"Why are they catching more fish than we are?" the cameraman asked as we fished near a harbor wall populated with anglers above and smallmouths below. Then the deck rolled, pitched, and yawed over another 4-footer.
"They're throwing live minnows, for one thing," I replied. "For another, that wave nearly pitched me off the bow. Lot easier to control your presentation and feel strikes with your feet on the ground."
Bank anglers aren't seen on TV or heard on the radio, nor paraded on the tournament stage. They're the foot soldiers, the boot-and-laces corps that patrols the piers of the Great Lakes.
Many don't own boats. Some sold their boats to devote full attention to angling from breakwalls, harbor docks, beaches, jetties, and piers. Others leave the boat in the garage because they know smallmouth bass are roaming the shorelines of the Great Lakes, getting bigger every year. At certain times, the best way to catch them is from shore.
"A good part of the season, guys on shore can do better than those in boats," says Craig Lewis, owner of Erie Outfitters, located just west of Cleveland, Ohio. "At times they catch bigger fish, too. Some spots can't be reached from a boat. When the water's high, boats can't get under some bridges. And where boat traffic is heavy, fishing gets tough. That's when bank anglers clean up."
In spring, from ice-out until surface temperatures reach the mid-60°F mark, the best bites are shallow. While water temperatures remain in the 40°F range, the action tends to be confined to harbors and wind-protected bays on the mainland and around islands. Many of these areas are approachable from shore.
Great Lakes smallmouths are looking for sandy beaches or patches of gravel where they eventually spawn. They head into these areas and move in and out, based on weather and water conditions until spawning is complete. Water temperature is important. If it's cooling (wind blowing away from shore, or heavy waves coming into shore from the open lake), smallmouths retreat to depths of 15 to 25 feet or so. Knowing where these depths come closest to shore helps when bass move deeper. When the water is warming, they spread into the shallows quickly and tend to use the same key spots every year. This is when it gets easy.
It's a great time of year to scan the beaches in your area with Google Earth, looking for little inshore pools of deeper water surrounded by water so shallow boats can't approach. A few years ago, fishing smallmouths in late April with Captain Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charter Service, we found 4- to 6-pounders all over a spot easily reached from shore. Google Earth revealed boulders and rockpiles in the shallows we couldn't see from the boat.
"There's a large contingent of shoreline fishermen here in Western New York," Campbell says. "The upper and lower Niagara River offer access to lots of feeding flats. From the time smallmouths start biting in spring through late fall, guys catch them there. On the Niagara, look for back eddies and slow water early, as big fish hold behind points and anything breaking the current. You can fish tubes, jerkbaits, jigs, or grubs. The water is 15 feet or less in these spots and more often 5 to 10 feet.
"Bass and baitfish seek the warmest shallow water they can find early in the year. Spawning usually takes place between late May and early June. When the water hits 40°F in late March to early April, the smallies start biting."
On Lake Ontario, Campbell says piers offer decent fishing early and great fishing at key times later in summer and fall. "The best fishing early is in the harbors around the marina docks where you find warm water," he says. "They spawn in there. You have a shot at 5-pound smallmouths in any of the harbors—especially early. But shoreline bays and beaches attract fish, too."
During summer, wind history, weather, and prevailing conditions determine when and where to fish inshore. Mike Karempelis, a top multispecies guide in Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, says, "At times you're better off fishing from a dock or pier than a boat. When the wind blows into key spots, bass move in close and it's a lot easier standing on solid ground. Even a day or two after a big blow the water is turbid and baitfish linger close to shore. Until the water settles and clears, bass can be caught in 2 or 3 feet of water. Once bank anglers claim a spot like that, it's pretty much theirs."
Current is the next key. "The Coast Guard station at Sturgeon Bay Shipping Canal opens into Lake Michigan with north-and-south piers," Karempelis says. "When the current sets up right in summer, lots of smallmouths gather at the ends of those piers. When the current is moving out into the lake—often after a day or two of westerly winds, lots of bass hang around the piers, though only a few anglers take advantage of it."
Great Lakes minnow migrations comprise step-by-step keys to location, spring through fall, according to former Professional Walleye Trail champion, Mark Martin. "Whenever the seasons bring baitfish into river mouths, shore guys are the first to know as they're casting for whatever predators are following the bait," he says. "Smelt come earliest in April, then alewives immediately after, from April into June, then the gobies. In fall, shiners and shad move in.
Timing these migrations is one of the keys to success. Guys use Sabiki rigs to catch whatever's running. Some use cast nets. Gobies, alewives, shiners—they use perch for bait, too. It's legal in Michigan if you use them right there and stay within your limit. When king salmon arrive, they push bass and walleyes up against the piers and breakwalls. You catch pike and walleyes mixed in with bass in some areas when the salmon are running. They all became more accessible to the shore patrol."
