11 Best Smallmouth Bass Fishing Lakes & Rivers in Ohio

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There’s a reason why smallmouth bass are held in such high esteem by so many anglers. These feisty, hard-fighting fish are abundant in Ohio and offer an incredibly varied array of fishing experiences. 

You can drop tube jigs onto rocky reefs to haul smallmouths up from deep haunts in the Great Lakes. You can catch them on trout flies from still pools on trickling streams shallow enough to wade across.

You can target them in lakes, reservoirs, rivers and streams in every corner of Ohio. Smallmouth bass are everywhere.

The best smallmouth lakes and rivers in Ohio that we’ll reveal here have a few things in common. Most have relatively clear, clean water, with access to both deep habitat and shallow spawning sites. And they all offer an abundance of rocky cover. 

In the same way that largemouth bass love weeds, smallmouths love rocks. Their bronze coloration blends right in with the rocky reefs and ledges where they hunt their favorite prey—crawfish.

The best smallmouth fishing in Ohio tends to be during spring and fall. But many of the waters listed here are great in summer too. That’s especially true of rivers and streams, where smallmouths haunt deep pools and current breaks within easy reach of anglers casting from shore.

Top Smallmouth Picks

If you really want to narrow down your search to a handful, the following spots are essential for any Ohio smallmouth angler.

Lake Erie

Lake Erie is the undisputed champion of Ohio smallmouth lakes, and a strong contender for best smallmouth lake on the planet. Ohio’s state record smallmouth, a 9-pound, 3-ounce monster, was caught from Lake Erie in 1993.

Of the four states that share the U.S. side of Lake Erie’s 850-mile shoreline, Ohio has by far the largest share. Ohio offers access to Lake Erie’s shallow, fertile Western Basin, as well as its somewhat deeper Central Basin.

Broadly speaking, the Western Basin is the place to be for spring smallmouth action, and the Central Basin’s deeper habitat offers better summer smallmouth fishing. 

But that’s also an oversimplified view of Lake Erie’s smallmouth fishery, and it doesn’t really tell the full story. The truth is, areas all over the lake have potential pretty much all year.

Still, it’s fair to say that if you’re looking for smallmouths in the shallows, spring is the time to go. 

Smallmouths head toward warm shallow waters in April, moving into harbors and up tributaries all along the lakeshore. Most bass in Lake Erie spawn during the month of May, before gradually transitioning to deeper rocky habitat as the water warms. 

The Sandusky and Port Clinton areas are ground zero for Ohio’s Lake Erie smallmouth fishery.

These two cities are located right around the transitional zone between the Western and Central basins of the lake, and they provide access to a series of islands that offer a genuine bass bonanza.

Catawba Island (which is technically a peninsula, not an island) is the gateway to this region, which includes Kelleys Island, and the three neighboring islands promisingly known as South, Middle and North Bass Island.

This whole area of the lake is a network of rocky reefs, sloping points, steep ledges and drop-offs. It’s the very definition of prime smallmouth habitat, and although bass certainly move around as the seasons change, there are smallmouths in this general area year-round. 

Jigs, diving crankbaits and soft plastics on drop-shot rigs are great for plying these rocky habitats. Live minnows and crayfish are also popular, though nightcrawlers tend to get stolen by the invasive round gobies that are now prolific in the lake.

A wide range of access is available, including Kelleys Island State Park and Oak Point State Park, the latter located on South Bass Island.

There are also great smallmouth opportunities farther east around Ruggles Reef, the Lakewood area, and the Cleveland Artificial Reefs.

Great Miami River

A tributary of the Ohio River that cuts across 160 miles of Southwestern Ohio, the Great Miami is the best of Ohio’s many, many excellent smallmouth rivers. No other river in the state produces more trophy smallies, including some that top 24 inches. 

Smallmouth bass generally have a reputation for being some of the hardest-fighting fish in freshwater. But even lake smallies have nothing on their river-dwelling counterparts. 

Pound-for-pound, there is truly nothing tougher than a smallmouth born and raised in strong current. And the Great Miami River, with its seemingly endless stretches of deep pools, broad riffles and rocky banks, is a veritable smallmouth factory. 

A lot of the best bass fishing on the river is in its portion above the city of Dayton. Up here, the Great Miami is a fairly small river that’s best explored aboard a kayak or in a pair of waders.

Much of the land along this part of the river is privately owned, but there are informal access points at almost every bridge crossing. Bridges are state-owned, so most are fair game.

