After eight years of ranking the nation’s best bass fisheries, you’d think the project would get easier. That is not the case. As Mother Nature throws curveballs (wicked rainfall in the West and South), Asian carp infiltrate new areas of the country and state fisheries departments put a renewed interest in building better bass lakes, the ebb and flow of these rankings gets more intense. The research effort of the writers in their respective territories includes input from both B.A.S.S. Nation conservation directors and state agencies in charge of fisheries, as well as a far-reaching search for bass tournament data from the past 12 months from every lake that holds bass tournaments. Of course, the final rankings are voted on by a blue-ribbon panel of fishing industry insiders who reside in each region. So, feast your eyes on the most comprehensive, up-to-date fishing bucket list in the history of fishing bucket lists. You’ll have to plan carefully and move quickly, though, because based on the history of these rankings, the hot lakes don’t stay hot forever and Mother Nature is fickle, more than willing to throw a drought or 100-year rainstorm in the middle of the best-planned fishing excursion.
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1. St. Lawrence River (Thousand Islands), New York
With so many superb smallmouth fisheries in the northeastern U.S., picking the best of the best is challenging. A Bassmaster Elite Series tournament here in late August 2018 made this task a bit easier. The four-day event was won with 20 smallmouth that totaled 95 pounds, 3 ounces. Every angler who finished in the Top 10 caught more than 86 pounds of bronzebacks. And, the 1,335 bass caught during the tournament by all the competitors had an astonishing average weight of nearly 3.85 pounds! The big bass of the tournament weighed 6 pounds, 8 ounces.
Photo: Seigo Saito
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2. Lake Guntersville, Alabama
To say the Big G is back may be an understatement. It seemed the fishing pressure had taken its toll over the past several years, and winning weights had been down. Now, not so much. A February ABA team event was won with 33.82, with two other limits topping the 28-pound mark being weighed. If you didn’t have 21 pounds that day, you didn’t crack the Top 15. The Rat-L-Trap open was won with 29.76, and a Heartland derby took 32.19 for top honors. Really, Google any circuit that has competed on the Big G the first five months of this year and it’s hard to find a winning weight less than 25 pounds — most are closer to 30. So, yes, Guntersville is back with a vengeance.
Photo: Gary Tramontina
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3. Sam Rayburn Reservoir, Texas
This east Texas lake rose to the top of the 2018 list thanks to the sheer number of huge sacks the reservoir produced. How has the lake changed in the past 12 months? Not much. The lake continues to pump out huge limits of bass — with some beasts included in the mix. Proof was given this April when 20 of the 21 hourly winning bass in the Sealy Big Bass Splash exceeded 7 pounds, with the one exception missing the 7-pound mark by .04 pounds. Big stringers also are common. In May 2018, a 25.78-pound stringer was required to win the Media Bass Texas Deep East Team tournament on Rayburn, with two 8-pounders crossing the scales. Oh, did we mention the Bass Champs Shootout last June, during which the Top 10 teams had more than 22 pounds, with the winner breaking 28 pounds? Big bass for that event was 10.92 pounds. Even more remarkable was the 40.28-pound sack weighed in during the June Texas Team Trail Championship. That team went on to win the two-day event with 10 bass going 64.09 pounds. And then on July 7, in the heat of the Texas summer, the lake really shone when the same team tournament produced two stringers topping the 28-pound mark — with the heaviest sack logging in at 29.4 pounds. Yeah, this lake is still best in class.
Photo: Thomas Allen
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4. Clear Lake, California
It’s hard to believe that California’s largest natural lake, ranked best in the state by Department of Fish and Wildlife senior environmental scientist Kyle Murphy, can be even better this year. But it is. There were 34 fish over 5 pounds weighed at the WON Bass California Open in April, indicating that it still takes limits of big fish to finish high in the standings. The winner had 15 largemouth for 89.27 pounds that included the 11.74-pound tournament big fish. What pushed Clear Lake over the top, however, were reports of a 16.07-pound monster caught by Chris Peterson that same month while pre-fishing.
