I could see the fish hugging bottom in 30 feet of water straight out from Acme Creek in East Grand Traverse Bay. I dropped my goby imitation tube to the bottom, let it pause waiting for a bite, gave it a hop or two then inched the wiggly soft plastic across the sand near a big boulder. All of a sudden I had a violent arm jolting strike and instinctively set the hook. I could tell the fish was big because it sulked near bottom, violently shook its head in an attempt to shake the hook, then sprinted directly away from my Minn Kota bow mounted motor and stripped line off the drag. For a second I thought it was a big lake trout but when I pumped back line the fish zoomed from bottom, sulked 15 feet below the boat then charged my craft and leaped out of the water sending droplets of water in a huge rainbow before crashing down and immediately leaping again.
This was no laker, it was a Michigan trophy smallmouth bass fresh from the depths of the Great Lakes. When it neared the boat I was in awe of its size highlighted by a rotund beer belly, large tiger striped colors and bright red eye. This anecdote best describes the fantastic trophy smallmouth bass fishing on Michigan’s Great Lakes and connecting waterways. Put simply, we have the hottest bronzeback honey holes in North America.
Here’s where and why.
From the mouth of the Detroit River to West Sisters Island there is a rich smallmouth bass fishery. Savvy anglers target the rocky shoals along the river outlet and huge rock piles all along the Banana Dike. Some anglers cast to the rocky shore near the nuke plant and work the humpy, bumpy rocks straight out from Stony Point. Other western basin hotspots are found near Bolles Harbor and the dumping grounds where fish congregate near the uneven bottom once known as a walleye mecca. Now the uneven bottom provides a smallie oasis highlighted by water that warms quickly with rocky humps that attract gobies, baitfish and tremendous smallies.
Erie smallies are large and it takes a five-pound average to place in local tournaments. The trick is to focus on natural and man-made structures. Wind, current and water clarity are important factors influencing catch. Look for fish to congregate where currents brush past structure and pool baitfish.
A variety of baits fool Erie smallies but most anglers use heavy jigs tipped with soft plastics or Berkley Powerbait. Savvy anglers work presentations fast when searching for fish in deep water. Many anglers have 50 fish days casting plastics. Modern smallie chasers cast tubes and pop ’em along bottom, resembling a goby.
More recently anglers prefer drop shot tactics and whacky options that are very popular including Kalin’s Wac-O Worm, Jackall Cross Tail Shad, and Strike King Half Shell worm, Berkley Gulp Minnow, Z-Man Hula StickZ and Realis V-Tail Shad. When Great Lakes waves get rockin’ some anglers drag bottom while drifting downwind. Others hop, swim or diddle plastics across bottom to get the attention of big water tigers on the prowl.
Lake St. Clair
Many claim this is the world’s greatest smallmouth fishery. There is no place quite like it and the large bass numbers are simply over-the-top unbelievable, and impressive trophy fish come daily. Lake St. Clair is an ideal summer fishery and hosts thousands of bass anglers throughout the dog days of summer when other fisheries fall flat.
Connecting Lake Erie and Lake Huron, this bronzeback mecca hosts fantastic numbers and impressive size. Catching four-pounders is standard size and five or six-pound pigs are common. At one time the fishery was leveling off but recent hatching of baitfish populations has caused St. Clair’s smallie population to boom.
Miles of weeds and riprap is home to a tremendous sport fishery close to metro Detroit. Hard charging bronzeback go nuts for tubes in an assortment of goby colors dragged along bottom. On days when fish are aggressive, popping a tube a few inches off bottom can be the ticket, although a sweeping retrieve works best. Casting short billed cranks produces savage strikes from smallies suspended above the weeds in 10-18 feet of water. Some anglers cast Strike King KVD 300 series jerkbaits through the vegetation. Once fish are located, switch to drop-shot rigs with spinning outfits. Savvy anglers use 3/8 oz. tungsten weights to maintain bottom contact and feel. A variety of soft plastics attract smallies on the hunt for minnows, gobies, sculpins and crayfish. Try a Gamakatsu football 24 jig with Zoom Fat Albert Grub and don’t overlook the smallie catching power of a Lunker City Fin-S head and Hydrotail grub.
Much of Lake Huron offers prime smallmouth habitat with endless jagged points, islands, reefs and massive quantities of gobies, sculpin and crayfish. While alewife and smelt numbers are still stumbling after the federal government overstocked millions of lake trout and destroyed the forage base, goby numbers are still on the rise. Smallies throughout Lake Huron are fat and sassy from burgeoning food sources and numbers of trophy fish are booming at a monumental rate. Gobies can be found throughout Lake Huron and smallmouth bass prefer ambush points where they can feed undisturbed.
Most smallie chasers prefer the rocky shore found north of Harrison, but they are overlooking some hotspots found along Point AuGres, Point Lookout, Alabaster, and the huge boulders all around the Charity Islands. Savvy fishermen concentrate on the flats between big Charity and Gull Island highlighted by a huge rock cluttered sand bar, jagged points and boulders the size of a kitchen table. Long distance casting with grubs and tubes to boulder hide outs produce unbelievable catches of monster smallies in the four-to-six-pound class. Some anglers prefer to work the shoreline of the Thumb from Caseville to Port Hope. Limit catches and fantastic bassin’ action awaits those who find rocky structure and work plastics around large boulders.
