The best trophy smallmouth waters in North America…
I’ll never forget a trip to the Detroit River last spring. In less than three hours we put over 50 smallmouth in my Lund boat. The fast-biting action was more fun than catching walleyes, some of the hottest fishing I can remember as supercharged bass blasted from the water like Polaris missiles gone amok.
Michigan is blessed with some of the best trophy smallmouth waters in North America. Ideal habitat, little fishing pressure and booming populations have created a monster smallmouth Mecca in the Great Lakes State.
Smallmouth bass are perhaps the hardest fighting fish in the state. They slam baits like a bulldog snapping up chow, perform flying acrobatics like a runaway Polaris missile and can be found in huge schools that number in the hundreds.
The trick to finding big dogs, smallies that push the scales over five-pounds, is to
concentrate on exact locations that hold impressive numbers of big fish. Here’s a look at some trophy smallmouth waters where you have a superb chance of pinning a DNR Master Angler wallhanger.
The Wolverine state is blessed with abundant smallmouth fisheries in area rivers, streams, lakes and Great Lakes.
Looking for a limit catch?
Try the easy fishing on the Grand River, St. Joseph or Kalamazoo. Don’t overlook the fast-paced fishing fun available in the multitude of inland waterways that serve up fantastic smallie action. But if you want big smallies, trophy fish that will gulp your lure, bend your rod double, rip line from your drag like a steelhead, then concentrate on fisheries found on Michigan’s Great Lakes and connecting waterways.
Lake St. Clair
“Over the years I’ve seen plenty of anglers return to the boat launch with their five-fish limit and still the numbers of smallies has grown. The fishing is unbelievable and it used to be difficult to hook a five pounder, but now several St. Clair bass pushing the scales over six pounds are entered in the DNR Master Angler Program each year. The lake is full of smallmouth and catching a big, trophy fish is very common.
“The health of the St. Clair smallie fishery is obvious,” reports biologist Haas who was quick to point out the number of five and six pound fish entered in the MA program. “Some fish were 23 inches in length, which is absolutely huge and the best time to catch a trophy is in late June or July”, according to Haas.
Most savvy anglers use tube jigs or cast spinners or cranks but Tim Philip, a well known St. Clair smallie chaser says,” live bait is the ticket for catching St. Clair monster smallmouth bass. They gobble minnows like candy and Spottail shiners are native to the lake and work like magic. Crayfish and Golden shiners come in second and third and are fished the same as Spottail.
Tie a three-way swivel to your main line, use a 1-foot dropper to a ¼ oz. bell sinker weight and a 3-foot fluorocarbon leader attached to a #4 Mustad 92141 short shank hook. Cast the offering along weed beds and keep the minnow dancing through the cover, drifting with the wind is very deadly using live bait which catches the attention of smallies on the prowl and causes them to gulp the offering and dive for cover at lightning speed.”
Philip goes on to explain, “Many anglers think that spring is the time to catch big smallies. Not So! Summer weather is more stable, water temperatures are warm and the fish’s metabolism has peaked and monster smallmouth bass go on a feeding spree. This is when they congregate in wolf packs and attack baitfish like hungry sharks. Many stick to predictable feeding locations and you can get limit catches by honing in on hot locations that hold hundreds of big fish.”
“The fastest way to find St. Clair smallies is to move around, cover plenty of water and cast to the edges of weed patches. Once you locate some fish using tubes, spinners or stick baits, slow your presentation and zero-in on the big tigers using live bait,” explains Philip.
Bob Gwizdz, well known Michigan Outdoor Writer, has long had a love affair with St. Clair monster smallies. “I like to search for roaming schools far out on the freshwater lake using spinnerbaits as my primary tool. I motor to likely hangouts near weed beds or structure breaks and begin casting. Once I’ve located an active school, start catching some big ‘ole smallies, I’ll slow my retrieve, allow the spinner to fall toward bottom in open pockets or rip it through weeds and the change of pace often excites the big brutes to slam the offering. My favorite spinner is a Strike King Double Willow or Bleeding Bait spinnerbait size ½ or 3/8 oz.,” explains Gwizdz.
Ramps and marinas are abundant on St. Clair. Try the new DNR ramp off Jefferson in Harrison Township.
Live minnows are available from Mackie’s Bait and Tackle at (810) 794-9962.
Try the DNR Lake St. Clair Research Station at (586) 465-4771.
