Five destinations where you can hook bragging-sized spring bass.
By Tom Berg
Bass fishermen are a very diverse group. Some enjoy fishing with live bait, while others use artificial lures only. Certain anglers prefer to use plastic worms and other soft-plastic lures. Others are specialists with fly-fishing gear, and still others love to throw crankbaits and plugs. One thing all bass anglers have in common, however, is they all want to catch a trophy-sized bass!
Where do you find large bass? Most lakes and ponds that host bass populations hold individual fish of various sizes, and each body of water likely holds a certain number of big bass. The actual numbers, though, can vary wildly. One of your favorite lakes may hold a bass population with only one or two very old, very large bass. Similar lakes may be home to dozens of large bass.
How do you find the lakes that hold good numbers of big bass? One answer is to look at lakes that are perennial producers of hefty-sized bass. Some lakes are simply great bass producers, where conditions are just right, and bass grow to large sizes. Other waters are well-managed fisheries, where the bass have an enhanced chance of reaching trophy sizes.
Lakes abound where Hoosier bass anglers can wet a line this spring, and Indiana Game & Fish Magazine has chosen five destinations where the chances of hooking a bragging-sized bass are very good.
Located near the town of French Lick, Patoka Lake is well-known as a bass fishing destination in the Hoosier state. This sprawling impoundment in southern Indiana’s Crawford, Dubois and Orange counties has been a magnet for bass fishermen for many years. The reason is simple, too. Patoka produces vast numbers of big bass year in and year out, and anglers always have a chance at catching a really big bass here.
Patoka Lake covers 8,800 surface acres and is literally surrounded by the Hoosier National Forest. It is an idyllic place to fish for bass. According to District 6 fisheries biologist Rebecca Munter of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, bass fishing at Patoka is very good and “… has been a consistent producer of big bass for quite some time,” she adds, noting an IDNR fisheries survey for largemouth bass on Patoka in April 2017. “A total of 47 percent of our catch was 14 inches or longer, and 16 percent was 18 inches or longer. The biggest bass we saw during the survey weighed 6.3 pounds and measured 21.5 inches long. Most of the bass measuring 18 inches or more were in the 3- to 5-pound range.”
Munter says a 2015 angler creel survey reported the average length of harvested bass was 18.2 inches, the longest such length ever recorded for Patoka Lake. Munter also points out that local bass tournaments have been extremely successful here. “Patoka consistently has the largest average bass weight, the biggest bass average weight, and the fewest amount of hours to catch a bass 18 inches or longer each year, she adds.”
Crankbaits, buzzbaits, jigs and soft-plastic worms are all productive lures for Patoka Lake bass. Because gizzard shad make up a large part of the lake’s forage base, it’s a good idea to cast shad-imitating baits, too. Silver-, chrome- and gold-colored lures resembling shad are very productive. When targeting oversized bass, try using extra-large lures. Trophy-sized bass are often looking for a big meal.
Indiana’s largest inland lake is Monroe Reservoir in Monroe and Brown counties. Located just south of Bloomington, in the heart of southern Indiana’s big bass country, this 10,000-plus-acre lake is literally teeming with bass of all sizes. From legal-sized 15-inchers up to tackle-busting 8-pound trophies, Monroe Lake is certainly one of the best places in the state to fish for largemouth bass.
As is typical for Indiana’s large reservoirs, Monroe features a wide variety of fish-holding structure: an abundance of flooded and submerged timber, brush piles, underwater points, rocky shorelines, twisting creek channels and quiet coves.
“Interest in bass fishing remains high at Monroe Lake,” says Dave Kittaka, IDNR District 5 fisheries biologist. “Largemouth bass are still the most sought-after species here, too. Looking at the 2016 bass tournament report, the number of bass tournament anglers increased at Monroe as did the average weight of bass weighed-in (2.8 pounds). The time it took to catch a legal-sized bass also dropped from 9.4 hours in 2015 to 7.8 hours in 2016.”
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The last angler creel survey conducted on Monroe took place in 2015. Kittaka and his staff gathered and tabulated the harvest data and catch-and-release information and found bass anglers are still quite successful at Monroe. “An estimated 328 largemouth bass were harvested during the creel survey,” Kittaka says, “and an additional 23,457 bass were caught and released.”
Plenty of bragging-sized bass were caught during the survey, too. The average length of harvested largemouths was 15.8 inches, and fish up to 21 inches long were recorded. Twenty-seven percent of the largemouth bass caught and released measured 14 inches or larger, which was similar to previous creel surveys. “The bass fishing has been very consistent on Monroe and has not changed much in the past 10 years,” Kittaka says.
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Monroe Lake’s bass feed heavily on the lake’s huge population of resident gizzard shad. Successful anglers try to “match the hatch” and use lures that look and act like shad. Silver crankbaits, plugs and body-baits are good choices, but large, soft-plastic jigs are also deadly. Pearl, gray and smoke colors can be very productive, especially those patterns mixed with blue or silver flakes (glitter).
Middlefork Reservoir in Wayne County is located on the north side of the city of Richmond, just a few miles from the Ohio border. Often overshadowed by the much larger Brookville Lake situated about 20 miles to the south, Middlefork seems to be overlooked by all but the local fishermen. As impoundments go, at only 189 acres big, this eastern Indiana impoundment is very small. Don’t let its diminutive size fool you; this reservoir is home to some hefty largemouth bass.
