Courtesy Zak Fadden
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The last time I visited Detroit, I got an up-close look at the iconic GM Renaissance Center, the tall collection of glass skyscrapers that dominates the downtown skyline. The towers gave off a beautiful shimmer as the sun’s rays reflected off the glass structure while they passed over Windsor, Canada, behind us. Among other things, the Renaissance Center houses some businesses, including General Motors, a Marriott hotel and a couple of fancy restaurants. But I wasn’t there to visit any of those, or take in a Tigers game at nearby Comerica Park, or dive into the city’s rich music history, from Motown to Eminem. I was there to fish.
I connected with a local fishing guide named Joe Bauer, and at sunrise we set out from nearby St. Clair Shores aboard his 2022 Nitro ZV21 multispecies fishing boat. We had fished our way down along Lake St. Clair, catching smallmouth bass, sheepshead and walleye along the way. Suddenly, there we were, drifting along in the Detroit River as it swept us past the unmistakable view of downtown Detroit. And we were hooked up to smallmouth bass.
It’s the perception among many that bass fishing is a rural pursuit. Yet here I was, experiencing smallmouth madness right in the heart of the Motor City. Bauer, who has been guiding in the area for seven years, knew where to go to work our soft-plastic baits and generate hookup after hookup, all within reach of the beating heart of one of America’s most well-known cities.
Detroit is not the only major city in America where you can catch largemouth and smallmouth bass. Here, along with Detroit, are five places where you can hook up within city limits.
The Detroit River is unique in that it’s really a 28-mile-long strait that connects Lake St. Clair with Lake Erie. It also dissects the United States and Canada, with Detroit residing on its western bank and Windsor, Ontario, occupying the eastern side, so you have to be careful not to enter international waters as you transit.
Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie are known for producing trophy-size smallmouth bass, so it only makes sense that these fish live in the Detroit River too. The fishing is a little different because the bass in Lake St. Clair tend to gravitate toward grass beds; in Lake Erie, they hang around rocky structure. The Detroit River runs swift, so the bass hold deeper.
While smallmouths can be caught almost year-round in the river, Bauer finds the best time to fish for them there is the late summer because the fish seek out the deeper, more oxygenated water in the river. You want to use weighted rigs to get your bait or lures down deeper if you’re in a drift pattern.
But there are 31 islands in the Detroit River, starting with Belle Isle on the American side, and running downriver to Grosse Ille and then Celeron Island as the river flows into Lake Erie. There’s plenty of structure.
“The bass go to the river and get behind boulders out of current, and the natural flow brings crawfish, gobies and minnows to them so they don’t have to go hunt,” Bauer says.
The fishing season starts in late April and runs all the way through Thanksgiving. If you’re hearty enough to fish in a snowmobile suit, you can catch smallies in the snow and then head to Ford Field to watch the Lions game.
George / Adobe Stock
There’s a reason the Pittsburgh Steelers used to play their home games at a place called Three Rivers Stadium. In the heart of downtown Pittsburgh, the Allegheny and the Monongahela rivers converge to form the Ohio River, pumping a lot of fresh water through the Steel City. While the city is more known for its six-time Super Bowl champions, famous bass professional Kevin Van Dam did win the Bassmaster Classic when Pittsburgh hosted it back in 2005.
While once severely polluted by industrial waste, the water quality of the rivers as they flow through Pittsburgh has improved dramatically over the past 30 years or so, leading to an excellent fishery for mostly smallmouth bass, with a few largemouths thrown into the mix. Many say the Allegheny River is the cleanest of the three and offers the best fishing. There are several public boat ramps within the city limits that put you right in the heart of urban bassing opportunities, including the Sharpsburg ramp directly across the river from the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium.
There is a ton of man-made structure throughout the city’s waterways that hold fish on the Monongahela and the Allegheny, and where they converge at Point State Park. You can then follow the Ohio River downstream for great fishing opportunities around Neville Island and the Emsworth Lock and Dam. Fish here and maybe you don’t have to wear black and gold to hoist a trophy.
