This marks the seventh installment of Bassmaster’s 100 Best Bass Lakes research project. The process has been tweaked and refined over the years to bring to you the most up-to-date rankings of the hottest fishing destinations in the U.S. Watching the ebb and tide of the rankings is fascinating, as the cyclic nature of spawning classes, weather events and even fishing pressure can drastically impact the productivity of a lake. This year, a new king is crowned, a few stalwart fisheries decline (and a couple start trending upward) while some lakes make the list for the first time.
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1. Sam Rayburn Reservoir, Texas
[114,500 acres] One Texas biologist categorized this lake as “a fish factory,” and it lived up to that billing over the past 12 months by pumping out 20-pound stringers left and right. The 2017 Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting Texas Parks and Wildlife Department held there last May showed its potential, when Brandon Palaniuk averaged almost 23.5 pounds over four days to win. And this year has begun with a bang, with a team weighing in 31.92 pounds during a January 20 Bass Champs stop. Bassmaster legend Harold Allen was on the team weighing in a second 30-pound stringer that included a 9.15-pounder. The big bass for the event just missed the 9 1/2-pound mark. A Texas Team Trail stop in Feb. was topped by a 37.04-pound sack anchored by a 9-pounder. But that wasn’t the big fish of the event: In fact, there were three 10-pounders brought to the scale that day. It required 20 pounds of bass just to make the Top 30. When Bass Champs returned in March, there were 22 stringers weighing more than 20 pounds brought to scale — and the winning sack weighed 35.23 pounds, one of four limits that broke 30 pounds. This year’s Sealy Big Bass Splash was won with a 12.05-pounder, with four other bass weighing more than 9 pounds entered and 14 8-pounders logged. The lake also produced a 13.06-pound ShareLunker the last day of March, proving there are massive bass swimming in these waters. And to put a cherry on top of the nation’s newest No. 1 bass lake, a Texas Team Trail event held here last month produced a 40.28-pound limit! Yes, you need to plan your trip here ASAP.
Photo: Garrick Dixon
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2. Chickamauga Lake, Tennessee
[36,240 acres] How about these for first-place winning weights with the Chattanooga Bass Association one-day events on The Chick in 2018: February 24, 34.77; March 17, 42.91; April 14, 26.94; and May 12, 42.48. Yes, it took more than 42 pounds to win two different events here! And the biggest fish weighed in during these derbies was an 11.21. This is a big-bass factory. The February Big Bass Splash event here saw eight bass over 9 pounds weighed in, with a 10.86 taking top honors.
Photo: Ronnie Moore
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3. Clear Lake, California
[43,785 acres] The Golden State’s largest natural lake remains one of the best largemouth factories in the country. Home to more trophy bass in the 6- to 10-pound class than any other body of water in the West, it provides opportunities for both limits and individual fish of a lifetime. It took five bass weighing 30.92 pounds to win a Best Bass Tournament Trail team event in April. And there were 29 bass over 7 pounds brought to the scales at the WON Bass California Open that same month. Ten-pound fish took big bass honors at both events.
Photo: Tyler McCollum
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4. Lake St. Clair, Michigan
[430 square miles] St. Clair emphatically claims the top spot in the Northeast region. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources collected the results from about 2,000 bass tournaments throughout the state in 2017. The data, compiled by fisheries biologist Tom Goniea, is a boon to fisheries managers and bass anglers alike. Despite enormous fishing pressure, St. Clair steadily produces scads of quality smallmouth bass. The largemouth fishery is secondary but quite good. Over the course of 80 tournaments in 2017, the average bass weighed 3.08 pounds, with hundreds of fish going over 4 pounds. The biggest bass weighed 6.80. In late August 2017, Oklahoma pro Jason Christie won a Bassmaster Elite Series tournament with a four-day total of 88 pounds. The Top 7 anglers in that event averaged more than 20 pounds per day.
