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Every year we compile the highly-anticipated Bassmaster’s 100 Best Bass Lakes rankings. This list is created by collecting reams of tournament data from spring events to make the rankings timely and accurate. That said, spring events this year were mostly cancelled due to the national response of COVID-19. With no data, we could not create the rankings. Still, we remain steadfast in our efforts to create bucket-list destinations for bass anglers in 2020. After all, there has been no time in recent history where using a boat to separate yourself from society is more apropos.
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Instead of digging into current tournament data to develop rankings, we decided to look at historical data reaching back to 2012, the first year we presented Bassmaster’s 100 Best Bass Lakes. The results were actually surprising. Some fisheries have quietly held top positions in the rankings, resulting in a place on this legacy lake list. Some fisheries have made a big splash in the past, only to fizzle over the years. Here are the Top 25 results from our search, and you can look forward to the “Best of the Rest” galleries featuring the Top 25 from each region: Northeastern | Southeastern | Central | Western
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1. Clear Lake, California
[43,785 acres] Interestingly enough, this West Coast powerhouse has never held the top spot on the yearly rankings. That said, it has also never ranked below 10th in the nation, and hit its high-water mark in 2014 when it ranked second.
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California’s largest natural lake landed in the Top 4 nationally the past three years, and was ranked No. 1 in the western region the past three years running. Consistency of production is paramount to be named king of this legacy lake list, and Clear Lake has that in spades. Anglers can expect to consistently catch big fish here.
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Double-digit bass hardly turn heads. A bass over 16 pounds was landed here last year. Five-fish limits of over 30 pounds are commonplace. An average Clear Lake bass is over 5 pounds, and there are a lot of them swimming in the pristine waters of this Golden State treasure.
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2. Lake Guntersville, Alabama
[69,000 acres] Much like Clear Lake, the Big G has never been named the Best Bass Lake in the nation. However, it only fell out of the Top 10 national rankings one time. Had it not been for a lackluster year of production in 2017, Lake Guntersville might have taken the top spot.
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It’s latest ranking was 2nd in the country last year after multiple limits exceeding 30 pounds were brought to the scales. Big fish swim here, as well, as most big-fish prizes are awarded to fish topping the 8-pound mark, with 10-plus pounders taking center stage on occasion. The scenery here is breathtaking, as well, and access is top notch.
Photo: Seigo Saito
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3. Lake Erie, New York/Ohio/Pennsylvania/Michigan
[241 miles long] Although the lion’s share of tournament data comes out of the Buffalo, N.Y., area of this Great Lake, world class smallmouth fishing can be found anywhere along its shoreline westward to Trenton, Mich. This beast of a fishery fell out of the Top 10 national rankings only twice, in 2015 and 2018.
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Last year it surged back into the Top 10 on the strength of the average smallmouth weighing in at 4 pounds. It looks like Erie is on track to match its best year, 2014, when it was ranked 3rd in the country. True giants live here, as well. Anglers can expect smallies in the 6-pound range, with the occasional 7-pounder being reported.
Photo: Shaye Baker
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4. Lake St. Clair, Michigan
[430 square miles] This smallmouth mecca screamed onto the scene in 2013, when it became the first northern fishery to rank No. 1 in the 100 Best Bass Lakes rankings. It seemed that 6-pound brown bass were easy to come by, and an untapped largemouth fishery was icing on the cake. The lake succumbed to heavy fishing pressure the following year, but it came back with a vengeance.
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St. Clair fought back to 4th place in the nation in 2018 and has been ranked either first or second in the northeast region the past four years. Not only can you catch the smallmouth of a lifetime here, but you would be hard pressed to make a cast in this lake where your surroundings are not Instagram-worthy.
Photo: Gary Tramontina
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5. Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta, California
[1,100 square miles] Most commonly referred to as the California Delta, this massive tidal fishery has produced some of the biggest bass in the country over the past decade. It had an off year in 2014, when it dropped to 14th in the nation. Grass control efforts gone wrong and an odd sea lion issue still seem to be keeping this fishery out of the top spots, but monster limits continue to surface here. If you don’t have 25 pounds for a single-day derby here, you will not win.
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The California Delta has not ranked below 4th place in the western division the past four years, and its production was trending upwards. Still a wild and beautiful setting, the vast expanse of this fishery still holds largemouth that fit the “personal best” category.
Photo: Seigo Saito
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6. Toledo Bend, Louisiana/Texas
[185,000 acres] Something magical happened to this bass factory between the 2014 and 2015 seasons. After averaging around 12th in the national rankings, The Bend took the top spot in 2015 after seemingly countless 10-pounders were caught that year. Even more were landed in 2016, making this Louisiana/Texas border fishery the first lake ever to earn the No. 1 ranking two years in a row.
