There's a growing group of both professional and avid bass anglers that will tell you Michigan has some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in the country. And it's not like it's just one or two bodies of water that are hot. Lake St. Clair has been on the bass-fishing fraternity's radar for years and is recognized as one of the top smallmouth destinations in the nation.
Larger inland lakes in northern Michigan have been in the headlines since they've been featured on some of the bass fishing programs on the outdoors channels. It didn't hurt that Greg Gasiciel caught a 9.33-pound smallmouth, a new state record, from Hubbard Lake last year. The catch got a lot of press for these same waters.
"This is additional evidence that Michigan truly has world-class bass fisheries," said Jim Dexter, our Department of Natural Resources' fisheries chief. "Smallmouth bass is one of the most popular, most sought-after sportfish in North America. Even though the Michigan state record stood for more than 100 years, we're excited to see the bar set even higher for those who set out to land this iconic fish."
While Michigan's smallmouth bass fishing has been stealing the headlines, largemouth fisheries across the state have been quietly expanding and improving. Biologists are finding that largemouth bass are usurping walleyes in many lakes that were once known for their walleye fishing.
The theory is that bass spawn at just the right time to allow them to outcompete newly hatched walleyes. It's thought that climate change (if you believe that kind of thing) has warmed these lakes and promoted more weed growth, thus making the waters more hospitable to largemouth bass. Consequently, largemouth bass are thriving in numerous lakes where walleyes once dominated.
If you're a serious bass angler, there may be no better time to fish for bass in Michigan than right now.
LAKE ST. CLAIR
Lake St. Clair is a perennial in the BASS Top 100 every year. It's been ranked as high as No. 1, but slipped to No. 16 in 2015. But in spite of the perceived decline, it remains one of the country's top smallmouth fisheries.
Notoriety and increased exposure have a price. "Fishing pressure on Lake St. Clair has increased 1,000 percent more than it was 10 years ago," said bass fanatic Scott Dobson. "I think the reason is the catch-and-release season and the large pro tournaments that have gotten Lake St. Clair a lot of exposure. Now you have a lot of people coming to fish from bordering states all season long and the boat ramps are packed from during the catch-and-release season right through the summer. I was kind of glad to see that it slipped to No. 16."
Dobson said that in spite of the increased pressure, Lake St. Clair is still a fantastic fishery. "You can still catch plenty of 2-, 3-, 4-pound bass, but it's not like it was three or four years ago. It was good fishing last year. In a tournament in October, my partner and I brought in a sack of five fish that weighed 28 1/2 pounds, all caught in 10 to 12 feet of water."
Two things benefited Lake St. Clair's bass in the past — zebra mussels and gobies. Both came in via ship ballast water decades ago. Their abundance has reached an equilibrium that may not be as beneficial to bass. When the exotic invaders first arrived they had virgin territory and their numbers exploded. Mussels filtered particles from the water, which allowed more light penetration and weed growth. Insects and native species thrived in the weeds. Gobies thrived on the zebra mussels.
Since then, numbers of gobies have stabilized, but native species like darters and sculpins are making a comeback, which means even more food for smallies and other game fish. Anglers in the fall of 2015 reported catching some of the biggest and the best numbers of big bass that they've caught in years.
While Lake St. Clair's smallmouths draw all of the attention, its sizable largemouth population goes largely unnoticed. Largemouths have benefitted from the changes that have taken place in Lake St. Clair, almost as much as the smallmouths. With weedbeds in deeper water, Lake St. Clair bass can now be found far from your typical largemouth structure, but you still find good numbers in bays, coves and under boat docks.
Thunder Bay's bass have thrived under the radar. Thunder Bay was once famous for its trout and salmon fishing. It has gained some notoriety over its burgeoning walleye population, while the fantastic smallmouth fishing basically goes unnoticed.
"It's the same fishery as Lake St. Clair or Saginaw Bay, with a lot less people," shared bass fanatic Paul Gohlke. "You can find bass in Thunder Bay in less than 30 feet of water all year long."
The sheer amount of prime smallmouth habitat on Thunder Bay is mindboggling. You can find great bass angling near Sugar and Gull islands off the tip of North Point, in the inner bay near Partridge Point and Sulphur Island, to the south off Scarecrow Island, and everywhere in between. Places like North Point offer phenomenal smallmouth action and are basically ignored by anglers because no one really needs to go that far to catch fish.
"Three- to 4-pound bass are average and I've caught smallmouths just shy of 7 pounds," said Gohlke. "Five- to 6-pound bass are not uncommon; 20 to 25 fish would be an average day."
Thunder Bay bass can be caught basically from ice-out until late fall. Like all Great Lakes bass, Thunder Bay smallies are looking down, rooting for gobies and crayfish among the rocks. Consequently, tubes on jigs or when drop-shotting are go-to baits.
Contact the Alpena Area Chamber of Commerce at 989-354-4181 or online at alpenachamber.com for information on lodging, amenities and guides.
NORTHERN MICHIGAN LAKES
What do lakes Mullet, Burt, Grand, Hubbard and Charlevoix have in common? Big smallmouths!
"These bigger inland lakes are smallmouth factories," proclaimed the Gaylord field office fisheries biologist Tim Cwalinski. "There's not much competition for the smaller fish and there's a diverse forage base for bass to feed on that includes gobies, crayfish, shiners, mayflies and perch. We don't have many eutrophic lakes up here. There's not the numbers like you're going to have on Lake St. Clair, but there are good number of 2- to 4-pound smallmouths, and 5- to 7-pound fish are possible."
