Trophy Smallmouth Fishing on the Great Lakes
April 14, 2018
The Great Lakes warp our perspectives on the size of trophy smallmouth. Across North America, most anglers consider smallmouth bass to be trophies when they hit the 20-inch or 5-pound mark. On the Great Lakes, those length and weight criteria get stretched to 21 or 22 inches or 6 to 7 pounds. For those wanting in on this bounty, I've highlighted some top locations.
The largest Great Lake lays out more like a haven for lake trout than a bass fishery. It's dominated by rock and shorelines with sheer drop-offs that give way to an abyss of deep open water. Scattered among its hundreds of miles of shoreline are a few oases that smallmouth bass call home. They make early-spring movements to shallow areas to spawn, then spread across large ranges to occupy deep rockpiles and humps to feed.
The most famous spot is Chequamegon Bay on the southwest shore of Lake Superior near the city of Ashland, Wisconsin. Since 1994, this area has benefited from special regulations of a catch-and-release-only season during the spawn and a one-fish daily limit and 22-inch minimum length for the remainder of the season.
The two large sloughs of Kakagon and Sand Cut are renowned for the large number of spawning bass they attract. A mix of submerged vegetation, wood, sand, gravel, and soft-bottom areas in somewhat protected confines provides ideal conditions for spawning. Dragging tubes and casting snag-resistant spinnerbaits are popular early-spring tactics.
The most distinctive characteristic of fishing Chequamegon Bay might be dealing with seiches, tide-like water movement generated in the massive lake that causes water currents to push in and out of the bay throughout the day. When clear water from the lake rushes in, fishing can be tough, but the bite picks up when stained water is drawn out. Submerged wooden rafts, abandoned structures, and dredged channels from logging days of old make for unique fishing.
Farther east and extending out into the middle of Lake Superior is the Keweenaw Peninsula. The eastern side of the peninsula, along with the adjoining narrow Huron Bay, are worth exploring for some of the biggest bass Superior houses. Sand and rock make up most of the landscape, so scattered vegetation, isolated humps, and points concentrate fish all year. Heavy spinnerbaits with willowleaf blades can be fished deeper and faster as search lures to find fish. Once you've found them, rewards are great. These results can be duplicated when exploring the Canadian waters near Nipigon and Terrace Bay, where good numbers of 6-pound bass roam.
Lake Michigan may be blessed with the most diverse and numerous top-notch smallmouth fisheries of all the Great Lakes. Sturgeon Bay is its crowning jewel, having been named the #1 bass fishery in North America by several sources. Large flats close to the city of Sturgeon Bay attract huge numbers of spawning bass, along with many tournaments.
Top teams frequently weigh 2-day bag limits of 12 fish in the 55- to 67-pound range and recent lunker winners have weighed up to 8.45 pounds. This incredible fishing isn't confined to the Sturgeon Bay area. All of Green Bay, the largest freshwater estuary in North America, produces trophy fish. They can be found from the Fox River at the southern extreme to the rivers of its western shores, and the rocky shorelines of Big and Little Bay de Noc on the northern extreme. On its eastern shore, the entire Door County peninsula contains a mix of sand and rock, along with offshore reefs, that provide hundreds of miles of bass water to explore.
The Lake Michigan side of the Door County peninsula attracts a transitory breed of bass. When light east winds push warm water against its rocky shoreline, ravenous smallmouths materialize in huge packs and provide sight-fishing opportunities like no other. When prevailing west winds blow out the warm water, it's replaced by chilly lake water and near-shore structure becomes a ghost town devoid of bass.
On the southern extreme of Lake Michigan, Captain Ralph Steiger routinely guides clients to bass topping 5 pounds. He targets them on the highly industrial Indiana shoreline and spectacular skyline of Chicago and its touristy Navy Pier. Steiger says, "Our bass population has continued to expand and grow in recent years with many year-classes flourishing.
"My customers love the visual nature of this sort of fishing. You don't have to be fixated on the graph, imagining what's below. We work miles of steel and rock retaining walls. You can anticipate bites based on turns or openings in the wall and transitions from steel to rock. We swim a lot of minnow imitator baits like Jackall Rhythm Wave 3.8 and drag goby imitators such as ISG Tubes and Poor Boy Erie Darter Jrs." This spot is at the mercy of north winds that murk and chill near-shore areas. But time it right and it's world-class.
Farther up the Michigan coast, Travis City and Grand Traverse Bay are a fine summer location to sight-fish jumbo bass. This area is known for massive sandflats and bass that can be stalked like bonefish. Find patches of sandgrass and deeper cuts in the flats to score.
