Western U.P. Smallmouths

Dan Donarski is back with more great Pure Michigan fishing tips for you!

Smallmouth bass have really captivated me of late. They are very dependable under almost all weather conditions and they are found throughout the U.P. here’s a quick look at three of my favorite places to fish them when I get the hankering to drive well west into the far reaches of the U.P.

Lake Medora

You can drive farther north than Lake Medora, but only about 5 miles to Copper Harbor, the northern-most town in the Keweenaw Peninsula. Up here July and August can require warm jackets when the wind blows in off the big lake. Tough it out. Get here anyway.

Medora isn’t a big lake, coming in just shy of 700 acres, but it has that special “heart” normally found only in wilderness areas. It also has just about any kind of cover you like to fish smallies in.

Jim Ekdahl likens it to smallmouth heaven. “There are an awful lot of smallmouth bass in the lake. Most are going to go about two pounds or so but fish above five aren’t out of the question. You do need to work various structures to find the fish.”

From the boat launch, located directly off US-41 on the lake’s southeastern shore, you’ll spot one of three closely associated islands to the north. These islands generally hold a fair number of fish. The bottom is rocky here, as it is along much of the eastern and north shore.

Going to the extreme northern bay you’ll find a reef coming up from the 20-foot depths and topping out around six. Rocks dominate here, too, with a smattering of weed beds along the edges.

In these rocky areas diving cranks work wonders. You’ll want to get that crank to bounce off those rocks for the best action, much like a wounded baitfish or a crayfish may move.

The lake’s eastern shore is much softer and has more weeds. The contours here are gentle.  Working the 10-foot contour with jigs and leeches in a slow methodical way will produce. Stickbaits work as well with gold/black being the top color.

Portage and Torch Lakes

Portage and Torch lakes are the anchors of the Keweenaw Waterway. Together they total over 13,000 acres of fishable water. That’s what makes this place so hard to figure out for first-time anglers. It doesn’t have to be.

The key, according to guide Doug Wyble, is to break each section down into defined areas. “Most people just see this huge expanse of water and get overwhelmed. What they should do is take each section by itself and really break it down.”

For instance, on Torch Lake, the northern lake of the system, you’ll find a lot of small bays and pockets along the north-western shore. The bottom slopes quickly in these and weed beds are few. Wyble fishes those that have the leftover mining equipment, some as big as a small factory poking up through the surface. These old dredges and other paraphernalia offer superb cover for smallmouths, sort of like smallie condos.

On bays without the mining leftovers he targets the 12-foot contours with jerk baits. Gold or bronze are the best finishes. These areas are fished a bit quicker than those with the mining junk. The fish aren’t as plentiful here but they are generally much bigger, with fish in the 6-pound range a real possibility.

On Portage, the southern lake in the system, much of the smallmouth fishing will be found along the eastern shore where the lake starts to narrow down to the Torch Lake Channel. The contours here are sharp with depths going from zero to 24 feet in sharp drops.

Access to Torch is best at Lake Linden Village Park, just east of Hancock on M-26. For Portage the best access is in Chassel, right off US-41.

Lake Gogebic

In a popular book among U.P. anglers Lake Gogebic’s smallmouth fishery is listed as “poor to fair.” Nothing could be further from the truth on Gogebic.

Gogebic, located in both Ontonagon and Gogebic counties is the U.P.’s largest lake, coming in at around 20 square miles. The lake is generally a long north-south tube with a small dog leg to the east at its northernmost point. Most folks would call it generally featureless with a gently sloping bottom and expansive deep water flats. All this is true, and then again...

Yeds, whose real name is Jerry Anderson but definitely prefers Yeds, showed me a smallmouth fishery that was on fire a few summers ago. The fishery was entirely based on structure.

“There is structure here. Some of it is subtle but when that’s all there is that’s where the smallmouth will be,” he told me. “Ya just have to work it with what the fish want.” We had just launched from the access site on the lake’s south eastern shore off of CR-525. Additional access sites will be found in Bergland, along the north shore on East Shore Road, and the state park, along the lake’s southwestern shore off of M-64.

No more than fifty feet off shore we were in six to eight feet of water. A few small boulders could be seen on the bottom. Beyond the boulders we lost sight of the bottom which dropped into 15 or so feet. “This drop goes on a long way,” Yeds told me, “rig up.”

Floating jig heads tipped with flathead minnows was his preferred style. Using nothing for weight Yeds told me to pitch the jig into the deeper water and just let it sit. With a gentle wind blowing us north and east towards the shore the jig slowly settled towards the bottom and was then carried with the wind to the bouldered edge.

The western shore is different when it comes to style.

Fish cribs rule the success factor here. Dozens of them have been placed over the years in about 12 feet of water up and down the western shore. A graph is almost a necessity to finding them. If you find a crib you can bet there will be a number of smallmouths in and around it. Catching these bass takes a bit of finesse.

Slip bobber rigs with either leeches or minnows fished quietly in and alongside the cribs is one productive method. The other involves rigging a soft plastic worm wacky style and, without weight, tossing it on top or near the edge of the crib. You want the worm to slowly sink on a slack line. Watch that line for any stop, or a slight move to the side. That shift from falling is a bass picking it up. Hit it hard when that happens or risk the fish spitting it out.

Dan Donarski is an award-winning journalist/photographer and author. He specializes in the outdoors and adventure travel. When he’s not out and about he lays his head in Sault Ste. Marie.