November 01, 2017
By Matt Straw
Bass are the American sweethearts of the freshwater world right now. Tournament popularity? Maybe—but it’s primarily because bass are found in so many states—including Hawaii. But which states are best?
Some of the best bass fishing states favor spotted bass, some are better for smallies, some are loaded with largemouths, and a few have all three. Some have phenomenal numbers, some have size, and a few have both. All contain a few “secret” spots nobody’s talking about, beyond the stark glare of media attention.
So anglers from almost any state can claim they live in bassin’ heaven. Some states, however, are obviously better than others. So, how to create a top-10-best list of states for bass fishing? Conservation efforts protecting bass and their habitat have something to do with it. Media coverage of specimens that include state and world records have an impact. Accessibility is considered. A healthy number of venues is a must. Quality and number of great bass waters hold the most weight. How many big-fish waters exist? How many reservoirs, lakes, and rivers in the state hold world-class numbers of bass, and how many harbor real trophies? And how consistent is the action, year after year?
Certainly, Utah has some world-class smallmouth fishing—but the number of venues is limited. Giant bass are caught in Arizona, but the reservoirs can dry up completely in draught years. Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, and Missouri have the potential to grow big bass and lots of them. Certainly, anglers from those states would include them, but timing is a factor, too. Anglers that have been around a while know that good fishing comes and goes—and right now the bass fishing in Alabama, Tennessee, and Michigan might be better than ever before.
Tourism statistics also reveal that the following states are visited often for purposes of fishing bass of one species or another. Bringing up the point—which is better? A smallmouth, a spot, or a bucketmouth? Impossible to determine. All are equal in our eyes, giving an 8-pound smallmouth about the same value as a 20-pound largemouth, or a 7-pound spot. Which further complicates the following list. So we present the states in alphabetical order. Which of the ten is best? You decide.
Two words: Lake Guntersville. Catches are phenomenal right now and it’s on the bucket list (pun intended) of every angler who really understands bass fishing in America. “Alabama’s a great bassin’ state and certainly belongs on any top 10 list,” says bass pro and TV host Shaw Grigsby. “Alabama probably has the best spotted bass fishing in the country on the Coosa and Alabama Rivers. In Guntersville you’ve got massive largemouths, and trophy smallmouths on Pickwick, Wilson, and Wheeler.” Pro angler and bass guide Brent Crow claims you can catch a 10-largemouth, a 6-pound smallmouth, and a 5-pound spot all within an hour drive. “You could do it in the same day, if you get lucky,” Crow laughed.
“It might be the only place in the country where you could do that. Smith Lake in central-western is another great spotted-bass resource. Logan Martin and Lay Lake on the Coosa River are about 50-50 for largemouths and spots with awesome trophy potential. For my money, bass-fishing heaven is right here in Alabama.”
From Clear Lake in the north to Perris Lake hundreds of miles to the south, California is blessed with the finest trophy largemouth fishing in the world. A 22-pound behemoth was reported from Spring Lake in 2008—one of many in the 20-pound range taken since California began importing Florida bass a few decades ago.
“California is the number one trophy state for bass exceeding 15 pounds,” says David Swendseid—bass pro and tackle rep from the Golden State. “A lot of the best lakes right now are being kept quiet. People aren’t talking, but Southern California lakes in general and the San Diego lakes specifically are producing massive fish. Even private waters are turning out behemoth bass and great numbers.
The California Delta is phenomenal for numbers. We’re catching fifty bass from 3- to 12-pounds per day there. And we’re getting back to big swimbaits—specifically the new, 5- to 12-inch ‘S-stroke’ and glide baits which are new out of Japan.” Other venues of note include Diamond Valley Lake, Castaic Lake, Bullard’s Bar Reservoir, Casitas Lake, and Shasta Lake. “The Delta and Clear Lake have established recent B.A.S.S. records for biggest bass (14.6 pounds) and biggest bag (in the neighborhood of 122 pounds),” Swendseid said.
