Thirty years ago, if you fished for bass on Saginaw Bay, you fished for largemouths.
The fishery was great and, frankly, relatively easy. There were miles of shallow marsh and near-shore weed beds and because Saginaw Bay was better known for perch and walleye, only the hard-core bassers ever fooled with them.
But everything changed over the next three decades.
For one thing, the water level fell, leaving miles and miles of cattails and reeds in water way too shallow for an average bass boat. The arrival of zebra mussels significantly cleared up the water, too, so you could, under good conditions see 20 feet down and those few bass anglers who ventured out to deep water soon realized that there were huge schools of smallmouths out there that, honestly, probably were larger on average than the bigmouths.
Improvements in electronics—especially GPS technology—made it easier for anglers to find (and return to) the shipwrecks and underwater structure elements that held the smallies. And with bigger, faster boats, the trip 20 miles offshore to the Charity Islands was within reach of more folks.
By and large, Saginaw Bay bass fishing became smallmouth bass fishing and with five-fish stringers pushing 25 pounds at times, nobody complained.
The largemouth didn’t disappear; they were still there. But except for guys who were willing to get out of their boats and wade for them, they were largely ignored.
You couldn’t get at them.
But the one thing that’s constant about fishing—and life in general—is change. And a couple of things happened that suddenly made largemouths more attractive again. For one, Michigan changed its bass regulations. Traditionally it was always illegal to take or attempt to take bass out of season and a lot of Michigan’s fish cops interpreted “attempt to take” to include catch-and-release fishing.
Guys had to wait until the Saturday before Memorial Day to fish for bass.
There has always been a migration of Saginaw Bay bass into the cuts and canals around the lake for spawning, which usually takes place in April and, for the most part, the fish were out of there by opening day. But in 2006, the DNR changed the rules to allow catch-and-release bass fishing beginning with the walleye opener, the last Saturday in opener. (Walleye season never closes on the Bay, but for whatever reason, the DNR insisted the catch-and-release season applied to the Lower Peninsula walleye opener. It the Upper Peninsula, it’s May 15). Still, the last Saturday of April allowed bass anglers to get in the cuts and canals and have land-office days on the Bay well before the opener.
Then the rules changed again; beginning in April 2015, it became legal to fish for bass year-round in Michigan so in those years with warm spring weather, guys could get started well before the last Saturday in April.
But more importantly, the water rose and while it may not be as high as it was, there’s more than enough water to float your boat. Suddenly the miles and miles of cattails and reeds that were inaccessible to boaters are available to anyone who cares to pitch a spinnerbait or dabble a jig among them.
I spent a day last summer with my buddy Greg Sochocki and his son Jamie, a couple of sometimes tournament anglers who have cashed more than their fair share of checks in recent years by fishing for smallies on rock piles and other open-water structure, to see what was going on with the largemouths. It was just the way it had been.
It was a rainy blowy day—all the walleye anglers were waiting for the weather to ameliorate—when we launched the boat in Pinconning and headed out of the marina. We ran to the nearest cattail stand (about a two-minute ride)—and within minutes, we were in the plus column.
The younger Sochocki jerked a two-pounder out of the pencil reeds on a jig and crawdad trailer from two feet of water. Minutes later, his dad scored a similar fish on a chatter bait. Then it was my turn when a larger (say, 3 ½-pound) bass clobbered the spinnerbait I’d thrown well back into the reeds.
This was going to be good.
Over the course of the day, we covered miles of shallow water on the west side of the bay, much of it no more than a foot and half deep and the deepest, where there was a cut leading up to someone’s shoreline property, no more than five. The fish were in much of it.
Neither of the Sochockis had fished in here in years. This was an exploratory mission.
“We’re just searching,” said Greg, with whom I’ve fished, for bass and other finsters, for 25 years or so. “It’s all new water. It’s up at least two feet from where it has been, back to where it was in the ‘80s. We’re in water that you haven’t been able to access in years.”
This was old-timey bass fishing: Get in the thick stuff and throw.
Over the course of our full day—we were on the water by 9 a.m. and didn’t get off until 6 p.m.—we caught more than 60 bass (as well as a fair number of pike, a dogfish and one crazy perch that hit a full-sized spinnerbait) by pounding the reeds and cattails and phragmites.
The bulk of the bass were two-to-three-pounders, but we had a bunch of three-pluses and a handful of fours to go with them. I don’t think we broke five pounds, though all of us were broken off by big fish a couple of times.
We pretty much stayed with spinnerbaits and jigs, though the younger Sochocki had quite a bit of success on a swimbait on a jig head, too.
