Photo by Jim Bedford.
Walleyes and smallmouth bass are considered coolwater species by fisheries biologists. Water temperatures in the low- to mid-70-degree range are ideal for these fish. The summer water temperatures in Michigan’s large rivers are frequently in this range, and the walleyes and smallmouths are more active in these waters in August than they are in our lakes.
Walleyes and smallies share many other habitat preferences besides water temperature. Rivers with moderate flows and rocky bottoms provide ideal habitat for both species. Firm sand will also hold these fish as long as there is cover in the form of boulders, logs or overhanging vegetation. Reaches of river where gravel riffles alternate with deep runs or holes are the ones to concentrate on when fishing for walleyes and smallies. The presence of large rocks in both the holes and riffles is always a big plus.
The following are a bunch of prime Michigan rivers and their reaches where you can catch good numbers of walleyes and smallmouth bass. But just remember that by keeping these habitat preferences in mind, you can also find your own river honeyholes in addition to these hotspots.
The Menominee River forms the border between Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It offers the best river fishing for smallies and walleyes on the other side of the Mackinac Bridge.
There are a number of dams on the Menominee, and the stretches below them are hotspots for game fish. Dams block the upstream movement of fish and concentrate them. When the dam is an active power dam, the turbines will often stun or cripple baitfish, thus making for easy meals for the walleyes and smallmouths.
The Hattie Street Dam is the first one up from Green Bay, and the reach between the dam and the bay is great for both walleyes and smallies. A boat is handy here, but you can also catch fish from shore near the dam and from Stephenson Island on the Wisconsin side of the river. Big fish are possible here, as both walleyes and smallies move out of Green Bay to feed in the river, where your Michigan license is legal.
Moving upstream, the areas below the Chalk Hills Dam and Grand Rapids Dam contain excellent numbers of both walleyes and smallmouth bass. The many other dams also offer good fishing in the first mile or so below them. There are also stretches of rapids in the river, and fishing can be very productive in the areas near the base of the rapids as the water slows down.
Access is good at all the dams and rapids on the Menominee. You can get additional information on fishing the river by contacting the Michigan Department of Natural Resources at (906) 786-2351.
AU SABLE RIVER
Mention the Au Sable River, and anglers automatically think trout and fly-fishing. Well, that’s appropriate for the upper Au Sable and its tributaries, but you will find very good fishing for walleyes and smallmouth bass in its lower end.
The stretch to concentrate on is between Foote Dam and the mouth of the river in Oscoda. You can wade near the dam and at the Whirlpool access site, but a small boat lets you cover the whole river more effectively. There are launch ramps at the river mouth, at the Whirlpool and at Foote Dam.
DNR biologist Tim Cwalinski suggested concentrating your efforts in the lower few miles of the river. He recommended giving special attention to the reach near the mouth of Van Etten Creek. The pier at the mouth of the river can also be hot for these predators in August. You can contact DNR biologists at (989) 732-3541 for more information.
The Muskegon is another river that is better known for its trout and steelhead fishing, but it has even more miles of river offering prime walleye and smallmouth bass fishing.
This river starts as the outlet of Houghton Lake and flows almost 200 miles to Lake Michigan. The prime reach for both walleyes and smallies lies in the lower river from a few miles upstream of Bridgeton down to Muskegon Lake. This is big water, so a boat is the best way to go at it.
Upstream on the Muskegon, the smallmouth bass outnumber the walleyes, but there are still areas where ‘eyes will contribute to your catch. DNR biologist Rich O’Neal suggested trying below Hardy Dam and Rogers Dam for good mixed-bag fishing. You will also find good numbers of walleyes farther upstream in the stretch of river near the town of Big Rapids.
For more information on the Muskegon, call the DNR at (231) 788-6798.
Walleye numbers are higher in the Tittabawassee River in the spring and late fall, but you will still find them mixed in with the smallmouth bass in the summer.
