10 Best Smallmouth Bass Fishing Lakes and Rivers in Michigan

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Michigan has over 10,000 lakes and rivers to explore. With so many options, narrowing down the best smallmouth bass fishing waters in Michigan can be challenging.

Most lakes and rivers here hold at least a few, but some offer epic bronzeback fishing. So we’ll focus on those.

Surrounded on three sides by the Great Lakes, Michigan is a lush, beautiful state that deserves more angling attention.

Lakes Michigan, Erie, and Huron all border the state, along with some of the best inland water in the country. If you’re looking for a high number of big fish, Michigan is the place.

Smallmouth bass is the dominant species in northern Michigan, while largemouths are more prevalent in the southern part of the state. Not to say you won’t find largies in the north, just not as many.

The rivers and lakes are teeming with smallies, and you might pull a largemouth out of the same spot you just caught a smallmouth. Michigan is truly an amazing angling destination.

Set your sights on places like Lake Michigan, Lake St. Clair, and the Detroit River for nonstop smallmouth action.

Best Smallmouth Lakes in Michigan

Smallies are the perfect bass to target when looking for an epic fight and a high catch rate. The following waters are just the ticket.

Lake St. Clair

Lake St. Clair borders northeastern Michigan and Ontario, Canada. It’s just east of Detroit and is known for its incredible walleye, musky and salmon fishing. Add smallies to the mix, and this place is not to be missed.

B.A.S.S. regularly has Lake St. Clair in its top 5 best smallmouth lakes in the country.

The lake is primarily a shallow bowl with giant smallmouth bass lurking everywhere. The lake has excellent cover and plenty of forage to keep all of its resident game fish species fat and happy.

April is a good time to hit the shallower areas around the lake. While most anglers are off chasing walleye in the Detroit River, you can have a field day catching 5-pound-plus-smallmouths on cranks or swimbaits.

Late June into July will have the smallies heading deeper. That’s relative on this shallow lake, meaning they’re still easy to find and eager to bite whatever you toss them. Drop-shots work great throughout the hotter months.

Some of the most popular smallmouth spots are off the roads in the Metroparks area as well as off the St. Clair River channels and the islands along the eastern shore.

If you move into the weedier areas and coves, expect to find some largemouth bass striking your smallmouth lures.

Remember that half the lake is in Canada, and special regulations apply. Don’t cross over without proper permits.

The lake is next to Detroit, so there’s no lack of lodging, dining, and supplies. It’s a popular place in the summer, so be prepared to tangle with the power squad.

Lake Erie/Detroit River

Lake St Clair isn’t the only spot to fish near Detroit. Smallmouth bass throughout the Detroit River and on into Lake Erie grow to massive sizes and are almost as easy to catch as they are in Lake St Clair.

The current flowing from the Detroit River into Lake Erie offers anglers a unique spot to target big smallmouth. The big fish hold just off the main current in the lake, waiting to ambush their prey.

While connected to Lake St. Clair, the Michigan portion of Lake Erie and the Detroit River offer vastly different fisheries. They are heavily influenced by current and chock full of big smallmouth bass.

The mouth of Lake Erie is a great fishing area as the flowing river creates a top place for fish from the lake to set up for their next meal.

The Detroit River offers a great fishing opportunity set against the skyline of Detroit, making it a unique place to fish for bass.

The heavy current and frequent boat traffic at times make for challenging fishing, but tubes and drop-shot rigs will account for many big smallies that fight even harder in the current.

Of course, Lake Erie is also among the best walleye fishing spots in Michigan (and on the planet), and you’ll also likely find schools of yellow perch near your smallmouth spots.

Grand Traverse Bay

Grand Traverse Bay is split between the east and west arms, with Traverse City as the central hub.

If you’re looking to start an argument, ask a group of anglers which arm is better for smallies. Either way you go, you’re bound to catch fish of over 4 pounds with regularity, and smallies going over 6 pounds are caught often enough to be almost commonplace.

Regardless of the arm you’re fishing, target the dark spots around the lake.
The water is so clear that you can make out the darkness from clumps of vegetation and rocks on the bottom. Almost every spot has fish, and many of them are big.