Bassmaster Elite Series 2017 Angler of the Year Brandon Palaniuk calls Lake Huron the most unique and intriguing of the Great Lakes bass fisheries. He hopes to spend more time pursuing virtually untouched trophy bass around Alpena, Michigan. He says they can be nomadic, but with visibility up to 30 feet on calm days, it's like big-game hunting. Transition areas from sand to rock and old sunken ships can be a treasure trove of bronzebacks on these out of-the-way waters. Bladebaits and jigging spoons can be worked quickly in deeper water to call in schools of bass.
On the far northern end of Lake Huron, the Manitoulin Islands stretch more than 50 miles parallel to the Canadian shoreline to form a labyrinth of bays, channels, points, and islands. The islands and surrounding shorelines set up more like inland lake fishing with weedbeds, flats, bays, and points than a big-water fishery. No matter the wind direction or strength, there's almost always protected water to fish.
Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay houses strong populations of both largemouth and smallmouth bass, but anglers neglect them in favor of its booming walleye population. The bay is shallower and more stained in the southern portions where the Saginaw River enters. These areas warm quickly and attract bass in early spring. The water gets deeper and clearer farther north, with good vegetation scattered on the west and east shores and mid-bay rock reefs to hold bass in summer. Working rattlebaits in deeper area and fluke-style lures up shallow are productive much of the season.
Lake Saint Clair
Leaving Lake Huron en route to Lake Erie, you come upon yet another phenomenal fishery at Lake St. Clair. If there's such a thing as a lake that produces consistent limits of 3- to 4-pound smallmouth bass during midsummer, it's St. Clair. But since it's essentially one vast open basin, finding concentrations of bass can be challenging.
Focus your attention on open pockets in offshore weedbeds holding good concentrations of bait. While bass will not necessarily hold in the openings, these clearings allow your lures to be singled out by bass. Palaniuk suggests using a Storm Arashi Spinbait or similar spybait on a slow steady retrieve to catch mid-lake fish. He also relies on his Humminbird 360 to read in front of the boat to locate fish before casting and where they head after he catches one from the school. Palaniuk explains, "Great Lakes bass are more migratory than inland fish. Initially finding bass in big-water settings can be a challenge. For that reason it pays to have electronics that put you right back on those fish."
Walleyes tend to overshadow smallmouth bass on Lake Erie and yet nearly every port city along its coast has superb bass fishing nearby. From Monroe, Michigan, and Toledo, Ohio, in the western corner of the lake, to Lorain, Port Clinton, and Cleveland down the coast, there are strings of reefs, spoils dumping grounds, and breakwalls that now teem with round gobies and smallmouth bass. The Bass Islands of Ohio and Pelee Island on the Ontario side are fine areas for bass to 7 pounds. They produce fish from the season opener to late fall, only interrupted by potent wind events that prevent lake fishing. Dragging plastics and drop-shot rigging are staple tactics, along with vertically fishing hair jigs and bladebaits. Charter captains occasionally spoil customers by using soft-shell crayfish for hungry bass.
The one Erie location that doesn't suffer from a bass identity crisis is Buffalo Harbor. Here bass reign, routinely producing 5- to 7-pound fish, with 8-pounders not unheard of. The shallows within the harbor draw lots of prespawn fish soon after ice-out, while legions of bass feed on rock reefs within a couple miles of the harbor mouth. Postspawn fish move to breakwalls, gaps, and adjacent shorelines with a mix of rock, grass, and sand. Casting crankbaits that dive 12 to 20 feet works well for fish cruising between rockpiles.
While Bay of Quinte has the dynamics to grow trophy smallmouth bass, most bass fishing on Lake Ontario centers at the lake's eastern reaches from Henderson Harbor to the Thousand Islands area and the St. Lawrence River. Palaniuk won a Bassmaster Elite Series tournament on this fishery with loads of bass from 5 to 6 pounds. He says the key is to focus on deep water and consider how current moves around different pieces of structure and from the top to the bottom of the water column. This means fishing water from 15 to 35 deep, not your typical scenario throughout much of the Great Lakes.
Throughout summer and fall, some of the biggest bass hold tight to bottom around massive boulders and along the edge of steep-breaking channel edges. To present baits slowly and precisely, Palaniuk drop-shots Zoom Z Drop Worms on long fluorocarbon leaders. The flat undersides of this lure give it a slow fall rate and more natural swimming movement, when held still in current. Top-notch electronics help find and stay on small pieces of structure that break current and hold pods of big fish.
No matter what Great Lake you choose to target smallmouth bass, your chances of connecting with a trophy-caliber fish are good. Catch-and-release practices are the norm in most locations, so big fish grow even larger. Protective regulations have helped reestablish bass in some areas, and the invasion of the round goby has fueled a new generation of record-class smallmouth bass across the Great Lakes region.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, of the Chicago, Illinois, area, is an avid multispecies angler and especially knowledgeable of Great Lakes fisheries.