Head North for Big-Time Smallmouth Opportunities
October 14, 2019
Is anglers’ interest in Micropterus dolomieu, the smallmouth bass, growing? Are brown bass opportunities, especially for large fish, increasing? Many bass anglers grant smallmouth bass greater nobility than their larger cousin, the largemouth bass. Few would argue that smallmouths fight harder and jump higher than other black bass. Maybe the esteem is related to a more limited distribution than largemouth bass? Or maybe it’s the ambiance of the idyllic clear-water and rock-strewn habitats where smallmouths thrive?
Whatever the allure, the apparently growing interest in bronzebacks likely has been fueled by Bassmaster’s ranking of two smallmouth-dominated fisheries—Lake St. Clair in Michigan in 2013 and Mille Lacs Lake in Minnesota in 2017—as the Nation’s best black bass fisheries, with other smallmouth fisheries like Lake Erie and Thousand Islands (St. Lawrence River) perennially holding high ranks. And tournament-winning five-smallmouth limits exceeding 25 pounds erase any thoughts about smallmouth bass being a diminutive member of the black bass clan.
Domain of Dolomieu
Smallmouth bass have a broad native range extending from southern Ontario in the North to the Tennessee River in the South. Although excellent stream and lake smallmouth fisheries are available in the southern portion of this range, the greatest number of opportunities are available in northern waters. Here, I focus on smallmouth fisheries in the upper Midwest and western Ontario.
Despite their broad distribution, the domain of dolomieu is, compared to the more ubiquitous largemouth bass, restricted and spotty. Many present-day smallmouth destinations were determined by the last advance and retreat of glaciers about 14,000 years ago. Others are a result of recent introductions.
The Great Lakes
The upper Great Lakes—Superior, Michigan, Huron, and St. Clair—provide abundant, and possibly expanding, smallmouth opportunities. Renowned bronzeback fisheries are available in the shallower bays.
The Green Bay area of Lake Michigan offers vast smallmouth opportunities. May is the best time for a super tanker, according to Captain Bret Alexander (alexandersportfishing.com), but 60- to 70-fish days are common with many fish over 5 pounds caught throughout summer. Alexander favors Sturgeon Bay and the tip of the Door County peninsula, but the west side of the bay from Oconto to Marinette offers excellent and largely untouched opportunities.
Grand Traverse Bay on the northeast side of Lake Michigan also provides excellent smallmouth action. The bite heats up in mid-June and extends until ice-up, according to Captain Chris Noffsinger (northernadventuresfishing.com). Twenty- to 40-fish days with some fish over 4 pounds are typical.
Lake St. Clair offers excellent smallmouth fishing from ice-out until ice-up. Fifty fish days are common with many fish running 3 to 4 pounds; 6-pound-plus fish are there to be caught.
Iowa—Iowa offers good flatwater smallmouth opportunities in the Iowa Great Lakes region, with the best fishing in deeper and rockier Big Spirit and West Okoboji lakes. As in many smallmouth lakes, ice-out is a good time to go, but catches of 10 to 15 fish in the 2- to 3-pound range are common throughout the summer. Five-pound smallmouths are possible. In Northeast Iowa, the upper Iowa, Maquoketa, Turkey, and Wapsipinicon rivers provide good flowing-water action.
Michigan—The upper half of Michigan is smallmouth mecca. Noffsinger considers the three large lakes flanking Grand Traverse Bay—Elk, Skegemog, and Torch—as having better smallmouth fishing than the Bay. Michigan DNR fishery management biologist Heather Hettinger reported that throughout the region, 10- to 12-fish days are common for anglers targeting fish over 18 inches; 24-inch fish are available.
Hettinger emphasized the excellent wade-fishing opportunities, in particular Waugoshance Point at Wilderness State Park, where anglers can sight-fish for giant smallmouths in prime water difficult to access by boat.
Minnesota—Smallmouth fisheries are scattered throughout Minnesota, but the epicenter of brown bass lake fishing is the lake-rich triangle from Grand Rapids to Isle to Brainerd. Good smallmouth lakes range in size from only a few hundred acres to 132,500-acre Mille Lacs. Most of these lakes are quintessential smallmouth waters: clear, rocky shoreline, offshore rocky reefs. Twenty-smallmouth days are common on any of these lakes, but size of fish appears to increase with lake size.