Hit the water with spinnerbaits or try tubes on a drop shot. The bass love properly placed soft plastics like crawfish. A Ned rig will do wonders when the bite is slow.

The bay is part of Lake Michigan. That means the water warms a little later than the inland lakes.

The spawn here starts around the beginning of June, and fishing is nothing short of epic. Sight-fishing along the reefs and weed flats from June through mid-July is a great way to catch monsters.

The area is so massive that you shouldn’t have an issue finding a spot for yourself. Once the ice is off, it’s a great place to catch your limit or teach someone how to fish.

Be aware that Grand Traverse Bay also has some of the best northern pike fishing in Michigan. Ditto for muskie fishing. Either of these big, toothy critters will occasionally wreak havoc on your bass lure, your line, and maybe your psyche.

Traverse City has everything you can think of for a great fishing trip.

There are also several resorts, campgrounds, RV parks, and amenities around the bay if you want to avoid the city. After all, there are over 130 miles of shoreline to explore. That means plenty of open water to cast into.

Saginaw Bay/Charity Island

Saginaw Bay is such a massive body of water that pinning down the best spots is nearly impossible.

That said, the Charity Island area is fantastic. Just over a dozen miles east of the northern bay port town of Au Gres, Charity Island is surrounded by miles of perfect smallmouth habitat. Rocky reefs line the larger island and the neighboring Little Charity Island. Smallmouth bass are everywhere.

You’ll need a boat to experience this area in the middle of Saginaw Bay, but it’s definitely worth the trip.

Charity Island boasts a lighthouse that marks where some epic smallmouth fishing is available.

Mark the reefs on your finder and cast a green/pumpkin flake tube. Let it drift till you have a fish. Easy as that.

Spinnerbaits and Rat-L-Traps can also deliver fast action.

You’ll wear yourself out catching 3-pound fish by the end of the day. And enough 5- and 6-pounders are mixed in to keep things interesting.

The rocky bottom offers fantastic angling but also serious issues if the wind picks up. You can lose a prop in no time out here. If things are too rough, head up the Saginaw River near Bay City for some equally fast action.

Au Gres has most of the amenities you need, while other towns around the bay offer plenty of lodging, dining, and camping.

Best Smallmouth Rivers in Michigan

Smallmouth bass love rivers and Michigan has plenty of rivers that are chock full of them.

Grand River

The Grand River lives up to its name. The area from Eaton Rapids to Grand Rapids is the perfect smallmouth fishery. Along this section, you’ll also find a few impoundments. Skip them and head to the tailwater for the best action.

The upper section of the river just below Eaton Rapids is the perfect stretch for those fly anglers among us. A popper or a streamer in the clear waters will work wonders.

This entire reach can cloud up after a rainstorm, so give it a couple of days to clear up. The best area is between Grand Ledge and Portland, just west of Lansing. Both communities have plenty of amenities to make your trip a little easier.

Floating and wading are both options through the upper portion. The Red Cedar and Looking Glass rivers converge with the Grand along this section, and both are worth wading for smallies.

Below the Maple River confluence, you’ll find fly fishing to be out the window. The water stays pretty cloudy year-round.

Lures and baits, on the other hand, will knock those bass silly. Hit ’em with a Rat L Trap or crankbait, and you should find them quickly.

Floating is the preferred method of access once the Maple joins.
Below the Sixth Street Dam in Grand Rapids, the river spreads out and can be waded again through the next few miles. These riffles are loaded with smallmouth bass.

Walleye and catfish are hiding in the same spots, so don’t be surprised to catch a few.
Access along the Grand Rapids section is everywhere. A walking trail and several access points line each side of the river.

The lower Grand River also is among the best steelhead fishing rivers in Michigan.

Grand Rapids has everything you’ll need for your trip. If you want to avoid the city, Eaton Rapids is a great spot to make basecamp.

Kalamazoo River

The Kalamazoo River runs parallel to the Grand River. Fishing it is quite like its northern cousin. Jackson is just north of the headwaters, which run north and west into Lake Michigan.

The upper river offers exceptional clarity until the North and South Branches converge in Albion. They bring enough cloudy water to change the makeup through the end of the river.

