1. St. Lawrence River (Thousand Islands), New York
[50-mile stretch, plus eastern Lake Ontario] The 2019 and 2020 Bassmaster Elite Series tournaments on this scenic, historic waterway produced winning weights of smallmouth that totaled more than 95 pounds. Canada’s Chris Johnston won the latter event with 97-8, and 53 limits of more than 20 pounds were weighed in. Eight of the Top 10 finalists bagged over 80 pounds of bass. The Big Bass of the tournament was a massive 7-13 smallmouth caught by Connecticut pro Paul Mueller. The trophy smallmouth overshadow the largemouth fishing, which can be fantastic. Mississippi pro Brock Mosley finished third in the 2020 Elite event with 84 pounds, 2 ounces of primarily largemouth bass. He boated 20 or more bass each day by casting a bladed jig mainly to docks and other man-made structures.
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2. Lake St. Clair, Michigan
[430 square miles] Ranking St. Clair behind the St. Lawrence River was practically a flip-of-the-coin decision. Both fisheries are beyond fabulous for trophy smallmouth bass. Alabama’s Bill Weidler won a Bassmaster Elite Series tournament here in July 2020 with 86 pounds, 7 ounces of smallies. Sixty-two limits over 20 pounds were weighed in during the event.
Incredibly, St. Clair produces terrific fishing year after year despite onerous fishing pressure. Metropolitan Detroit borders the lake’s entire western shoreline, and throngs of anglers take an easy half-day drive to get here from several other large cities. If St. Clair is too rough for safe boating, you can fish protected canals and bays for the abundant largemouth.
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3. Lake Erie, New York
[30-mile radius from Buffalo] The U.S. and Canadian waters of Lake Erie’s eastern basin kick out trophy smallmouth year after year. When the bass move shallow in springtime, scads of them may be caught from riprap, seawalls and other man-made structures. But most of the heavyweights come by fishing rocky offshore humps, points and ledges. An eleven-boat team tournament in late May 2020 demonstrated that Erie’s eastern basin is still up to snuff. The winning team boated 22.97 pounds of bass, including the big bass, which went 5.81. The top five anglers all weighed in more than 20 pounds.
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4. Lake Champlain, New York/Vermont
[490 square miles] Champlain’s diverse bass habitat continues to yield excellent fishing for smallmouth and largemouth bass. Tournaments here may be won with green bass, brown bass or a mix of both. Brandon Palaniuk won a Bassmaster Elite tournament here in early August 2020 with 80 pounds, 1 ounce of smallmouth. Seth Feider finished second with a mixed bag that totaled 78-14, which included the tournament big bass, a 6-6 largemouth. Overall, the 85-angler field caught 37 limits of more than 19 pounds, including 13 limits over 20 pounds. Every angler who finished in the Top 10 sacked over 73 pounds.
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5. Burt/Mullett lakes, Michigan
[17,120 acres and 16,630 acres, respectively] Located at the very tip of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, these large sister lakes are joined by a channel. Both continue to produce huge smallmouth bass. Due to the pandemic, the Michigan DNR has records from only four small tournaments here in 2020. Of the 150 bass weighed in, 29 were over 4 pounds. The average weight was an impressive 3.67 pounds. The average big bass for each event was 5.79 pounds, and the biggest bass overall weighed 6.71.
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6. Lake Erie, Ohio
[30-mile radius of Sandusky] Many 2020 tournaments in Lake Erie’s western basin were limited to U.S. waters. These events did not provide a true indication of the big lake’s trophy smallmouth potential because Canada yields more of the heavier catches when both sides of the lake are in play. Then again, it took 79-2 to win a four-day tournament in 2020 with 185 boats that were limited to U.S. waters. Despite being held in mid-August, a poor time of year for big smallmouth, there were 12 limits over 20 pounds. That number likely would have doubled or tripled had Canadian waters been in play.
Photo: Ronnie Moore
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7. Bays de Noc, Michigan
[Escanaba to Little Summer Island] Few bass addicts visit these remote twin bays in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. This fishery is far more popular with walleye anglers. Since we were unable to find the results of any 2020 tournaments here, this high ranking is based on tournaments in past seasons. The average bass weighed in at Bays de Noc runs about 3.5 pounds, and smallies over 4 pounds are common. The big bass in any event weighs well over 5 pounds. Given the lack of bass fishing pressure here, that is likely to hold true in 2021.
