just short of 4 pounds.
Oh, yea, I would say I hit him with about one baseball question per hour on average. Most were along the lines of, “Did you play with this guy?” The first of those was, “Did you play with Kevin Gross?” He wasn’t on the Dodgers for very long and his best years were spent elsewhere, but he did throw a no hitter for my boys in blue. Gross also currently fishes in our WON BASS tournaments as a pro, which I also mentioned.
“Yea. Just one year,” said Hamilton. “Tell him I hope he fishes a lot better than he pitched. (laughs). No, he’s a great guy, but I did hit a grand slam off him once, and he threw at me in my next at bat.”