Michigan's Super Smallmouth Waters
October 04, 2010
Relatively speaking, the smallmouth bass fishing in our state is a well-kept secret. Well, the word is getting out, especially about these waters.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
I once had the opportunity to meet fishing celebrity Jerry McKinnis, host of ESPN's long-running show, "The Fishin' Hole." McKinnis was a featured speaker at a sports show that I was speaking and exhibiting at, and I volunteered to pick him up at the airport.
McKinnis is a good ol' boy from Arkansas who has had the opportunity to fish all over the world. Initially, the drive from Detroit Metro Airport was tense and awkward, with neither one of us saying much. As we sped through suburban Detroit past the endless rows of office buildings, subdivisions and condominiums, McKinnis was the one who finally broke the ice.
"So what do they fish for around here?" said McKinnis, gazing out the window at the seemingly infinite sprawl of glass and concrete.
"Well, there's a lot of good walleye fishing around here," I replied.
"Walleyes," McKinnis turned to me and stated matter-of-factly. "If I had to fish for walleyes all the time I'd take up golf, and I don't even like golf!"
We both had to chuckle, and I broke into a big grin. Conversation suddenly came more easily.
"So what do you guide for?" queried McKinnis.
"Steelhead and salmon," I offered.
"Steelhead. Now there's one heck of a fish," said McKinnis, his eyes now gleaming and him sitting up straighter. "Steelhead and smallmouths -- those are two of my favorite fish. I could fish for just those two fish the rest of my life."
I proceeded to tell McKinnis about the outstanding smallmouth fishing that was available in the shadow of suburban Detroit and how a 4- or 5-pound smallie was really no big deal. I told him that there were literally dozens of great smallmouth waters around the state and that they received relatively little fishing pressure compared to other, more popular species like walleyes. I had his attention now.
We talked excitedly about fishing and Michigan smallmouths right until I dropped him at the gate to the Silverdome. We shook hands, exchanged business cards and McKinnis said he wanted to make it a point to get back to Michigan and sample some of the smallmouth fishing that I'd been extolling.
Like McKinnis, most anglers really don't know what great smallmouth fishing Michigan has. If others states had smallmouth angling like we have here in the Great Lakes State, the bronzeback would be king.
The following is a sampling of Michigan's truly underrated and unheralded smallmouth waters.
Think of 12,800-acre Lake Gogebic in the Upper Peninsula and you naturally think of jumbo yellow perch and plenty of eatin'-sized walleyes. But most anglers don't realize is that Lake Gogebic is also a first-rate smallmouth lake.
"The bass in Lake Gogebic are short and fat, like the perch," said Ron Montie of Nine Pines Resort. Montie said there are smallies in the 21- to 22-inch range that will tip the scales at 4 1/2 to 5 pounds available, although bass in the 15- to 18-inch range are more common. Those are good fish anywhere.
Right after the season opens in late May and early June is one of the best times to target Gogebic smallies.
"Usually right after the season opens the bass are in 2 to 3 feet of water just prior to spawning or during the spawn," said Montie. Much of the early-season fishing for smallies is sight-fishing. A good pair of polarized glasses is a huge asset for spotting bedding bass. Anglers should be very selective about the fish they keep during this period to prevent hurting the fishery. Montie said that pitching a small black jig to irritate defensive bass into striking is a good tactic. Smallmouths can't resist a wriggling worm near their nest either.
As waters warm in July, post-spawn bass head deeper. A good place to search for summer smallies is around the many fish shelters that have been placed in the lake over the years, particularly on the west side. They are delineated by red diamond-shaped signs around the lake in 10 to 15 feet of water -- perfect locations for summer bass. The structure also harbors one of the smallmouth's favorite foods -- crayfish. Look for bass to relate heavily to the dropoffs along the east and west shores, and wherever you find a distinct weedline, too. Crayfish-colored crankbaits and brown jig-n-pig combos work great for Gogebic's bass, as does a leech or crawler suspended below a slip-bobber.
Anglers can launch a boat at Gogebic State Park on the southwest end of the lake or near Bergland on the lake's north end. Another launch is available at the Ontonagon County Park on the lake's northwest side. For bait, tackle, lodging and boat rental, contact Nine Pines Resort at (906) 842-3361 or online at
If you're looking to catch a trophy smallmouth, Gogebic County's Loon Lake might be the place, but it won't be easy.
Loon Lake is one of 36 lakes within the 21,000-acre Sylvania Wilderness Area, most of which are teaming with smallmouths. Most are only accessible by hiking or canoe. There are also special regulations with regard to camping and fishing. There are no motors allowed. Live bait, including scented lures, are prohibited, and fishing for bass is catch-and-release. For more information on special regulations within the wilderness area, contact the USFS Ranger District Office in Watersmeet at (906) 353-4551 or consult your 2005 Michigan Fishing Guide.