Excellent river smallmouth opportunities occur throughout more than 200 miles of Mississippi River from below Pokegama Dam to Minneapolis, a stretch that includes shallow, free-flowing river punctuated by six impounded pools. Twenty-plus-fish days with fish up to 5 pounds are common in both the free-flowing and impounded reaches.
Anglers seeking smallmouths in a scenic, remote setting can look to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in northeastern Minnesota (Quetico Provincial Park on the Canadian side of the border) where smallmouths are plentiful in the countless Canadian Shield lakes (and rivers). Depending on the lake or lake chain you’re fishing, opportunities range from fast-fishing for smallmouths in the 12- to 15-inch range where 50-fish days are possible to common, or you might double that on high-density smallmouth waters with abundant smaller fish. Trophies to 20-plus inches are regularly caught, often on larger lakes like Basswood and many others. Big fish, however, show up across this smallmouth paradise.
South Dakota—Glacial lakes in Marshall and Day counties in Northeast South Dakota are teeming with smallmouths and hold big fish as evidenced by the recent 7-pound 3-ounce state record from Horseshoe Lake. Dr. Brian Blackwell, South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks (GFP) fishery biologist for the area and an avid angler, considers 10 to 20 fish over 15 inches with some over 3 pounds a good day. Smallmouths over 5 pounds are not uncommon.
South Dakota has few stream-fishing opportunities, but dams on the Missouri River have created large impoundments that provide excellent homes for introduced smallmouth. Although Lewis and Clark Lake and Lake Sharpe support smallmouth bass, Lake Oahe is the place to go for big bronzebacks, according to Dr. Mark Fincel, South Dakota GFP fishery biologist. Ice-out anglers are often rewarded with 60- to 70-fish days; 20- to 40-fish days with 18- to 19-inch fish common and a few fish 4 to 6 pounds are typical throughout the summer. “It’s hard to get away from the 2-pounders,” Fincel says. Oahe is challenging to fish. It’s a water-storage reservoir, and lake elevation can fluctuate 40 feet. Downstream, Lake Sharpe provides stable water levels and lots of smallmouths, but few are over 18 inches.
Wisconsin—Inland smallmouth opportunities are scattered throughout Wisconsin, but the greatest concentrations of good smallmouth lake fisheries are in Iron, Oneida, Sawyer, and Vilas counties. The deeper, clear, and rocky lakes tend to support populations with larger size structure, according to Dr. Greg Sass, Wisconsin DNR fishery research supervisor. Many lakes have relatively high smallmouth densities and offer anglers 25- to 50-fish days of 12- to 15-inchers, but lakes that Sass refers to as “trophy lakes” provide anglers with 5- to 15-fish days with most fish 17 to 19 inches and a few topping 22 inches.
The Wisconsin River upstream of Stevens Point offers good smallmouth action in both the free-flowing reaches and in flowages. Sass says anglers can expect good numbers of 16- to 18-inch smallmouths. The Chippewa, Flambeau, Namekagon, and St. Croix rivers are emerging smallmouth fisheries.
Western Ontario—Smallmouth opportunities abound in this lake-rich Canadian province. Ontario native and
Bassmaster Elite pro Jeff “Gussy” Gustafson recommends Lake of the Woods and Rainy Lake, where catches of 50 to 70 bass per day are common. To the east, Marmion Lake consistently produces 6-pound brown bass.
When Gustafson has a chance to go fun-fishing, he heads to the Winnipeg River between Lake of the Woods and White Dog Dam to catch 3-pounders all day long.
Mississippi River Downstream of Minneapolis—From Minneapolis to almost St. Louis, the “father of waters” has been modified with dams and channel training structures (wing dams) for navigation and flood control. The first nine navigation pools, extending from Minneapolis to just upstream of Harpers Ferry, Iowa, are teeming with brown bass. Minnesota native and Bassmaster Elite pro Seth Feider says anglers can expect 50-plus-fish days; 3-pounders are the typical fish seen in tournaments. Pools 4 through 9 offer anglers a good shot at fish over 6 pounds.
Rise of a New Smallmouth Fishery
In a study published in 2012, a team of Michigan fishery scientists compared fish population metrics measured from 1969 through 1984 and from 2005 to 2008 at Beaver Island in upper Lake Michigan. Forty years ago, brown bullhead were 60 percent and smallmouth bass and rock bass were each 14 percent of the total number of fish in routine samples; 14 other species made up the remaining 12 percent of the fish sampled. In 2005 to 2008, smallmouth bass were 93 percent of the fish sampled by the same methods. Despite their dramatic rise to dominance in the fish assemblage, neither the abundance nor the mortality of bronzebacks changed from the historic to the recent periods, but the proportions of large smallmouths and their growth rate and body condition (plumpness) were significantly greater in the recent period than 40 years ago.
