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Michigan's Top Smallmouth Rivers

Michigan's Top Smallmouth Rivers

Where does our favorite retired fisheries biologist go fishing for smallmouth bass? Here's where!

Photo by David Morris

Hot and humid definitely described the weather on this July afternoon as we waded the Grand River. Even though the water temperature was near 80 degrees, it was a lot cooler standing thigh-deep in the water than it was rigging up at our vehicle. The smallmouth bass definitely did not mind the heat because they grabbed our streamers on a regular basis. If you missed a fish, it seemed like another smallie would find it before the swing and retrieve were completed.

River smallmouths are special fish that endear themselves to anglers throughout Michigan. They eagerly respond to a variety of presentations, from foam poppers to live bait. And just when things are slowing down on the lake-fishing front due to the heat and the peak of the water-skiing and personal watercraft activity, the river smallies are at their peak of activity.

Michigan is blessed with many miles of prime smallmouth water and we will describe the top rivers, starting in the Upper Peninsula and moving south.

The Menominee is a large river that forms the boundary between Michigan and Wisconsin north of Green Bay. Much of the river is impounded, but where it is free-flowing, you will find good fishing for smallmouth bass.

Probably the best smallmouth fishing in the U.P. is found on the Menominee between the Sturgeon Falls Dam and the Chalk Hills Flowage. The river is wadeable in the summer and there is good access to the prime water at Welling Park and Sturgeon Bend Park. Free-flowing reaches above and below this section also provide good fishing for smallmouths. There are quite a few waterfalls and rapids that make for scenic and interesting fishing.

Backups for the Menominee that clear faster than the big river after a rain and offer smaller stream fishing are its Sturgeon River tributary and the lower sections of the Cedar and Ford rivers just up the bay. Dell Siler, who like me is a retired Michigan Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist, likes to fish both the Ford and Cedar, and noted that smallmouth bass move up into them out of Green Bay in the early summer. This gives you a chance at some really nice-sized bass.


The new DNR fisheries supervisor for these watersheds is Mike Herman, (906) 786-2351, and you can reach the Menominee Chamber of Commerce at (906) 863-2679. If you want to hire a guide on the Menominee, contact Mike Mladenik, (715) 854-2055.

While the headwaters and many of the tributaries of the Thunder Bay River are trout streams, most of the unimpounded mainstream offers good smallmouth fishing.

The best smallie fishing in this northeastern Lower Peninsula river is found between Hillman and the Seven Mile Pond impoundment. Many boulders and submerged logs provide cover for smallmouths in this reach. It is wadeable at normal summer flows and is easily fished with fly or spinning tackle.

Long Rapids County Park where M-65 crosses the river provides access right in the middle of the best water. For the latest on the river conditions and the fishing, contact the DNR office in Gaylord at (989) 732-3541. The Alpena Chamber of Commerce, (989) 354-4181, will help with information on lodging, eateries and the local tackle shops.

The Muskegon River is best known for its runs of anadromous trout and salmon, and the trout fishing below Croton Dam, but it also supports an outstanding smallmouth bass fishery.

The smallmouth water is split into two long sections. The upper reach is located between Evart and Big Rapids. The rocky substrate supports abundant crawfish and aquatic insects, and is perfect habitat for smallies. You can wade the river here in the summertime, but floating will help you cover more water and get farther away from the access points. The bridges are far apart in this reach, but by floating you can still go bridge to bridge.

Three dams back up most of the middle part of the river, but it becomes free-flowing below Croton Dam all the way to Muskegon Lake. Trout predominate between Croton and Newaygo, but smallmouth numbers build as you go farther downstream. The best fishing for smallies is between Bridgeton and the mouth. This is definitely boating water, and there are launches at Newaygo, Bridgeton and just upstream from Maple Island Road. The resident smallmouths average a bit on the small side but they are numerous, and some larger fish will move up from Muskegon Lake.

For more information on this river, contact the DNR at (231) 775-9725. The Muskegon County and Mecosta County Chambers of Commerce can be reached at (231) 722-3751 and (231) 796-7649, respectively.

Good smallmouth fishing can be found in the Chippewa River from the Lake Isabella Dam all the way to its confluence with the Tittabawassee River.