Loon Lake, at 375 acres, is one of the more easily accessible lakes within the wilderness area. Loon Lake is a short portage from Clark Lake. A prime location for big bronzebacks is where the lake narrows. Try off the points here. A series of points, coves and bays on the lake's southwest shoreline is a hotspot, too. There is little vegetation in the lake, so bass relate heavily to rocks and logs. In the crystal clear water, they're not hard to spot. The smallmouths will average 16 inches, and bass topping 20 inches are common. You can't keep them to put on the wall, but a picture is worth a thousand words.
Sylvania Outfitters can outfit you with all the gear for a wilderness smallmouth adventure. Contact them at (906) 358-4766 or online at
www.sylvaniaoutfitters.com. To make camping reservations within the Sylvania Wilderness a
rea, call (906) 358-4724.
PORTAGE & TORCH LAKES
Portage and Torch lakes in Houghton County have a reputation as being two of the best lakes in our state for giant pike and monster walleyes. The lakes have developed such a reputation for producing big walleyes that the Professional Walleye Tour held a tournament there last year. What the pros discovered is that Portage and Torch lakes have a lot more than walleyes.
"I didn't catch a bunch of smallmouths," said PWT regular Bill St. Peter, "but then again I wasn't really trying." St. Peter said when he did catch a smallmouth or two, he'd move because he was looking for walleyes, but the bass were just about everywhere he fished, particularly on the north end of Torch Lake. "I caught a lot more bass when I was casting in the weeds and rocks." St. Peter said the smallies pounded a twistertail jig he had rigged for walleyes, and his partner couldn't keep the bass off a Mirage Minnow. Most of the bass were in the 3 1/2- to 4-pound range, but a lot of the pros caught even bigger smallies.
Prime smallmouth locales on 2,659-acre Torch Lake are on the south end, off Ereux Point and off the mouth of McCollum Creek. Just about anywhere you find pilings and/or rocks you'll find smallmouths in Torch.
Portage Lake, at 9,640 acres, offers even more smallmouth hangouts. Known smallie hotspots are off the south shore of Torch Bay, off Grosse Point and along the east shore below Dollar Bay. Try the structure west of where the Sturgeon River enters the lake, too. Crankbaits, jigs and live bait all take their share of bronzebacks. You'll find very few other anglers targeting bass.
For lake maps, live bait and fishing reports, contact Superior Bait at (906) 523-4944. Information on lodging and other amenities in the area can be had by contacting the Keweenaw Tourism Council at (906) 337-4579 or online at
BIG & LITTLE BAYS DE NOC
"The smallmouth fisheries both Big and Little bays De Noc are probably the most underutilized fisheries in the state," said Northern Lake Michigan fisheries supervisor Mike Herman. "Everyone is walleye crazy up here and no one really pays much attention to the smallmouths."
Herman said that he's personally had days where he's landed 109 bronzebacks in 2 1/2 hours of fishing. Most of the bass were sublegal, but that's a lot of action. A few more anglers are catching on to the great bass fishing to fill in the slow times between the nighttime walleye bite, but the fishery is still virtually untapped, especially on Big Bay de Noc.
"Little Bay de Noc has better access," said Herman. Because of this, Little Bay de Noc's smallies see a little more fishing pressure. Gravel shoals off the mouth of rivers that enter the bay concentrate smallies, especially early in the season. Try off the mouth of the Days, Ford, Tacoosh and Rapid rivers. Deeper 12- to 18- foot flats attract bass later in the summer. Try off the points near Kipling, and around Hunter's and Saunders points. The substrate on much of the bay is rock, which provides ideal habitat for the smallmouth's main forage -- crayfish. Baits and lures that imitate crayfish are great on Bay de Noc smallmouths. Hopping, skipping and popping a crawdad-colored tube jig across the bottom is sure to get the attention of bass in the area.
Access to Big Bay de Noc is more limited and the bass fishing is untouched. "The west side of the bay provides some of the best access and the best fishing on Big Bay de Noc," claimed Herman. There are public launches on the west side of Ogontz Bay, at the mouth of the Fishdam River and near Wilsey Bay that provides access to some of the best locations. Hotspots include Wilsey Bay, Wilsey Bay Point, Wedens Bay, Chippewa Point, Sand Bay, Martin Bay, St. Vital Island, and Stony and Poplar points off the mouth of the Sturgeon River near Nahma. There are dozens of other reefs and points teaming with smallmouths. Most of the bass will run from 14 to 16 inches, but lunkers topping 5 pounds are fairly common.
For more information on opportunities for Bay de Noc smallmouths, contact the Northern Lake Michigan Management Unit's Escanaba office at (906) 786-2351. For information on lodging and other amenities in the area, contact the Delta County Tourism & Convention Bureau at (906) 786-2192 or online at
"Smallmouth bass are quite common in many of our northern Michigan waterbodies, particularly the larger lakes," said Northern Lake Huron Management Unit fisheries biologist Tim Cwalinski. "They rarely receive the attention that walleyes and pike get, which is a shame because some of the populations of smallmouths are quite healthy."
One example of a large inland lake that has a very healthy smallmouth population is Cheboygan County's Douglas Lake. "Douglas Lake has bass in excess of 20 inches that are available, and it has good natural recruitment," said Cwalinski.