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Production finally fell off a little, but this historic fishery has remained in the Top 4 lakes in the Central Division ever since. Any given day, an angler could land the five-bass limit of a lifetime, as the 30-pound limit is cracked with consistency. And yes, 10-pounders still abound.
Photo: Ronnie Moore
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7. Sam Rayburn Reservoir, Texas
[114,000] This storied Lone Star State fishery lived in the shadows of nearby Toledo Bend for years. Rayburn was good, finding the second-place ranking in 2013, but was the bridesmaid to The Bend since the 100 Best Bass Lakes rankings were conceived. That all changed in 2018, when Rayburn not only bested TB, but every other lake in the nation to claim the No. 1 spot in the nation. It followed up that incredible season with another in 2019, where the Texas fish factory claimed the No. 3 spot.
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The rise of Rayburn correlated with the amazing success of Toledo Bend, which took a lot of pressure off this lake. That allowed the scads of 2- and 3-pound fish to become 5- and 6-pounders. Rayburn started spitting out 30-pound limits like chewed-up sunflower seeds, with some exceeding 35 pounds. Double-digit fish are more than available, as a 12-pounder was landed here in 2018.
Photo: Garrick Dixon
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8. Falcon Lake, Texas
[83,654 acres] In 2012, the first year we ranked bass lakes across the nation, it looked like this south Texas fishery would be forever king. It was taking over 40 pounds to win, and a 53-pound limit was verified. But like all good things, Falcon’s production did not last. The region was plagued by drought and the largemouth fell as hard and fast as the lake levels. The lake spiraled to its lowest point in 2015, when it was ranked 42nd nationally. But then the rains came. With little pressure, excellent spawning habitat and an exceptional gene pool as a foundation, Falcon rose like a phoenix from the ashes.
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By 2018, the border fishery had again cracked the Top 10 nationally and is poised to stay there. Limits of 25 pounds are common, and the once common 30-pound limits are starting to show again. And you can’t go that far south without largemouth growing to monumental proportions, so double-digit fish will be caught.
Photo: Gary Tramontina
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9. Lake Coeur d’ Alene, Idaho
[25,000 acres] If you want to get away from it all, visit this remote fishery, because it hasn’t got there yet. Well, unless you are talking about world class smallmouth and bigger than average largemouth. This lake is best known for the celebrities who like to vacation at the swank resorts lining its shorelines, however local bass anglers know that it is a jewel that sparkles no matter what technique you prefer or what species of bass you want to pursue. Coeur d’ Alene saw it’s highest ranking in 2014, when it landed in the 4th spot in the nation.
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Smallies over 7 pounds were being caught, and it was taking 25-plus pounds to win derbies here. The giants fell off over the past several years, but the lake consistently requires limits in the 22-pound range to win. And the stunning scenery makes every cast a pleasure.
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10. Lake Okeechobee, Florida
[730 square miles] The Big O, aptly named as it is the second biggest freshwater lake contained entirely in the U.S., has experienced some fairly extreme highs and lows in these rankings over the years. When this lake is good, it is very good. When it’s at it’s worse, it’s still pretty freaking good. Still, Okeechobee experienced its highest ranking in 2012, when it was named the second best fishery in the nation.
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That year, a four-day Elite Series event was won with 108 pounds, 5 ounces, which included a 34-5 limit. Conversely, the giant lake dropped to 26th in the nation in 2015, as production was hurt due to a pollution issue. The Big O has bounced back since, as limits over 30 pounds are being caught. And don’t forget about the opportunity of catching a personal best here, as the Florida TrophyCatch program remains littered with fish topping the 10-pound mark caught from this lake.
Photo: Seigo Saito
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11. Lake Champlain, New York/Vermont
[490 square miles] Had it not been for a bump in the road of production in 2014, this massive northeast fishery would have ranked higher. That year, the lake fell to 27th in the national rankings, many say because the Lake Monster named Champ took to the flavor of bass. But, you can’t keep a good lake down long.
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The incredible smallmouth here have watched their largemouth cousins steal a little of the limelight. Yes, you can catch a bunch of both, and the average size will be in the 3-pound range. Winning weights are near the 20-pound mark, but what is incredible is that 50th place may be only 4 pounds lighter. If you have a chance to visit in the fall, take it, because the fall colors lining the shoreline are that of legend.
