Michigan's Trout-Country Smallmouths
October 04, 2010
The northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula are known for their great trout fishing, but there's also super fishing for smallmouth bass for you to enjoy.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By Jim Bedford
The flash of the silver-sided balsa minnow took on a real copper hue as it dove a couple of feet below the surface of the stained river. I was retrieving it along a fallen cedar tree that had been swept around so that it paralleled the bank. The lure didn't make it to the end of the tree.
The smallmouth bass leaped as soon as it felt the tug on its jaw from the hookset and I quickly steered it away from the cedar tree. Smallmouth bass are one of our most consistently hard-fighting fish and this one was no exception. I had to really strain my ultralight rod to keep the bass out of the tree, and the extra pressure usually caused another jump. Near the end of the battle the fish still scored three points by swimming between my legs before I could corral it.
When a river angler says he or she is heading north to fish, most Michiganders assume that person's quarry will be trout. While our state is blessed with many outstanding trout streams in its north country, there are a number of relatively lightly fished smallmouth bass streams. We'll start in the western Upper Peninsula and work our way east and south to the northern Lower Peninsula.
BRULE RIVER The Brule River forms a boundary between Michigan and Wisconsin and is a classic trout-to-smallmouth bass transition river. The prime smallmouth reach is between Pentoga and the river's confluence with the Paint River.
The Brule is wadeable at low to normal summer flows, but floating is probably a better way to cover the water because of the distances between the bridges. In addition to the bridges, there is a gravel public launch ramp at the Carney Dam site about two miles west of Stager.
Since the Brule is a boundary water, the regulations may be slightly different and you should consult your 2003 Michigan Fishing Guide. Your Michigan fishing license is all you need, even if you are fishing the Wisconsin side of the river.
For the latest information on the Brule and other Upper Peninsula rivers that will follow in this article, you can call the Department of Natural Resources office in Gladstone at (906) 786-2351.
PAINT RIVER The Paint River is another stream that is a blue ribbon trout stream in sections of its upper half and becomes a prime smallmouth river as it grows in size.
At its lower end it merges with the Brule River in an impoundment called the Paint River Pond. Smallmouth bass become quite numerous in the Paint River when the Net River joins it about eight miles north of Iron Mountain. Their numbers continue to build, and the river above and below Crystal Falls is loaded with small- to medium-sized bronzebacks.
Like the lower Brule, the Paint remains wadeable in the summer, but a canoe or boat helps you cover more water. There is a gravel boat launch at Erickson's Landing about two miles west of the U.S. 141 bridge, and two bridges near Crystal Falls give you four access points to the prime smallmouth water.
MICHIGAMME RIVER Much of the Michigamme River is impounded, but there is good smallmouth bass fishing throughout this warmwater river.
The longest free-flowing stretch is found in the reach above the Michigamme Reservoir. There are over 20 river miles in this section, with the Witbeck Rapids area a prime spot. Below the reservoir, there is a relatively fast, shallow section that harbors good numbers of decent-sized smallmouth bass. A lowhead dam slows the water at Hemlock Falls, but below this falls there is another good stretch of fine smallmouth water. Walleyes and some northerns join the bass in this river.
Access is found at road crossings and there are trails or roads back into the falls and rapids. The Michigamme joins the Brule to form the Menominee River about 10 miles northwest of Iron Mountain.
MENOMINEE RIVER The Menominee River forms the Wisconsin-Michigan border throughout its length. It is a big river but is surprisingly wadeable in the reaches where there are rapids. It is frequently impounded, but the upper river impoundments are quite narrow and you can float into the upper ends of them and find good smallmouth fishing.
A fairly long free-flowing stretch occurs below the Kimberly Clark Dam south of Quinnesec. The whitewater rapids at Piers Gorge are a special feature of this reach. Swinging spinners and streamers work well here, and when you hook a good-sized smallmouth and it dashes into the fast water, you will be in for a very strong battle.
The prime smallmouth bass water in the Menominee is found between the Sturgeon Falls Dam and the Chalk Hill Flowage. Much of this water is wadeable in the summer and smallmouths are plentiful, with 50-fish days a definite possibility. There is good access to the best water at Sturgeon Bend and Welling Parks, and County Road 356 parallels much of this part of the river.
