When Kevin VanDam speaks, bass fishermen crowd around and listen intently. When he talks about his favorite Michigan bass lakes, they take notes.
VanDam, known as KVD by his countless fans, is the greatest angler to ever pilot a bass boat. He calls Michigan home and grew up fishing many of the Wolverine State’s fabulous bass lakes and rivers. Here’s what he has to say about one of his favorite Michigan fishing destinations.
Lake St. Clair
“St. Clair is the greatest smallmouth bass fishery on the planet,” VanDam said. “It’s my favorite lake to go to for numbers of smallmouth and trophy fish. You can’t beat it.”
VanDam’s praise includes the clear, aqua St. Clair River, which flows into Lake St. Clair from Lake Huron, and the Detroit River, which flows from Lake St. Clair to Lake Erie.
Lake St. Clair is a “big round bowl” about 25 miles across that averages only 10 feet deep. The smallmouth here relate to the lake’s expansive gravel and sand flats, and they prowl scattered patches of a short, thin aquatic vegetation called sand grass.
“Sand grass is the main thing that holds crawfish, perch and sand minnows,” VanDam said.
There is also a wide variety of other baitfish that keeps St. Clair’s smallmouth fat and feisty, VanDam added.
In the deeper sections of Lake St. Clair, smallmouth also frequent leafy “cabbage” grass that can grow to depths of 18 feet or more. The amount of cabbage varies from year to year depending on the winter weather, VanDam pointed out.
St. Clair’s smallmouth also frequent rockpiles formed by what has been dredged from the shipping channel and deposited on the bottom nearby.
“There is a tube and a drop shot bite at Lake St. Clair anytime of year,” VanDam said. “Because it’s so shallow, spinnerbaits and jerkbaits can be great, too. There’s also a tremendous lipless crankbait bite in the spring and fall.”
VanDam has tangled with a slew of bass while fishing the bays and harbors off Lake Michigan. One of the best is Grand Traverse Bay, a smallmouth mecca.
“I love fishing Grand Traverse Bay,” VanDam said. “It has some of the clearest water you will ever fish. You can see bottom 35 feet deep.”
Grand Traverse Bay is 32 miles long, 10 miles wide and up to 620 feet deep. It is divided into east and west arms by The Old Mission Peninsula.
“Both arms have tremendous smallmouth populations,” VanDam said.
When the wind kicks up waves on this large body of water, avoid the turmoil by fishing the lee side of the peninsula, VanDam suggested.
Spinnerbaits and jerkbaits draw wrist-jolting strikes in the spring when the bass move shallow to spawn. VanDam recommends that you try these lures in the bottom end of the bay at this time.
Given the depth and clarity of the water in Grand Traverse Bay, the smallmouth go deep after they spawn.
“In the summer, you can be sight fishing for smallmouth that are 30 feet deep,” VanDam said. “And I don’t mean bedding bass.”
A tube and a drop shot rig are VanDam’s workhorse baits at Grand Traverse Bay. When the bass are deep, they roam about rocks and steep dropoffs. On calm days, you can see the bottom structures you are casting to.
“There are a lot of bass there and a lot of big ones,” VanDam said. “And they are some of the strongest smallmouth you’ll ever catch.”
“Lake Huron is probably best known for its walleye fishing, but it’s also a tremendous smallmouth fishery,” VanDam said.
Smallmouth can be found from the mouth of the St. Clair River at the very bottom of Lake Huron to the Mackinac Bridge that leads to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
“The smallmouth are primarily in the bays and river mouths,” VanDam said. “You won’t get into numbers of bass, but there are definitely some trophy fish to be caught.”
Massive Saginaw Bay, with a total surface area of 1,143 square miles, is, by far, the largest of Lake Huron’s bays. VanDam snatches heavyweight smallmouth here by fishing rocky shoals and offshore points. There is little grass here to hold the bass.
“This is big water and it can get rough,” VanDam said. “Pick your days to fish here.”
When the wind blows from the west, as it often does, you can fish in protected water along Saginaw Bay’s eastern shoreline, VanDam added.
Tubes, drop shot rigs and jerkbaits will put you in touch with Lake Huron’s trophy smallmouth.
“Overall, the bass live 10 to 25 feet deep because the water is pretty clear,” VanDam said. “I catch most of my fish there with finesse baits.”
“The west end of Lake Erie is a great area,” VanDam said. “I’ve fished the mouth of the Detroit River a lot and the western shore of Lake Erie, too.”
Some of the shallow bays produce good smallmouth fishing in the spring. During the summer and fall, the smallmouth prowl scattered grass and rocks on expansive flats 8 to 12 feet deep along Erie’s western shore.
“Jerkbaits and spinnerbaits allow me to cover a lot of water when I’m fishing the flats,” VanDam said. “Look for weed lines and places where one type of rock transitions into another. On sunny days, you can see these things on the bottom.”
Drop shot rigs and other finesse baits also do well. When mayflies hatch, the smallmouth will belt a popper or a walking stickbait on the surface. VanDam claims that 3- to 5-pound smallmouth are common here.
“I’ve had some unbelievable days fishing the spoils near the shipping channel,” VanDam said.
The spoils are rocky humps created by what was dredged to make the shipping channel and dumped on the bottom. The humps sit in 12 to 15 feet of water and are brushed by the current flowing out of the Detroit River. Some of these smallmouth cafés rise to within 6 feet of the surface.
“The biggest thing is the current from the Detroit River flowing in,” VanDam said. “There is also tremendous largemouth fishing in the huge milfoil beds in the mouth of the river in 6 feet of water. It’s great for flippin’, buzzbaits and froggin’.