Great Lakes Smallmouth Bass
July 26, 2016
Chequamegon Bay: Chequamegon Bay's shallows offer bass an oasis from the cobalt blue cold waters of Lake Superior, which average nearly 500 feet deep. The protected inner sanctuary of this bay provides shallow flats and cuts that warm quickly in spring; sloughs with spawning habitat; vegetation; manmade wood structures that hold fish during summer; rock humps that concentrate feeding fish in fall; and wintering holes to tide them over until spring. In addition, bass benefit from some of the most conservative fishing regulations. Since 1994, rules mandate catch-and-release of all bass during the spawning period (May through mid-June). For the remainder of the season, there's a one-fish daily limit, with a minimum length of 22 inches.
Wisconsin angler Kevin Yeska considers it an outstanding year-round fishery. "It's not uncommon to have 50-fish days there with your catch averaging over three pounds," he says. But the uninitiated should be prepared to deal with shifting winds, currents, and seiches (tide-like water movements) generated by massive Lake Superior.
This means water clarity can change quickly, so finding warmer, clearer water often is the key to catching nomadic, bottom-oriented fish. "These bass move frequently so spot-hopping is essential," Yeska says. "My confidence bait is a green pumpkin Get Bit Baits tube rigged on a 3/4-ounce Bite Me Big Dude Goby Head Jig. The durability of the Get Bit tube allows me to catch several fish on one bait, and that heavy jighead casts well into the wind, gets down quickly, and can be dragged over structure."
Like a crankbait, the 3/4-ounce tube covers water quickly. Yeska fishes it on 15-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon line spooled on a 13 Fishing Concept A reel with 8.1:1 ratio, paired with 13 Fishing Envy Black 7-foot 3-inch heavy-power casting rod. "The power of the Envy Black rod allows me to get a solid hook-set even when I'm bombing 150-foot casts," he says. "That fast reel keeps me in contact with fish both on the hooks-set and when they charge the boat. As a bonus, this extra-fast-action rod helps me rip the tube off bottom. On days when fish are aggressive, popping the Goby Head Jig a few feet off bottom can be the ticket, though on most days, the best motion is a sweeping retrieve."
Keweenaw Peninsula: The protected bays along the eastern edge of Keweenaw Peninsula, on the south-central part of the lake, are home to big bass that rarely see lures. Rock and sand dominate miles of shoreline, where isolated rock fingers and underwater rubble piles concentrate fish. To cover water quickly, choose a high-speed baitcasting reel, and a 3/4- or 1-ounce Strike King Bottom Dweller Spinnerbait with twin willowleaf blades for maximum speed, depth, and flash.
Green Bay Area: Sturgeon Bay has garnered national attention in recent years due in large part to some astonishing 5-fish limits in bass tournaments during spring, including a number of bass over 8 pounds. Local guides such as Bret Alexander welcome the attention given to the fine fishing within a few-mile radius of Sturgeon Bay and are mindful of the exceptional fishing throughout the rest of Green Bay.
"The entire Bay from the Fox River to Rock Island is loaded with giant smallmouths," Alexander says. "There are days when our top five fish weigh between 25 and 30 pounds, with plenty of 3- to 4.5-pounders offering action between toads. With more than 100 miles of prime shoreline and countless humps and reefs, anglers don't need to fish on top of each other."
In the clear waters of Sturgeon Bay, he suggests scanning likely rocky shorelines, points, and shoals for cruising fish with polarized eyewear. "Spotting fish is a confidence booster. If I can spot a few big ones prior to working a new area, I can focus my clients' attention on those trophy fish and have the anglers try multiple approaches, including swimming a grub, dragging a tube, or casting crankbaits, to determine the lure preference for the day. In recent years, we've caught a good portion of our big fish on cranks."