You can catch big smallmouth bass everywhere along the length of the river, other than the few impoundments along the way.

Always fish just below the dams for the best action. Smallies love to smack live bait through these sections. Spinnerbaits and crankbaits also work well.

The river can be waded through Allegan, other than the impoundments.

Below Marrow Pond is the prime section of the river. Fish over 5 pounds are relatively common, and the entire area is easy to access. The structure along this section seems to be the perfect amount to create big bass.

Using a float tube of kayak will add mobility to your game, making it easier to cover more water along this stretch, though it’s not necessary.

Kalamazoo has it all for the traveling angler. Lodging, tackle shops full of local experts, restaurants, and direct access to the river make it the prime destination.

St. Joseph River

The St. Joseph River is the southernmost big water system in Michigan. It wanders into Indiana for a bit before returning to Michigan.

The smallmouth action, already quite good, heats up even more as the river gets closer to its end. After it detours through South Bend and finds its way back to Michigan, it’s smallie heaven from there to Lake Michigan.

Bronzebacks are everywhere in the lower section, but it’s fair to say the upper is still renowned for its smallmouth bass.

Plenty of streams and smaller creeks join the main river before it enters Indiana.

These creeks are loaded with smallmouth bass of all sizes, and pound-for-pound, these feisty fish put up an epic battle, unlike most other fish.

Head to the confluence of the Portage and St. Joseph Rivers for big fish and fast action. The entire section before it enters Indiana is a solid fishery.

After it flows back into Michigan, the lower section is a much larger body of water. The increased size makes taking a boat almost a necessity.

Head to Berrien Springs and fish the area from there through the I-94 bridge. Berrien Springs has a boat launch to set out into the section, which also is known for some of Michigan’s top salmon fishing.

Smallies are everywhere in this area. Take the time to work the structure along the shore before hitting the deeper sections.

Downstream you’ll find Lawrence, where the Paw Paw River joins the St. Joseph River. The Paw Paw is relatively shallow, allowing you to wade it.

Oh, and it’s also full of smallmouth. Search the slower currents of the river for them. The slow current makes this a river that’s still approachable during high water times when the St. Joe isn’t fishable.

Several small to midsized towns line the river, with plenty of amenities. There are bait shops and dining every few miles, it seems.

Chippewa River

The Chippewa River is one of those smallmouth havens you shouldn’t miss. Start your search below the Lake Isabella Dam and fish the entire section to the Tittabawassee River confluence at Midland.

Mount Pleasant marks the beginning of the best section of the river. Access points are all along the river here. Float or wade the river for the best success. Bridges frequently cross the river and make excellent spots to get to the river.

The lower section below Mount Pleasant can get super muddy due to the confluence with the North Fork of the Chippewa. If it’s too muddy, head above the North Fork confluence, and you’ll be good.

Everything you need for a trip to the Chippewa is readily available in one of the several towns that line the river. Check out the camping and RV spots before you head out to ensure availability, as they fill up quickly.

Cass River

The Cass River can show up pretty muddy after rains. When it’s been dry weather for a bit, you’re going to find a pristine, clear river with epic smallmouth action.

Head to Cass City (a couple of hours north of Detroit) and fish between there and Vassar. The river in this section can be waded, making access easy for everyone.

In the middle of that reach, Caro has a small impoundment that you can easily navigate around. The fishing there is good, but the river is better.

Bridges are the best spots to stop and access the river. Most have pullouts. This is good because Cass can turn on a dime and go from being a poor day to the best smallie session of your life. The key is moving around until you find them.

Riffles and pools make up the overall build of the river in this section. There are plenty of boulders as well, making it feel more like a mountain stream than a northern Michigan river. It’s a beautiful place to catch smallies, and it loves to provide.

Below Vassar, you’re going to need a canoe or the like to get into the channel. It’s deeper, but the fishing is still as good. You’re apt to catch a few walleye while you head downstream because their numbers grow with each mile closer to Saginaw.

Head to Cass City for any of your trip needs. Bait and tackle, lodging, and restaurants are easy to find here.

Catch More Smallmouth Bass

We’ve compiled our favorite techniques to catch smallmouths and other black bass in this easy how-to fishing guide.