Photo: Thomas Allen
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5. Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota
[132,516 acres] This huge body of water rose to the top of the 2017 list largely because of the number of 20-pound stringers for which it had become known the previous year. Well, you still have to top 20 pounds to compete on this lake. The Aug. 5 Minnesota B.A.S.S. Nation stop at Mille Lacs was topped with a two-day limit of 48.44 pounds, with the team’s Day 2 sack weighing in just north of 25 1/2 pounds. Another 18 five-fish limits weighed 20 pounds or more during the event. Those results were mimicked by another major event held Aug. 26, which was won with a 25.2-pound limit. You had to best 22 pounds to make the Top 6. Another 15 20-pound stringers were weighed in during an August North American Bass Circuit tournament. A month later, a major tournament on the lake saw 17 limits top the 20-pound mark. And Keith Combs won the 2017 Toyota Bassmaster Angler of the Year Championship here by averaging 24 1/2 pounds per day. What’s driving this fishery? Biologists point to invasive zebra mussels, which cleared up the lake and created the perfect conditions for the native smallmouth, and a healthy baitfish population for the lake’s successes. It also helps that local anglers prefer walleye and perch, so there’s less pressure on the smallmouth population. So, if you’re looking for lunkers — and lots of them — hitch the boat up and head north.
Photo: Garrick Dixon
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6. Santee Cooper lakes (Marion/Moultrie), South Carolina
[110,000 acres and 60,000 acres, respectively] When the Carolina Anglers Team Trail visited these sister lakes in February, it took more than 26 pounds to win. In March, a 33.31-pound limit was weighed and 20 pounds wasn’t enough to crack the Top 10. And most recently, a May event required 26.32 to claim the top prize, with a 9.10 winning big-fish honors. There were only 37 teams fishing the event, and almost 1/4 brought in more than 20 pounds. To say Santee Cooper is still red hot might be an understatement.
Photo: Larry Towell
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7. Diamond Valley Lake, California
[4,500 acres] The California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s efforts to create yet another south-state trophy fishery is paying off with regular reports of heavy limits. The near-pure Florida-strain largemouth stocked as the reservoir was filled for the first time are flourishing. Anglers had to catch 5-pound averages to win National Bass West team tournaments in February, March and April. Big fish at the three events were 9.41, 10.34 and 7.10 pounds, and there were 60 bass weighed topping 5 pounds at the three contests combined.
Photo: Brian Sak
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8. Thousand Islands (St. Lawrence River), New York
[50-mile stretch] This picturesque bass fishery has excellent largemouth fishing, but the green ones tend to be overlooked due to the abundance of hefty smallmouth bass that thrive in these clear waters. Legendary bass pro Kevin VanDam won his 24th Bassmaster tournament, an Elite Series event, on the St. Lawrence River in July 2017. His four-day weight of 90-3 is one of the highest tallies of smallmouth ever recorded in an Elite Series tournament. VanDam also caught the 6-5 big bass. The Top 5 anglers all averaged over 20 pounds of bass per day.
Photo: Garrick Dixon
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9. Lake Guntersville, Alabama
[69,000 acres] The Big G has gone through some tough times in recent years, but it seems this Tennessee River fishery is back. Just last year, 20-pound bags were winning single-day derbies. This past March, however, it took 30.02 to win an Alabama Bass Trail event. You were not in the Top 11 if you didn’t have at least 25 pounds. As for the 20-pound mark, there were 38 teams that topped it. Although the double-digit fish are still in hiding, there were 13 over 7 pounds weighed in, with an 8.5 winning big-fish honors.
Photo: Gary Tramontina
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10. Lake Falcon, Texas
[83,654 acres] This lake is absolutely on the upswing, with rising water levels creating a new-lake effect that is driving weights up. For example, a Skeeter Bass Champs stop in February was won with a five-fish stringer weighing 31.98 pounds, and second place just missed the 29 1/2-pound mark. The entire Top 5 weighed in more than 20 pounds. Big bass, which amazingly wasn’t in any of the top bags, weighed 9.1 pounds. There are definitely plenty of line-stretching bass in the lake. The Texas Association of Bass Clubs put 12 bass weighing at least 7 pounds on the scales during their fall two-day championship event. The heaviest weighed 9.37 pounds. High Stakes Bassin reported several fish over 10 pounds were landed this spring, with one topping the 11-pound mark. And, just in case you think this lake is just about big fish, the High Stakes blogger pulled out a clicker and counted 34 catches in one day on the water. So, Falcon combines quality and quantity.