Photo: Seigo Saito
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12. St. Lawrence River (Thousand Islands), New York
[50 mile stretch from Waddington] They say slow and steady wins the race. Well, this sounds a lot like the historical rise in the rankings of this northeast fishery. In 2012, the St. Lawrence debuted at 53rd on the Best Bass Lakes rankings. The following year it made a massive jump to 13th. Following years saw smaller steps up: 11th, 8th, 4th, 3rd and 2nd in 2018. Last year, this fishery made its ultimate ascent, landing the No. 1 spot in the nation. As trends go, this is the lake you want to fish now.
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Elite Series pros brought countless limits of smallmouth topping the 25-pound mark when they fished the system in 2018, the average bass (of 1,335 caught) was almost 4 pounds. The big bass of that derby almost hit 7 pounds. And yes, there are largemouth here, too, if you are willing to settle for 3- to 5-pound green fish. Secondarily, the thousands of islands that speckle the region are spectacular, and the wine in the region is also worth the visit.
Photo: Seigo Saito
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13. Pickwick Lake, Alabama/Mississippi/Tennessee
[43,100 acres] Although this border lake has never been the bride, it has certainly been one of the most eligible bridesmaids in our rankings. Pickwick made the Top 12 in 2012, and has remained in the top quarter of the rankings each year after. In the southeast region, it has not placed below 7th for the past four years.
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This is another fishery that contains both trophy smallmouth and trophy largemouth. Green fish can be caught here weighing over 10 pounds, while the brown ones can top 6 pounds. Plus, anglers get the added bonus of spotted bass. Yes, bass fishing’s trifecta can be accomplished during a single day of fishing on this lake.
Photo: Ronnie Moore
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14. Grand Lake O’ The Cherokees, Oklahoma
[46,500 acres] Solid. That is a term that perfectly describes not only the fishing here, but the bass you will catch. Grand Lake has never been able to compete with the big-bass factories listed above, but it has consistently produced 20-plus pounds limits since the inception of the ranking system. It is a regional powerhouse in the central portion of the country.
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Although we were surprised that it ranked as highly as it did within this list of legacy lakes, it is well deserved. In 2019, 25-pound plus limits were crashing on the scales, and largemouth in the 8-pound range were taking big-fish honors.
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15.Chickamauga Lake, Tennessee
[36,240 acres] Some have described this fishery as a fickle Chick. When she decides to produce, limits over 40 pounds are weighed in. If she is not in the mood, you are lucky to scrape together a 15-pound limit. The latter was the case in 2015, when the Chick dropped to 41st nationally. The old girl has been in a better mood ever since, though, as she has spit out giants the past several years.
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In 2019, a near 13-pounder was landed and limits over 30 pounds were being weighed. Just know that when you go here, your life can be changed for the better, or you might nibble on a slice of humble pie.
Photo: Ronnie Moore
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16.Lake Fork, Texas
[27,690] It seems strange that this globally-known big bass factory has only cracked the Top 10 in national rankings two times in the 2010s. Still, this Lone Star State success story produces giants every year. Last year the lake showed out during the Toyota Bassmaster Texas Fest benefiting Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
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Elite Series pro Brandon Cobb weighed in more than 114 pounds over four days, including an 11-1. This sort of production shot Fork to the 5th ranked lake in the nation. And since the fishing is hot right now, there’s never been a better chance to mark this one off your bucket list.
Photo: Andy Crawford
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17. Lake Havasu, Arizona/California
[19,300 acres] The stark beauty of this desert oasis is only overshadowed by the bounty of bass that live here. The crystal clear waters of this western fishery harbor both largemouth and smallmouth bass. Although neither of the species grow to monumental sizes here, you might well catch largemouth in the 7-pound range and smallies topping 5 pounds — the Arizona state record smallmouth weighing 6.28 pounds was caught here in 2017. To make things even better, the Arizona Game and Fish Department has added artificial habitat to enhance bass fishing here over the past four years.
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Havasu has ranked in the top half of the national rankings since 2012, and has been in the Top 10 in the West since 2016.
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18. Oneida Lake, New York
[79.8 square miles] This northeastern fishery is one of the few legacy lakes where you will not have the opportunity to catch the fish of a lifetime. You don’t come here for the giants. Instead, you come here to have your string stretched often, with above average bass. And that stretch could be the result of an airborne brown bass, or the dogged run of a largemouth.
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Oneida hit its high mark nationally in 2012, when it ranked 14th. Although it never cracked the Top 10, it remained in the Top 12 in the northeast region the past four years.
Photo: James Overstreet
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19.Candlewood Lake, Connecticut
[5,420 acres] Are you surprised to see this fishery crack the Top 25 of all time? Yeah, we were, too. But, the numbers don’t lie. This little jewel of the Northeast has held its own against the mammoth fisheries of the land over the past decade.
