By Bob Gwizdz
We had two problems with our game plan: high, discolored water and rock bass.
I was fishing with Ben Nielsen, who produces major consumer shows – think Outdoorama, Ultimate Sports Show-Grand Rapids – for smallmouth bass on Pentwater Lake and we were struggling. We’d planned to sight fish, looking for bass on the beds, but a couple of days with rain of semi-biblical proportions put the kibosh on that. We had maybe 18 inches of visibility.
So Nielsen said we’d just fish where the beds ought to be – in three to six or seven feet of water – hoping that we’d put our lures in front of enough bass to make a day of it.
That’s where the rock bass came in. We could barely present our lures before a rocky grabbed it.
Nielsen, who fishes around, chose Pentwater Lake because “it’s an average ordinary lake that’s not on everybody’s radar for bass fishing,” he said, “but it represents thousands of Michigan bass lakes.”
True. While Michigan’s best-known bass fisheries are among the tops in the country, its less-heralded waters are pretty darn good, too.
What makes Pentwater a cut above average is it’s a drowned river mouth; many of the rivers that dump into Lake Michigan widen into lakes, at their mouths, and most offer very good bass fishing.
“We know there is a population of smallmouth bass that use Lake Michigan,” said Nielsen, 45, and a lifelong bass angler. “But it does get quite cold out there, and those fish tend to spend the winter and the early part of spring in the drowned river mouths. When the weather gets better, they go back out to Lake Michigan and get on bait – alewives and smelt.
“You can almost identify the fish – when they get out there feeding on the smelt and alewives and gobies, they just get fat. You’ll be catching fish that are longer and thinner, but then you’ll catch one that looks like a football. That’s a Lake Michigan fish; they look similar to Lake Erie or Traverse Bay fish.”
So we fished where they would typically bed, but we caught six or seven rock bass – which had apparently moved to the shallows, too – for every bass we hooked.
“We’re covering water, blind fishing through those areas and picking them apart,” he said.
It was working, but not to the degree we’d hoped. When the bass are bedding, and you can see them, you can do big numbers. Instead, we were catching one here, one there, when we got past the rock bass.
What I found most interesting is that Nielsen wasn’t using what most consider the optimal bedding bait – a tube jig – opting for grub baits, like Erie Darters and swim baits. The reason? The exposed jig head gave him a better feel for the bottom, he said.
“A tube is synonymous with smallmouth bass,” Nielsen said. “They’ve gone hand in hand almost forever. But I don’t get the same amount of feel as I do with a tungsten or lead-head jig. I want that metal on the bottom. You’re dragging it around and when those fish make a bed, they’re leaving gravel. You feel that gravel better without the plastic covering the jig head.
“I love tubes. I think they’re a great bait, but they don’t give you that same sense of feel.”
He had a point; you could feel the gravel well with the exposed jig head. It seemed like whenever you felt that jig ticking the gravel we’d get bit. The problem was it was often a rock bass.
Halfway through our day, we’d caught a handful of bass – mostly smallmouths, but an occasional largemouth – and then we hit a dry spell. So Nielsen doubled back over those areas that had produced earlier, and the bite improved. We started connecting with bass more regularly.
“I love bed fishing,” he said. “I love every method for catching bass, and I do it all, but for bed fishing, I enjoy the visual side of it. It’s kind of like hunting – you find them and get after them.”
Nielsen said it was not unusual to have more success going back over the same area.
“If you go through an area and you’re not catching them, come back later,” he said. “Surprise that fish. I hear all the time from guys who are bed fishing who say they found beds but there were no fish on them. Those fish saw them before they saw the fish. They take off, get off the bed, circle around, and then come back. You’ve got to sneak up on them.”
We fished through mid-afternoon and wound up catching about 20 bass, several of which would scare the heck out of four pounds, and about a five million rockies. It wasn’t lights out, but it was good.
And that’s Michigan bass fishing. It’s very good, better than most places. You don’t catch the giants that you sometimes catch in the South – and I do mean sometimes – but even on a slow day you can catch a fair number of good fish.
Michigan offers terrific bass fishing.
“The only thing I’ll add is it’s important to let them go,” Nielson said. “Sure, we keep some for a while when we’re tournament fishing, but we always let them go. That keeps the fishing good.”
It’s hard to argue with that.