“To me, Florida is the big-bass hatchery of the world, whether they go to Texas or California,” says legendary pro Larry Nixon. “Lakes here have some deep water, lots of grass, great spawning habitat, and the best fishing is in the heart of summer when nobody knows about it and nobody’s— there.” Okeechobee is back. Not news, but along with Lake Seminole, the Harris Chain, Lake Tarpon, the Everglades, the Kissimmee Chain, and several othersFlorida can’t be bypassed when naming the top 10 states for bass.
“On Okeechobee, that early-morning Zara Spook bite is nothing shy of awesome,” Nixon said. “Anglers overlook the St. John’s River, too. If you know how to fish tidewater, the St John’s is awesome. The Harris Chain has always been solid, and the Toho-Kissimmee Chain is way up there on my list of favorites for numbers of big fish.”
Georgia, home of George Perry’s famous world-record largemouth (22 pounds, 4 ounces), is the spiritual Mecca of the bassin’ world. It has to share some world-class waters, like Lake Eufala with Alabama, and Clark’s Hill with South Carolina. But it has Lake Lanier all to itself. Lanier, like Jackson Lake, was a spectacular largemouth fishery for many years but is now dominated by spotted bass. “Spots are really taking off in Georgia,” says former resident and In-Fisherman Editor Steve Quinn. “And they’re getting bigger. Lanier is producing unbelievable numbers of 5-pound spots.”
Huge spots are more common than ever on Lanier and Jackson right now, while historic West Point Lake continues to produce great fishing for largemouths. Bartlett’s Ferry (aka Lake Harding) is a small but prolific lake that produces great topwater bites almost year ’round. Bassin’ rivers are everywhere in Georgia and are completely overlooked. Pressure is minimal and you can find five different species of black bass in rivers like the Chathootchee, Tennessee, Yellow, South, and Coosa. Lake Oconee, Lake Sinclair, and Lake Hartwell round out a list of prime bass attractions that cement Georgia squarely on this top-10 map.
Surrounded by Great Lakes, Michigan is an obvious angling paradise, but few folks from other states realize how magnificent the bass fishing really is. The Wolverine state borders Lake Erie, arguably the finest smallmouth water on earth. Michigan shares Lake St. Clair with Ontario—a world-class stage for equal numbers of 4- to 6-pound smallmouths and largemouths. Grand Traverse Bay, Saginaw Bay, Big Bay de Noc, Little Bay de Noc, the Portage Chain, the Sylvania Tract, Elk Lake, Torch Lake, the Beaver Island archipelago, Lake Charlevoix and 11,000 other inland lakes with bass populations might be enough to lift Michigan to the top of this list. But wait: Michigan has spectacular river fishing for smallmouths in the Grand, Muskegon, AuSable, Menominee, Tequamenon, St. Clair, and many other streams. The bayous on the lower Grand bristle with porcine bucketmouths. (No wonder VanDam’s so good. He couldn’t fling a dead cat back home without hitting a bass.)
Minnesota has world-class smallmouth fishing in the Mississippi River, Mille Lacs, the St. Croix River, and several other waters. A 4 pounder lifts—no eyebrows here, and catching multiple 5-pound bronzebacks in a day is common for good anglers. Smallies over 7 pounds are caught every yearsometimes an 8. And Minnesota lays claim to over 13,000 natural lakes—more than any other state. Most harbor impressive populations of native largemouths, smallmouths, or both. Since Minnesota is primarily a walleye state, bass remain relatively under pressured—even though popularity of bass fishing continues to rise. Minnesota isn’t the place to find trophy largies over 10 pounds, but it’s a place where catching over 100 per day, with several over 5 pounds, just might be easier than anywhere else. Lake Minnetonka, nestled into the urban outskirts of Minneapolis, is a national treasure. But it’s the smallmouth fishing that sets Minnesota apart. For size and numbers right now, only Great Lakes fisheries surpass the Gopher state.
