Quest to catch smallmouth in all the Great Lakes in one season
Article by Kevin Short
Aerial view of the 5 Great Lakes.
When we caught the first fish, we really didn’t have a plan. We were just fishing. We caught a few here, caught a few there, and it was all good fun.
A few years back, we were within 50 miles and one fish before we realized what we had almost accomplished. By the time realization set in, though, we were several states and hundreds of miles away from that last fish.
Plus the snow was flying at that point and my wife Kerry is not very fond of snow and definitely not fond of it while she’s fishing – even for smallmouth in the Great Lakes.
Smallmouth in the Great Lakes -- that was our goal. A smallmouth from each one of the five Great Lakes in one season, to be more precise. Kind of like a Bronzeback Quintet.
Michigan - July 1-7
The quest began innocently enough in Lake Michigan after the Bassmaster Elite Series event out of Green Bay, Wis. Our schedule was such that we had almost two weeks of down time between the Green Bay event and the ICAST show in Orlando, Fla.
Roaming northward from Green Bay up the Door Peninsula, we launched out of Peninsula State Park and headed out to Chambers Island. Much like Little Sturgeon Bay to the south, where I had fished during the Elite event, there were numerous fish still close to their spawning beds.
Not to do any chest beating, but it wasn’t real hard to get a bite. Steve and Julia Kennedy’s 3-year-old daughter caught a few on her own that day. How’s that for easy?
Neither Kerry nor I caught a smallmouth over four pounds that day around Chambers, but we caught a wad of them from three up to almost four pounds. Just the right size for fun.
Moving up the lake, we next landed just outside of Escanaba, Mich., for a few days of fishing in Big and Little Bays de Noc. In my mind, this is some of the you-gotta-go-there prime smallmouth water in the country. Big water. No fishing pressure. Few houses. Fewer boats. As close to pristine scenery as you can come in the lower 48 (but wait, I found a place later in the year that might be better – read on).
Big Bay de Noc might just be my favorite smallmouth destination of all time for several of the above reasons. Oh, and the fish there are big, too. Not only did Kerry and I spend several days out in Big Bay, but I was fortunate enough to spend one day with Bassmaster Classic Champ Ken Cook and Kennedy, a fellow Elite pro.
You want to see some fish caught? Put three ultra competitive guys in one boat for a 12-hour day in some of the best smallmouth water on the planet. It was amazing. We really didn’t catch big numbers that day, but almost every fish we hooked was seen before we even threw to it – and these fish weren’t on beds, they were just that shallow. Big fun in Big Bay.
Huron - July 8
Moving on from Big Bay, we relocated just south of Cheboygan, Mich. Kerry and I were tagging along with Ken and Tammy Cook, who were running from the Oklahoma heat and were on their own smallmouth adventure. Ken had heard that the bite was on in the Burt/ Mullet lake area, but that info was not correct.
Kerry and I spent a day out on Huron, which seems to be almost totally void of life in the few places I’ve fished it. I’m sure there are areas of the lake that are loaded with fish, but you can spend a lot of time in open water staring at your electronics without seeing a single arch. I can say that the few smallmouth I’ve caught in Huron have been nice ones.
It’s a place where you don’t have to worry about messing with little fish. While Kerry and I were out on Huron that day “the plan” was hatched. We realized that we had already covered two of the five Great Lakes and we would be on or near Erie and Ontario later in the year. The only lake out of our travel path was Superior and from Cheboygan, Mich., it’s just not that far.
A phone call to Steve Kennedy, who hadn’t made it past St. Ignace, Mich., after leaving Big Bay the previous week, and we planned a day trip to Superior. I had texted and called several smallmouth gurus from Michigan and Canada and received the same reply when I asked about Superior; “never fished there.” I like that – an adventure.
Superior - July 9
Superior proved to be more than we believed it could be – and we were there on a bad day. I say it was a bad day; it was less than ideal conditions, by any measure. We put in at Bay Mills and had a wind out of the north, which is not a good thing on the south side of Superior.
Even though we were far down in the south end of huge Whitefish Bay, the rollers were starting to build by late afternoon. Fortunately, we had found several areas behind some shallow shoals that provided great protection from the waves, and it was loaded with smallies. Kerry, Steve, and I were very impressed with the numbers we caught.