Prime locations on Lake St. Clair change almost daily. A good starting point is from the Metro Beach Metropark to 9-Mile Road in the weedbeds there from 8 to 11 feet of water.
At 3,395 acres, Douglas Lake has plenty of smallmouth habitat. Even though the lake only averages 12 feet deep, there are holes that approach 80 feet in the lake. Around the edges of these steep drops is a good place to look for smallies. Try in the southeast corner of the lake in South Fishtail Bay and in North Fishtail Bay. Anglers should also probe the contours around Pells Island right off the boat launch at the end of Douglas Lake Road on the southeast side.
The best fishing for Douglas Lake smallies is early in the season before weeds make fishing more difficult. The usual compliment of crankbaits, spinnerbaits and plastic worms work well before the weeds get too thick. Later, weedless spoons and surface lures fished in the openings score.
For live bait, tackle and fishing reports, contact Levering Sports at (231) 537-4737. Information on lodging and accommodations in the area is available by contacting the Cheboygan Area Tourist Bureau at 1-800-968-3302 or online at
"Not only did we find good numbers of bass during our last survey of Beaver Lake, but we found bass up to 23 inches," said biologist Tim Cwalinski. That's enough to get any bass angler's blood pumping.
Alpena County's 665-acre Beaver Lake is not difficult to read. The lake is bowl-shaped with a 70-foot hole in the center and sloping contours along the edges, all of which hold smallmouths. Structure concentrates bass in the lake. A good place to look is near fish shelters that have been placed along the lake's eastern shore in 10 to 30 feet of water. Jigs sweetened with a minnow danced around the cribs will tempt smallies to 6 pounds. Crankbaits that imitate crayfish are good, too. A steady dropoff along the west shore directly across
from the boat launch is particularly good. Breaks and weed edges on the north end of Beaver Lake also concentrate bass.
For details on bait shops, lodging and amenities in the area, contact the Alpena Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-425-7362 or online at
GRAND TRAVERSE BAY
Traverse City is a popular destination for summer tourists. If you like catching big smallmouths, it's somewhere you might want to consider visiting this summer.
"It's probably the best-kept secret in the world," said avid smallmouth angler Roger Borgeson. "It's nothing to cast in the afternoon and catch 50 bass." Borgeson said the bass aren't very picky either. You can throw crankbaits, spinnerbaits, Beetle Spins or jigs -- whatever -- and the bass will jump all over them.
The best fishing is during July and August, which makes it the perfect time to jump right in and wade wet. East and West bays are equally productive. Key is to look for rocks or scattered reeds. The structure is where the smallmouth's favorite food -- crayfish -- live. Find one and you'll find the other. Borgeson said he has personally caught smallies well over 6 pounds from the bay, and knows of fish over 7 pounds being caught. Bass in the 2- to 3-pound range are pretty typical.
The shoreline of Grand Traverse Bay is highly developed. There are several boat launches scattered along the peninsula where anglers can gain access. For information on public access, bait shops and accommodations, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-872-8377 or online at
www.tcvisitor.com. To book a guide, contact Dave Rose at (231) 276-9874 or at
LAKE ST. CLAIR
Not all of Michigan's premier smallmouth waters are located in the north country. Indeed, Lake St. Clair is considered to be one of the best smallmouth lakes in the U.S.
"Lake St. Clair really changes from year to year," said touring bass pro Gerry Gostenik. Gostenik said that one year you might find bass concentrated in the river channel in 20 to 40 feet or water. The next year the bass might be relating to the expansive flats that the lake is known for. It pays to be mobile, use you electronics and cover a lot of water until you hit on a pattern.
"The No. 1 bait on Lake St. Clair for smallmouths is a tube jig," said Kelly Bridgewater of KD Outdoors in Waterford. "The fat salt-impregnated tubes work best. They have better action the way they fall and dart. The brand is not that important." Two colors seem to produce the best on St. Clair -- silver/glitter and pumpkinseed. One color imitates baitfish and the other crayfish, both of which are smallmouth favorites. Key is to vary the retrieve until you hit on pattern. Swim, rip and pop, jig, hop the jigs until the bass tell you what they want. Stickbaits and topwater lures excel, too, when conditions are right and the water is calm. Bridgewater said that bass in the 5- to 5 1/2-pound range are common, although the average bronzeback will be closer to 2 pounds.
Prime locations on Lake St. Clair change almost daily. A good starting point is from the Metro Beach Metropark to 9-Mile Road in the weedbeds there from 8 to 11 feet of water. Other productive spots include the mouth of Little Muscamoot Bay, the islands off of Long Point Bay, the mouth of the Middle Channel, Big Muscamoot Bay and the mouth of the Clinton River. There are countless other canals, cuts and bays that harbor smallmouths.
For more information on finding and fishing Lake St. Clair smallmouths, contact KD Outdoors at (248) 666-7799.
Michigan's has some world-class smallmouth fishing. Make it a point to experience it this summer.