If you're a Michigan bass angler there probably hasn't been a better time to practice our sport. Bass numbers are thriving; opportunities abound and appear to be getting even better. Many lakes are undergoing changes that have benefitted largemouth bass and their numbers have exploded in many Michigan lakes. There are proposals being considered by the Michigan Natural Resources Commission to allow catch-and-release bass fishing year 'round and an earlier opener on Lake St. Clair.
Be it largemouths or smallmouths, there are plenty of options for bass aficionados in the Great Lakes State. Following is a list of waters you'll want to wet a line in this season.
Lakes Cadillac & Mitchell
Lakes Mitchell and Cadillac are often viewed by anglers as one and the same. Separated by a short canal (and M-115), the two lakes shared a common name historically: 2,580-acre Lake Mitchell was originally called Big Clam Lake, while 1,150-acre Lake Cadillac was called Little Clam Lake.
"To some degree, they're joined at the hip," said Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Mark Tonello, who oversees the lakes. "They're similar in a lot of ways. There are some differences, too, though the differences seem to have lessened over the years."
The fish communities in both lakes have changed over the last couple of decades, becoming more homogenized. "They went from basically walleye/pike-dominant lakes that had some bass in them to now being viewed as bass lakes," Tonello said. "Pike are still prevalent but walleyes are a smaller part of the fish community than they used to be and they no longer reproduce. We have to supplement them with stocking."
Tonello indicated that similar changes are taking place on Missaukee and Fife lakes where largemouth bass are becoming the predominant species.
Tonello believes what happened is a bit puzzling, but there are a few theories. "Largemouth bass have always been the dominant bass species on Lake Mitchell but in the last 20 years they have exploded," Tonello said. "Twenty-five years ago, Lake Cadillac was virtually all smallmouth bass. Now we see largemouths have become more dominant — 60 percent largemouths, 40 percent smallmouths."
Tonello said he suspects bass tournaments might have played a part in the change. Many tournaments go out of a Lake Cadillac site, and largemouth bass caught in Lake Mitchell wind up getting released into Lake Cadillac.
"We also think it might be climate," Tonello said. "A warmer climate probably favors a species like largemouths over walleyes and smallmouths because a warmer climate favors more plant growth, which will benefit a weed-loving species like largemouth bass.
"There's some research coming out of Minnesota and Wisconsin that's showing the same phenomenon, where bass populations are exploding to the detriment of walleye," he continued. "They believe largemouth bass have the ability to suppress walleye year-classes, likely through predation."
A change in angler behavior — i.e. more catch-and-release fishing — probably benefits the bass population, too. "Twenty-five or 30 years ago, more people were keeping bass than they are today," Tonello said. "But if you're a tournament bass angler, you'll absolutely love Mitchell and Cadillac because the bass fishing is terrific. Most boats in most tournaments limit out. There are a lot of 2- to 4-pound bass in those lakes."
At 617 acres, Fife Lake in Grand Traverse County has been considered one of northwest Michigan's best lakes for walleye and smallmouth fishing for years. Surveys conducted there in 2013 seem to indicate that largemouth bass are taking over that lake, too. Of particular concern in the Fife Lake survey was the absence of smaller fish.
"Another trend from the 2013 survey was that fewer fish were caught overall than in 2001. This may have been due to colder water temperatures in the 2013 survey, which was conducted nearly a month earlier than the 2001 survey. Fewer panfish were caught in 2013, including only 83 bluegills compared to 547 in 2001. Also, only a handful of bluegills younger than age 5 were caught in 2013.
"In contrast, the largemouth bass catch of 107 fish from the netting portion of the survey far eclipsed the 2001 catch of only 18 largemouth bass. It is possible that the increased largemouth bass population has affected the abundance of bluegills in Fife Lake," wrote Tonello.
A similar trend has been observed in Missaukee County's 1,985-acre Lake Missaukee and Mason County's 5,000-acre Hamlin Lake.
Green, Duck & Long Lakes
Whenever you're fishing, it's always good to have a backup plan. If you're targeting smallmouth bass in the Traverse City area, that's not too difficult. There are more than a dozen great smallmouth waters in the Traverse City area and three — Green, Duck and Long lakes — are close enough that you can fish them all in a single day.
You could walk from Green to Duck Lake, and Long Lake is just across US 31. All are topnotch smallmouth lakes that produce good numbers of bass and fish of 5 pounds or more. All the lakes are similar in that they are crystal clear, are right around 2,000 acres or so, and have great fish habitat in the form of islands, rocky shoals, spits of gravel, sloping contours and deep water.
Green and Duck lakes feature two-story fisheries. Both lakes are planted annually with a potpourri if trout species that thrive in their deep recesses. Long Lake is more of a bass/walleye lake that has good numbers of both. Drift with a minnow on a jig or below a slip-bobber and you're likely to catch smallmouths and walleyes along with a few jumbo perch.
Long Lake can be tough to fish though because it has so much good structure. Bass can be widely scattered and the lake's intense clarity makes the fish spooky, holding deeper than normal. Look for smallies to be clustered in the shallows early in the season where rocks and shallow water soak up the spring sunshine. The brown bass remain shallow into July. Casting with tubes or pumpkinseed-colored twistertails is a proven technique. The same technique is effective on the bass in Green and Duck lakes, too.
Lakes Charlevoix, Leelanau, Torch & Walloon
Farther to the north, Traverse City Field Office fisheries management biologist Heather Hettinger said it's pretty hard to beat lakes Charlevoix, Leelanau, Torch and Walloon when it comes to smallmouth bass.