Baits like the Rapala DT10, Storm Mag Wart, and Bagley Killr B2 are great for working the rocky shorelines of Door County that often transition from rock to sand in the 5- to 8-foot range. "Make long casts with these cranks and allow them to hunt on the retrieve and come in contact with scattered boulders and high spots along the drop-off," Alexander says. "When the lure hits a rock, pause and allow the lure to back up. Be ready for the strike. Trilene Braid in 15-pound test helps with hook-sets and a moderate-action rod like the Fenwick 6-foot 8-inch LunkerStik provides the cushion to keep bass hooked."
Grand Traverse Bay: This summer vacation spot deserves recognition since its crystal-clear waters and shallow sandflats offer some of the country's most incredible sight-fishing for trophy smallmouths. Seven-pound class fish are present and wacky rigged Senkos on 6-pound-test fluorocarbon is a surefire way to get heavy bellied bass going airborne.
Chicago/Indiana Shoreline: Miles of riprap breakwalls, retaining walls, and manmade structure serve as home to a tremendous urban fishery that goes overlooked by millions. Captain Ralph Steiger treats clients to hard-charging bronzebacks from early spring to late fall by dragging an assortment of goby imitating softbaits such as Poor Boy's Erie Darter .
Tawas Bay and Thunder Bay: Separated by more than 50 miles on the western shore of Lake Huron, Tawas Bay and Thunder Bay offer different fishing experiences. Tawas Bay is formed by long, slender Tawas Point that extends into the northern reaches of Saginaw Bay and provides a massive sandflat off the tip and inside cup of this horseshoe-shaped bay. Schools of smallmouths patrol the distinct edge of this structure and move up onto the flats when baitfish schools move shallow. Anglers who time it right compare it to fishing the flats of the Bahamas for bonefish. In true Bahamian fashion, get comfortable wading these sandflats with a 7-weight flyrod for unforgettable action.
To the north, sandy shorelines meet rocky structure in the form of jagged points, islands, and reefs that have caused countless shipwrecks. Much of Thunder Bay offers prime smallmouth bass structure. The key becomes finding the structures that hold baitfish and bass. Countdown baits that can both be retrieved at any depth or fished vertically perform well here. My favorite is the Biwaa Divinator Jr., which incorporates a heavy jighead into a slender soft plastic swimbait tipped with a rotating blade. It casts well, sinks quickly, and can be fished both horizontally and vertically.
In spots close to deep water, work bladebaits like the Johnson Thinfisher with an aggressive ripping retrieve. The Thinfisher's small size, tight vibration, and sound chamber distinguish it from other blades and get the attention of bass holding tight to cover.
Fish the Divinator and Thinfisher on 10-pound-test Berkley NanoFil for ultra-long casts and maximum feel of the lure's action. At times, bass nudge the bait with a closed mouth or brush against it with their body. With NanoFil, any slight variation in the lure's action is transmitted to the rod. Fenwick's 7-foot 2-inch M-XFS World Class spinning rods help amplify those subtle signals and are a joy for battling big fish.
Manitoulin Island: The massive size of Manitoulin Island and its many bays, points, and inland lakes make you forget that you're offshore of Lake Huron's northern coast. Rock reefs, weedbeds, and flats offer endless possibilities for tossing Zara Spooks to bass that regularly top 6 pounds.
Lake St. Clair
Connecting Lake Huron and Lake Erie, this smallmouth mecca has both size and numbers of fish. Pro Jonathan VanDam of Kalamazoo, Michigan, considers Lake St. Clair the perfect summer vacation fishery. "From July 4th to Labor Day, there's no place like it for numbers of quality bass," he says. "St. Clair holds more 4-pound fish than anywhere in the country. The forage base has rebounded and the bass are once again fat and healthy."
To get away from the crowds on this popular fishery, VanDam heads offshore during the summer months. Here he searches for schools of perch or shiners in 12 to 18 feet of water. With a G. Loomis 843 CBR rod and high-speed Shimano Antares casting reel, he quickly works Strike King KVD 300 series jerkbaits around isolated patches of vegetation, which have become more abundant as water has cleared. He favors Sexy Ghost or Perch patterns to match the forage.
