By Howard Meyerson
PORTAGE, MI — Black clouds darkened the early morning sky, giving the lake an ominous glow, but Miles Hanley and I continued to cast. We had just left the launch.
“There’s one,” I hollered and set the hook on a nice largemouth, only to lose it seconds later.
“I’ve got a better one,” Hanley responded almost immediately. Moments later, he held up a nice 2.5-pound largemouth bass; a yellow Hawg Caller lure hung from its lip.
Hanley, a tournament bass angler and boat salesman for D&R Sports in Kalamazoo, was introducing me to one of his favorite waters, Austin Lake, in Portage. It is shallow and weedy, averaging 5 feet deep, but it has a healthy, diverse fish population, and the fishing there can be spectacular.
Austin Lake was known for bluegill and crappie in the 1990s. The bass population was only average, according to Department of Natural Resources fisheries managers. That since has changed.
“It’s got great numbers and a lot of big fish, too,” Hanley said when he called and invited
me to go fishing. We planned to spend the day throwing top-water lures made by one of his tournament sponsors, Jerry Hoke, owner of Milk Run Lures, in Lawrence. Hoke is making a name for himself with his custom basswood lures and color-shifting paint.
“I’ve fished it (Austin Lake) for 20 years, and it’s a regular bass factory,” Hanley said, casting again. “Back in the day (during a fishing tournament), you’d get nine- to 12-pound sack (of bass), but 15 pounds are average now, and we had a 20-pound sack during a three-hour tournament.”
Hanley and I wouldn’t have time for a 15-pound sack. Distant thunder had given way to approaching lightning, and it was moving steadily closer. Hanley and I got in a few more casts, and then we high-tailed it back to the boat launch, where we sat out the immediate storm in the comfort of his truck.
Hanley is the 1998 Michigan State Bass Champion. He still organizes and competes in D&R Sports sponsored tournaments and those put on by the Bass Anglers of Michigan. He fishes two to three days a week during the summer before putting bass rods away to chase steelhead in the fall.
Hanley doesn’t aspire to national bass tournament status. It’s costly, he said, and requires being away from his wife, kids and work.
“It’s more of a hobby,” Hanley said as we sat in the truck cab and watched the heavy clouds move through, one eye on the radar image scrolling across his cellphone screen.
“I do pretty well, but my family keeps me close to home.
“I like getting out bluegill fishing with the kids. I got a feeling my daughter, Isabella, she’s 10, will be tournament fishing with me. Whenever I tell her I am heading to a tournament, she says, ‘Can I go?’ She enjoys it a little bit.”
Within the hour, Hanley and I were back on the lake — running across its 2.2 mile length, looking for other good places to fish.
Austin Lake gives a good showing on Michigan’s Master Angler list, which contains entries for black crappie, pumpkinseed and bluegill, largemouth and smallmouth bass, northern muskellunge and other rough fish. A 21.5-inch smallmouth was caught and released there just this year; likewise, a 47-inch musky. A 6.38-pound, 22.5-inch largemouth was caught there and kept in 2008.
“When we last surveyed the lake in 1993, the bass were 5 to 18 inches. Those larger bass weren’t present,” Jay Wesley told me later. He’s the southern Lake Michigan management supervisor for Michigan DNR.
“We’ve heard the bass fishing has been real good there the last 10 years. One of the reasons, I think, is we went (up) to a 14-inch size limit, and the muskies we stock help crop off the smaller bass, letting the others grow.”
One of those muskies — I’ll call it 30 inches — swam quickly through the weeds as we cast to one spot that quickly proved unproductive for us. We headed back across the lake and spent an hour or so fishing different segments of the shoreline.
Between us, we landed several largemouths. I hooked a 2.5-pounder with a bone-colored Hawg Caller. Hanley landed the rest. Most, he would finesse out from under a dock or boat lift with a rubber worm.
“It’s a good lake for top-water baits,” Hanley said. “Sometimes, it’s dynamite for spinner baits and rattle traps. And if they get finicky, you can throw a little worm out there and finesse them.”
As any good tournament angler knows flexible tactics are the key to success. If you get a chance to fish Austin Lake yet this summer, be sure to bring an assortment of lures.
This story appears on MLive Outdoors.