Hinchcliff is the owner and operator of Steelhead Manifesto. He doesn’t only fish steelhead, though. In fact, in the springtime, one of his favorite outdoor pursuits is chasing smallmouth bass in Michigan.
By Roger Hinchcliff
Ask any springtime Great Lakes angler if he or she loves to catch a big smallmouth bass. The answer will be a resounding YES! Pound for pound, the smallmouth bass is one of the hardest-fighting, greatest-biting fish and loves to get air during the fight. The Great Lakes region is home to some of the best smallmouth fishing on the planet. Folks come from all over the world to catch them every year. Springtime is a busy time of year for many because of steelhead fishing, morel mushroom picking, and gobbler hunting.
Many that can find some time will tell you pre-spawn smallmouth bass fishing can be phenomenal. The weather, temps and winds play a huge role in your success. Knowing what to look for is key. When water temps climb from the 30s and start reaching the 40s, usually in late-March or early-April, the fish will start to move into shallower water and be ready to bite. Peak spawning occurs from late-May through early-June, and when water temps reach between the mid-40s and 50s, the fish will start feeding before the spawn. Giving the bank or wading angler a chance at some quality fishing. No boat is needed here, folks, and some say the wading or bank angler even have it better than a person with a boat because they have access to water that a boat cannot get to. Kayakers love this type of fishing.
Places to fish
Harbors, marina docks, piers, islands, boulders and beaches are places to start looking for smallmouth bass. My favorites are wind-protected bays with sand or rock piles; these will attract smallies like a magnet. Did I mention this structure usually doesn’t go anywhere? So, every year, once these key places are found, you can come back and catch them. The baitfish are also attracted to the warmer water, and if you find the warmer water, you will strike the bronze gold. Typically, if temps are dropping and the wind is blowing, the fish will move out to deeper water in depths between 10 and 20 feet and school up. However, when those bays start to warm and calm again, they will be right back in the shallows and will spread out.
Baits to use
When the temps reach the 50s, pretty much anything will catch you fish. But depending on conditions, soft plastics really shine. A tube jig, worm or grub matching a goby, shiner, crawfish or smelt is tough to beat. Try using the darker shades of greens, purples, black, brown or pumpkin. In very clear water consider white, pearl, or smoke. I love using these colors with red or silver flake. All these colors match the forage base in the Great Lakes. Sometimes when fighting the fish, they will spit up what they are feeding on. Pay attention to this small detail, and it can pay big dividends. Color, size and profile are very important, and my favorite sizes to use are 3- to 4-inch baits. I generally use a wide variety of lead heads in sizes 1/8 oz. up to 1/2 oz. depending on the fall rate of the bait I want. If the fish have been pressured or conditions call for a more finesse approach, a shaky head with a plastic worm or tube whacks fish, too. If you’re fishing on a day when the fish have moved out deeper on you, having that heavier jig will allow you to cast out farther into the deeper water allowing you a chance at that 5- to 6-pounder. Crankbaits and stick baits such as #10 and #12 husky jerks and #5 to #9 original floating Rapalas can be deadly on big smallmouth. Also, pay attention to your surroundings and match the hatch. If you see gobies, schools of alewives, smelt or shiners, that’s what they are feeding on. Try to match the presentation to the bait you’re seeing and you will not believe the numbers you can put on the board in a day. I’ve had many 100-fish days.
My favorite sizes of baits are in the 2.75- to 4.75-inch range for smallies. However, bigger baits do take bigger fish. So, leave nothing on the table here. Swim baits, spinners and jigs tipped with shiners should never be overlooked. Lastly, streamers for the fly angler can be productive. Yes, I love stripping streamers for these fish, and I prefer to do that if I can. I use a 7-weight with a RIO Outbound Short fly line. Long leaders are not needed here, folks. A 5-foot leader will do the job. My favorite all-around bass rod would be a 7-foot spinning rod with medium power such as a Lamiglas XP or Infinity in a 703S series. If you like to fish out of a Kayak, try the kayak Paco model in a 724S. Line choice for me is braid because it has no stretch. I pair it with a 6- to 10-pound fluorocarbon leader.
This time of year produces some big small jaws, and 3- to 5-pounders are common. We are truly blessed to live in Michigan and have the fishery we do. Don’t miss this fishing opportunity in the Spring; it’s truly one of my favorite times of the year. It’s when nature begins a new life. Once smallmouth fever happens to you, it’s over. Vacation time will be planned every year in the early spring to chase these fish.