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Its best showing nationally was 22nd in 2012, but its worst was 34th in 2014. Anglers can expect to catch both smallmouth and largemouth here. Winning limits are typically in the 17- to 18-pound range. Your big fish mark will be in the 5-pound range for both varieties of bass.
Photo: Heather Palmer
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20. Columbia River, Oregon/Washington
[191 miles from Portland to McNary Dam] This storied fishery was once a premier destination for trophy smallmouth. Due to legislation that focused on harvesting smallies to protect trout species, the big fish have become hard to find. Still, the population of bass here is staggering. In 2014, when the river hit 14th in the nation, it was taking well over 20 pounds to win derbies here.
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Now, 17 pounds will typically give you the first-place trophy. What hasn’t changed is the number of bites. On a good day, your shoulder will be sore from setting the hook. As far as scenery goes, there are few surroundings as glorious as the Columbia River gorge.
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21. Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota
[132,516 acres] This is a smallmouth mecca, no doubt. However, walleye are king here. So, when the walleye population is mishandled, which has happened to this fishery, the focus on harvesting fish to eat is shifted to smallmouth. Prior to the great walleye crash of 2017, Mille Lacs rose to the top of the charts, landing the No. 1 bass lake in the nation. At that point, 25 pounds per day was what it took to win an event.
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Anglers who were catching 20 pounds per day were relegated to the middle of the pack. Currently, a 25-pound limit may be caught, but you might also win with 20. As the walleye rebound here, the focus will shift away from killing smallies. Even with the added pressure, this remains one of the best trophy smallmouth lakes in the land.
Photo: Garrick Dixon
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22. Lake Seminole, Georgia/Florida
[37,500 acres] The production of this storied fishery looks a lot like a heart monitor, one year high, the next year low. Regardless, each bite on this border lake should make your heart race, as limits topping 30 pounds and bass in the double-digits exist here. Seminole hit its highest national ranking in 2014, when it took nearly 100 pounds to capture first place at an Elite Series event here.
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The following year it dropped to 38th, as 15-pound limits were winning events. But last year, it spiked again, landing in 5th place in the Southeast. Still, the history of this fishery and how it helped shape our sport makes it a must-fish destination for all bass anglers. And with a little luck, you will hit it on an upwards spike.
Photo: James Overstreet
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23. Santee Cooper Lakes (Marion/Moultrie), South Carolina
[110,000 and 60,000 acres respectively] These sister lakes could be considered elderly, as they were created in 1941. But, don’t let their age fool you. The production of these fisheries rival any new lake on this list. Just last year, Santee Cooper ranked 9th in the nation on the heels of multiple limits over 30 pounds hitting the scales. Plus, 20-pound limits were not turning heads.
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In 2018, the fishery was ranked 6th in the nation following an 8th-place showing in 2017. So, these sisters have been producing for a hot minute. Had it not been for a tragic showing in 2014 (94th), there is little doubt Santee would have been much higher on this list. Still, the trend is solid for this year to again be stellar.
Photo: Gerald Crawford
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24. Lake Charlevoix, Michigan
[17,200 acres] Another fishery that made a surprise showing on this list, Charlevoix is the third-largest lake in the Wolverine State. And, evidently, it is a fish factory. Not just bass, though, as more than 100 species swim in its pristine waters. But, bass is what we care about, and there are a bunch of them in here. Most are of the smallmouth variety, but largemouth do make a splash on occasion.
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In 2019, this lake ranked 9th in the northeast division on the strength of its average bass weighing more than 3 pounds. The lake had its best year of production in 2016, where limits exceeding 25 pounds were weighed, leading to a 6th place ranking in the Northeast. That shows a nice rebound from its worst year on the list, where it sank to 82nd nationally in 2014.
Photo: Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources
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25. Sturgeon Bay (Lake Michigan), Wisconsin [from Little Sturgeon Bay to Fish Creek]
Complete transparency here: Sturgeon Bay was not on our radar the first two years of the rankings. Shame on us. Most bass fishing tournaments here do not start until May, which tosses a wrench into the cogs of our data gathering. So, had we known where to look, this fishery would be ranked higher. Once we found this Lake Michigan jewel, however, it immediately took over the No. 1 spot in the rankings in 2014.
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Smallmouth topping 8 pounds were being weighed in and multi-day tournaments were requiring more than 34 pounds per day to claim the top spot. Sturgeon dropped just one spot in 2015, and has fallen slightly each year thereafter. Still, last year, it took a 5-pound per bass average to make the Top 7 in the Sturgeon Bay Open. It may be a little tougher to find smallmouth here than it was in 2014, but when you find them, they are likely to be giants.