"The problem with my lakes with largemouths is that they are small, and can't really handle all that much pressure," declared Hettinger. "And truthfully, even my good largemouth lakes are pretty mediocre compared to others in the state. These bigger systems are much better at sustaining good populations of big smallies, even under pressure. My area of the state rules for smallies!"
Lake Charlevoix, at 17,260 acres, is a favorite of Michigan resident and famous bass pro Kevin VanDam. And for good reason! The lake is loaded with 3- to 5-pound smallmouths that produce great fishing all summer long and well into the fall. Prime locations include Hemingway Point, Horton Bay, the Advance area and around Whiting Park on the main lake. In the North Arm, concentrate on Oyster Bay, Two-Mile Point, the Depot Beach area and the mouth of the Pine River channel.
"Walloon Lake: This one has been a bit of a sleeper, but the past couple of years I have had some great reports," claimed Hettinger.
Most anglers don't think of the deep, clear 4,320-acre Charlevoix County lake as a prime location for smallmouths, but they should. The smallmouths are concentrated in the relatively small amount of shallow water found on the lake.
Hettinger rated both North Leelanau and South Leelanau lakes as exceptional smallmouth waters. Anglers should look for smallmouths in the 15 to 25-foot depths near the narrows between Brady and Warden points on deeper 2,950-acre North Lake Leelanau and anywhere your LCG indicates a ledge or dropoff extending from shore. Spinnerbaits, crankbaits and jigs all take their fair share of bass that will sometimes scare the heck out of 6 pounds.
South Lake Leelanau probably has the best smallmouth numbers of the two lakes. Concentrate on the south-end weedbeds and gravel bars in Perrin's and Weisler bays early in the season.
Smallmouths are fairly easy to find in Antrim County's 18,770-acre Torch Lake. Just look to the shallow dropoffs. Most of Torch Lake is deep and cold so bass tend to concentrate in the warmest water found close to shore. Concentrate on south-facing shorelines in the spring and early summer where you find points, breaklines and dropoffs.
For more information on northwest Michigan bass lakes, contact the Michigan DNR Traverse City Field Office at 231-922-5280.
Fletcher Pond, Grand & Hubbard Lakes
Alpena County's 9,000-acre Fletcher Pond is an anomaly. It's a shallow, stump-filled largemouth factory in an area that is famous for its deep, clear cold lakes. Created in 1931, the backwater of the Upper South Branch of the Thunder Bay River is one of Michigan's steadiest producers of trophy largemouths.
"Fletcher's largemouth population holds up pretty well in spite of the fact that it's so shallow," suggested North Lake Huron Management Unit fisheries supervisor Dave Borgeson. "Flowing water prevents winterkill and bass survive very well in the reservoir."
If you're a bass angler taking a long, hard look at Fletcher Pond, it will have you drooling. It's shallow, weedy, stump filled, and screams "Largemouths!" The entire lake is a great place to chuck spinnerbaits, skim buzzbaits, or dance weedless plastics.
Grand and Hubbard lakes are gaining a reputation for being some of the top waters for smallmouths in the state. "Hubbard is really good for smallmouths," claimed Borgeson, "and Grand Lake has some really nice smallmouths in it and good numbers. You'll find a lot of bass in the 14- to 18-inch range all the way up to 21 or 22 inches. The smallmouths there are under-fished because most people want walleyes."
Hubbard Lake's smallmouths have gained in popularity after the lake was featured on a bass-fishing show this past year, but its smallmouths still received relatively little pressure. Known bass hangouts include Doctor's Point, along the contours found off Hardwood Point, and in the 10- to 30-foot dropoffs found in South Bay.
Smallmouth numbers are booming on Presque Isle County's 5,660-acre Grand Lake. Target the east side of the lake off Whiskey Point and in aptly named Black Bass Bay. Crankbaits in perch and fire-tiger colors take smallmouths that occasionally push 5 pounds. With few spots deeper than 25 feet, the whole lake is a smallmouth factory.
For more information on bass lakes in northeast Michigan, you can contact the DNR's Gaylord Customer Service Center by calling 989-732-3541.
Kent, Cass & Pontiac Lakes
There are a lot of great bass lakes in southeast Michigan that are not named St. Clair. "I would have to say that Kent Lake is one of the best in southeast Michigan for both largemouth and smallmouth," stated Lake Erie Management Unit fisheries biologist Jeff Braunscheidel. "You'll find good-sized examples of both species. The lake tends to get pretty weedy later in the summer so late spring and early summer is the easiest time to fish it."
Access is good to 1,000-acre Kent Lake via Kensington Metro Park. The lake is one of the state's busiest with regards to fishing pressure, but there are numerous coves and bays where anglers can find a spot all to themselves. The bays and coves tend to get very weedy in the summer, and so they're great places to pitch a jig, slither a frog, or call up a largemouth on a buzzbait. Kent Lake has produced bucketmouths more than 7 pounds. Smallmouths are more likely to be found along the old river channel and among the plentiful riprap along I-96.
"Pontiac Lake is another lake in the area that is good for numbers of largemouths," said Braunscheidel. Look at a map of 585-acre Pontiac Lake and you'll see that it has an abundance of weedbeds and stumps that provide perfect largemouth bass habitat. An impoundment of the Huron River, a steady flow of water and nutrients produces excellent numbers of bass and fish to 5 pounds on occasion. Shallow-water techniques excel on the lake, although you can find depths to 30 feet on the lake's east end. That is a good place to concentrate your efforts during late summer.
For details on bass lakes in southeast Michigan, contact the Lake Erie Management Unit of the DNR at 313-396-6890.