We have no doubt that a big part of our success stemmed from the fact that we were the only boat trailer in the parking lot that day. It’s kind of nice to have every acre of water you can see for miles all to yourself. Crazy stuff.
We caught fish on Superior much as we had on Michigan and Huron – ultra shallow. For a guy from the South, it just seems weird to be catching fish in less than five feet of crystal clear water in the middle of July. Just shows you how different fishing is from one part of the country to another.
I knew from past experience in the Great Lakes that at a certain water temperature, these shallow smallmouth would bolt for deeper, sometimes ultra deep, water, only to return to the same places as the temperatures dropped in the fall. Such is the cycle of a Great Lakes smallmouth.
Erie - July 14
After Superior, Kerry and I continued south through Michigan to the Detroit River and Lake Erie. I had a Bassmaster Northern Open on Lake St. Clair and wanted to fish Lake Erie for a day during practice for the event. It would also be our fourth Great Lake in less than a month.
Erie was the first of the Great Lakes we had seen where the water temps were starting to get into the upper 70s and the fish weren’t up on the bank. No longer could we troll down the bank, looking for the next fish we wanted to catch. At Erie we had to use our electronics and actually make a bunch of casts – what a concept.
Ontario - August 29
Kerry and I returned north after a few weeks at home for the last events in both the Bassmaster Northern Open and Elite Series on Cayuga Lake and Oneida Lake, respectively. We had already planned to visit Lake Ontario after the Oneida tournament, which would be the finishing touch in our Smallie Slam. While at Oneida, we received the 2013 Elite Series schedule, which included a stop on the St. Lawrence River out of Ogdensburg, N.Y.
When you drive all the way from Mayflower, Ark., to Brewerton, N.Y., a whopping 1,329 miles, what’s another 114 miles? We loaded up and headed for Ogdensburg. No distance is too great when it comes to catching smallmouth.
After several days of scouting the St. Lawrence, Kerry and I headed south for our last fish of the Great Lakes and for home. Ontario was low and just finding a ramp close to where we wanted to fish was a bit of a challenge. We finally put in at Long Point State Park, but as the trailer dropped off the end of the ramp just as the BassCat floated, I wasn’t overly certain we would be able to get it back out.
Oh well. We had come this far. We were going to catch a couple of smallmouth first, then worry about getting the boat back out of the water. A man’s got to have his priorities in order.
It took us a while to find fish in Ontario, as they had gone out and down. We finally got far enough out in the lake to where we had 90-100 feet of water and started to see fish on the graph. Kerry caught the first fish, which was less than three pounds, and proclaimed “I’m good. Ready to go when you catch one.”
It’s 10:30 in the morning and we had just run 10 miles out into the middle of Lake Ontario on a relatively calm day. No way were we leaving after only catching one small smallmouth. Over the next hour and a half, we boated numerous fish, most over the four-pound mark. When I caught my first four-pounder that day, I thought to myself “Wow, we really did it. How cool is that?”
While the Bronzeback Quintet was by no means an impossible task, it wasn’t exactly a creampuff, either. Geographically speaking, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of miles between Lakes Superior and Ontario. While all the Great Lakes as a whole are teeming with smallmouth, there are areas of each lake that seem to be dead zones and the only thing you might catch would be gobies or sheepheads.
Fortunately, I had spent the past few years fishing the Bassmaster Northern Opens and was beginning to gain a fair understanding of smallmouth habits in the Lakes. Our bait selection for the entire quest was fairly simple, as most northern smallmouth fishing usually can be. That’s one of the great things about smallies in the Great Lakes – when you find them, it doesn’t take a boat load of tackle to get them to bite. I like that.
Best memory of the whole adventure? On the last day Kerry and I were in Big Bay de Noc, we absolutely crushed them. I don’t even know how many we caught that day, it was just sinful the number of 3-4 pound fish that came over the side of the BassCat.
Close to the end of the day, Kerry turned to me while holding her wrists. “I don’t think I can catch another fish. My wrists and arms hurt so bad.”
I was dumbfounded. I’d never heard her or anyone else say they hurt so much from catching fish that they couldn’t catch another one.“Oh wait,” she continued, “I see another one right there. Ooh, it’s a nice one. I can catch that one.”