In most parts of the country, a 5-pound smallmouth earns "fish-of-a-lifetime" status. But I don't consider the place I'm about to tell you about "most parts of the country." This is Michigan. And if there is a better state for smallmouth bass fishing than Michigan, it has yet to reveal itself.
Michigan is home to some 11,000 inland lakes. The state touches four of the five Great Lakes and is home to tens of thousands of miles of rivers and streams. And while not all of those waters hold fishable populations of smallmouth bass, many do. And those that do grow those fish big — Real big.
We're not talking about a single lake here and there. Michigan's smallmouth bounty stretches from south to north, west to east. And waters range from big water to small, from Great Lake to big lake to small lake to river to stream.
Access to these waters is abundant and easy. Better yet, the areas with some of the finest fishing also happen to be some of state's most scenic and family-friendly places to visit.
Licenses are affordable and simple to find. An annual nonresident license is an affordable $68. Three-day licenses are just $30 — a true bargain by any measure. You can find licenses at hundreds of retailers or buy them online. The only thing anglers need to remember is that the season is catch-and-immediate-release until May 28 or June 18 depending on the body of water you're fishing.
EXPLORING MICHIGAN'S BEST FISHING
A smallmouth excursion in Michigan is much more than a fishing trip. It's an odyssey into a state where lakes love to live. It is the diversity in topography, scenery and experience that defines Michigan's fishing and a smallmouth trek "around the horn" is as good as it gets.
We'll start on Michigan's "West Coast." Then we'll head north into the land of the Sleeping Bear. From there we'll curve our way around the tip of the mitt and, finally, head back south to Motown.
Along the way we'll encounter some of the finest freshwater shoreline in the country, skip through wine country, roll through glorious stands of hardwoods and descend towards the region that gave us the automobile.
Let's get started.
There are scores of port cities along the Lake Michigan shoreline. But when it comes to smallmouth fishing, you'd be hard pressed to find one more accommodating than Traverse City.
Tucked at the base of Mission Peninsula, this wisp of land that separates Grand Traverse Bay into its East and West Arms, Traverse City is a special place.
Founded in 1852, Traverse City is an eclectic mix of history and future. It is one of those rare places where hip, young families mix freely with history-loving retirees. This region produces more tart cherries than any in the world and produces some exceptional wines.
And the fishing is incredible!
Both arms of Grand Traverse Bay hold exceptional populations of smallmouth. Water clarity is intense with visibility easily surpassing 20 feet. The phrase "gin clear" simply doesn't do it justice.
If you want to start an argument in a hurry, ask a couple of anglers whether the East or West arm offers the best smallmouth fishing. In my experience, the best water is the one that you decide to fish.
Finding smallmouth isn't terribly difficult. Simply cast to any dark spots in the water. Those blackish areas are created by submerged vegetation and rock. Find those patches of cover and you'll encounter fish.
Standard smallmouth offerings are preferred, which means spinnerbaits and tubes. Drop-shots presented to deeper areas of isolated cover work when summer heat moves fish deeper. But keep in mind this is Lake Michigan. It's vast, deep and cold. The bays will warm much more quickly than the main lake but will still be much colder than neighboring inland lakes.
During June, smallmouth move into shallow reefs to spawn. Sight fishing at this time of year can be insane.
You'll encounter big fish. A 4-pounder is a "good" one and you should find several in a good day with fish over six pounds far from uncommon.
Leaving the Traverse area will be tough. But, trust me, there's more great water to explore and it's time to get moving. About 90 minutes north, you'll find Burt and Mullett Lakesâ€‘ the largest inland lakes in Michigan.
Both are part of the inland waterway, a highway of water that stretches 40 miles from Crooked Lake into Lake Huron. This waterway passes through three other lakes along the way including Burt and Mullett.
Both Burt and Mullett offer exceptional smallmouth fishing. Mullett is known for producing higher numbers of fish while Burt is revered for giving up huge smallmouth.
I've caught fish over four pounds in both lakes and wouldn't be able to choose a favorite between the two if my best crankbait depended on it.
You'll find plenty of areas to target including weed beds and rocks. Mullett has more "traditional" cover whereas Burt requires you to find more subtle holding areas.
Both are exceptional during the spawn.
Now we'll head up and over the tip of the northern Lower Peninsula. This time we're heading to Alpena on the east side of the state.
Here, again, we have an embarrassment of smallmouth riches.
Several excellent inland lakes, including Hubbard, Grand and Long lakes, offer top-notch smallmouth fishing. If you need some video evidence, check out the Major League Fishing event that took place there.
