The Sylvania Wilderness: Solitude and Smallmouth
No jet skis. No power boats. No luxury vacation homes crowding the shoreline. I love wilderness camping. I love to fish. At the risk of exposing my “secret” location to increased traffic, I’m going to tell you about one of my favorite spots in Michigan, the Sylvania Wilderness Area.
Located in the Ottawa National Forrest on the Western end of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula near the town of Watersmeet, the Sylvania Wilderness Area is part of the National Wilderness Preservation System. Combined with the adjacent Recreation Area, the 18,327 acre wilderness offers 34 named lakes. The catch and release, barb less hook fishing regulations in many of these lakes have created a little known world class smallmouth bass fishery. The wilderness area lakes are restricted to non-motorized traffic, except for Crooked Lake, on which motors are allowed only by property owners who lived there when the area was declared a “wilderness”. I usually avoid that lake, I prefer more solitude.
A campground on Clark Lake is available with tent or trailer sites. The campground has water, latrines, and beach with bath house and showers. My excursions have been canoe camping trips where you pack food and gear into one of the designated remote campsites scattered throughout the area. The portages between the lakes are easy and fairly flat and short, not at all like some of the Billy-goat trails in the Quetico/Boundary Waters. The remote campsites are located away from the water’s edge, which helps promote the feeling of seclusion. They are primitive but have fire rings and usually a latrine nearby. About half the sites can be reserved and the other half are first come first served.
All of the lakes contain Smallmouth and Largemouth Bass, although the smallies far out number the bigmouths. Only Whitefish Lake contains all of the three major species in this area Walleye, Northern Pike, and Smallmouth. It has been reported that Lake Trout exist in Clark Lake. I’ve landed some large smallmouth from Clark, but never a Laker. The bass in all lakes are restricted to catch and release but one Walleye over 20 inches, one Northern Pike over 30 inches, and one Lake Trout over 30 inches can be kept.
On my first trip to Sylvania I was just sitting under a tarp one rainy afternoon waiting for the weather to break before our trip home. My wife and I decided to carry our canoe to a small nearby lake to kill some time. We immediately started pulling dark colored Smallmouth Bass from the stained water on just about every other cast. After about an hour we went back to camp to get my son. He and I returned to the lake for a few more hours. When darkness fell 4 hours after we started fishing, we had landed over 140 fish ranging from 14 to 18 inches. We changed our plans about returning home and fished more the following morning.
I’ve been returning to Sylvania almost every year since, and still occasionally fish that same lake with similar results. The fish from this lake were understandably a bit underweight for their length. Larger fish can be found in the larger lakes and although not caught at quite this frequency, several, three to five pound fish a day is not uncommon if you time your trip just right and hit the spawning sweet spot.
I fish almost exclusively with jigs and twister tails. Light colored 1/8 to 1/4 ounce jig heads ranging from white to chartreuse with 2 to 3 inch unscented plastic tails of similar color seem to work best. Using a fairly stiff rod and a spinning reel lined with 6 pound test makes fighting a five pound Smallmouth seem like battling a trophy Musky. I landed a fat 23 inch fish on this 6 lb. test setup. It was one of the best fights I can remember, but after that battle I considered moving up to 8 lb test.
Drifting the shoreline and dragging the bottom with your jig works great, if you are at the right depth. On some lakes, where the water is crystal clear down to 15 or 20 feet, the right depth is the where the bottom starts to disappear.
In order to tap the bottom during the drift you will have to experiment with different jig weights. Dragging the bottom naturally leads to more snags on logs and rocks but with a little patience the jig can usually be retrieved. Sometimes it is just too windy to keep your bait on the bottom while drifting along the shore. In this case drifting with the wind from deeper water into the shore can be successful. Occasionally casting the jig into deeper water then letting it drop can work. Top water baits will work in calm water but I still prefer a jig because a single hook usually allows releasing the fish with little damage. For me, “feeling” the bottom then suddenly feeling a fish just seems natural.
I've found that white or off white or light colors work best. A little colored tint does not hurt. These twister tails and jig heads are a good selection for Smallmouth Bass in this area. The jigs have a bait holder which is helpful, because the bass will often bite and pull just the plastic without getting hooked.
If you want some variety in your fishing, try Whitefish Lake. It has a good population of Walleyes and some fairly large Northern Pike. Every time I fish that lake I get my jig bitten off of my leaderless line by a large Northern. It’s in the same spot every year. It is probably the same fish! When the water is calm you may see several Smallmouth Bass attacking the Walleye you are trying to land.
Sylvania has rules you need to follow which promote “leave no trace” camping. Follow them. Bears have seldom been reported in campsites, and I’ve never encountered one. In a report I heard, previous campers had buried remains of fish near the campsite, which attracted the bears, which led to closure of that campsite for most of the summer. It is still wise to hang your food 10 ft. from the ground and at least 6 ft from the trunk of any tree. Never keep food in your tent!
Loons are everywhere and are not timid. I’ve seen them swim under my canoe. There are certain regulations in place to protect them during nesting season. Sighting Bald Eagles is common and a distant wolf howl can sometimes be heard. I once had noticed a Bald Eagle observing me from the top of a tall pine on the waters edge. I suspected it was waiting for a meal. I caught a Rock Bass and used my knife to ensure it floated on the surface when I dropped it into the water next to the canoe. Eagles are big with big claws. I found that out, and questioned my wisdom as it swooped down to snatch the fish out of the water right next to me.
Insect repellent and rain gear are absolute necessities. For any members of your party that are not inclined to swat mosquitoes and sleep on the hard ground or fish from daylight till dawn, there is a casino in Watersmeet. There are many other lakes in the area where power boats are permitted, and rental cabins are also in the area. The 45 pound Michigan state record Muskie was taken in 1980 from Thousand Island Lake not too far from Sylvania. This Wilderness Area is small compared to others but the Bass fishing is the best I’ve ever experienced, and it is not so small that you can’t get away from the crowds.
I went out fishing early one morning by myself and had the eagle take a fish right next to my canoe, very close, so close I could feel the wind in my face caused by the flap of it's wings as it used it's "air brakes" to change direction and fly off. I told my wife about it but she was skeptical. So after breakfast we both went fishing and the eagle was still there, perched in the same tree, waiting for me to return. This time I brought my camera but this encounter was not quite as up close and personal.