Another reason these northern Michigan lakes produce big smallmouths is no one really fishes for them and the ones who do know that to maintain the fishery, they need to practice catch-and-release. "Bass are not as popular up here," said Cwalinski. "The bass have always been there. The anglers haven't been. We're seeing a good population of smallmouths mainly because they're untouched. The numbers have improved recently because of water clarity from zebra mussels and reduced plankton."
One thing these large, clear relatively cold inland lakes have in common is there is a limited amount of prime bass habitat so the fish are very concentrated. Smallies can be found anywhere around the lakes with ledges, rocks and sloping contours leading to deeper water. "There's a limited amount of shallow water on these lakes," shared Cwalinski.
Shallow water is needed by bass for two things — spawning and forage. The need concentrates bass in relatively small areas of the lakes.
Fishing remains hot on these lakes from mid-May until freeze-up. Casting a spinnerbait or crankbait parallel to the shoreline dropoff is a great way to cover water and catch some rotund smallies. Topwater fishing can be a hoot on calm mornings, but you know that you can always fall back on jig-and-tubes if the bite is tough.
For more information on northern Michigan's largest inland lake, contact the DNR Gaylord district office at 989-732-3541 or the DNR field office in Traverse City at 231-922-5280.
LAKES MITCHELL AND CADILLAC
Lakes Cadillac and Mitchell have undergone a transformation from two of the state's better lakes for smallmouths and walleyes to two of the premier lakes for largemouths.
"Largemouth bass have always been the dominant bass species on Lake Mitchell, but in the last 20 years they have exploded," said Cadillac district office fisheries biologist Mark Tonello. "Twenty-five years ago, Lake Cadillac was virtually all smallmouth bass. Now we see largemouths have become more dominant — 60 percent largemouth, 40 percent smallmouth."
Tonello said he suspects bass tournaments might have played a part in the change, as many tournaments operate out of a Lake Cadillac site and largemouth bass, often caught in Lake Mitchell, wind up getting released into Lake Cadillac.
More weed growth and warmer water may benefit largemouths as well. "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," offered Tonello. "There's also evidence that largemouth bass have the ability to suppress walleye year-classes, likely through predation."
With fewer walleyes and less competition, largemouth populations have the upper hand. Similar changes are taking place on northern Michigan lakes like Fife, Missaukee and Hamlin. Expect the bass fishing on those lakes to improve in 2016 as largemouth numbers expand.
Chuck a white spinnerbait along the weedlines and isolated humps and you are going to have bucketmouths in the 2- to 4-pound range jumping all over them on Mitchell and Cadillac. Trophy fish up to 7 pounds are common. You can catch them from May through October. Both lakes are relatively shallow so largemouths can be found everywhere. Topwater baits excel, as do worms when Carolina- or Texas-rigged.
For more information on lakes Cadillac and Mitchell largemouths, contact the DNR Cadillac district office at 231-775-9727.
The shallow reaches of southern Michigan lakes, like Oakland County's Pontiac Lake and Lake Orion, Kent Lake and Lake Fenton, quickly absorb the warm spring sunshine and jumpstart a bass' metabolism. Hungry after a long winter fast, look for largemouths in shallow, south-facing bays and coves where you find a dark bottom. Fish them slowly and methodically with mini-worms and stickbaits to give lethargic bass a chance. Crankbaits can produce late in the day when the water has reached its maximum daily temperature.
Shallow, stump-filled, 585-acre Pontiac Lake is one of Michigan's premier largemouth lakes and fishes very well beginning in May. Lake Orion is a myriad of coves and bays that suck up spring sunshine, attract alewives and marauding schools of bass before the lilacs bloom. Smallmouths predominate on Cass Lake, but you'll find largemouths, too, and you can catch each on consecutive casts.
Look for bass in the skinny water along the weedy edges of Dollar Bay, Back and Garundegut bays. At 1,000 acres, Kent Lake is one of southern Michigan's most popular Metroparks. It receives heavy pressure, but you can always find a secluded bay or piece of shoreline holding bass.
Look for largemouths to be cruising the shallows in 4 to 6 feet of water along the golf course on the southwest side of the lake.
For more information on fishing in Greater Detroit's Metroparks, visit metroparks.com/.
"Klinger Lake near Sturgis is a good one for bass," offered Plainwell district fisheries supervisor Jay Wesley. "It has both good numbers and good-sized bass, both largemouth and smallmouth. They hold a lot of tournaments there." Recent surveys found several strong year-classes from 6 to 8 inches all the way up to 24 inches.
Lake Austin is a largemouth cornucopia. With a maximum depth of 11 feet and plenty of weeds, Austin offers classic largemouth habitat. Bass patrol weed edges or set up ambush locations in holes in the weeds, which leads to pitching with jigs, topwater lures and spinnerbaits.
"When it comes to smallmouths, some of our best fishing around here takes place in rivers," said Wesley. "Rivers like the St. Joe, Grand and Kalamazoo produce great smallmouth fishing. The Kalamazoo is probably the best for numbers and fishability."
For more information on southwest Michigan bass waters, contact the DNR Plainwell district office at 269-685-6851.