“That’s pretty much all you can fish out here,” his dad said. “If it was little bit calmer, the frog bite might have been good, too. The fish are hungry. You just have to put something in front of them."
“You could fish in here for a year,” he continued. “There are miles and miles of this stuff and it’s like that all along the bay, all the way up to Au Gres on this side and all the way up to Bayport on the other.”
We kept trying to discern a pattern—cattails or reeds, hard bottom or muck, areas that had submerged vegetation, too, or places with clean bottom—but the fish were just scattered. The only thing we found out for sure was in areas where the bottom was carpeted with vegetation, we weren’t getting bit. (Odd, no?) Otherwise there were fish everywhere; sometimes they were this tight to cover in stuff so thick you had to punch your baits into it, other times we caught them in little, mostly open, scattered patches of reeds.
“You can sometimes go for a long ways and not catch a fish, but you can’t get discouraged,” Greg said. “Another 100 yards down it could be bingo. When you find a spot where there are concentrations of fish, you stay and fish that area thoroughly. Otherwise, just keep moving.”
According to Greg, there are just two caveats: There is no such thing as too shallow and no such things as too thick.
“All it takes is enough water to cover their backs and you’re good to go.”
The best part of it, Sochocki said, is the fishing only improves until it gets cold.
“It keeps getting better into fall because the minnows start moving in shallow,” he said. “And the bass are putting on the feed bag before winter.”
Before this trip, my only experiences with Saginaw Bay largemouths in recent years—except for the occasional largie caught while smallmouth of walleye fishing—have been in spring, often in late April or early May. I try to fish with local fishing guide Bill Horton every spring and have never been disappointed.
Horton—who can hold his own with smallmouths, too—prefers to fish for largemouths and he likes that close-quarter combat of flipping a worm or jig into the thick stuff. We generally fish plastic worms or spinnerbaits as soon as the water is clear enough in the cuts to make it worthwhile. And it always pays off. Typically we’ll catch a ton of largemouths in a half-day, fishing around boat docks and sea walls in the cuts and canals.
Last year, we got an early jump on it, in mid-April. We hadn’t picked an ideal day; the air temperature was in the upper 40s when we got on the water, but dropping like a major league pitcher’s sinker.
Of course, “I think this cold front messed with the bite,” said Horton, an autoworker when he isn’t guiding fishermen, noting that we were missing an unusual number of bites considering we were fishing slow-moving, bottom baits. “They’re not really eating it. A cold front’s the worst thing that can happen for largemouths—I think it affects largemouths a lot more than it does smallmouths.”
Which would figure, if you think about it; largemouths live in Florida. Smallmouths don’t.
“They were biting a lot more aggressively a couple of days ago.”
In fact, Horton said, he’s been whacking them on jerk baits a couple of weeks earlier, but the see-saw weather of spring had the fish discombobulated. We were catching our fish on a jig-and-frog or Texas-rigged plastic worm. And the fish weren’t everywhere, which, Horton said, was another indication we were a little early.
“I started catching them at the end of March, but they were all bunched up – when you found one you found 10. You’d fish all over the place and not catch anything, then find a 20-yard stretch where you’d catch five or six. They were in very specific places."
“But it’s been better earlier this year than the last two years,” Horton said. “I caught my best Michigan largemouth ever this spring, well over six pounds, maybe 6¾. It looked like a Florida bass.”
We caught very few on the seawall sides of the cuts (though a pair of smallmouths, a four-pounder and a five-pounder respectively, came on back-to-back casts up against the wall). Most of our fish came from more natural banks, where they were holding at the bases of the phragmites growing in the shallows or right tight to the bank in aquatic weeds, like lily pads that were yet to emerge.
“I think those dirt banks are holding the heat better than those steel sea walls,” Horton said.
I didn’t argue with that.
We nosed out of the end of canal at one point—and saw that the Bay was just too angry—and decided not to brave it.
“We could probably get out there and fish, but it wouldn’t be pleasurable,” Horton said.
So we stayed with the canals, and managed about 25 largemouths, a number of which were in the four-pound class. That’s the kind of bass fishing you find in Texas. And we have it here on a body of water where largemouths have pretty much been forgotten.
It’s doubtful that many bass anglers are going to go back to largemouths. The smallmouth fishing is world-class and guys who have been fishing them for the last couple of decades have their patterns down. Unless the weather is just too tough to get out on the big water, most guys will stay with the smallies.
But I’ll fish Saginaw Bay largemouth bass any time I get a chance. They’re back. And I am, too.
- written by Bob Gwizdz