For many anglers, massive Lake Michigan can conjure many images. A resurging king salmon fishery immediately comes to mind. Other coldwater trophies like lake trout, brown trout and steelhead creep into our consciousness. Of course, there are also some success stories regarding the comeback of yellow perch in Lake Michigan.
With so many fish and chances at really big fish, what more can an angler ask for? How about a few accolades for one of the big pond’s most under-utilized fishing opportunities, a phenomenal fishery that is finally getting the notoriety it deserves. How about a drum roll for the smallmouth bass population?
Indiana boasts over 40 miles of Lake Michigan shoreline and along this shore is some great bass fishing. With numbers of fish along with trophy fish potential, this region is special and, ironically, often overlooked. But affection for this hard-fighting sport fish is beginning to blossom and for bass anglers on the Lake Michigan shoreline of Indiana, the good old days are right now.
THE GOBY’S ARRIVAL
Perhaps nobody knows these Indiana smallmouth bass like Captain Ralph Steiger, who operates a very successful guiding business on the waters of Lake Michigan. This Northland Fishing Tackle pro can remember catching smallmouth bass along the Lake Michigan shore as far back as twenty years ago, but back then, a 15-inch bass was a noteworthy fish. According to Steiger, the bass fishery seemed to explode when an invasive species called the goby found a home in Lake Michigan. The goby is a bottom-dwelling fish that lacks an air bladder and propels itself along the bottom with two large pectoral fins, a fish that looks very similar to the sculpins that are native to many American streams and rivers. Transported to North America by accident in the bilges of transatlantic ships, the goby spread across the Great Lakes and finally the Indiana shoreline.
Invasive species that are getting transplanted into the Great Lakes are raising havoc across the country and most are a real threat to many waters. This, however, is an incident where many anglers believe this accidental introduction has served certain predators like smallmouth bass quite well. Nonetheless, the moral of the goby story is don’t try this at home.
However, with these fish firmly entrenched in the Lake Michigan ecosystem, the effects on bass in particular seem positive. Twenty-inch-plus smallmouth bass have seemed to coincide with the arrival of the goby. As gobies became more common in Lake Michigan, the size of the bass increased. These days, most tournaments on Lake Michigan out of the Indiana harbors require a 4-pound average or better just to stay in the hunt.
The other factor that seems to be helping the smallmouth bass population is EPA regulations that have cleaned up this ecosystem over the past 25 years. We also cannot deny the strong catch-and-release ethic that has entered bass fishing. Great smallmouth bass fisheries either need little to no fishing pressure, regulations or self-restraint for bass to grow into trophy fish. In the case of this particular fishery, the bass get some help from the anglers themselves. While there is a 14-inch minimum size limit on the Indiana stretch of Lake Michigan, many anglers who target these spectacular fish are releasing all of them to fight another day.
KNOW THE FORAGE, FIND THE FISH
While these smallmouth bass may feast on shad, crayfish and some other food items through the course of the year, the goby connection is critical for understanding and catching these bronzebacks, according to Captain Steiger. You can catch bass by casting lures like crankbaits or spinnerbaits up onto the rock, but you will only touch the most aggressive fish with these high, no-contact presentations and that is assuming you have good enough water visibility.
During stable conditions with good visibility, the traditional crankbaits, rattlebaits, spinnerbaits and swimbaits work for covering water, checking spots and finding fish, but when you know where bass are located, nothing beats the slow jig presentation, according to Steiger. Day in and day out, Steiger catches more bass by fishing presentations that stick to the bottom. Goby spend their lives glued to the bottom and, as a result, all but the most aggressive bass are typically orientated on the bottom.
“I find that when I use jigs and soft plastics on the bottom, I am just running the bait in front of a lot more fish,” explains Steiger. “The hardest part for me when I am guiding is often getting my clients to slow down and make that solid, steady bottom contact. Think like a goby, act like a goby.”
WINNING AGAINST THE WIND
The effects of goby on the smallmouth bass patterns and presentations is obvious, but there is one more wrinkle that might not be unique to the Indiana harbors on Lake Michigan, but no doubt impacts how anglers put a pattern together. This factor is wind.
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