Best Smallmouth Fishing Spots
November 12, 2012
A heavy mixing of water interrupts the predawn stillness. A boil appears through a misty haze at dawn. Placing a cast, manipulating the lure, positioning the rod —all must be precise. That moment of contact, the power born of aggression when a trophy bronzeback attempts to crush, kill, and digest the lure in one fell swoop creates another priceless memory; another dangerous tug of war; another crucible of luck, talent, and timing on the smallmouth waters of the world.
In spring I've been anticipating going smallmouth fishing for almost six months. In fall, autumn colors and smallmouths are amalgamated in my mind. On brisk, cool mornings when the first green leaves are popping out or the first bright autumnal landscapes bleed through the haze at dawn, my crankin' hand becomes spasmodic. At times like these, I can go smallmouth fishing or strangle myself, like some bass-fishing version of Dr. Strangeglove.
People sometimes ask how we can stay so excited about fishing 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Well, about five hours north of here, In-Fisherman staffers can slide a boat onto Rainy Lake or Lake of the Woods and make a short run into a wilderness of pine-studded islands and submerged boulder fields swarming with premium smalljaws.
Less than four hours east we can trailer to Chaquamegon Bay on Lake Superior, adjacent to one of the world's most scenic shorelines—the Apostle Islands, where wave action over the millenia transformed huge walls of sedimentary rock into high art. Chaquamegon, meanwhile, quite probably produces the biggest smallmouths in the world, north of the 46th parallel. To the west a few hours lie the prairie lakes of South Dakota, brimming with smallies. Lakes Oahe and Sharpe, sites of recent smallmouth population explosions, are scant hours south from there on the Missouri River. Seven hours east bring us to the slab-rock points and massive boulder fields of Green Bay, and literally right out our back door (I'm looking at it as I write this) flows the hallowed Upper Mississippi River.
What's not to get excited about? So we asked longtime In-Fisherman correspondent Rich Zaleski what keeps him so high on smallmouth bass and about his favorite bronzeback destinations out East.
The first question doesn't deserve an answer. Anyone who needs to ask how smallmouths can be held in such high esteem simply hasn't spent much time chasing them and probably stopped reading this article at the headline.
My favorite smallmouth lake? Depends on the season and how much time I have to travel there and to spend fishing. With only one day free, my attention turns to Candlewood Lake in Connecticut. I'd rather fish than drag a boat down the highway, and "The Wood" is the best nearby smallmouth fishery where I can put in a full day of fishing, knowing my chances for numbers of fish 3 pounds and over are fabulous.
In early spring, smallmouths in Candlewood have a love affair with a small, black hair jig. When the water temperature hits about 50°F, their affection transfers to suspending jerkbaits, especially bass from 3 to 5 pounds. But my favorite time of year on the Wood is postspawn (late May most years), when the Slug-Go bite is incredible. Early fall is fabulous, too, when the biggest bronzebacks in the lake go nuts for a drop-shot rigged 4-inch worm.
If I have the entire weekend to fish, I might truck over to the Mohawk River, or even up to Lake Winnepesaukee or Lake Winnisquam in New Hampshire, depending on the season. The New Hampshire Lakes Region is fabulous in spring when it's catch and release only for smallmouths, and from prespawn through postspawn when catching over 50 smallmouths in a day isn't unusual. If you hit it just right and catch a strong mayfly hatch, you might think you died and went to topwater heaven.
In the heat of the summer, I more likely quench my smallmouth thirst in running water. Some of my favorite places are wading water or jet-boat water, like the Penobscott River in Maine, the Connecticut River above Hartford, or the Susquehanna River out Pittsburgh way. But the Mohawk River (the Erie Canal, actually) is my all-time favorite summer smallie beat. It's fully boatable. In fact, you can range from the Hudson River to Lake Erie on it, but the best smallmouth fishing is centered near a town called Amsterdam.
Since zebra mussels began filtering the Mohawk, the smallmouth population has exploded in the clearing water. Numbers and size have exploded, expanding outward from the Great Lakes into tribs like the Mohawk. Twenty years ago, the Mohawk was a flippin' game around shallow riprap for little runts. Today, my favorite presentations include twitching a white Lunker City Fin-S-Fish and slow-rolling a tiny spinnerbait for fish in the 2 1/2- to 3 1/2-pound range. On the small, wind-protected water common here, wind is rarely a problem.