Some of the best fishing is found in the reach just downstream from Mount Pleasant, where there is plenty of access at numerous road crossings. Taking advantage of these access points and wading or floating from bridge to bridge is a good plan. The bass tend to average a bit larger as you move downstream, and they will be joined by increasing numbers of walleyes.

If you find the river a bit too muddy, try moving above Mount Pleasant beginning at Meridian Road. This gets you upstream from the North Branch of the Chippewa, which often colors up the main river.

For more information on the fishing on the Chippewa, along with the Cass and Shiawassee rivers - which will be described next - consult with fisheries biologists in the DNR at (989) 684-9141. The Mount Pleasant Chamber of Commerce can be reached at (989) 772-2396.

Draining agricultural land in The Thumb, the Cass River tends to run muddy when it rains. However, during dry weather, it is an outstanding smallmouth bass stream.

You will find the best smallmouth fishing in the reach between Cass City and Vassar. Riffles alternate with long pools, and boulders abound in this part of the river. This section is wadeable throughout in the summer except for a small impoundment at Caro. There are many bridges for access and three state game areas provide additional ways to reach the river.

Good smallmouth fishing continues below Vassar down to Bridgeport. The bridges are farther apart h

ere and the river a bit tougher to wade, so floating via canoe, float tube or cartopper is a good way to go. Walleyes and channel catfish join the bass in increasing numbers as you go downstream.

You can reach the Vassar Chamber of Commerce at (989) 823-2601.

A relatively shallow, clear river, the Shiawassee is a favorite of flyfishers chasing smallmouth bass. It is the Saginaw River's southernmost tributary, flowing north across the county of the same name.

The prime section for smallies is found between the towns of Owosso and Chesaning. Henderson Park, about five miles north of Owosso, is a focal point for flyfishers and spinfishers alike. The normally clear water makes the Shiawassee River easy to read and helps you concentrate your casts where the smallmouth bass are most likely to be holding and feeding.

Many road crossings provide access and give you many options on the length of river that you might want to wade or float. There are also several other parks besides Henderson. When the river is low and the sun is out, a stealthy approach is important as you attempt to entice a strike from the larger bass.

Check with the Owosso-Corunna Area Chamber of Commerce for more information, (989) 723-5179.

The Huron River is the best smallmouth bass stream in densely populated southeast Michigan. The only negative for river bass anglers is that the dam builders have converted too much of it into impoundments. There are also a number of natural lakes on the upper end of the river, but wherever it is free-flowing, you will find smallmouth bass, and a lot of them.

A long free-flowing section that begins in northern Washtenaw County as the river leaves a chain of lakes and ends in Ann Arbor's Barton Pond is the prime stretch for smallmouth bass. As the outlet of a lake, the upper end of this section is almost never out of shape, and the cobble bottom with many larger rocks makes for ideal smallmouth habitat. The clear water makes this part of the river especially attractive to flyfishers.

All methods will catch bass here and three metro parks provide wonderful access and nice greenbelts for this stream that is within half an hour of millions of people. Gary Towns is the fisheries supervisor for all Lake Erie tributaries and is an avid angler, so you can always get good advice from him and his staff, (734) 953-0241. For lodging and tackle shop help, contact the Ann Arbor Area Chamber of Commerce at (734) 665-4433.

There are more miles of excellent smallmouth bass water in the Grand River and its tributaries than an angler could cover if he or she fished every day all summer.

The 130-mile-long middle reach of the river between Eaton Rapids and Grand Rapids is the prime one for smallmouth bass - except where the river is impounded. The upper half of this section tends to run clear during dry periods, and guide Tony Pagliei, (517) 324-9633, recommends it highly to flyfishers. The reach between Grand Ledge and Portland is especially good. Access is via road crossings, and the Portland State Game Area offers additional chances to enter this section of the mainstream. The river is both wadeable and floatable here. The Looking Glass and Red Cedar rivers join the Grand in this section and are also loaded with smallies.

For more information on the upper river, contact Grand River Bait and Tackle at (517) 482-4461. For other information, try the Lansing Chamber of Commerce, (517) 487-6340, or the Portland Chamber, (517) 647-2100.