With 10-pound Bass Pro Shops XPS Fluorocarbon, he can get these baits 6 to 10 feet deep. "Once I have bass located, I switch to a drop-shot rig with a spinning combo consisting of a G. Loomis NRX 822 rod and Shimano 2500 Stradic reel. I fish Strike King's Dream Shot on a 3/8-ounce tungsten weight to maintain constant feel of the bottom. I both pull and shake this rig to get bit."
From the mouth of the Detroit River on its western edge to Buffalo Harbor on its eastern shores, Lake Erie offers a rich smallmouth bass fishery. Jeff Domonkos is a diehard bronzeback angler who lives just west of Cleveland. He targets Central Basin hotspots such as Lorain, Put-in-Bay, Bass Islands, and Peele Island for trophy bass. "The numbers of smallies are down from 20 years ago," Domonkos says, "but the size keeps getting bigger in the Central Basin. You need close to a 5-pound average to finish high at most tournaments. When we go trophy hunting these days, we have 7-pounders in mind."
Prime time for trophies is early April and May, and November through mid-December. Weather can be nasty, but it thins the crowds and smallmouths are in binging mood. Domonkos focuses on both natural and manmade rock structure topping out in 15 to 20 feet of water, near deep water.
The positioning of fish on such structure is influenced by wind and current. If the two forces are coming from different directions, look for convergence points, which concentrate baitfish and attract bass. He uses a variety of baits and touts the versatility of the Berkley PowerBait Rib Shad and new Pro Shad as search baits when paired with a heavy jighead and worked fast in deeper water. For a finesse look, rig them on a lighter jighead, retrieved in deliberate fashion over isolated pods of fish.
Buffalo Harbor: The slightly deeper waters of eastern Lake Erie harbor some of the best early-season smallmouth fishing on the planet. Jerkbaits like the Rapala Shadow Rap or Husky Jerk retrieved with extra-long pauses along breakwalls and other rock structure can be the ticket for the biggest bass of your life. Dragging tubes on offshore rockbars also is deadly during the Prespawn Period.
While eastern Lake Ontario and the Thousand Islands region yield bass the size of throw pillows, 2014 B.A.S.S. Angler of the Year Greg Hackney selects Chaumont Bay as his favorite Lake Ontario smallmouth spot. He likes its deep structure, sheltered shorelines, and proximity to the bait-rich St. Lawrence River.
Hackney finds that for most Great Lakes situations, he can get the job done with three baits: the Strike King Dream Shot, Coffee Tube, and KVD Jerkbait. In Chaumont Bay, he looks for transitions from rock to rubble or sand. He favors depths greater than 20 feet so he can position his boat above the fish without spooking them and tease up a limit of lunkers with a Mag Dream Shot rigged on 10-pound Gamma braid and a 7- to 10-foot fluorocarbon leader.
"Out here you need to eliminate water holding small fish (3 pounds or less) and concentrate on big fish holding areas," he says. "Fishing deep eliminates most of the smaller bass and increases odds for top-end fish. When fishing deep, I like a slightly stiffer rod such as a 6-foot 9-inch medium-power Quantum Smoke PT, matched with a size-30 Quantum Smoke PTi reel. This rod has the backbone to set the hook in deep water and the reel has a quick retrieve to keep up with fish when they rocket to the surface. Since I generally drag and deadstick my drop-shot rig in deep water, I don't need a soft-tip rod for shaking. Another tip for triggering neutral bass that you mark on your electronics is to pull the bait way from them abruptly. At times, this causes them to instinctively chase down the bait as it flees or to charge the bait on the next drop as it plunges to the bottom."
Bay of Quinte: It's not all about walleyes at this large complex of bays, channels, and islands on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. Big Bay and Telegraph Narrows are great areas to grind deep-diving Livetarget crankbaits to resident pods of smallmouths in the 5- to 6-pound range.