During the summer of 1959, I accidentally caught Bronzeback Fever and I’ve never recovered from it. With a two-piece fishing rod in hand, I pedaled my bike from my home to the Fruits Mills Bridge on the Shenango River. There I scrounged a small crab from along the shoreline, hooked it through the tail, and cast it to a felled tree in a shoreline eddy, hoping to catch a rock bass. Before the crab reached the bottom, the line went taut and I set the hook. Seconds later a huge brown rocket exploded from the water, going airborne before crashing back into the river. The bass was gone, but the exhilaration of that moment infected me.
Roughly 30 years later, I gave up a regular job to pursue a second career as full-time outdoor scribe and photographer, providing me the opportunity to expand my search for the best smallmouth fishing across the country. Of course, I have not visited every prime smallmouth fishery, but I’ve fished a bunch. While catching a huge bronzeback is always thrilling, catching trophies wasn’t my goal—having fun feeding my addiction was. Looking back over my travels, I’ve selected my top-five destinations, each uniquely different, but all packed with bronzeback action. In no particular order, here are my favorite smallmouth places.
Upper Mississippi River > MINNESOTA
My first visit to the Upper Mississippi was by way of a PRADCO press trip put together by Chris Gulstad. I was introduced to several local river rats, including a crazy jet-boat designer name Kevin “Buzzbait” Turner. Since that initial trip, I’ve traveled back to Minnesota to fish Mississippi smallmouths several times. Although I never landed one over 5 pounds there (5- and 6-pounders swim in those waters), the number of 2- to 4-pounders caught during summer outings was astonishing when compared to rivers back home. Having exercised constantly in current, each smallmouth showed off its gusto with power runs and acrobatics.
When fishing with Turner, John House, Steve DeZurik, and Minnesota DNR biologist Eric Altena, there was always another adventure around the next bend. Over a series of trips, I covered a lot of river between Brainerd and Monticello. The only lures needed were a Yum Dinger, soft jerkbait, dark-colored tube, swim jig, Pop R, and white Booyah Buzzbait.
“Smallmouth fishing on the Upper Mississippi is still awesome,” Altena says. “The 2007-2009 year-classes are providing lots of 17- to 19-inchers. The river sections nearer Monticello have the highest density of smallmouths but the growth rate increases the farther north you go, with some incredibly plump bass in the Little Falls to Brainerd section.”
Columbia River > WASHINGTON / Oregon
When Bruce Holt invited me for a tour of the G. Loomis rod plant in Woodland, Washington, and a chance to fish the Columbia River for smallmouths, I had no idea what to expect. The only chatter I’d ever heard about the Columbia was salmon, steelhead, sturgeon, and walleye related. Knowing Bruce was as serious about smallmouth bass as me, however, I was all in.
It was a mid-April trip and I had packed for cold weather, but I was taken aback by the strong and cold winds through the Columbia River Gorge. What kept me warm for three days on the water was a constant bent rod as we battled smallmouth after smallmouth from 2 to 4.5 pounds.
The Columbia’s flow is impeded with multiple power-generating dams, creating a series of long, wide, and deep impoundments that fish more like lakes than a river. The only thing more stunning than beautifully marked bronzebacks was the spectacular scenery as the river shoreline morphed from a steep gorge to high desert—the most exquisite backdrop anywhere for smallmouth bass fishing.
“The Columbia River is still as good as smallmouth fishing gets—but there’s a difficult learning curve,” Holt says. “This isn’t a big-fish river, but the numbers are amazing. The biggest bass come during prespawn. Tri-Cities, The Dalles, Arlington, Hood River, and Cascade Locks areas all have good numbers of fish. My favorite presentations in spring are Yamamoto Hula Grubs on a football head and 3.75-inch soft-plastic swimbaits fished in 15 to 25 feet of water at entrances to shallower backwater areas.”
New River > Virginia
America’s oldest river, the north-flowing New River, has an interesting geological history, and it supports fabulous smallmouth bass fishing opportunities. With boulder rifts and slab rock outcroppings that can rip a hole in a boat hull, guide Britt Stoudenmire (New River Outdoor Co.) relies on self-bailing rafts to fish the roughest sections of the river. Whitewater sections can be unsettling until you realize your guide knows how to maneuver the treacherous water—then you start catching smallmouths, including big ones. This river yields 6-pound-plus smallmouths each spring (the Virginia state record 8-pound 1-ounce smallmouth is from the New River). Our spring and early summer trips revealed that tubes and jerkbaits produced best, along with Britt’s hand-tied “Undulator Jig” of rabbit fur and round rubber strands.
Stoudenmire update: “The New is currently the top smallmouth fishery in the state of Virginia. Catches of 20-inchers are common in spring and winter, and 100 fish days aren’t uncommon in summer.”