In 2015, Hubbard Lake produced the new state record â€“ a 9.33-pound beast. The previous record, a 9.25-pound smallmouth, was caught on Long Lake. Greg Gasiciel from Rhodes caught the new state-record smallmouth on October 18, 2015. He hooked the record fish on a green grub. The bass weighed 9.33 pounds and was 24.50 inches long.
If you're looking for bigger water, Lake Huron is renowned for its smallmouth fishing and Thunder Bay is one of the state's more overlooked smallmouth fisheries. This is big water and you'll need to use caution when the wind kicks up â€“ particularly if the wind comes from the east. But big fish live here and few have ever seen a lure.
We're heading south again along the eastern shore. This time we'll stop in Au Gres, a beautiful port town that just happens to offer excellent access to Charity Island in Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay.
You'll find miles and miles of rocky reefs around the island; all of which can be loaded with smallmouth. During the spring, these rocky grounds attract thousands of smallmouth.
Spinnerbaits and Rat-L-Traps can produce fish-every-cast action.
But this is not an outing for daydreaming. The rocky bottom can produce incredible fishing action, but it can eat a prop in a hurry. Pay attention when running and keep an eye on your sonar and you'll be fine.
If the bay proves a bit too rough, no worries. The Saginaw River holds plenty of smallmouth as well.
LAKE ST. CLAIR
We've almost completed our tour of smallmouth nirvana, and we're going to close with a crescendo.
Lake St. Clair has consistently ranked as one of the top smallmouth fisheries in the country. Here you'll find a shallow basin-style lake that holds smallmouth on weed patches, rock piles and subtle bottom contours.
Finding fish is pretty simple. Cast a tube (green pumpkin is a popular choice) and drift until you hit fish. Yeah, it's that easy.
Like so many Michigan waters, 4-pound fish are pretty common and you'll wear your arms out on 2- and 3-pounders once you get dialed in.
Our final stop is the lake that put Michigan's smallmouth fishing on the map: Lake Erie.
With the Detroit cityscape as a backdrop, you'll target the thousands of rock piles and reefs that litter the floor of Lake Erie. Again, dragging a tube will get you in fish. Once you find them, it's hard to beat a drop-shot rig for targeting specific fish-holding cover.
In the spring, you can find fish shallow as well as in the mid-depths. You'll never run out of water to cover.
EXTEND YOUR FISHING ADVENTURE
Michigan's smallmouth fishing is revered by many anglers as the best of the best.
But the fishery is hardly the only gem of the state. Michigan's state park system is second to none and many of the parks can serve as convenient and picturesque launching points for a day of fishing.
All of the fisheries mentioned here can be accessed via a state park. Many, like those on the shores of Burt and Mullett lakes, offer campgrounds that are clean, well-equipped and incredible bargains.
1. The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
Located along the shore of Lake Michigan about 30 minutes from Traverse City, this park was voted by viewers of ABC's Good Morning America as the "Most Beautiful Place in America."
As beautiful as the setting is, the Native American lore for which the dunes are named is just as incredible.
2. Torch Lake
As difficult as it may be to hit a lake and do something other than fish, Torch Lake deserves some special attention.
Located north of Traverse City, Torch just might be the most spectacular lake you'll ever step foot in. And, make no mistake, getting in the water is a top priority.
At 19 miles long, Torch is Michigan's second-largest inland lake and is noted for its impossibly clear, blue water. But what really makes this lake unique is its famous sand bar. While the lake has a maximum depth of more than 300 feet (yikes!), it boasts a gorgeous expanse of pure sand that ranges from ankle to waist-deep and creates the perfect area to anchor the boat and float the day away.
3. Mackinaw City
No trip to Michigan would be complete without a visit to Mackinaw City. This cozy town serves as the gateway to Michigan's Upper Peninsula and views of the massive Mackinac Bridge, which connects the two peninsulas, are spectacular.
You'll find a historic downtown filled with specialty shops where you can sample the town's famous taffy and fudge. For a great family meal, be sure to stop into Darrow's.
4. Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary
The Great Lakes are a treasure. They can also be dangerous.
The maritime history of the Great Lakes is special and unique. A visit to the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary will give you a glimpse into that past â€“ and a glimpse into the lake thanks to the popular glass bottom shipwreck tour.
5. Tigers Baseball
There's just something about a day at the ballpark.
Detroit's Comerica Park is home of the Detroit Tigers and is one of the best facilities in all of Major League Baseball.
So find a spot to park the boat, grab some tickets and take in a game. Be sure to get there early. Comerica has a ton of family-friendly activities throughout the park and you'll want to take them all in before the first pitch.