This river is the northernmost tributary to the Saginaw River. The prime reach for mixed-bag fishing is between Midland and the confluence in the city of Saginaw. It is a big river and wading is limited, but you can do well in your boots when the water is low and shore-angling is possible.
DNR biologist Jim Baker recommended that shore-bound anglers try West Michigan Park in Saginaw and Imerman Park about six miles upstream where there is also a newly constructed fishing pier. Anglers can also launch boats at Imerman Park and at the Center Road boat launch in Saginaw. Some resident walleyes also mix in with the smallies upstream from Midland below the Sanford and Wixom dams.
You can reach the DNR for more info at (989) 684-9141.
Michigan’s longest river also offers our state’s best combo fishing for walleyes and smallmouth bass.
Walleyes and smallies teem in this river, with the middle two-thirds of the Grand between Lansing and Jenison providing the best fishing. As usual, dams tend to concentrate the fish, but you will also find good fishing in free-flowing reaches between the dams. The area below Grand Rapids where the river transitions from fast, rocky water into a more gentle flow is a prime reach for larger fish. You can wade all of the water in the rapids below the 6th Street Dam in Grand Rapids and the upper part of the transition water. A ramp at Johnson Park gives boaters access to the slower, deeper water downstream.
Moving upstream, you don’t encounter another dam until
you get to Lyons. You can fish in the long reach between the dams, but you will need to boat a fair distance in order to find good numbers of walleyes and smallmouths. There is good access at the Lyons Dam, and there are good numbers of fish in the first mile below it. Just upstream, the Webber Dam blocks the flow, and the reach below it has been a hotspot for larger walleyes. There are public accesses on both sides of the river, and a large island below the dam gives you a chance to “make the circle” for bass and walleyes.
If you don’t catch them at Webber, you are just a few miles from the Portland Dam. There is access on the west side of the river, which is split by a wall between the power channel and the spillway. I have experienced better fishing below the spillway.
Continuing upstream, walleyes and smallies are numerous below the Grand Ledge Dam. There are two parks on the south side of the river, with walleyes more numerous near the dam and smallies predominating downstream. There are two dams in Lansing, and there is good smorgasbord fishing and access below both. The river is wadeable in August, and there are walkways at both the North Lansing and Moores Park dams. Also, some walleyes move up into the Red Cedar River in town and join the plentiful smallies in this tributary.
It is the lower half of the Kalamazoo that provides the best combo fishing for smallies and walleyes in this southwestern Michigan river.
DNR biologist Jay Wesley thinks the heavy walleye stocking in the Morrow Impoundment just upstream from the city of Kalamazoo is the reason for good numbers of walleyes joining the smallmouths below this dam. The upper half of the Kalamazoo River is loaded with smallies, but walleyes are very scarce. The river is quite wadeable below Morrow Dam at normal summer levels.
Downstream from the city of Kalamazoo, there are four draw-down dams that tend to concentrate the smallmouths and walleyes. The first dam is located about halfway between the towns of Plainwell and Otsego, and the next is in Otsego. The third is two miles downstream from Otsego, and the last is Trowbridge Dam halfway between Otsego and Allegan. You can try below all of these dams in one outing, and then concentrate your fishing where you have the most success.
The next dam is Allegan Dam, and the river is free-flowing below this barrier all the way to Lake Michigan. This dam is located about four miles west of the city of Allegan, and the reach below it offers good multi-species fishing. You can fish from shore at the dam, but a boat is better for fishing farther downstream. There is a launch ramp at the dam.
ST. JOSEPH RIVER
Our state shares the St. Joseph River with Indiana, and there is good combo fishing for walleyes and smallmouths, both before the river loops into Indiana and after it returns to Michigan. In the upper river, the best fishing for walleyes and smallies occurs from the town of Colon down to the state line. The other hotspots in the upper river are below the Sturgis Dam, which is about five miles downstream from Mendon, and below the dams in Three Rivers and Constantine.