If I can tack another half day onto each end of the weekend, I'm off for Lake Champlain. Here I can expect to catch good numbers of bronze bass in the 4-pound range, and numbers of big largemouths, too. As anyone who followed the recent BASS ProAm tourneys on Champlain can attest, this is a stupendously good fishery. The clear water on the north end of the lake is dominated by smallmouths. By midsummer, most of the bass are on grubs or Carolina rigs. By the end of August, the smallies start moving shallower and become more aggressive. A spinnerbait worked on weededges in 12 feet of water becomes the dominant pattern.
If I have enough time to travel and still have 3 or 4 days for fishing, Lake Erie becomes awfully tempting. Or if it's late in the season and northern smallmouth angling requires cutting a hole in the top of the lake, I might head south to the fabled reservoirs of the TVA system, where Billy's "brown fish" grow biggest. It's a magic feeling, casting to waters where there's a possibility—however remote—of catching a true giant. Dale Hollow remains a pilgrimage to hallowed waters, where several behemoth smallmouths over 10 pounds have been captured over the years, and fish over 8 pounds are caught annually. But these days, I feel the best opportunity for that fish of a lifetime—especially in winter—steers my truck toward Pickwick Lake on the Tennessee-Alabama border.
In summer and early fall, though, Lake Erie is closer. Odds for landing a 7-pounder might be slimmer than on Pickwick, but chances are good that I'll tangle with more 4s and 5s on Erie. Erie is big, but relatively shallow, and provides little protection from the wind on the eastern end. A four-day trip sometimes can leave only two days of fishing. But on those two days, I might boat 20 or 30 bass ranging from 3 to 5 pounds, which makes waiting for safe conditions easier.
On the days Erie allows you to enjoy its smallmouth bounty to the fullest, the hot technique is dragging tubes on heavy jigs. Cast out behind the boat and let the jig tumble along bottom as the wind pushes you across a hard-bottom flat. Driftsocks are mandatory here, where open water and wind can make things downright nasty. Dealing with the wind and getting used to the flat, slow-tapering structures of this Great Lake can be a hassle, but well worthwhile once you learn the tricks and start catching fish. Big fish. I've yet to journey to Erie without one person in the party wrestling up a smallmouth over 6 pounds.
In September in Minnesota, after a late breakfast, a local says the air is "crisp." Transplanted In-Fisherman editor Steve Quinn says it's just downright cold. (He waits until after lunch.) And he's right, especially when it's Dark:30 and you're scraping ice off the windshield.
But daybreak is too good to miss. On a calm morning, late in the month, the air is dense and still. The sunlight feels oh so good, and the water is sprinkled with pieces of rainbow. Fall colors are popping and bright, delicate skiffs for ants are drifting downriver, following the geese south for the winter.
The water was high last fall. Where the Mississippi widens and the current slows, migrating smallmouths stack on big shallow flats behind shoreline breaks. The air is quiet and cold as the trolling motor dips into the river. The glassy surface becomes an impressionistic mirror of the brightly colored scene. Geese, riding high in a big V, honk overhead.
The first fish from the flat boiled on the crankbait before the retrieve could start, then tail walked across the pool like a little tarpon. And then it pulled. Oh, man, did it pull. Bronze sides bulged in the net as it crunched the scale down beyond the five-pound mark. The next bass weighed over 4, and the next was almost 6. Such is the Big Muddy up north of the mud.
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When editors at In-Fisherman want a big smallmouth, we don't have far to look. But we cast longing glances far afield anyway. In winter, our eyes turn south, beckoned by Spanish moss, warm breezes, gentle winds and open water. A trip to Pickwick Lake, where the vision of an 8-pounder beckons, is always tempting when the snow flies. One of the key times to visit Pickwick is in February and March, when big females begin staging on the doorstep of traditional spawning bays, hungrily snapping at crankbaits and big 5-inch grubs.
