BAY CITY, Mich. – Great Lakes tournaments often mean two things – big waves and big smallmouths.
Whether it’s Lake Erie, Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River, Sturgeon Bay or Green Bay – all recent sites of top-level Major League Fishing events – the story has seemingly been the same time and again.
So, seeing Saginaw Bay and the adjoining Saginaw River as the seventh and final stop of the 2023 Bass Pro Tour regular season at Stage Seven (Aug. 1-6), it’d be safe to assume we’re about to watch another drool-fest of giant brown fish.
… and you’d probably be wrong (kind of).
“I think guys are going to be surprised when they get up here,” said Mercury pro and lifelong Michigander Jonathon VanDam . “And, I think the secret of this place is going to finally get out.”
Any time we’re talking about the Great Lakes, we’re talking about massive bodies of water. Seeing as Saginaw Bay is part of Lake Huron, the Michigan fishery is no different in that respect. We’re talking 1,143 square miles of water, and that doesn’t include the Saginaw River, which is 22 miles long.
For the longest time, walleye and perch have dominated the fishing talk in the region, as both are world class. In fact, according to VanDam, it hasn’t been until recent years that even local bass tournaments have started popping up here, let alone regional or top-tier events.
Why it took so long for the bass-tournament crowd to catch on, VanDam doesn’t really know, but he certainly knows why there are increasing numbers on the schedule, and why the Bass Pro Tour is coming.
“No joke, Saginaw Bay is the best fishery in Michigan right now,” VanDam said. “And it’s probably not going to fish as well as it could because the water levels are down a little since we didn’t get a lot of ice this winter. The place fishes the best when the water is higher, but it will still be incredible fishing.”
Considering that the state of Michigan can lay claim to Lake Erie, the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair, along with countless incredible smaller bodies of water, calling it “the best” is an eyebrow-raising statement. Then again, with what VanDam shared about the fishery, he backs it up.
“It looks like Lake Okeechobee,” VanDam said.
Yes, you read that right. That’s how VanDam describes the rim of the bay and a good portion of the river, and for good reason; Saginaw Bay resembles the Big O quite a bit.
You see, Saginaw Bay actually contains the largest contiguous freshwater coastal wetland system in the United States. It’s a waterfowl hunter’s dream of marshes, reeds, matted vegetation and the like, just like what you’d find down on Lake Okeechobee. The river is much like the bay, only with more current and more laydowns, but still chock full of vegetation.
Where you find all that vegetation, you’re going to find plenty of bass – and we do mean plenty.
“It’s nothing to go out and get 75 to 100 bites a day largemouth fishing up there,” VanDam said. “And you’re doing it in the most fun way possible; flipping, punching with a 65-pound braid and big weights, and frogging. If the BPT was still the catch-all-you-can format, largemouth would dominate, and you’d see some really big numbers. Possibly record-breaking numbers.”
There’s plenty of quality to go with those numbers, as 15 to 18 pounds is about average, with 20-pound limits still very possible. Hence, VanDam expects a good portion of the field to stay in the bay and river and never worry about going to the big water.
Yes, the largemouth fishing can be ridiculous; but VanDam admits if a guy wants to win, it’s usually smallmouth that take it home.
“A guy can definitely make the Top 10 fishing for largemouth, but smallmouth usually win up there,” he said. “You’re talking average bags between 20 and 24 pounds, with bags over 25 pounds very possible. So, (smallmouth) are a huge X-factor but also a huge risk.”
Again, Saginaw Bay is massive, and guys looking to chase brown fish may have to run 50 miles out to the best spots – which can be nothing compared to the runs guys make on the St. Lawrence River and is kind of the norm for other Great Lakes events. That said, VanDam says Saginaw’s smallmouth can be notoriously hard to find compared to those in the other Great Lakes, and the “better” areas are typically so far apart that it doesn’t leave a pro many options once they’re out there.
Then there is the always-present risk of rough water, as it only takes a little wind from the wrong direction to make it treacherous to head out into open water. That could completely scrap any plans for a pro.
Thus, VanDam expects some pros sample the smallmouth in attempts to shoot for the win – it’s hard to pass up chasing 4- and 5-pound smallmouth, after all. But, he says they better spend at least one day in the bay or river dialing in the largemouth bite as a fallback plan in case Mother Nature decides not to cooperate one day.
“No matter how guys fish that week, this place is going to shock them,” VanDam said. “It’s going to be a phenomenal finale.”