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8. Grand Traverse Bay, Michigan
[32 miles long, 10 miles wide] This Lake Michigan bay lies in the northwest tip of the Wolverine State’s lower peninsula. Divided into two arms, it is 32 miles long, 10 miles wide and home to an exceptional smallmouth bass population. You can see bass swimming 20 feet deep in the aquarium-clear water. Eleven small tournaments here in 2020 weighed 522 bass that averaged 3.15 pounds. The average big bass per event went 5.32 pounds. The largest bass recorded weighed 6.69.
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9. Lake Charlevoix, Michigan
[17,200 acres] Smallmouth and largemouth share Michigan’s third-largest lake with many other species of fish, including trout and salmon. Smallmouth dominate tournaments here, with the brown fish relating to flats and ledges in the crystalline water. In 2020, eight small tournaments caught 452 bass that averaged 2.95 pounds. This included 41 bass over 4 pounds. The average big bass weighed 5.1 pounds. The biggest bass overall weighed 5.87.
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10. Presque Isle Bay, Pennsylvania
[5.8 square miles] Lake Erie smallmouth bass swarm into the warming waters of Presque Isle Bay to spawn soon after ice-out. For thug smallies over 6 pounds, veteran bass guide Mark Rose of Erie, Pa., recommends that you brave the cold and come in mid-April. If you’d rather battle 30 to 50 smallies a day, with good numbers of 3- and 4-pounders and an occasional bass over 5, come in May or June. The bay also supports a good largemouth population. “The smallmouth go back to Erie during the summer, but the bay turns on again in late autumn,” Rose said (MarkRoseFishing.com).
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11. Cayuga Lake, New York
[38 miles long, 3 1/2 miles wide] The longest of central New York’s glacial Finger Lakes, Cayuga supports strong populations of quality largemouth and smallmouth bass. The smallmouth dominate tournaments when they move shallow in springtime. Largemouth take the lead thereafter. The bass relate mainly to submerged grassbeds that rim the shoreline. Trout reside offshore, as the lake has a maximum depth of 435 feet. A tournament with more than 100 boats in late July 2020 was won with 21-6. The top five all sacked more than 20 pounds.
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12. Saginaw Bay, Michigan
[1,143 square miles] Fishing at nearby Lake St. Clair is so spectacular that relatively few bass anglers venture onto Saginaw Bay. Results from eight small tournaments here in 2020 did not live up to previous years. The average weight for the 976 bass weighed in was 2.62 pounds. Only nine bass exceeded 4 pounds. The average big bass per event was 4.49 pounds, with the biggest bass overall weighing 6.03 pounds.
Photo: Nikki Sherretz
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13. China Lake, Maine
[3,845 acres] China Lake’s extensive aquatic vegetation yields far more largemouth than smallmouth. This small lake produces sizeable bass year after year, as well as impressive numbers. It took 27.66 to win a seven-bass limit tournament here in August 2020. The big bass weighed 6.63. Fifteen of the 38 teams had over 20 pounds, and only four teams failed to catch a seven-bass limit. Many anglers don’t consider Maine a bass-fishing state. This lake will change your mind.
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14. Candlewood Lake, Connecticut
[5,420 acres] The largest lake in Connecticut, this reservoir has some of the most expensive real estate in the state along its shoreline. But you don’t need a fat bank account to fish for the quality bass that flourish in the lake’s abundant milfoil and eelgrass. An impressive five-bass limit of 28.93 won a 53-boat team tournament here in mid-April 2021. Eighteen teams had over 20 pounds, including five sacks of more than 25 pounds. The heaviest largemouth weighed 6.92, with the biggest smallie going 5.60. However, nearly a third of the field failed to weigh a bass.
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15. Great Pond, Maine
[8,533 acres] Largemouth live in this picturesque lake that lies among wooded, rolling hills and farmland. However, it is the thriving smallmouth population that attracts anglers to these deep, rocky waters. The Man vs. Bass Maine Trail in coordination with Maine B.A.S.S. Nation held the annual season-opener tournament here in late April 2021. Fifty-one teams weighed in 297 bass. The winning weight, with a seven-bass limit, was 23.19, which included the 6.18 big bass. Only one of the 44 teams failed to bring in a limit.