The 93-mile Great Miami River Trail also hugs the river, providing access by bike or on foot.

A great tactic is to toss a jig into the lower end of a riffle and let it tumble down into the pool below. Smallmouths usually wait in spots like this for morsels to get dislodged by the current.

Some anglers also fly fish for smallmouths here using streamers and crawfish pattern flies. 

As the Great Miami River passes through Dayton, it is fed by the Stillwater and Mad Rivers, and it becomes a much broader waterway.

There’s solid bass fishing in this section too, but big-river tactics like slow-rolling a spinnerbait or pulling a crankbait across the current are more effective.

The landscape around the river also becomes a lot more industrial in the Dayton area, but there are still some lovely parks with great river access. Check out East River Landing just south of the city.

The Great Miami typically fishes well from March to November.

It’s often high and muddy in springtime, but the summer months offer some of the best wading opportunities. Low water sends smallmouths to the deepest pools, and they often relate to easily identifiable cover.

Alum Creek Lake

Stretching from the suburbs of Columbus up into the rolling farmland north of the city, Alum Creek Lake lies at almost the exact geographic center of Ohio. It’s one of the best fishing destinations in this part of the state, and is regarded as a great multispecies lake. 

Smallmouth and largemouth bass are both abundant in this 3,300-acre reservoir, with smallmouths being slightly more abundant. Smallies over 7 pounds have been caught here, but 1- and 2-pound bass are most common. 

Alum Creek Lake is oriented north to south, with its shallow headwaters at the northern end. That end of the lake is dominated by largemouths, but smallmouth bass are more prevalent toward the deeper south end of the lake.

There are depths up to 60 feet near the dam, with numerous rocky drop-offs and points. 

More so than most Ohio reservoirs, Alum Creek Lake’s shoreline is dominated by small coves and long, sloping points. These are great places to fish for bass, and they also are good spots to tuck into to beat the weekend boat traffic in summer. 

Work the points with jigs, tubes and drop-shot rigs.

Smallmouths are often caught around relatively deep structure in summer, but spring and fall offer a great shallow bite around shoreline cover, like fallen trees, rock-and-gravel banks, and the riprap face of the dam.

Alum Creek State Park provides the primary access to the lake, including boat launch sites, fishing access, and camping at various park units around the shoreline. 

Alum Creek Lake has also been heavily stocked with saugeye—walleye/sauger hybrids—which tend to share habitat with smallmouths. Expect to hook a few as you fish for bass in the rocky areas at the lower end of the lake. 

A good tailwater fishery also exists in Alum Creek below the dam. Alum Creek Park, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, provides access to the dam area and the tailwater below.

More: Complete Guide to Alum Creek Lake Fishing

Scioto River

Ask any angler in the Columbus area where they like to target stream smallmouths, and the likely answer will be the Scioto River.

This 231-mile waterway begins in the countryside of Northern Ohio, cutting a path right through the heart of the state until it reaches the Ohio River.

Along the way, the Scioto River provides enough great smallmouth habitat to keep even the most dedicated angler busy for a lifetime. A lot of the best fishing is right in and around Columbus.

Much of the river as it flows through the city is insulated from the urban landscape by a network of parks and green spaces. And although the river isn’t truly free-flowing, it offers a wealth of classic riffles, runs and pools that are a lot of fun to fish. 

The Scioto is a great place to fly-fish for smallmouths. Fly anglers often tangle with 12- to 16-inch smallies that gobble up Clouser Minnows, deer hair poppers and crawfish imitations.

Fall is a great time to fish the Scioto. Low water levels this time of year make the river easy to explore, and cooling temperatures trigger smallmouths to feed aggressively leading up to winter.

Target the upper and lower ends of pools, as well as current breaks formed by rocks, bridge pilings and other structures.

There’s also great smallmouth bass fishing in Griggs Reservoir, a Scioto River impoundment so long and narrow that it’s difficult to say exactly where the river ends and the reservoir begins.

But it’s easy to say that the reservoir is loaded with rocky habitat that provides great cover for smallmouths.

Check out Griggs Reservoir Park, which provides access not only to the reservoir, but also the dam and the outstanding tailwater fishery that exists in the Scioto River just below it. 

The Scioto River forms the core artery of a system of great fishing streams in Central Ohio.

Some of the best spots in the Scioto are near the confluences with smaller waterways like Big Walnut Creek and Big Darby Creek, both solid smallmouth fisheries in their own right.