Lake Huron’s shallow shore mixed with rocks, jagged points and ideal structure is a boon to wading anglers in search of record book smallies. One well known hotspot is found along the Tawas Point State Park, which is a long point jetting into Lake Huron. The huge structure provides calm conditions from the rolling waves and impressive numbers of brown bass are available on both sides of the point. This massive sand flat found on the inside loop of the long point is home to schools of bass patrolling the edge of the structure. Fishermen wade the shallows and make long casts to huge smallies going airborne on the hookset and provide spectacular action. This is a fly fisherman’s paradise with wide open spaces, huge flats and a beautiful environment resembling Bahama sandflats.
From Alpena all the way to Cheboygan is fast becoming the smallie capital of Lake Huron with its endless rock outcrops, jagged reefs, islands, bays and ideal smallie habitat. Hotspots are many but don’t overlook Thunder Bay Island, Sugar Island, Scarecrow Island, Sulphur Island, Partridge Point, North Point, Crooked Island and many more. Thunder Bay and the entire coast going north offers refuge from prevailing westerly winds and anglers can enjoy fishing by wading or boat. Some prefer to wade and cast to large smallies finning around structure in Misery Bay, Potter Point, Huron Bay and Morris Bay.
The trick is to pinpoint the structure holding fish and make long casts using relatively light line. Northern Huron’s crystal clear water helps you to locate those four-pound-plus hawgs, but sight fishing for trophy smallies requires long casting, use of polarized sunglasses to cut water glare and six to eight-pound fluorocarbon line used with spinning gear. Some anglers prefer casting whacky rigged Senkos or green pumpkin grubs. The opportunity to land a seven-pound monster in shallow water can get your heart beating and when a monster goes airborne I guarantee you will be back for more.
Years ago savvy Michigan fishermen discovered techniques for shallow wading and deep water casting for eight-pound huge smallies in the Grand Traverse area. That fishery is still alive and growing in leaps and bounds. Recent high water has increased the habitat for both smallies and massive numbers of gobies, crayfish, baitfish and sculpin which is the primary food source for Traverse bass. Both bays pool warm water and the overall biomass is ideal for smallies and populations of bottom dwelling gobies. Huge bronzeback exceeding five-pounds are common in this smallmouth paradise available to those who wade the many flats, stalk fish along the shore or cast in deep water.
I’ve caught smallie at the mouth of the Boardman River to Bower’s Harbor all the way to Old Mission Point and Suttons Bay. But my favorite area is the huge flats and beautiful blue waters found on the extreme southern end of East Arm Grand Traverse Bay. I prefer to launch near Acme creek and begin early morning trips by casting the flats and drop off using grubs and whacky worms.
Then as the sun gets bright I move to deeper water past the drop-off where smallies congregate around boulders and slight changes in bottom structure. My hottest presentation is a 3/4 ounce tube jig with soft plastic green pumpkin color. Deep water smallies tend to follow your offering as it ticks bottom and resembles a goby puffing up sand. Coaxing strikes can be somewhat difficult if wave action is bouncing your boat but detecting strikes is no problem. Deep smallies require a second or third hook set in order to get the barb in their maw. They strike with such a vengeance they slam their jaws shut on the tube making it difficult to get a solid hook up.
The great thing about the Traverse smallmouth fishery is often the bays are calm and easy to fish when winds are howling out on Lake Michigan. Bower’s Harbor protects you from east winds and the East Shore Drive area is flat calm during a west blow. Dog days of summer may push big hawgs deep but winds from the north can bump ’em back to the warm water shallows.
Now don’t get me wrong there is fantastic smallmouth fishing all along the Lake Michigan coast from Benton Harbor north but I’ve had the best luck in drowned river mouths. The lower Kalamazoo River is a good bet and Muskegon Lake and pier head can be red hot. I’ve seen massive numbers school between the narrow pier heads at Pentwater, Ludington and Frankfort. But the best fishing exists north of Empire all along the rocky coast of Glen Arbor, Port Oneida, Shelda Creek outlet in Good Harbor Bay and Carp River Point near Leland. I love those hawgs hiding in the crevasses and shadowy lairs under the huge boulders all along the Leland jetties.
Smallmouth bass populations are booming all across Michigan and don’t think for a minute I don’t enjoy a drift boat ride down the Grand River in summer casting flies and tubes and landing hundreds of smallies in the Portland region. I love the solid tap of a bronzeback when I’m jigging for monster walleyes on the mighty Detroit River in early spring. Smallies are fast becoming the fish of choice for many anglers statewide and many are bent on landing bigger and more fish over four-pounds. Don’t wait until the fall bite to experience trophy fishing throughout the Great Lakes. Now’s the time to go, during summer when weather is ideal and you can experiment with different presentations, seek out new destinations and sample some of the best smallie action in North America.