For more information contact the Detroit Convention and Visitor’s Bureau at (800) 338-7648 or online at www.visitdetroit.com.
“The Lake Erie smallmouth bass population seems to be steadily increasing and the fishing is simply fantastic, “reports Southeast Michigan fisheries biologist Gary Towns. “We had several bass tournaments last summer on Erie and the average winning weight was over five-pounds per fish, and the Erie walleye trollers are catching more smallies on pulled cranks each year. The action starts in the shallows, 5-10 feet during spring and moves to deeper water as the season progresses and water warms. Come summer the hot action peaks and smallie fishing takes center stage for Erie anglers in search of fishin’ fun, action-packed adventure and hefty catches,” says Towns.
“Want limit catches and big dudes mixed in? Learn to locate fish near structure and target rock piles, weed edges, breaklines and places where current and water temperatures fluctuate,” explains Mark Summerton, a well-known Erie bronzeback nut.” Weedbeds and grass are prolific in the Detroit River, Trenton Channel and supportive waterways. Concentrate on hard-bottom holes, rock piles, rip-rap, pilings or sand bars where weeds do not grow. Smallies will use the adjoining cover, found next to open areas, as ambush points. Once you find one fish, there are usually several in the area and you can boat a limit at lightning speed.”
“Summerton says,” One of my hottest tricks is to work the weed edges found in the lower Detroit and upper Lake Erie. Go fishing at noon on a calm, sunny day and use polarized sunglasses to cut water glare and help spot fish. Cast to the deep water next to weeds using a 4-inch tube jig. The water is gin clear during summer and natural color tubes are the ticket. I like to cast tubes colored: goby, smoke shad, and watermelon green, pumpkin or motor oil. Begin by looking for fish within a couple miles of the Detroit River, next move to the open water of Erie and check out the Banana Dike, discharge water near Swan Creek, steep drop-off near Stony Point and rock strewn bottom in Brest Bay.”
“Smallmouth bass grow to unbelievable proportions in Michigan’s Great Lakes but few can compete with the hawgs found in Lake Erie,” explains Summerton. “This unique freshwater sea has ideal biomass, booming micro-organism populations to feed smelt, alewife, emerald shiners, shad and other food species that help smallies to survive and thrive at a monumental level which creates huge trophy fish.”
Boat launches include, Wyandotte, Elizabeth Park on Trenton Channel, Lake Erie Metropark, Sterling State Park, Bolles Harbor and Luna Pier.
For bait, tackle and information contact: Luna Pier Harbour Club at (734) 848-8777, Trenton Lighthouse at (734) 675-7080, Bottom Line at (734) 379-9762.
For more information and maps contact the Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 338-7648 or online at www.visitdetroit.com.
“Anglers looking for smallmouth bass action will find it on Saginaw Bay around the Charity Islands. They’re found on the doorstep to the inner Bay and separate the deep water of Lake Huron from the shallower Saginaw Bay. Here, basically in the center of Saginaw Bay a gravelly shoal reaches toward the lake surface, creating a smallmouth paradise highlighted by abundant food, ideal habitat and very little fishing pressure,” reports Jim Dexter fisheries biologist for Saginaw Bay.
“The Charities are surrounded by rocks, the steep structure is brushed by stiff currents, and bait fish are found in the shallows by the millions. This is ideal smallie country and a recent creel survey indicated many bass are trophy class,” Baker explains.
I fished the Charity Islands with TV Host Babe Lineman and we would boat 30-40 hawg smallies a day. We had several fish that pushed the scales over five pounds and I remember a pig Babe landed on a crawfish tube that pushed the scales over six pounds!
This is shallow water sight fishing at its finest and you need to use a good pair of polarized sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat to cut the sun’s glare from the huge freshwater ocean. Plan on bringing deck shoes, sun screen, cooler filled with iced drinks and high energy snacks and don’t forget your camera.
There are zillions of smallmouth bass around all the islands and rocky shoals found in the area. Hotspots include: Charity Island, Gulf Island and Little Charity Island. Be careful where you travel and don’t run aground on one of the sand bars.
My favorite hotspot is a narrow trough that runs between big Charity and Gulf Island. The dynamite fishing is found by casting to the center of the trough and monster bass scramble from hiding behind nearby rocks to slam your offering. You are guaranteed your limit and for some strange reason this location is full of magnum smallies. I’m talkin’ big ‘ole giant fish that are 24 inches long and big around as a balloon filled with warm water. At times, you will have several trophy fish in sight and deciding where to cast becomes difficult. Some call this spot “No man’s Land” because the extremely shallow water with numerous rocky bars can rip through your hull or gobble your expensive outboard like candy.