Martin often strolls down to Lake Michigan piers near his home in Western Michigan. He likes checking in with the foot soldiers to find out what's moving. "Anglers catch numbers of smallmouths off the piers in Grand Haven, Muskegon, Whitehall—lots of places," he says. "They walk-troll with lures and minnow rigs. Bass boats often sit in the channels, too—following the shad that move in during fall. They throw spinnerbaits, bladebaits, and cranks a lot, but the walk-trollers use 9- to 12-foot spinning rods that work like outriggers. They walk at a steady pace, pulling Mepps spinners, crankbaits, grubs, swimbaits, or jigs tipped with minnows."
Randy Bandstra, a tournament angler and friend of Martin, does a lot of steelhead fishing from those piers, which revealed how awesome the smallmouth population had become. "I've caught giant smallmouths incidentally off the pier at Muskegon," Bandstra says. "In spring, fish the marinas and around the back bays on foot. Water warms fastest there.
"In fall, it's the opposite—shallow water cools fastest and smallmouths move deeper. I search for fish with a Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap, Rapala Rippin' Rap, or a suspending bait. When I find them I slow down with a Texas-rigged Senko fished slowly with a 1/8-ouce bullet weight. I use a 7-foot medium-power rod with 10-pound Berkley FireLine and a 10-pound Sunline fluorocarbon leader for abrasion resistance on rocks, zebra mussels, and pilings."
Often, the best way to find fish in spring involves suspending jerkbaits. "A jerkbait is a top choice because it casts well into the wind," Karempelis says. "Spots where the wind is blowing in can be prime when the water's warming, so wind-resistant baits are key. Shallow runners work best in shallower areas, which are great in spring. But in summer, on the piers reaching out into 15- to 20-foot depths, guys do well with Lucky Craft Pointer Staysees and deep-diving Rapala X-Raps. Drop-shotting is becoming popular, too, and a little a wacky-rigged worm doesn't snag much. A traditional tube on a jighead up to 1/4-ounce catches them anytime, too.
"Livebait is popular—slipbobbering crawlers, suckers, or shiners. In summer, bass move onto wind-swept areas and a spinnerbait becomes another top option. A 3/4-ounce tandem willowleaf bites into the wind so you can huck it out there."
Lewis probably sells more baitfish than anybody around Erie's Western Basin, but says most smallmouth anglers use artificials. "Early in spring, they start by drop-shotting a watermelon or pumpkinseed Poor Boys Goby or a Berkley Gulp! Sinking Minnow. Everybody loves drop-shot rigs here, and it's more effective than bait most days. When the water warms a little they cast suspending jerkbaits."
Martin says one of the most effective baits is a single-hook Mepps Aglia spinner, which works efficiently in vegetation and clicks over rocks and concrete without hanging up. "Drop-shotting Gulp! Minnows or pieces of crawler works, too," he adds.
Farther north, multispecies guide Brad Kamaloski fishes bass around the piers at Manistee, Onekema, and other spots. "We do well with topwaters during mid-summer," he says. "In the heart of the tourist season, when the alewives are in, I use a blue-silver Rebel Pop-R more than anything. Or we fish jigs and plastics with Gamma 10-pound fluorocarbon. The piers at Onekema are awesome because they're undercut and bass hide underneath. Dropping right beside the piers can be the best way to catch them."
Chris Beeksma, owner of Get Bit Guide Service, says casting jigs and softbaits or suspending baits from shore is popular on Lake Superior's Chequamegon Bay. "There are docks, piers, and accessible banks in Ashland, Wisconsin, and more access areas are under construction," Beeksma says. "These far-north smallies spend a lot of time near shore."
Fishing from piers and docks requires thought toward logistics: 1) Everything must be packed or carted, limiting tackle selections; 2) Shallow-running lures tend to be more efficient in most cases as they reduce snagging; 3) Sinker design and weight should be carefully chosen to be efficient and snag-resistant around broken rock and concrete; and 4) Timing is everything. Pay attention to wind direction and set up accordingly.
Long casts are not always necessary, but equipment should be designed for it. There are miles of piers, breakwalls, and marina docks yet often large groups of bass concentrate in relatively small areas. An 8- to 9-foot medium- to medium-heavy-power rod, 10-pound braid, and a 10-pound fluoro leader is a great start. Shorefishing is a lot like covering water from a boat. Walk quickly toward your key spots, find the fish, stake a claim, and treasure a hot smallmouth bite in your backyard.