Creative Studio 79 / Adobe Stock
Shingle Creek, the headwaters of the Florida Everglades, runs through downtown Orlando. It flows down toward Lake Okeechobee, the largemouth bass capital of the world, but largemouths seemingly swim in even the smallest puddle in the state of Florida. Orlando harbors 60,000 acres of fresh water within its city limits, so there are plenty of bucketmouths available to be caught. (You can even catch trophy-size fish in nearby Disney World, if you hire an official Disney charter to take you.)
Besides the easy access to bass-laden fresh water, the major appeal of fishing in Orlando, and all throughout Florida, is the potential for catching the biggest bass of your life.
“On any given cast, you can hook up with a 14-pounder,” says Zak Fadden, a fishing guide based in the Orlando area.
The state has its own kind of bass, known as the Florida strain, which grows about a pound per year. The reason? Because the water rarely falls below 58 degrees, the bass are always feeding.
Orlando is a sprawling city, so you won’t get the sweeping views of skyscrapers in the background as you hook into bass, but there are plenty of public boat ramps within the city limits. There are also plenty of lakes in the surrounding areas, such as the Butler Chain of Lakes, the Clermont Chain of Lakes, John’s Lake, Lake Apopka and Lake Tohopekaliga, known by the locals as “Toho.”
Fadden, who’s been a full-time guide in Orlando for six years, grew up fishing in Detroit and has competed in tournaments all around the country. But he says Florida is the best. “You can fish here 12 months a year,” he says.
Spiroview Inc. / Adobe Stock
Like Detroit, Chicago is known more for a lot of things other than fish—think blues music, deep-dish pizza, Da Bears, Da Bulls, Da Cubs and even Da Sox. In terms of fishing, it’s known more for salmon out on Lake Michigan or its famous smelt run. Still, the Windy City also offers the chance to catch smallmouth bass right in the heart of downtown. In fact, an angler caught the Illinois state record smallmouth bass, weighing in at 7 pounds, 3 ounces, in Chicago’s Monroe Harbor in 2019.
Southern Lake Michigan is a smallmouth hotspot, and the bass hold up well in the waters around urban Chicago, lurking around man-made structures and rocky riprap that keep the city protected from the lake’s erosion-causing waves.
“From Navy Pier all the way 40 miles south, the shoreline is all structure,” says Ralph Steiger, a fishing guide based on the Indiana-Illinois border who has guided on the southern tip of Lake Michigan for 19 years. “That whole area is full of fish.”
The smallmouth bass are getting bigger and more abundant, thanks to a strict catch-and-release ethic among local anglers, as well as the rise of the invasive goby baitfish population, which are like candy to smallmouth bass. But it’s not just the lake that holds good fishing.
“You’d be shocked at the water quality in the Chicago River,” Steiger says. “It’s getting better and better.”
He says the river has a decent largemouth bass population, and you can catch smallmouth bass in the mouth of the river where it empties into Lake Michigan. Steiger adds, “We’re finding fish in places you’d never think to cast to.”
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Marcus / Adobe Stock
The California Delta, where the Sacramento and the San Joaquin rivers converge in a labyrinth of islands and backwaters, is considered one of the premier areas in the country to catch largemouth bass. The heart of the best Delta fishing is about an hour’s drive from downtown Sacramento, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t fish to be had in the heart of the city.
The American River flows from the Sierra Nevada mountains into downtown Sacramento, where it converges with the Sacramento River just past the Jiboom Street Bridge and Tiscornia Park. One of the best places to catch urban bass is in Washington Lake, which juts off from the Sacramento Deep Water Ship Channel in the western section of Sacramento.
Several of the biggest largemouth bass ever caught have come from California, ever since the state introduced Florida-strain largemouths to some of its waters in the 1950s. As with Florida, many of California’s lakes and rivers have excellent forage for bass as well as an extended growing season due to the moderate climate. While you might not catch a world record in the Delta area, you may very well hook up with a 15-pounder, even within Sacramento city limits.