Smallmouth Bass Fishing on Lake Michigan
May 31, 2012
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.
More often than not, the wind blows on Lake Michigan and the wind is notorious for switching directions. It's par for the course. Relative to other regions, however, there is not much to block the effects of these winds. There are no islands, no large bays — nothing. Four- and 5-foot rollers can surge cold water up onto the shoreline where water temperatures can drop 10 degrees overnight. More devastating than crashing water temperatures is the reduced visibility. In calm, stable conditions, good visibility can reach down to 12 feet. When the wind blows, this visibility can be reduced to a handful of inches. Poor visibility can really influence the bass fishing and can make the bite difficult.
With no shortage of windy days, anglers like Captain Steiger have had to learn to make a living by catching bass during these types of conditions.
"When water visibility is cut down, we can continue to produce fish by simply slowing down and fishing good spots instead of running and gunning. When we have those kinds of conditions, I will sit on a good spot for three or four hours and focus on putting the bait in front of the fish several times. Instead of making a few casts on a spot and moving, position yourself on the spot and put many casts in front of those fish. There are times where I will spend three or four hours working a 30 yard piece of structure and that persistence usually amounts to more fish than if I run around.
"Dark colors fished painfully slowly are the ticket. The hot local bait when water is churned up is a Poor Boy Erie Darter in the Plenzler Melon color. These soft plastic tails are rigged onto a Northland Tackle Lipstick Head, which has a barb for keeping soft plastics in place."
Size depends on depth, which depends on the time of year with spawning bass snapping in as shallow as 6 feet during stable weather. Pre-spawn and late-fall bass can range out to 25 feet of water. The key, explains Steiger is to fish these baits slowly and crawl along the bottom. Fish the bait in small strokes that replicate a goby scooting along the bottom. Master the goby shuffle and get bit.
After a strong wind, the visibility might be stirred up for four or five days, so having a program for fishing in these conditions is crucial if you expect to be consistent on these Lake Michigan brown bass. Take Steiger's lead and focus on good spots, slow down and "be" the goby if you want to be rewarded with bass when many anglers struggle.
When visibility does clear up, anglers can cover much more water and fish much more aggressively. Anglers can work jigs with more pop, snapping the jig higher off the bottom. The strike window increases dramatically, such that anglers begin to use some crankbaits, spinnerbaits and some of the other traditional bass tactics with some success. Make no mistake, however, if you expect to catch bass everyday, regardless of conditions, learn how to fish a jig.
Steiger also stressed that watching for changes in visibility is crucial for finding fish that will cooperate. Watching the prop is a good indicator to how much the water is churned up. When you can't see the prop, you are dealing with dirty water. Sometimes, just a foot of visibility makes a big difference. If possible, avoid the wind and spend some time looking for the cleanest water. What protection is available, like harbor mouths and break walls, can become even more important.
Pristine sugar sand beaches or virgin stands of jack pine skylining undeveloped beaches, this is not. The shoreline of Lake Michigan is industrialized. The horizon is broken up by steel mills and refineries. Rusted steel walls jut from urban shore. Warm water discharges stain the chunk rock below massive steel mills. The structure where bass are found reflects the areas industrial might.
Most of the locations where anglers target bass are a result of this industry. Productive locations include discharges, breakwalls, harbor mouths, scattered chunk rock, rock walls and steel walls. Structure is structure, regardless of how it came to be on the Lake Michigan shore. Even the marinas themselves offer a variety structure for smallmouth bass.
Early in the season, Steiger focuses his attention on the steel walls that seem to warm up and absorb heat faster. The discharges are also great locations early in the year. As spring transitions to summer, look for bass on a variety of structures that run the gamut. The best locations often have a combination of rock, steel and protection. Come late summer and fall, some of the best locations include rock walls with deep breaks and isolated rock over deeper water that might be as deep as 30 feet.
Early in the season, mid-morning to early afternoon often coincides with the best bite. A high sun is often best the first part of the season, explains Steiger. During the summer months, however, the exact opposite is true.
"During the summer, we often start fishing around five in the morning as the bite can be over by ten in the morning," stresses Steiger. Again in the fall, when the water cools down, mid-morning to early afternoon can be the best time again.
According to Steiger, great spots can be found along much of the Indiana stretch of Lake Michigan. The amount of bass habitat is really surprising for many anglers; you just have to know what to look for. There is no shortage of habitat for smallmouth bass, explains Steiger. Play the wind, avoid certain conditions and look for good spots — that is the name of this game. If good conditions are in your favor, you can fish more aggressively, but when conditions are not as favorable, slow down where you are confident there is fish. When you find the right locations, focus on making your presentation look and act like a goby.
Some great starting points for smallmouth bass include the East Chicago Marina, Hammond Marina and Portage Public Marina. All of these harbors are a gateway to smallmouth bass fishing heaven for Indiana anglers. The beauty of this fishery is that if you do play the weather and use common sense, you don't necessarily need an enormous boat to experience this fishing. You also don't have to travel that far on water to reach some bass. More Indiana anglers are discovering this Great Lake gem as these pugnacious predators are an incredible fight on spinning tackle
IF YOU GO '¦
If you would like to learn this water with a seasoned pro, contact Captain Steiger. This professional angler knows his bass. Contact Captain Ralph Steiger at (219) 688-3593; www.captainsteiger.com.