Biological activity in the Webber Dam Impoundment and the addition of the always-turbid Maple River tend to make the lower Grand more turbid in the summer, even during low flows. This makes the fly-fishing tougher, but there are a lot of bass that respond well to lures. The first mile or so below both the Webber and Lyons dams provide very good smallmouth fishing to the wading angler, and there is public access at each dam.

Once the Maple River joins the Grand, floating is a better option. The exception is the mile of rapids below Sixth Street Dam in Grand Rapids where the river is very wadeable in the summer. The smallmouths are thick here, but you will also be catching walleyes and channel cats among the rocks. There are public access sites on each side of the river and walkways are found on each side as well.

Both the Thornapple and Flat rivers join the lower Grand and offer excellent smallmouth bass fishing. The Flat has a very stable flow and will stay clear after a rain, so it is a good backup river when the Grand and Thornapple are too muddy. It also offers prime fly-fishing opportunities, with the lower half of the river below Greenville offering the best smallmouth fishing.

For more information on the fish and the fishing in the Grand River and the next two rivers to follow, contact the DNR at (616) 685-6851. The Lowell (616-897-9161) and Grand Rapids (616-771-0300) Chambers of Commerce can help you with lodging and local tackle shops for the lower Grand River.

The Kalamazoo River parallels the Grand River both geographically and physically. It starts just west and south of Jackson and heads north before it turns and flows west to Lake Michigan, just like the Grand. The upper river is very clear, especially before its North Branch and South Branch join at Albion. Plankton growth in the Marrow Pond impoundment adds turbidity to the lower half of the river.

Smallmouth bass are numerous and provide good fishing throughout the river. While the two branches are relatively narrow, they harbor good-sized smallmouth bass, and it takes a very heavy rain to dirty them, so if the lower river is muddy, you can save the day by moving up to the branches. Good fishing continues after the branches merge, and the river is wadeable all the way to Allegan, except for the impoundments.

Fred Lee is a guide who manages the fly shop in the Fishing Memories Outdoor Store (616-381-4000) in the Kalamazoo suburb of Portage. He recommends the Kalamazoo River below Marrow Pond through its namesake city for big smallmouths. Five-pound fish are possible here due to the fine habitat and richness of the river. While the river is still wadeable in this reach, floating will help you cover more water.

The Battle Creek (616-962-4076) and Kalamazoo (616-381-4000) Chambers of Commerce can help with lodging, tackle shops and other information about the Kalamazoo River.

Our southernmost large river on the west side of the Lower Peninsula, the St. Joseph starts in Michigan and loops through Indiana before returning to the Great Lakes State.

The best smallmouth fishing is found in the lower river, but there are plenty of chances to battle a bronzeback in the upper river. Much of the upper river is impounded, but you will find smallmouth bass wher

ever it is free-flowing.

As the St. Joseph passes through the county of the same name on its way to Indiana, it gathers the water of four tributaries that offer good small-stream fishing for bass - the Portage, Rocky, Prairie and Fawn rivers.

Once the St. Joe returns to Michigan, it is a big river and tough to wade. However, there are areas below the dams in Niles, Buchanan and Berrien Springs where the angler on foot can get to the bass.

The best smallmouth fishing in the entire river is found between Berrien Springs and Interstate 94, mainly due to outstanding habitat. A boat is needed to cover most of this water, and there is a launch ramp at Berrien Springs along with several more downstream. The Paw Paw River is the St. Joe's largest tributary and joins the main river near Lake Michigan. There are good numbers of smallmouths in this wadeable river and you will find the best fishing in the lower part of the river below Lawrence. The Paw Paw is slow to muddy, so it also serves as a backup stream if the big river is too high and turbid.

Contact the Three Rivers Chamber of Commerce (616-278-8193) for more information on the upper river and the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce (616-429-1170) for the lower St. Joseph River.

* * *
Don't let this summer go by without fishing for river smallmouths. These cooperative fish put up a great battle on light tackle and it is hard to beat the esthetics of fishing a Michigan river for smallmouth bass.

(Editor's Note: The Web site addresses for all of the previously mentioned chambers of commerce that have a Web site can be found at

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