When the St. Joe returns to Michigan, the best fishing is found below three dams in the towns of Niles, Buchanan and Berrien Springs. There is good access at each dam, and limited wading is possible below each barrier. A small boat will help you reach more water, and it will be especially helpful when targeting walleyes.
For more information on the St. Joseph, Kalamazoo and Grand rivers, call the DNR at (269) 685-6851.
The best chance for good walleye-smallie fishing in southeastern Michigan is found in the Huron River, which starts in Oakland County and flows south and east to Lake Erie. It is an excellent smallmouth river, and walleye numbers are steadily increasing. The lower river between the Belleville Impoundment and Flat Rock runs through several metro parks and offers good fishing.
Upstream from there, Kent Lake is an impoundment of the Huron River, and some of the walleyes from this lake are showing up in the river downstream. The same is true in the Ann Arbor area where there also are several impoundments. Look for good fishing below the Barton Dam right through town. Between Ann Arbor and Kent Lake, there are also several metro parks offering very good access to the river. Information on the river and tips on fishing it can be obtained at (248) 359-9040.
TACTICS FOR TWO
Like all river fish, walleyes and smallmouth bass orient to the current. Most of the time, they will lie behind an obstacle or in the slot between a side eddy and the main flow to wait for the current to deliver food items. Of course, these fish will also actively chase minnows and crayfish. Since they usually face upstream, the best plan is to fish in an upriver direction, casting above the fish and retrieving with the current or allowing the current to drift your offering to the bass and walleyes.
Keeping these fish unaware of your presence is the big advantage to fishing upstream, especially when wading. Smallmouth bass — especially the trophies — are wary fish, and walleyes aren’t dummies either. You stand a better chance of catching both species by not signaling that you are in their domain through sight, a cloud of silt or a wake.
Crankbaits, weighted spinners and jigs are all good choices for both smallies and walleyes. It is a good idea to try to match the lure type with the river habitat and the mood of the fish. For shallow, rocky stretches, shallow-diving balsa minnows work great on both walleyes and smallies. For somewhat deeper water, you can switch to deep-diving lures, but keep choosing models that imitate the shiners, chubs and other minnows in the river you are fishing.
Weighted spinners are especially effective in moving water and are a great choice for river smallmouth bass and walleyes. They really get the attention of the fish and have action at very slow retrieve speeds, which is quite helpful when the walleyes and smallies are not especially active or the water is quite turbid. These lures don’t represent any natural food, but they appear alive and attract game fish through both sight and sound.
Jigs fished with plastic tails or live minnows could be the best baits of all for river walleyes and smallmouth bass. They are especially effective when the water is slow and quite deep. They are usually more effective than other lures on relatively inactive fish since they are worked much more slowly. This enables you to give the fish time to decide that your offering is something good to eat.
Drifting the real thing is also highly successful for river smallmouths and walleyes. While gathering or buying live bait and keeping it alive can be a hassle, there are many times when bait will produce more fish. Live bait is particularly effective when the river is muddy and the fish can’t see your lures very well. You can drift the bait slower than the current and allow its scent to precede it, and thus attract fish.
Using a float is a handy and useful way to present live bait to walleyes. The bobber can almost eliminate h
anging up on the bottom, which is especially problematic with crayfish and hellgrammites. These critters like to seek out rocks and sunken logs and burrow under them. Minnows may seek out the bottom or try to swim to the surface. A float combined with a small split shot or two will keep the minnow at the right depth. If the bait is struggling for the surface or the bottom, it is sure to attract hungry walleyes and smallies.
To find active walleyes and smallmouths during the dog days of summer, give the above rivers a try. Don’t forget your polarized sunglasses and billed cap so you can read the water to find submerged logs, boulders and other cover that harbor these fish.
For more local information on areas you want to fish, including tackle shops, you can contact the local chamber of commerce through the Michigan Chamber of Commerce at (517) 371-2100, or www.michamber.com.