IDNR District 4 fisheries biologist Corey DeBoom manages the fish populations at Middlefork Reservoir. He recommends this lake for bass anglers who are looking for a better than average chance at hooking a bragging-sized bass.
“Middlefork Reservoir has a strong bass population with above-average densities of fish over 15 inches,” he reports. “It also contains some real lunkers, as we have sampled largemouth bass over 7 pounds here.”
DeBoom conducted a survey on Middlefork in 2017 and found good numbers of mature bass. A total of 39 percent of the bass sampled measured 15 inches long or greater. Bass measuring 18 inches or more represented 11 percent of the catch, which is very good. “The largest we saw during the survey was 23.5 inches long and weighed 7.8 pounds,” DeBoom says. “That is a big bass, especially for central Indiana.”
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The average depth of Middlefork is about 20 feet. At 41 feet, the deepest water lies right in front of the dam. There are plenty of good areas to fish for bass around the lake, and some of the shallower spots at the northeastern end near the bridge are very productive in the springtime. Numerous submerged brush piles lay scattered along the lake’s shorelines, attracting plenty of bluegills and other small fish. The bigger bass will be nearby, just waiting for the chance at an easy meal.
The size of boat motors on Middlefork Reservoir is not prohibited, but local anglers embrace self-imposed small-motor restrictions because it keeps the lake fairly quiet and allows them to fish without having to contend with water-skiers and other high-horsepower boats. A fee is charged for launching a boat.
North-central Indiana’s Bruce Lake is a small, 245-acre natural lake located about 9 miles east of Winamac, straddling the borders of Pulaski and Fulton counties. The lake is relatively shallow, with an average depth of 7 feet and most areas measuring less than 15 feet deep. A few deeper holes fall away into 20 feet of water, and one spot measures 34 feet deep.
The lake’s primary forage species are bluegills and gizzard shad, and the resident predators (largemouth bass and muskies) take full advantage of them. According to Tom Bacula, IDNR District 1 fisheries biologist, Bruce Lake’s bass population can be characterized by quality-sized fish. The overall bass population is fairly low, he says, but the numbers of big fish are way up compared to historical numbers.
“(In 2017) we collected 30 bass larger than 18 inches in four hours of electrofishing,” he reveals. “That is quite impressive for a natural lake. The largest bass measured 21.4 inches long.” In fact, largemouth bass caught in the survey ranged in size from 3.6 inches to more than 21 inches, representing fish from 1 to 13 years old. Compared to surveys from previous years, the number of legal-sized bass (14 inches or greater) has tripled. Electrofishing catch rates for large bass — 18 inches or more — were more than six times higher in 2017 than during the last survey in 2012.
Anglers can launch their boats at the public access ramp in the northwest corner of the lake. Look for weedlines and lily pads to find active bass. Some shallow humps, located near the middle of the main basin, are worth checking out. Be ready if a big bass takes the bait. Big fish are definitely present here.
Monroe Lake may be the largest inland lake in the state, but Indiana’s portion of Lake Michigan dwarfs Monroe with ease. Lake Michigan may actually be the greatest bass lake in the state … but not for largemouth bass. Instead, Indiana’s slice of Lake Michigan is becoming quite famous for smallmouth bass. Not just big numbers of smallmouth, either. There are some real giants out there!
The shallow Indiana shoreline is where smallmouth bass call home starting in early spring. By May, smallmouth bass can be found almost everywhere along Indiana’s coastline where there are rocks and boulders. The western shoreline is particularly productive, since local industry created breakwalls and rocky breakwaters to combat shoreline erosion. The rocky areas around Hammond Marina, Whiting’s Whihala Beach, Arcelor-Mittal Steel, Pastrick Marina and Gary’s US Steel are literally packed with fish.
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“Southwestern Lake Michigan continues to be a quality fishery in terms of both numbers and size,” he says assistant Lake Michigan fisheries biologist Ben Dickinson. “There are lots of bass in the 1- to 3-pound range, and bass tipping the scales at over 5 pounds are caught annually.”
Almost any shoreline area with rocky structure holds smallmouth from spring through fall, especially the hotspots of East Chicago, Hammond and Gary. “Burns Harbor/Burns Ditch also hosts a healthy population of largemouth bass (up to 4 pounds) in addition to the smallmouths,” Dickinson adds.
One local angler who knows the habits of Lake Michigan’s smallmouth bass as well as, or better, than anyone is Capt. Ralph Steiger from Hammond. Steiger runs a charter fishing business (phone: 219-688-3593; online at CaptainSteiger.com) on Lake Michigan and specializes in bass fishing during the spring and fall. “The spring months of April, May and June are great for smallmouth,” Steiger says. “There is a huge year-class of 1- to 2-pound bass out there right now, and there are plenty of big ones mixed in, too. Three-pound fish are super common.”
Smallmouth bass will hit a variety of artificial lures, but soft-plastic jigs that resemble crayfish and the invasive round gobies are hard to beat. Various shades of brown are productive, as is black, pumpkin and other natural colors. Shad-imitating crankbaits are also very good.
Whether you are fishing for oversized largemouth bass on one of Indiana’s inland lakes or you love fishing Lake Michigan for bruiser-sized smallmouth bass, springtime is the right time for connecting with a bragging-sized bass.