One of the many rivers in Michigan bearing the name Sturgeon River joins the Menominee River in the Sturgeon Falls Dam impoundment and offers good smallmouth fishing in its lower reaches, especially above and below the U.S. 2 crossing. It has the reputation of producing larger than average river smallies.
Another long stretch of free-flowing smallmouth water occurs below the White Rapids Dam on the Menominee. When the water is low, you can wade for several miles below the dam, but this is primarily boating water. Farther down, below the Grand Rapids Dam, a canoe or small boat is needed to effectively fish the river.
In the short reach between Green Bay and the first dam, smallmouths are part of a mixed bag of walleyes, channel catfish, northern pike and, at certain times of year, salmon and trout from Lake Michigan. In June you have a chance at larger than normal smallmouths in a river situation when bass move out of Green Bay and into the lower river.
FORD RIVER While the Menominee and Michigamme rivers are principally warmwater streams throughout, we are back to the trout-to-smallmouth bass transition stream with the Ford River.
This stream flows through four counties, first to the east and then south into Green Bay just south of Escanaba. The headwaters contain brook trout, but once the warm West Branch joins the mainstream in the northeast corner of Men
ominee County, the Ford is home to good numbers of smallmouth bass.
A fairly good number of road crossings provide access to the Ford River at regular intervals. You can both wade and float the river, and the bass fishing keeps getting better as you go downstream. Like the Menominee, there is a migration of smallmouth bass from Green Bay into the Ford in the early summer. This is special in that it gives you a chance to catch some really nice-sized smallmouth bass in the 4- to 5-pound range in a relatively small river.
ESCANABA RIVER The Escanaba River is best known for its trout fishing and, in fact, many anglers are not aware of the fine smallmouth bass fishery in the lower river. While the area just below Boney Falls Dam is heavily stocked with brown trout fingerlings, there are good numbers of smallmouth present, and as we go downstream the bass take over as the principal game fish.
Crayfish are favored prey of smallmouth bass and, unlike in many soft-bottomed U.P. rivers, they abound in the lower Escanaba River. Thus, using crayfish-imitating flies and plugs is a good plan in this stained river.
You can wade much of the Escanaba for several miles below the Boney Falls Dam, but a boat will help you as you near the impoundments on the lower river. The bottom is mostly bedrock and quite slippery, so felt soles and a wading staff are recommended to keep you dry. There is good access at Boney Falls, but road crossings are scarce, so floating from bridge to bridge is a good plan.
Remember, the DNR number to call for all these U.P. smallmouth rivers is (906) 786-2351. For information on motels, tackle shops and restaurants, you can contact local chambers of commerce at (906) 265-3822 for Iron County and the Paint, Michigamme and Brule rivers; you can call (906) 774-2002 for Dickinson County and the upper Menominee River; you can call (906) 863-2679 for Menominee County and the lower Menominee and upper Ford rivers; and the number to call for Delta County and the lower Ford and lower Escanaba rivers is (906) 786-2192.
THUNDER BAY RIVER As we move into the northern Lower Peninsula we find that most of the rivers are well fed by springs and remain cool enough for trout for most of their length. A northern exception is the Thunder Bay River in the northeastern part of the peninsula.
While there are trout in its headwaters and several tributaries, the smallmouth bass rules throughout most of the main stream. The dam builders have turned a lot of the river system into ponds, but there is a prime reach of smallmouth water on the river between Hillman and the backwaters of the Seven Mile Dam. Long Rapids County Park is located in the center of this stretch of stream where M-65 crosses the Thunder Bay River. Logs and boulders abound in the river here, providing excellent smallmouth habitat. The park provides good access to the river and you can wade or float the river. Additional road crossings provide access, but they are far enough apart that you should plan on all-day float-fishing trips.
For current information on the condition of the river and the quality of the fishing for the Thunder Bay River and the Au Sable River (which follows), you can contact the DNR at (989) 732-3541.
AU SABLE RIVER Mention our Au Sable River and most anglers will think only about browns and brookies. Well, it is true that the upper river and all of its branches are fine trout streams, but once we get to the much-impounded lower river, it is a different story. Smallmouth bass become one of the dominant predators in the free-flowing parts of the lower river and are also present in good numbers in the impoundments.