Honorable Mentions

Smallmouths are widespread throughout Ohio, inhabiting wild rivers and man-made reservoirs alike.

The waters listed above may be the cream of the crop, but don’t be too quick to write off these additional lakes and rivers.

Piedmont Lake

A beautiful 2,368-acre reservoir in Southeastern Ohio, Piedmont Lake is always an enjoyable place to fish. The lakeshore is almost entirely undeveloped, and the wooded, hilly terrain gives the impression of a true wilderness fishing experience. 

Largemouth and smallmouth bass are both available here. Smallmouths are more common, but the two species often share habitat in Piedmont Lake, so expect a mixed catch.

Ohio DNR surveys between 2006 and 2019 show increasing smallmouth numbers every year. 

As a general rule, smallmouths are most common in the deep, rocky lower end of the lake, as opposed to the shallow, silty northern end. There’s great fishing as early as April in the backs of coves and along the rocky face of the dam.

Although smallmouths are abundant, Piedmont Lake isn’t really known for producing trophies. Expect to catch a lot of scrappy young smallmouths right around the 12-inch keeper mark.

Piedmont Lake is under the management of the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District. The district operates the Piedmont Marina and Campground on the southern shore of the lake, which is a great place to launch a boat and spend the night. Boats are limited to 10 hp. 

Piedmont Lake is also home to Ohio’s long-standing record muskellunge. Keep a tight grip on your rod in case something much larger and toothier than a smallmouth takes the bait. 

Maumee River

Colorful sunset on the still waters of the Maumee River, a great time and place to catch smallmouth bass.
Photo by mshake (Depositphotos)

It’s safe to say that just about any Lake Erie tributary offers great smallmouth potential. And although Northwest Ohio’s Maumee River is best known for its spring walleye and white bass runs, it’s also a highly underrated smallmouth river. 

The Maumee River begins near Fort Wayne, Indiana, and flows 137 miles eastward, eventually emptying into Lake Erie through Maumee Bay in Toledo. Maumee Bay is a pretty consistent smallmouth hotspot, and some huge Erie smallmouths enter the river every May. 

But the Maumee River also supports a year-round population of resident smallmouths. Once the high, muddy flows of spring subside, this is a great river to wade and explore by kayak from June through October. 

Smallmouths thrive in the Maumee River’s abundant rocky habitat. Some of the best fishing is from Weirs Rapids in Bowling Green down to the Perrysburg area. 

Numerous parks provide access throughout this stretch, including Farnsworth Metropark and Orleans Park.

Try throwing classic river smallie lures like Mepps and Rooster Tail spinners, along with black/gold Original Floating Rapalas on medium-light tackle. 

Lake Milton

Just a few miles west of Youngstown in Eastern Ohio, Lake Milton is one of the most underrated bass lakes in the state. This 1,693-acre reservoir’s clear waters harbor a tremendous smallmouth population. 

At one time, Lake Milton was better known for largemouth bass, but the balance has increasingly shifted to favor smallmouths in recent years. These fish thrive around the lake’s rocky habitat. 

Start at the Lake Milton State Park Marina, which is located roughly at the midpoint of the lake, on its eastern bank. There are excellent launch facilities here that get you right out on the middle of the lake, between the Mahoning Avenue causeway and the I-76 bridge.

A lot of bass are caught around the bridges, and there’s also an excellent bank fishing site with riprap banks along the Mahoning Ave. causeway.

If they’re not biting near mid-lake, work your way down to the dam, focusing on docks, rocky points and channel swings along the way.

Ned rigs have really caught on as a way to catch smallmouths in Lake Milton, and you might also end up pulling up a walleye or two if you target deeper rocks.

Most smallmouths weigh a pound or two, but bigger fish are out there. 

Ohio River

The Ohio River is in a league of its own when it comes to bass fishing. The river flows 981 miles from Pittsburgh, PA to its confluence with the Mississippi River in Cairo, IL. A significant portion of the river forms Ohio’s southern border.

Other than Lake Erie, no other body of water in Ohio produces more 5-pound smallmouths. But fishing the Ohio River can be tough, and even anglers who have lived their whole lives along its banks sometimes throw up their hands and walk away in disgust. 

To put the odds in your favor, focus on the stretch of the Ohio River from the Pennsylvania state line down to the Willow Island Locks and Dam in Newport Township.

This stretch has the greatest concentration of smallmouths and flows down from a system that includes some of Pennsylvania’s best smallmouth fishing

The Ohio River is broad, slow-moving and usually deeply turbid.

