Northern Michigan fishing has made another list: Bassmaster magazine unveiled its 2014 list of top 100 bass lakes in the United States, and five of our fishing holes made the list, and Grand Traverse Bay ranked in the vaunted Top 10. We checked in with fishing guide and Northern Michigan outdoor enthusiast Capt. Ben Wolfe, proprietor of Traverse City Bass Guide Service and pictured below, for advice on Northern Michigan bass fishing and to hear his recommendations for five more lakes where smallmouth bass hit lures hard and fight like they’re jacked on Red Bull. The following interview was first featured in the July 2014 issue of Traverse, Northern Michigan’s Magazine.
You can find both up here, but Northern Michigan is primarily known for its smallmouth fishing. A lot of my bass customers come north really wanting to target smallmouth.
Other than the presence of bass, what about the experience draws bass fishermen here?
A big part of the draw here is the outstanding clarity of the water. That’s not what they always get in southern Michigan or other places farther south, where the water can be cloudy and murky. People really enjoy that water clarity.
What kinds of lakes do we seek to find smallmouth?
The lucky thing up here is that just about every lake and even rivers have smallmouth bass.
What are some important ways that smallmouth differ from largemouth?
They’re a much more open-water fish than largemouth bass. Smallmouth are roamers. They move quite a bit. They don’t just hang out in thick weed beds. Another thing that smallmouth do is roam in what’s called wolf packs, so it’s common that if you hook one, others will follow it, and if your fishing partner casts to that fish, you might catch other fish following that one.
So, fishing smallmouth bass in July, what should we know?
Depending on when in July, there are a lot of options for anglers. In early July, top-water fishing [lures float on the surface of the water] is strong because the mayfly hatch, the hexagenia, is at its peak. That’s the granddaddy of hatches. Those bugs are known for the trout angler, but bass and many other fish feed off them too. The mayfly is like pure protein for fish, and they can consume mayflies while expending a lot less energy than eating, say, a crayfish. Fish can put on a lot of weight by eating mayflies.
To top-water fish you could go out with either fly rod or spin gear?
Right. What’s neat about top-water fishing up here is that not only do you get to see the splash of the hit, but you also get a real visual because you can watch the fish come up to the bait because the water is so clear.
What about below the surface?
Also strong in July. You always look for structure to fish near, and in Northern Michigan lakes, we generally don’t have rock piles and things like that for structure. We have depth zones, and those are critical for summertime fishing. The active fish go shallow and the inactive fish go deep. If you aren’t finding fish, go to a different zone. Often they are right at the break lines, where the depth changes, like where it goes from 8 feet to 12 feet, places like that.
Also, smallmouth bass are very curious and they will gravitate to anything that looks different from what’s around it. So, a color change, a boulder, a patch of weeds, a dark spot in a light area, a light spot in a dark area. Anything that looks different can be a great place to make a cast or two toward. Or, as I said, a depth change.
Which specific lures would you recommend?
There are several. For top-water fishing, walking style baits or poppers. One thing that’s become a staple of smallmouth fishing for the whole country in the last decade is a Senko or Senko-style Worm done on a Wacky Rig. That’s very productive up here. The whole family of crankbaits—baits that dive deep—also can be very good, as are spinnerbaits, another visual option.
Final thought to share?
Anglers should know that we have a lot of other types of fish up here—walleye, pike, rock bass, perch, and many more, including the well-known salmon and lake trout fisheries—and that’s a fun part of fishing up here, you don’t always know what you are going to catch when you are targeting bass.
The Hit List
Northern Michigan lakes that made the Bassmaster list of top 100 bass lakes in the United States (rank noted), and five more recommendations by Captain Ben.
- #82 Lake Charlevoix
- #46 Mullet Lake
- #43 Thunder Bay, Lake Huron
- #39 Burt Lake
- #9 Grand Traverse Bay
The captain suggests:
- Lake Leelanau, both north and south lobes
- Torch Lake
- Portage Lake, Onekama
- Houghton Lake
- Higgins Lake
- And … Smaller lakes. “The cool thing up here is you can catch trophy-size fish on small inland lakes. So if you want to kayak- fish or wade or fish from a small rowboat, you can have a lot of fun,” Wolfe says.