Look for smallies in the rock-strewn shoals around drop-offs and cast to the shadows created by large boulders. At times you can see the tiger-striped bass swimming around the boat, other times you cast blindly to structure that looks like good smallie habitat. Charity Islands serve up the brand of fishing that drives grown men into premature child-like behavior. Some risk life and limb to brave the high seas and stormy weather served up by giant Lake Huron.
Nearest boat launch is the DNR boat ramp found off Mackinaw Road near AuGres.
Grand Traverse Bays
“Both east and west Grand Traverse Bays have been a top choice for trophy smallmouth hunters for years,” says Todd Kalish, the DNR biologist who keeps tabs on northwest Michigan.
Bass tend to congregate where you can find structure in the form of weed beds, rocks, sand points, steep drop-offs anywhere hard bottom is found. Smallies like to patrol such structure and slurp crayfish off bottom or ambush schools of baitfish.
Spring brings spawning fish to shallows but come summer when trophy fish go on a feeding spree you can expect them to congregate in the 15-25 ft depths. Take a drive north of Traverse City on East Shore Drive, along the scenic Peninsula, launch near Wilson Road, motor south until you see large boulders and a few pilings sticking above the water. Cast tube jigs weighted with ¼-1/2 oz., just enough to keep them bouncing along bottom. Try crawfish colors with copper, green or black back and wiggle and jiggle the rod tip to make the offering look like a crawdad digging for food in the sand. This action draws hungry smallie wolf packs and aggressive fish will slam the bait, slurp it from bottom by venting water at lightning speed through their gills and you will feel the distinct tap-tap of a fish taking the hook. Now, set the hook!
“My favorite Grand Traverse Bay smallmouth offering is a drop-shot rig,” reports Brian Smith who loves to hook big bronzeback and make’em jump. “There is nothing like getting on the water when the summer weather is hot and sticky, the wind is dead calm, the boat requires little adjustment with the electric motor and you can get into exact position to put a Berkley 4-inch Finesse Worm in their face. Give it a seductive dance and the smallies smash it like a barracuda. You set the hook and those huge sided smallies come out of the water like a Great White after a seal and they make a special sound when their fat belly smacks the calm lake surface. Some fish jump four-six times before you can catch up to them. The most exciting part of catching bronzeback is the impressive acrobatic display they provide. Well worth the price of admission!”
Smith loves to stalk smallmouth using his electric motor and silently gliding across the lake surface in search of the telltale sign of a moving bass. During calm weather, when the lake is placid, smallies can be very boat shy and spooky.
“That’s when I break out the light line, long rod and finesse tactics. I use 6 lb. fluorocarbon line, so fish can not see the mono and the ultra thin line allows me to make extra long casts. I prefer an open bail reel with cannon-like castability combined with a balanced 8-9 ft. medium action rod and light tip that allows long distance casting and hook setting ability. The long rod optimizes casting distance, keeps slack line out of the water and offers a longer sweep when you jerk back to set the hook. I use 1/8 oz. jigs when the wind is calm but step up to ¼ oz. needed to take the tube long distances under less than ideal casting conditions. Sometimes you can drop your offering right on fish and they will charge the rig. Often they will dart away from a lure that plops too close and you must cast far beyond target fish and reel like crazy to get the offering in the strike zone where the bass can see it,” says Smith.
“When the wind is howling and wave conditions, make it difficult to fish the big lake, I trailer my boat to Torch Lake or Lake Charlevoix for smallie action and once in a while hook-up with a dandy fish. Good habitat and deep, clear water make both lakes an excellent choice when bad weather makes fishing Great Lakes hotspots very difficult. Lake Charlevoix is a personal favorite of Kevin VanDam, from Kalamazoo, Michigan’s most popular B.A.S.S. angler and well known TV fishing personality. Kevin frequently uses sight fishing tactics to score on beautiful Lake Charlevoix smallmouth.
For more information call the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau at (800) 940-1120 or visit online at www.visittraversecity.com.
Contact the Traverse City DNR Office at (231) 922-5280.
Free online lake maps are available from www.fishweb.com. Click on fish and then click on inland lake fishing maps.
For trip planning assistance you can contact www.travel.michigan.org or call Travel Michigan at (888) 784-7328.