Diving crankbaits often take some of the biggest bass in spring right along the river channel drop-offs. As the water warms up and the river level drops somewhat, shoreline cover becomes more productive. 

Surface lures can draw ferocious strikes early and late in the day along rocky banks and stretches of riprap. Spinnerbaits, white curlytail grubs and soft jerkbaits also work well.

Focus on any current break, from bridge pilings and barge moorings to boulders and downed trees. Any tailwater area can also be productive, and drifting a live minnow or crawfish will tempt strikes when all else fails.

Drifting bait also may very well result in catching catfish, as the Ohio is one of the top catfishing waters in the state.

Pleasant Hill Reservoir

Northern Ohio’s 850-acre Pleasant Hill Reservoir is another great mixed-bag bass fishery, where anglers can target either largemouths or smallmouths, and are likely to catch both.

Largemouths are a bit more common, but there are plenty of smallies to go around. 

The best smallmouth fishing is toward the lower end of the reservoir, where there are steep, rocky, almost cliff-like banks that drop swiftly into deep water. Expect to catch mostly 12- to 15-inch bass with the occasional larger fish. 

The creek channel swings close to the south shore right around the bend in this V-shaped lake, and 30-foot depths are within casting distance of the bank. Lots of smallmouths are caught from here to the dam.

Smallmouths forage on both crawfish and gizzard shad in this lake. Classic crawfish imitations like jig-and-pigs work well, but bring a few blade baits and lipless cranks to work the drop-offs in case suspended bass are in the mood to chase shad. 

The best access to Pleasant Hill Reservoir is through the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District’s Pleasant Hill Lake Park, which includes a marina and campground. A portion of the lake is also located within Mohican State Park.  

Pleasant Hill Reservoir fishes well from spring right through fall, but anglers often have to contend with a lot of boat traffic during the summer months.

Boats are allowed with unlimited horsepower on this relatively small lake, so avoid summer weekends if possible. If not, fish at the crack of dawn.

Cuyahoga River

Once the poster child for pollution, the Cuyahoga River has come a long way since 1969, when the river was so overloaded with industrial pollutants that it caught fire. Suffice to say, the Cuyahoga of today is a very different river.

It’s also worth noting that the upper portion of the Cuyahoga River, some 80 miles upriver from Cleveland, is a very different river from the industrial waterway that empties into Lake Erie.

Upriver in Portage County, the Cuyahoga is a picturesque, tumbling stream loaded with smallmouth bass.

Some of the best smallmouth fishing on the Cuyahoga is in the stretch from Hiram Rapids downriver to Mantua. This area is great for floating when the water is high enough, and many pools throughout this stretch harbor sporty stream smallmouths weighing a pound or two.

There’s also some great water farther downriver, below Lake Rockwell as the river flows through the city of Kent. Bass up to 20 inches reside in some of the deeper pools, and there’s a ton of great access.

The Cuyahoga River Water Trail is a helpful resource. 

Target seams, current breaks and eddies with tube jigs, Zoom Flukes and in-line spinners. Tandem willow leaf spinnerbaits also catch some of the bigger bass in deep pools.

C.J. Brown Reservoir

Southwest Ohio’s C.J. Brown Reservoir is known primarily as a walleye lake. Not a lot of people target bass here, but the lake also harbors a largely untapped smallmouth population. 

Spanning 1,969 acres, C.J. Brown Reservoir offers depths up to 35 feet.

Bottom structure includes extensive flats as well as some rockier drop-offs and points. Riprap along the dam is always worth a few casts, but especially in spring.

An old road bed along the bottom is a popular place to target bass and walleye, and numerous artificial fish habitat structures have been placed in the lake. Some of the best bass fishing is in the lower third of the lake along the western bank. 

The creek channel is close to the shore in this area, dropping off quickly to 30-plus feet. It’s a great place to fish with a tube jig or Ned rig. 

Buck Creek State Park completely encircles C.J. Brown Reservoir and provides boat launch facilities and a wheelchair-accessible fishing pier on the eastern shore.

If the bass in the main lake aren’t cooperating, try the tailwater area below the dam on Buck Creek.

Catch More Bass

The curated suggestions for lures to use at each spot are the ideal places to start catching bass in these rivers and lakes.

However, it’s also best to have a full arsenal of tackle and techniques at your disposal, so check out our simple guide to bass fishing for more information.