Or maybe we'll go to Texas and fish Lake Whitney in winter, where smallies also reveal the potential to reach 8 pounds. Whitney offers perhaps an even better shot at a 6 than Pickwick, if one knows where to look. The surface bite explodes there in October and November, while the deep-crankbait bite gets red hot in February—a perfect fix for the snowbird smallmouth addict.
If we go to Pickwick, however, we can make our way back north past Tim's Ford in Tennessee, another TVA reservoir known for harboring behemoth brown bass. In December, smallies school up in massive congregations to bust shad on the surface. If the bite's cool there, we trailer the boat over to J. Percy Priest, also in Tennessee, where the odds of catching a bunch between 4 and 6 pounds are good to excellent when the timing's right.
As we cross the border into Kentucky, the trip wouldn't be complete without visiting the Land Between the Lakes. Hit the timing just right and Kentucky Lake becomes the highlight of the trip. Famous for its gut-bound largemouths, Kentucky Lake can produce 20 to 30 smallmouths in an afternoon, all from 2 1/2 to 7 pounds. Prime time is March and April when smallmouths move up to spawn on 4- to 6-foot gravel flats, demolishing minnowbaits and jigs of all kinds.
When spring arrives, we start looking for those untapped motherlodes, and the far west has some dandies. People are trout crazy out there, and they tend to leave the smallmouths alone—which is just fine with us. One of the unlikeliest spots for great bronzeback action is Hell's Canyon in Idaho. In the high mountain desert, one expects sagebrush, cactus, rock, maybe a few elk and a raft of vultures. Plenty of all that can be found, along with some of the best smallmouth fishing west of the Mississippi.
Smallmouths were first introduced to Idaho's Snake River system in the 1960s, and have slowly, meticulously spread throughout. Populations are strong in Brownley, Oxbow, Swan Falls, CJ Strike, and Hell's Canyon reservoirs. Habitat is perfect—rocky and infested with crayfish, with plenty of baitfish species to choosefrom. Here, the bass fishing is just fine, thank you, anytime from early April through early August on a wide variety of techniques. Out there, nobody knows if the fishing's any good in September and October because they're all elk hunting. But how could it be anything but excellent, with so many untutored bass that strike the first thing that passes by?
Fort Peck in Montana, on the Missouri River, is another worthwhile stop out west—another sleeper that needs to be explored by a cadre of pioneerlike bass anglers. Farther west, the Columbia Riverbeckons, where smallmouths over 5 pounds are becoming more and more common. Rogue schools of 3- to 4-pound smallies have been reported by so many reliable sources that it's no longer in doubt that the Columbia deserves world-class status for its bronzeback bass.
Secret honey holes have appeared in Wyoming, too, but we aren't singing until we try them out for ourselves. Common to all these western fisheries is a shrugging, benign neglect of smallmouths by local anglers. Bass clubs keep springing up out of the sagebrush, but salmon, steelhead, browns, and cutthroats get most of the attention. Some folks even consider bass a nuisance fish out there. (With a nuisance like that, who needs serenity?)
Back in the Midwest, Zaleski's right—Lake Erie rules. We'll take the Western Basin; he can have the Eastern Basin; and we'll call the Central Basin no-man's land. Rich? (Pssst. Hey, Rich—why no mention of the Niagara River? It's hot, and it's not just for honeymooners anymore.)
Today's Top Ten
No doubt, Erie is today's most storied smallmouth fishery. Guides the In-Fisherman staff have fished with include Jeff Snyder, Greg Horoky and Jim Fofrich Sr., some of the best on the lake. "Catching100 smallmouths in a day at certain times of the year isn't unusual," Horoky says. "We do it day after day in the fall, with lots of fish going 4 pounds or better." In many places in the north, 100 smallmouths in a day would surprise no one, but most run 1 to 2 pounds. On Erie, the bass tend to average 3 pounds, with a few exceeding 9 pounds. From the flatlands surrounding Erie's Western Basin to the rocky, hilly terrain of western New York, smallmouths inhabit every bay and reef.