Photo: Brian Sak
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5. Lake Fork, Texas
Probably one of the most-recognizable big-bass producers in the country, Lake Fork remains a bucket-list destination. This northeast Texas reservoir continues to pump out big largemouth, with six double-digit Lake Fork bass being entered into the Toyota ShareLunker program since January. But that’s not all. A June TTZ tournament produced three 8-pounders. And in September, the Sealy Big Bass Splash included one 11-pounder and four 9-pounders. On March 2, there were two 10-pounders crossing the scales during a Bass Champs event. And on March 16, Bass Champs produced an 11.93-pound pig. And biologists say the cold winter has resulted in an “off season.” But the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting Texas Parks and Wildlife Department really showed its potential in early May, when Elite Series pro Brandon Cobb put together a four-day total of 114 pounds to earn the victory. His 20 bass included a monster tipping the scales at 11 pounds, 1 ounce that earned him a Toyota Tundra. But he wasn’t the only pro to enter the celebrated Century Club during the event: Garrett Paquette put 101-15 together for second. And six other Elite Series pros topped 90 pounds. Don’t overlook this perennial powerhouse.
Photo: Jake Latendresse
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6. Chickamauga Lake, Tennessee
The Tennessee fisheries agency developed a scoring system for its lakes based on a combination of angler catch rates and the number of angler trips logged on every fishery in the state. This bass factory is the best body of water wholly in the state of Tennessee, according to its data. A quick look at tournament results will verify this fact. A Tennessee Team Trail event held here in February took 31.46 pounds to win, and a 12.91-pounder was logged as the biggest fish.
Photo: James Overstreet
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7. New Melones Lake, California
New Melones has been crawling its way up our annual best of the West list and almost made it to the top spot this year. The bottom line is the state’s fourth-largest reservoir by volume continues to pump out an almost unbelievable number of massive largemouth. It often takes better than a 5-pound average to win here and a double-digit bass to claim big-fish honors. A 12.56-pound largemouth was the heaviest fish caught at an Angler’s Press Outdoors Future Pro Tour tournament in February, with five bass for 32.94 pounds winning the event.
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8. Lake St. Clair, Michigan
[430 square miles]
St. Clair previously enjoyed the top spot in the Northeast region. A strong case can be made that it should still be ranked No. 1. A major professional tournament was held on St. Clair in late June 2018. The winner amassed a four-day total of 20 bass that weighed 97 pounds, 8 ounces. Every angler who finished in the Top 10 weighed in more than 80 pounds of smallmouth.
The excellent largemouth fishing on this picturesque body of water is often overlooked due to the trophy smallmouth that abound here.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources collected the results from 60 bass tournaments on St. Clair in 2018. The data, compiled by fisheries biologist Tom Goniea, revealed that the average number of anglers per event was 42. They caught 12,741 bass with over a third of those fish (3,669) weighing over 4 pounds. The average big bass per tournament weighed 5.06 pounds, with the heaviest bass weighing 6.73 pounds.
Photo: Gary Tramontina
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9. Santee Cooper lakes, Marion and Moultrie, South Carolina
[110,000 acres and 60,000 acres, respectively]
There aren’t many lakes that can produce a 30-pound limit, but this is one of them. An April FLW event produced a 31-2 limit, with another five limits cracking the 25-pound mark. And you don’t have to be a pro to catch them here, as the CATT team event held in May was won with 34.02 pounds. This lake is a little gray around the temples, but don’t let its age fool you. There are a lot of big largemouth lurking in this vast fishery.
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10. Lake Erie, New York
[30-mile radius from Buffalo]
Lake Erie’s eastern basin receives heavy fishing pressure, yet it continues to produce exceptional smallmouth catches. A major tournament with 169 boats was held here in late July 2018. It was cut from three days to a single day due to windy weather that caused unsafe boating conditions. The winning catch of 24 pounds, 4 ounces was only 4 pounds, 4 ounces heavier than that of the angler who finished in 44th place with a five-bass limit weighing 20 pounds.