7. New York
Sorry, Woody. The best part of New York is outside the city. (Way outside.) “People don’t realize how great the bass fishing is in the Finger Lakes and smaller lakes that have excellent populations of largemouths and smallmouths both,” says multi-species guide, Frank Campbell. “The diversity of lakes, from the mountains to the flats, is awesome. New York’s stream smallmouth fishing is spectacular in the Mohawk River, the Niagara, and dozens of smaller streams that are completely under the radar from a tourism standpoint. That diversity extends to tactics. Anything you like to do to catch bass, we do it here at some point.”
Lake Erie’s eastern basin offers some of the finest smallmouth fishing on earth. The opportunites on Lake Ontario are only slightly less spectacular. Lake Oneida and Lake Champlain belong on anybody’s top-100 list of North American bass lakes, and over 200 other lakes grace the Empire State, and most have fair to spectacular bass fishing. The porcine smallmouths of the St. Lawrence Seaway seal the deal. New York belongs on this list.
In Them Ol’ Brown Fish, Billy Westmoreland details how he caught more 10-pound smallmouths in Dale Hollow than, well, the remainder of the human race across the rest of the planet. If Georgia is the spiritual Mecca of largemouth fishing, certainly the Volunteer State maintains that distinction for smallmouth anglers. Center Hill, Pickwick, Wilson, and Old Hickory certainly stir up the echoes of a halcyon past, yet all probably retain the potential to produce a world-record fish. Like Georgia and New York, streams and creeks get overlooked for smallmouths in Tennessee. “I weighed a 10-pound, 3-ounce largemouth on Chickamauga this year,” says FLW pro Wesley Strader.
“The Tennessee River has been on fire from one end of the state to the other. Chickamauga has been just nuts. The great thing about Tennessee is the diversity. We have lowland reservoirs full of grass, highland reservoirs like Center Hill dominated by rock—you can pick the kind of water you want to fish here. Largemouth fishing has never been as good as it is right now on Chickamauga, Kentucky Lake, or Douglas Lake. In fact, bass fishing is better now than at any point I can remember.”
“Texas would be my target if the goal was to catch a 10-pound bass,” says Nixon. “Odds are much better in Texas than Florida for a 10 right now because of Falcon, Sam Rayburn Reservoir, and Toledo Bend. And, even though you may have a better shot at a 15 in California, the odds of catching a 10 are probably lower than in Texas.” The waters Nixon mentions and Lake Fork are legendary, having been consistent producers of giant bass for decades. Nobody of right mind would dispute the awesome capacity of these lakes to generate massive populations of largemouth bass, and it’s been going on since the impoundments were created. Lake Amistad, O.H. Ivie Reservoir, Choke Canyon Lake, and several others are “must include” candidates for any list of America’s blue-ribbon largemouth lakes.
Chris Beeksma guides for smallmouths and other species around Chequamegon Bay on Lake Superior. Quality regs (only one smallmouth over 22 inches can be kept) transformed that fishery into one of America’s finest. Beeksma sends us photos of 6 pounders way too often. “We may not have the number of largemouth lakes that Minnesota has, but Wisconsin does have a lot,” Beeksma said. “Finding a 7-pound largemouth isn’t that difficult, and numbers are great.” Wisconsin also has Green Bay on Lake Michigan, where an 8.4-pound smallmouth was weighed in at the 2013 Sturgeon Bay Open this year. Smallmouth fishing is nothing shy of stupendous all around Door County on Lake Michigan.
Rivers like the Flambeau, the Fox, the Menominee, and the Wisconsin are everywhere in the Dairy State, and most harbor scads of pig smallmouths. The St. Croix River, which forms part of the border with Minnesota, is not only a blue-ribbon smallie hotspot, it’s one of the most beautiful streams in America. Below its confluence with the Mississippi, Pools 3 and 4 comprise yet another bassy paradise that the Cheeseheads share with Vikings fans.