And a short run up the Detroit River is Lake St. Clair, just beyond Zaleski's usual drive-to range, where bass pro Kevin VanDam insists he can catch 100 smallmouths over 4 pounds in a day when the fish are up shallow and visible in spring. With the urban world of Detroit looming just over the horizon, one would think St. Clair would be one big real estate deal, but it's not. Though the shoreline has plenty of high-priced properties, many quiet little areas can be found, away from the hustle, and bustle where pig smallmouths come out to play. And when the fishing day is done, the night life and fine cuisine of greater Detroit make this one of the most unique trips on the continent for smallmouth bass.
At seminars and on boat ramps around America, the question bass fishermen ask In-Fisherman staffers most is: "What's your favorite smallmouth water?" or, "What was your best day ever for smallmouths?" As Zaleski's hedging indicates, so many fabulous smallmouth fisheries exist today that it's almost impossible to single out one.
My best day ever for smallmouths? Perhaps a windy day on Rainy Lake, prefishing for the Canadian Bass Fishing Championship without another boat in sight, when every point and boulder on every island coughed up a 3- to 5-pound bronze mauler that danced reluctantly back to the boat, followed by a hungry horde of companions. Al Lindner, who travels far and wide in search of his favorite species, ranks Rainy as the number-one smallie fishery in all the land.
Or was it day-one of the Sturgeon Bay Open in 1998? The first pass along our spot produced a livewell full of 3-pounders, and we soon added a couple 4s for good measure. The Sturgeon Bay area of Green Bay in Wisconsin is a bass fisherman's paradise. Hundreds of miles of spectacular smallmouth habitat extend from the mainland Wisconsin side up into Michigan's Big Bay de Noc and Little Bay de Noc, and in the other direction around the vacation-wonderland known as Door County and down the Lake Michigan shoreline forever. Dozens of islands, myriad points and reefs, and miles of gravel shoals offer all the options any angler needs to locate and work huge schools of bass in near total isolation.
Or perhaps it was just yesterday, when Terry Olinger and I ventured out on the Upper Mississippi River. One spot produced over 40 fish—a double on every pass with shallow-running cranks, mostof the fish running 3.5 to over 5 pounds. The action there continued for over an hour. Or last fall, when another friend, Tommy Hanson and I watched Skitter Pops and other topwater baits produce mind-numbing explosions of tail-walking fury all afternoon. Our first eight casts produced eight net-bulging smallmouths between 4.7 and 5.2 pounds. For numbers of fish in that size range, the Upper Mississippi is hard to beat. But it can be difficult (if not downright dangerous) to navigate in low water, and it's a bear to figure out in high water, detracting from its status on a list of the world's ten best. Still, it deserves at least one vote, and I'll be more than happy to cast the ballot.
Pickwick Lake and Lake Champlain from Zaleski's list certainly deserve to be ranked among the world's finest smallmouth fisheries, and his other mentions have made our top-ten or second-tenlists in the past. Lake of The Woods, where a boatload of 3-pounders and a dozen over 4 don't even raise an eyebrow, and Chaquamegon Bay, perhaps the North Country's best target for a 7-pounder, likewise belong on the list. Chaquamegon delivers best during prespawn, which takes up the month of May and part of June most years. Hair jigs, suspending jerkbaits and livebaits produce best on shallow sandflats scattered with tangles of wood.
On The Woods, granite cliffs rise vertically out of the water with jumbles of broken rock lying submerged at their feet. This giant among giant waterways encompasses 14,000 islands and something like half a million acres of water, with smallmouth inhabiting the vast majority of its bays and shorelines. To hunt giant smallmouths in complete solitude, in the shadow of towering rock faces studded with pines, is an experience every smallmouth angler should have at least once in a lifetime.
Every spot on these lists, however, is chock full of once-in-a-lifetime bassin' experiences. Smallmouths await, in every environment North America has to offer—from the bog-stained waters of the Canadian wilderness, to the reservoirs of the Rocky Mountains, to the rivers of the Midwest, to the sweetgum forests and cypress groves of the South.
What could be more vivid than a trophy smallmouth engulfing a lure way down at the end of a well-chosen scenic trail?
* Rich Zaleski, Stevenson, Connecticut, a counselor and confidant within the exclusive ranks of the best theoretical writers and anglers in bass angling, has been an In-Fisherman contributor for two decades.