It is possible that harvest restrictions beginning in 2001 may have played a minor role in the larger size structure, but they would not account for the dramatic increase in growth rate. The researchers attributed the changes to a cascading sequence of ecosystem changes, all directly or indirectly a result of exotic species that established in Lake Michigan since the 1970s. Invasive zebra and quagga mussels increased water clarity and provided hard bottom substrate for a variety of invertebrates eaten by smallmouth bass. The round goby, a dietary mainstay of the big smallies in Lake Erie and a fish that feeds on zebra mussels, invaded the area in 2006. And to round out the buffet, crayfish, including the non-native rusty crayfish, appear to be increasing, possibly as a result of feeding on zebra mussels or their fecal pellets.
The multiple environmental changes and their complex interaction that lead to this burgeoning brown bass population are incompletely understood, but several facts are evident. Smallmouths have been present in the Beaver Island area for a long time, but in a time span of less than 20 years their population size structure has dramatically increased. The proportion of large smallmouths in the Beaver Island population is almost double the North American average and similar to the size structure of largemouth bass in ponds intensively managed for trophy largemouth bass.
The Second Bronze Age
The Bronze Age, named for emergence of tools made of bronze, lasted from 3600 until 300 years BC. Are contemporary fishery biologists and anglers witnessing a second bronze age, an emergence of bronzeback fisheries? Might smallmouth opportunities—both numbers of fish and size of fish—be expanding? This is certainly the case in South Dakota where smallmouths were first introduced in the 1980s. But what about other parts of the Upper Midwest? Long-term creel data (numbers of anglers, catch, and fishing effort) and population assessments needed to judge changes in smallmouth fisheries are limited.
Wisconsin DNR has intensively monitored the fish and fishing in Escanaba Lake since 1946. Smallmouth bass were present but scarce until 2000. Now the lake is producing 5-pounders. In 40 years time, smallmouth bass became the dominant fish near Beaver Island in northern Lake Michigan, and the size structure of the population greatly increased. There may be other examples, but you don’t find things if no one is looking. One of my favorite Minnesota smallmouth lakes is one that 20 years ago didn’t include smallmouth bass in the DNR’s lake survey data. An obvious oversight on DNR’s part, but it just happened that their historical sampling sites were located in bays that lacked smallmouth habitat. If, indeed, interest in smallmouth bass is growing, more anglers targeting brown bass may unveil new opportunities.
What I see, hear, and read suggests increases in the size of smallmouths being caught. Part of this likely is due to changes in anglers—not just more anglers, but also anglers fishing new presentations and using modern electronics to fish more efficiently. The profusion of printed and electronic information also deserves credit.
But I think smallmouth populations are changing, too. In some northern lakes, particularly larger lakes, size structure appears to be increasing. An analysis of statewide fishery monitoring data over the past 70 years by DNR fishery scientists reveals significant increases in both abundance and size of smallmouth bass in Wisconsin lakes. Northern smallmouths have very slow growth. Even fast-growing fish, like the goby-fed bruisers in Sturgeon Bay and Lake St. Clair, have to survive for 12 years to reach 18 inches. But obviously they do survive. Michigan DNR fishery scientist Dr. Jan-Michael Hessenauer has estimated annual mortality rate of adult St. Clair smallmouth at only 22 to 37 percent, a low rate for black bass. The only reasonable explanation, especially considering the increasing fishing effort, is the high incidence of catch and release.
But it’s not all good news. Noffsinger, who has guided on Grand Traverse Bay since 2004, has seen recent downturns in smallmouth bass size and numbers that he attributes to increased fishing pressure and high harvest, particularly during the spawn. It seems clear to me that, via catch and release and good fish-handling practices, anglers may hold the key to the future quality of northern smallmouth bass fisheries. Yet to be learned, though, is whether excessive indulgence in C&R will create high-density, slower-growing populations, a common situation in many largemouth bass populations.
*Dr. Hal Schramm, Counce, Tennessee, is a fishery scientist, avid bass angler, and freelance writer. He frequently contributes to In-Fisherman publications.