The bass begin to mix in with the trout as we near the Mio Dam Impoundment, and while a lot of trout are still stocked below Mio, you will also find good numbers of smallmouths. There is a good stretch of smallmouth water below the Alcona Dam, but after that the amount of free-flowing river between dams is quite limited until the reach between the Foote Dam and Lake Huron. In the lower stretch the smallmouths are joined by good numbers of channel catfish and walleyes.
This is all big water and is much more easily floated than waded. A boat also allows you to drop down into the upper ends of the impoundments where the smallie fishing can be quite good. There is access at each dam, as well as at the road crossings.
MANISTEE RIVER Like the Au Sable, the Manistee River is a nationally known trout stream in its upper two-thirds, and it receives a large run of steelhead and salmon up to Tippy Dam each year. There are still good numbers of trout just below Tippy due to heavy stocking, but as you move downstream, smallmouth bass take over in a big way.
The reach between High Bridge and the confluence with Bear Creek is especially good. Smallmouths continue to be present in good numbers all the way to Manistee Lake, and they are joined by increasing numbers of walleyes and northern pike as you move downstream. While this is a crowded river during salmon and steelhead seasons, you will have it to yourself in July. You can wade to a limited extent, but a boat is a big plus.
There are only two road crossings below Tippy Dam, but there are a number of public boat launches, with the ones at High Bridge, Blacksmith Bayou, Bear Creek and Rainbow Bend in the prime smallmouth water.
The DNR office in Cadillac keeps close tabs on the Manistee River and the Muskegon River (which follows). They can be reached at (231) 775-9727.
MUSKEGON RIVER Even though the Muskegon River starts out as a warmwater stream, it contains relatively few smallmouth bass until the flow quickens between the towns of Evart and Big Rapids. In this reach the rocky habitat and healthy crayfish population are made to order for smallies. The river has cooled down as well here, and brown and rainbow trout are stocked. The smallmouth still predominate, but the trout respond to the same baits, lures and flies and will add variety to your fishing.
The river is wadeable here at normal summer levels, but many anglers float in small boats and canoes because the access points are limited.
A series of large impoundments split the Muskegon's upper smallmouth water from the lower. Stocked browns and rainbows provide the main fishery below the lowest dam at Croton, but by the time you get below Newaygo, the smallies are taking over. The prime smallmouth bass fishing is found below Bridgeton, and this is definitely boating water. Some large smallmouths move up into the river from Muskegon Lake and spice up the action in this section. You can launch at Bridgeton, just up from Maple Island Road, and at the river mouth in Muskegon Lake.
Local Chamber of Commerce contact numbers for the Lower Peninsula rivers include (989) 354-4181 for the Thunder Bay and Alpena County; (989) 739-7322 for the lower Au Sable; (231) 723-2575 for the lower Manistee River; (231) 734-5555 (Evart) and (231) 796
-7649 (Big Rapids) for the upper Muskegon; and (231) 652-3068 (Newaygo) and (231) 722-3751 (Muskegon) for the lower Muskegon.
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Remember that smallmouth bass like a firm substrate with moderate current. An uneven bottom with boulders and submerged logs for cover is perfect. These bass are also fond of holes just below gravel riffles that produce a lot of food in the form of crayfish and large insect nymphs. These fish also feed heavily on minnows.
Light spinning tackle is very well suited for river smallies. Jigs dressed with plastic or marabou, small lures and weighted spinners are all ideal for these fish. You can also turn to the real thing and drift crayfish, crawlers and minnows through the runs and holes.
Smallmouth bass are also an excellent fly-rod fish. They live in broad, open rivers that provide a lot of casting room. Often they will rise to poppers and deer-hair bugs even when there isn't a hatch. These bronze-colored bass attack crayfish- and minnow-imitating streamers anytime, and these flies are especially effective when the water is low and clear.
So if you find yourself in Michigan's trout country and the summer's heat and bright sunshine have turned off the browns and brookies, give these rivers a try for smallmouth bass. These bass seem to turn on in midsummer when other fish, including bass in lakes, are hard to catch. Smallies are great game fish in any environment, but they really show their stuff in our northern rivers.
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