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16. Cobbossee Lake, Maine
[5,543 acres] Low hills and ridges surround Cobbossee, which is known for its many coves and islands, as well as for its splendid bass fishing. An annual fundraiser tournament here in early May 2021 fielded 65 teams that were allowed to weigh in seven bass per boat. There were 17 limits of more than 20 pounds, including the winning catch of 24.27. The lunker largemouth weighed 5.68. The heaviest smallmouth went 3.26. Thirty-four of the 65 teams bagged their limits.
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17. Smith Mountain Lake, Virginia
[20,600 acres] Located at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this picturesque highland reservoir would be a pleasure to cast into even if the fishing wasn’t as good as it is for largemouth and smallmouth bass. A major prespawn tournament here in mid-March 2020 produced a winning weight of 22 pounds even. The top six anglers all sacked more than 18 pounds. A postspawn event with 29 teams in late June also showed well, with a winning weight of 19.78 and a runner-up tally of 19.57.
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18. Oneida Lake, New York
[79.8 square miles] If you enjoy catching scads of quality smallmouth and largemouth bass, Oneida is where it’s at. Smallmouth are more abundant, but largemouth do win tournaments here. The weights are always tight, even in major professional events, because limit catches are the norm. A 14-boat team tournament in late June 2020 was typical. The heaviest limit weighed 17.35, followed by 16.84 and then 16.08.
Photo: James Overstreet
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19. Green River Lake, Kentucky
[8,200 acres] Due to COVID-19, there were fewer tournaments at this winding upland reservoir in 2020. It continues to produce good catches of largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass. A tournament here at any time of year may yield a winning weight of more than 20 pounds and a big bass over 5 pounds.
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20. Upper Chesapeake Bay, Maryland
[The entire bay is more than 64,000 square miles, but the best fishing is in the top third.] This tidal fishery continues to produce quality bass, especially during the spring. It took a 20.7-pound, five-bass limit to win a Fishers of Men tournament in late May 2020, which included a 5.69 largemouth. The top four teams all sacked more than 18 pounds, including two limits over 19 pounds. Heavy bass are harder to come by in late summer. A large two-day event at the end of August was won with 32-10. The weight for second place dropped to 24-4.
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21. Lake Cumberland, Kentucky
[65,530] The fishing for largemouth, smallmouth and spotted bass at this mountain lake continues to improve since the water level returned to normal in 2014 after the dam was repaired. David Baker, district biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, made a case that Cumberland may be the best in the Bluegrass State. “We’re seeing good numbers of smallmouth over the 18-inch size limit and spotted bass up to 17 inches,” Baker said.
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22. Potomac River, Maryland
[405 miles] The diverse habitat of this historic tidal river — grass, wood and man-made structure — continues to yield good fishing. However, none of the large tournaments here in 2020 produced a 20-pound, five-bass limit, possibly because all of the events occurred well after the spawn. Multiday tournaments in late August and September, which are poor fishing months, were won with less than 15 pounds a day.
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23. Kentucky Lake, Kentucky/Tennessee
[160,309 acres] Despite the invasion of Asian carp into Kentucky Lake and adjoining Lake Barkley, David Baker, district biologist for the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, has positive news.
“The spawn in 2016 was really good,” he said. “It takes five years on average for a bass to get to 15 inches. Angler success has greatly improved. Anglers are catching a lot of five-fish limits. It still takes 20 pounds to win a one-day tournament.” Baker added that there has been a good shad spawn for two consecutive years and the bass are fat and healthy.
Photo: Seigo Saito
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24. Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire
[20 miles long, 9 miles wide] Anglers continue to catch quality largemouth and smallmouth bass from Winnipesaukee. John Foster, New Hampshire B.A.S.S. Nation president, believes reduced pressure due to COVID-19 restrictions has allowed the bass to flourish. “The smallmouth population is running about a half-pound larger than [in] previous years,” he said. It took 20.93 to win a 37-boat tournament here in early May 2021 that had a four-bass limit. The second- and third-place anglers weighed in well over 16 pounds. Two largemouth over 6 pounds were caught. The biggest smallmouth weighed 5.85.
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25. Chautauqua Lake, New York
[13,156 acres] The largest inland lake in western New York, Chautauqua is overlooked by many anglers due to its close proximity to Lake Erie. However, it teems with smallmouth and largemouth bass. A small team tournament here in early August 2020 provides a good indication of what Chautauqua is capable of. It took 21.11 to win the event, which included a 6.71 big bass. The second- and third-place teams both sacked limits of more than 18 pounds.