Michigan Smallmouth Bass Fishing at its Finest

Grand Traverse Bay combines beautiful waters and shorelines with world-class smallmouth fishing.

Angler with a large smallmouth bass
With 132 miles of shoreline and abundant rocky habitat, the clear waters of Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay harbor a thriving smallmouth bass fishery that attracts anglers from all around the US. Jim Hendricks

Crystal-clear waters, scenic Northwoods shorelines and outstanding fishing for big smallmouth bass make Michigan’s Grand Traverse Bay a world-angling destination in late spring, summer and early fall. Largely sheltered from the prevailing west winds by the Leelenau Peninsula, this portion of Lake Michigan includes the Grand Traverse West Arm and East Arm—divided for more than half of the bay’s 32-mile length by the Old Mission Peninsula.

With 132 miles of shoreline, abundant bottom rubble, rocky reefs and submerged islands, Grand Traverse Bay provides near-ideal habitat for smallmouth bass to thrive and grow to weights of 6 pounds or more.

Fishing clear water on Grand Traverse Bay
The waters of Grand Traverse Bay are extraordinarily clear, and that calls for light tackle in order to fool the jumbo smallmouth bass here. Jim Hendricks

Unnaturally Clear

Part of the allure of fishing here lies in the crystalline waters that rival anything found in the Bahamas. However, such water clarity is not natural; it was brought about by a small invasive bivalve mollusk known as the zebra mussel that grows on hard surfaces, including rocks, pilings, dock, motors and boats.

Inadvertently introduced to the Great Lakes in the late 1980s, zebra mussels are now well established in Lake Michigan, and the filter-feeding activity has cleaned the water of most sediment. But that doesn’t seem to hinder smallmouth bass, whose populations in Traverse Bay have held steady and perhaps even grown since the invasion.

Landing a smallmouth bass
Veteran northern Michigan guide Chris Noffsinger focuses much attention in summer and fall on low-lying grass beds in 8 to 12 feet of water where big smallmouth bass hunt for prey. Jim Hendricks

Grass Line Logic

I have fished for smallmouth in Traverse Bay for many years with my brother and Michigan resident, Joe Hendricks. We have mostly fished the northern portion of Grand Traverse, but on a recent visit in late July, we decided to explore the southern end of the East Arm near Traverse City with long-time local guide Chris Noffsinger of Northern Adventures Fishing and Guide Service. Noffsinger has fished and guided in this part of the world for more than 30 years

Rather than fish rocky shorelines, drop-offs and submerged islands as Joe and I do most of the time, Noffsinger used the trolling motor on his Nitro Z-21 multispecies boat to follow the edge of low-lying grass beds in 8 to 12 feet of water, based on waypoints he has logged over the year.

On this day, Noffsinger recommended using Keitech 3.8 Fat Swing Impact swimbaits rigged on a 3/8 to 1/2-ounce lead head. We used 7-foot-3-inch spinning outfits with 10-pound-test braided line and 4 feet of 11-pound-test fluorocarbon leader.

Swimbait for smallmouth bass fishing
Swimbaits such as the Keitech 3.8 Fat Swing Impact with a 3/8 to 1/2-ounce lead head prove effective for smallmouth bass on Grand Traverse Bay. Jim Hendricks

Seasonal Feast

Noffsinger described this particular time of year on the bay as late post spawn, a stage in the smallmouth season when the fish feed more heavily as they shake off what Noffsinger refers to as the “post spawn funk.”

“Smallmouth are well past the spawning season that occurs here in late June and early July,” he explains. “They are now starting to feed heavily to fatten up for the winter ahead.”

In this video, northern Michigan fishing guide Chris Noffsinger reveals his secret tips for catching big smallmouth bass on Grand Traverse Bay.

Keep Moving

Unlike largemouth bass that tend to stake a spot and ambush prey, smallmouth bass are almost constantly on the move, and in this particular case, they are cruising around weed beds looking for opportunities to feed.

“They last thing you want to do is sit still,” Noffsinger advises. “Just like the smallmouth bass, you want to keep moving and making casts to cover as much water as possible as you go.”

Smallmouth bass on the line
Smallmouth bass in Grand Traverse Bay bite well in late summer and fall, as they put the summer spawning cycle behind them and focus on bulking up for the winter ahead. Jim Hendricks

Slow Your Roll

The key to working swimbaits for smallmouth bass here is reeling them slowly just above the grass beds, occasionally stopping to let them momentarily drop into the weeds. This replicates two of the primary prey fish in Grand Traverse Bay—alewife and gobies.

“Anglers often make the mistake of reeling too fast,” Noffsinger says. “But you just want to slowly turn the reel handle to keep the lure swimming low, close to the bottom.”

The bite can be as subtle, especially with smallmouth bass that inhale the lure and swim toward the boat with it. “If you feel more pressure than normal, set the hook,” the veteran guide advises.

Read Next: Head to the Desert for Smallmouth Bass

Two anglers with smallmouth bass
Anglers who travel to Grand Traverse Bay can avail themselves to a wide range of hotel accommodations, eateries and other activities in Traverse City, Michigan, at the southern end of the bay. Jim Hendricks

Getting There

If you’re interested in sampling the superb smallmouth action on Grand Traverse Bay, check out the wide range of hotel accommodations in the Traverse City area at the south end of this big water body. In fact, much of our fishing took place along a stretch of the city shoreline known as “Hotel Row.” Visit traversecity.com to learn more about lodging and other fishing opportunities.

To book a trip with Chris Noffsinger, visit northernadventuresfishing.com. If he’s busy during your scheduled stay, he can help you find another good smallmouth guide in the area.

Once you’re fishing these beautiful waters and battling brawny, acrobatic bass, you’re not likely to regret a moment of your time afloat. This big bay off the northeastern shore of Lake Michigan earns its “Grand” moniker in more ways than one.

More Travel