Great, Great Lake Springtime Smallie Action

The southern basin of Lake Michigan is the place to catch plenty of smallmouth bass -- and some trophy ones, too -- right now and throughout the season. (May 2007)

Lake Michigan smallies, like this one, provide excellent sport on light tackle.
Photo by Tom Berg.

Pound for pound, smallmouth bass are arguably some of the toughest fish around. They hit hard, pull harder, and fight with a "never-say-die" attitude. As if that's not enough, they also love to take to the air when hooked and put on an aerial display that leaves many surprised anglers speechless. It's no wonder they are the favorite species of so many fishermen.

Although smallmouth bass are often considered a small-stream species or a fish that is more at home in the rocky lakes of Canada, we have plenty of excellent smallmouth fishing right here on Lake Michigan. Today, the lake's southern basin teems with bass, especially along the rocky shorelines where stone breakwalls have been constructed.

Historically, however, smallmouth bass inhabiting the nearshore waters of southern Lake Michigan were restricted to reefs and shoal areas just offshore. The nearshore waters were just too shallow and sandy, with very little natural structure. But as local municipalities and industrial businesses gradually developed the shoreline, the coast was transformed into ideal habitat for smallmouth bass.

Rocky riprap, boulders and cut stone were added to create protective breakwaters to shield harbors and industrial sites from heavy wave action and shoreline erosion. During construction of these stony walls, boulders and smaller stones often tumbled out onto the lake bottom just beyond the base of the walls, providing excellent hiding places for bass and their prey.

Once smallmouths found the new rocky oasis, they quickly moved in and claimed the new territory as their own. The lake's bass population has been thriving ever since!

WHERE TO FIND

SPRING SMALLIES

By the time May rolls around, most smallmouth bass will either be in shallow water or heading there, searching for suitable spawning locations. Luckily for them, there is no shortage of good habitat available. The rocky, gravel-strewn bottom along manmade breakwaters and marina breakwalls in southern Lake Michigan is just what they are looking for.

Many fish move right into the protected waters of marinas and harbors since the water warms quicker there. Insects, crayfish and small fish become active in the warmer water earlier, too, which also attracts the bass. Some marinas do not allow fishing right near the mooring and docking areas for the boats, but most allow access to anglers for the other marina areas.

Some rocky breakwalls run for miles, providing almost endless opportunities for smallmouth fishermen. Harbor mouths and industrial breakwaters are also typically protected by mass quantities of cut stone and boulders, and although they are most easily accessed by boat, some offer shore-fishing access to fishermen on foot, too.

Pre-spawn bass can be caught all around these rocky areas, both inside the harbors and out on the lakeside. Anywhere rocks have been piled up against the shore to protect against wave action is a good place to start searching for springtime smallmouths on Lake Michigan. Even after the spawn, the local smallmouths stay in these nearshore areas and spend the next four or five months eating and living in the rocky shallows.

Many harbors and marinas have been constructed with an extra level of protection from damaging wind-blown waves. Besides the rocky breakwall that usually surrounds the harbor, a second submerged wall of irregular stones is built 10 or 20 yards in front of the main breakwall. These submerged walls only rise to within a few feet of the surface, and their function is to break the incoming waves to dampen their effects on the main breakwall.

These secondary underwater breakwalls are excellent spots for finding large numbers of spring smallmouths. Depending on water temperature, wave action and boating pressure, the resident bass might be cruising anywhere around these submerged rocks. Sometimes the fish relate to the sides and top of the underwater structure, while at other times they are hovering at the base of the wall where it meets the sand and gravel of the lake bottom.

One of the best places to fish is the trough area between the main breakwall and the submerged wall. Since the fish move freely from the base of one breakwall to the other, this entire area should be worked carefully. Smallmouth fishermen can hop their lures down the rocky slopes of each wall, and quickly find out where the actively feeding bass are located.

SMALLIE FOOD SOURCES

Lake Michigan's smallmouth bass have several abundant food sources that they use throughout the year. As the seasons change, different prey species become available and are eaten by them. Anglers who know what the bass eat have a definite advantage when it comes to selecting lures that imitate the proper forage.

One of the primary forage species that smallmouth bass consume are crayfish. Crayfish are extremely abundant, and they prefer to live in the small underwater crevices and holes in the rocky breakwalls. What could be more convenient for the rock-loving smallmouths? As individual crayfish move around among the rocks looking for their next meal, hungry bass glide in and pick them off one by one.

When massive schools of alewives and gizzard shad invade the shallows on their annual spring spawning runs, many smallmouths take a break from eating crayfish and switch to these small, silvery fish. Since alewives are oily and high in fat, alewives and shad are the perfect high-energy food for smallmouths. The bass grab them while they can, too, because once the water warms up, these schools of baitfish will move back offshore and out of reach.

In recent years, a small invasive fish called the round goby has taken up residence in our nearshore waters and has entered the diet of the predatory smallmouths. These small brown bottom-dwelling fish love to hang around the rocks with the crayfish. They are the perfect size for a hungry bass. Although gobies can grow as large as 8 inches, most are only 2 to 4 inches long.

There are other small fish that are eaten by smallmouths, too, in addition to those mentioned above. Smelt (like the alewives and gizzard shad) appear on their spring spawning run, and the bass chase them down whenever they get the chance. Emerald shiners are often present when the water warms, along with baby perch and other young-of-the-year fish.

BAITS & TACTICS

Smallmouth bass can be caught many different ways, and no single method is

always the best. Trolling for smallmouths can be productive, but most anglers prefer to stop their boats and cast lures to underwater structure. Shore-fishermen also cast lures, but they also use a variety of live baits to tempt these hungry jumpers.

Productive smallmouth lures come in all shapes, sizes and colors. The most important thing to remember, though, is that you want your lure to imitate something that a hungry bass is used to eating. For the most part, that means you should use lures that resemble crayfish and small minnows or other fish.

Crayfish imitations are extremely productive. Lure manufacturers have developed dozens of different crankbaits that look and swim like crayfish, and they catch plenty of fish. When using a crayfish imitator, be sure to retrieve it so that it darts and bounces off underwater rocks, just like a real crayfish.

Minnows or shad-imitating crankbaits and stick baits are always productive. Stick baits resemble smelt and shiners, while the deeper-bodied crankbaits look more like alewives and gizzard shad. Chrome and gold-colored minnow imitators are great choices, although natural colors are also good. When the water is stained by spring wind and rain, try a rattling crankbait to attract more bass.

One of the most popular lures used by smallmouth anglers today is the tube jig. These simple soft-plastic lures come with or without trailing skirts, and they can resemble crayfish or minnows. Brown tube jigs resemble crayfish, but they also look like a small goby. Both mean dinner to a hungry bass. Besides brown, productive tube jig colors include pumpkin, smoke, green and variations of these colors with gold or black flecks.

Most smallmouth bass caught by boat- and shore-anglers range in size from 10 to 14 inches, but there are literally thousands of bigger fish out there, too. Bass in the 2-pound size-range (about 16 inches) are fairly common, and 3-pounders don't raise many eyebrows. There are even quite a few 4-pound fish taken by anglers throughout the warm weather months. If you catch a 5-pounder, though, you have caught a trophy.

These days, the smallmouth bass fishing on Lake Michigan is better than ever. To help keep it that way, it is important to handle fish carefully and to practice catch-and-release whenever possible.

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