The Bays of Door County > Michigan
I already knew the reputation for big bronzebacks taken during the spring in Sturgeon Bay, so when Matt Bichanich of Uncle Josh called to gauge my interest in a trip to Michigan’s Door County peninsula, I couldn’t resist. While most bass anglers likely recognize Sturgeon Bay as a smallmouth hotspot in spring, additional smaller bays nearby are packed with prespawn and spawning smallmouths, including Little Sturgeon, Egg Harbor, and Sister Bay, among others. (And that’s not counting the bays on the east side of Door County peninsula, which warm up later in the season.)
As I would discover during two trips to this venue, depending on the wind and stage of the prespawn, you can always find biting bass on a spring trip in one or more of these bays. During my initial trip, the best technique was slow-rolling a Kalin’s Lunker Grub. We had to move around a bit and fish hard to catch fish, yet I came away with an incredible photo portfolio of springtime bassin’ in Door County.
“The spring smallmouth fishing in Door County continues to be outstanding,” says Bichanich, of Hard and Soft Fishing. “This past spring, at the Sturgeon Bay Open, I saw 8 smallmouths over 7 pounds and one over 8 pounds. Are they getting bigger feeding on gobies or the result of strong local catch-and-release ethic, or both? Don’t know for sure, but swimming a Kalin’s Grub or hair jig are still the two most effective techniques when the water temperature is below 55°F.
Oneida Lake > NEW YORK
During the 1980s when I was chasing Pennsylvania Bass Federation tournaments across the state, anglers from eastern Pennsylvania talked about how great the smallmouth fishing was at Oneida Lake in New York. At the time I was riding a Lake Erie smallmouth high, so I had little interest in traveling five hours to Oneida. It wasn’t until 2005 that I accepted an invite to fish the lake with several pros after a B.A.S.S. summer tournament. What a sensational shallow summertime bite.
With additional trips there since, I discovered my initial experience wasn’t a fluke. And with assistance from hometown bass pro Dave Lefebre, I realized there were always multiple patterns—shallow, deep and in-between—on this lake at any given time during the summer. I like fishing topwaters and soft jerkbaits over weed/gravel humps, and swimming jigs in the wave-eroded shoreline-cover pockets.
“Summer on Oneida allows you to fish for smallmouths just about any way you like because you might find them anywhere from 6 inches of water to 30 feet,” Lefebre says. “Run the shoreline and inside the grassline, fish over grass humps, target the deep weededge, or go deep offshore with a drop-shot. And this is the only lake I‘ve caught smallmouths on while frogging slop weeds for largemouths. My most productive presentation targets suspended smallmouths. I position the boat on the deep weededge adjacent to deeper water that’s 20-feet deep or more. Then I make a long cast with a Rapala DT10 or DT16 over the deep water and burn it back. Smallmouths smack the crankbait.
More Outstanding Smallmouth Waters
Of course, my five favorite smallmouth fisheries aren’t the only exceptional bronzeback waters in the country. To broaden the list, I asked 10 gadabout smallmouth anglers about their favorite waters for smallmouths.
- Buffalo River, AR—Jeff Samsel, fishing writer: 135 miles with plenty of public access for wading or floating with great numbers of smallmouths and spectacular scenery.
- Burt/Mullet Lakes, MI—Marcel Veenstra, guide: A trophy lake with the current state record; also recent photo of a reported 10.5-pounder.
- Lake Champlain, NY/VT—Mark Burgess, bass pro: Loaded with 4-pound-plus smallmouths, caught from 1 to 40 feet deep.
- Lake Erie’s Eastern Basin, Presque Isle Bay to Buffalo—Britt Stoudenmire, guide; Dave Lefebre, bass pro; Mark Burgess, bass pro: They all rate Lake Erie’s eastern basin as their top pick due to the abundance of 5- to 6-pound bass.
- Lake St. Clair, MI—Marcel Veenstra: Extremely dependable fishery for putting numbers of average-size smallmouths in the boat.
- Lake Winnipesaukee, NH—Mark Burgess: A beautiful lake with potential 100-bass days.
- Mille Lacs, MN—George Toalson, lure designer for Gene Larew Lures: Consistently produces large smallmouths along with incredible daily numbers.
- Penobscot River, ME—Jeff Samsel: Rare combination of quantity and quality smallmouths in a classic river setting; outstanding topwater bite.
- James River, VA—Britt Stoudenmire: Smallmouth population is strong with numerous 16- to 18-inch bass.
- Tennessee River impoundments, Pickwick and Wilson lakes, AL—Jimmy Mason, guide and tournament angler; Bruce Holt, G. Loomis: They agree these waters produce 7-pound smallmouths each year, with feeding sprees triggered by current flow.
- Traverse Bay, MI—Bruce Holt: Beautiful and fun place to fish, with trophies to 7 pounds.
- Quabbin Reservoir, MA—Bill Decoteau, fishing writer: Clear-water impoundment with prime classic smallmouth bass habitat; smallmouths average 3 to 4 pounds.