Although the 100 Best Bass Lakes rankings are a labor, we sure missed putting them together last year. The pandemic caused almost all tournaments to be canceled, and the fisheries biologists we lean on to get information had far more important things to do than answer a bunch of survey questions. So, it was exciting to get back in the saddle after a year in the dark. What happened during that darkness was surprising. Experts estimate that 10 million more fishing licenses were sold last year than the year prior. Folks found respite in the outdoors, and many of them fished for the first time. That may have put more pressure on lakes than normal, and some fisheries were impacted. Still, other lakes, which may not have been exposed previously to tournaments, shined brightly. So, grab a pen and pad and start your bucket list of fishing lakes anew. A trip to any of the following fisheries could offer the fish of a lifetime, or at least a memory that will last that long.
After missing a year of rankings due to the pandemic, this year’s data provided some surprises. New lakes crack the Top 10, while some old-faithfuls fell completely off the list.
What more can be said about this slice of heaven some 65 miles east of Dallas? Those familiar with Fork know it sets the table for some of the biggest catches in the U.S. each year, but look what the Elites did in the April 2021 stop on this hallowed spot. Lee Livesay (112-5 over four days) joined the Century Club and Patrick Walters (102-5) accomplished the feat on Fork for the second consecutive year. A whopping 20 ShareLunkers were caught on Fork in the first four months of 2021, with a 15.27-pound giant hooked in March. Hungry for hogs? Fork is your dream come true.
Photo: Thomas Allen
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2. Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, California
[1,100 square miles]
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Although always high on our list, the rank of these tidal waters has consistently dropped over the past five years as average sizes and trophy fish stats have declined, with the blame falling mostly on pillaging sea lions and aquatic vegetation spraying. But regardless of the cause, the Delta’s rivers, tule-lined sloughs and vegetation-filled flooded islands are back with a vengeance. Based on an analysis of 170 Western tournaments taking place on 50 bodies of water, this river system has come out as the best of the best in terms of both the average weight fish needed to win and the largest bass caught. The heaviest one-day limit here came during an April Best Bass Tournaments event in which the top team brought five largemouth to the scales for 35.06 pounds — including a 9.47 kicker! The 11th-place team had an even better fish that went 11.26 pounds. The cream of the crop during the first part of 2021, however, was an impressive 13.81-pound monster caught from the back seat during a Wild West Bass Trail Pro/Am in March.
Photo: James Overstreet
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3. Santee Cooper lakes (Marion/Moultrie), South Carolina
[110,000 acres and 60,000 acres, respectively]
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These sister lakes have been a juggernaut on the rankings since the inception of the research. This year, Marion and Moultrie continue to prove they are a must-visit for every bass angler. A May CATT event here saw a winning weight of 25.64, and an early April derby took 27 pounds to win. That said, the real eye-opener was the late April CATT tournament that saw 33.31 pounds earn the first-place prize. Santee Cooper lakes have the secret sauce to produce giant bass and remain the crown jewel of South Carolina bass fishing.
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4. St. Lawrence River (Thousand Islands), New York
[50-mile stretch, plus eastern Lake Ontario]
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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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5. Clear Lake, California
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When it comes to numbers of big largemouth it’s difficult to beat the Golden State’s most expansive natural lake, where relatively shallow waters and high productivity create ideal growing conditions. There were 428 anglers at the WON Bass California Open in April, bringing 6,184 fish to the scales over three days totaling 21,441 pounds. It took over 60 pounds to make the Top 19 on the pro side at the event. The heaviest single-day limit at the time of this writing was 54.38 pounds for seven bass, caught in March at a NewJen team contest. And big fish of the year, landed the same month at a Chamber of Commerce tournament, tipped the scales at a whopping 12.79.
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6. Sam Rayburn, Texas
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This east Texas powerhouse was No. 1 on the Top 100 Lakes list in 2018, No. 3 in 2019 and it’s shown few signs of weakening. Rayburn produced 16 ShareLunkers in the first four months of 2021, with a pair of 13-pounders kicking the big-bass parade off in January. It took 70-11 to win a three-day pro tournament earlier this year, and winners of most one-day events held recently on the reservoir have demanded limits of 24, 28 and even 30 pounds to win. In April, an 11.29 largemouth won the Sealy Outdoors’ Big Bass Splash.
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7. Lake St. Clair, Michigan
[430 square miles]
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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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8. Jordan Lake, North Carolina
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The last time we were able to research these rankings was 2019 (thanks, COVID-19). That year, state biologists ranked this fishery second best in the state. Well, the pandemic was evidently good for the bass population here, because now it ranks No. 1 in the state. Look at the late March Collins Bass for Cash event held here, and the numbers speak for themselves. It took more than 26 pounds to win, with second place bringing almost 25 pounds to the scales. A CATT event held here a week later made those results look pedestrian. The winners had five that weighed 34.76 pounds, while the next-closest competitor had to take their 26 pounds to the second-place table.
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9. O.H. Ivie, Texas
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For one 10-day stretch in February 2021, O.H. Ivie might have been the best bass fishery in the world, producing six Legacy ShareLunkers weighing more than 13 pounds. Among them was a lake record of 16.40-pounds caught by Joe McKay, which was the 16th-biggest largemouth in Texas history and the biggest bass caught statewide in 22 years. That mule anchored an astonishing 60-pound stringer McKay and fishing partner Ben Milliken caught.
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10. Pickwick Lake, Alabama/Mississippi/Tennessee
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This border lake is not only easy on the eyes, but also offers anglers the opportunity to catch a trophy trifecta: smallmouth, largemouth and spotted bass of above-average size. When the Alabama Bass Trail visited here in February, the results were more than impressive. It took 27.79 pounds to earn the first-place check. And that team didn’t run away with the win. Second place landed a five-fish limit weighing 27.16. The Top 20 all cracked 20 pounds, and a 7.66 earned big bass honors.