Lake Erie’s Red Hot Smallmouth Bass

by Bob McNally

Few waters in America are as good a smallmouth bass factory as sprawling Lake Erie, one of the massive Great Lakes in the Upper Midwest. And while Erie’s outstanding bronzeback fishing no longer is a secret, and the lake receives tremendous fishing pressure, angling remains superb by anyone’s measure.

Noted Cleveland, Ohio outdoor writer D'Arcy Egan holds a chunky, but not unusual Lake Erie smallmouth bass caught from the Bass Islands area.

Noted Cleveland, Ohio outdoor writer D’Arcy Egan holds a chunky, but not unusual Lake Erie smallmouth bass caught from the Bass Islands area.

In recent years, for example, smallmouths weighing more than 7 pounds have been regularly caught from throughout the big lake. The New York state record was broken three times in one year by Erie anglers, with an 8 1/4-pounder currently the state’s top bronzeback. In mid-June of 1993, Ohio’s record smallmouth came from Erie, caught by bass pro Kevin Van Dam’s brother, Randy, of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The buckeye bronzeback weighed an astounding 9 1/2 pounds!

Not only does Erie shine for heavyweight smallmouths, but it yields big numbers of fish throughout the spring through fall bass-fishing season. In an average day, a pair of competent anglers can expect to boat a couple dozen nice smallmouths, and catches of 50 fish are not unusual. And when fishing is right, 100 smallmouth days are possible, and occur every year for anglers in the know. These aren’t dinky bass, either, which is the norm on some 100-bass per day waters, particularly rivers. Erie smallmouths commonly caught by bass anglers seldom weigh less than 1 pound, and fat 2-pounders are routine.

One May, I visited Ohio’s Bass Islands, fishing every day in coves and over shoals for pre-spawn smallmouths. In our party were bass tournament anglers Woo Daves and Joe Thomas, who both sing Erie’s praises. We all fished from different boats, in different areas, using different methods, yet everyone caught good bass—on spinnerbaits, crankbaits, plastic worms, jigs, it didn’t seem to matter.

Crankbaits are highly productive lures for Erie smallmouths through the warm-weather fishing season.

Crankbaits are highly productive lures for Erie smallmouths through the warm-weather fishing season.

Moreover, the public boat ramp where we launched daily for fishing had a large concrete pier many people fished from, and they enjoyed outstanding smallmouth action, too. One pier angler in an action-packed afternoon caught more than 30 bass up to 4 pounds. And I watched a youngster catch and release six smallmouths on six casts from the pier using small minnows, one of which was a fat 3-pounder!

For numbers of big Erie bronzebacks, spring is best when fish are shallow (6 to 12 feet deep) for spawning. A warm, balmy day with slightly overcast skies and a light wind are ideal. Erie is vodka clear, and with a little wind, the fish jam on the windward sides of rock bars and shoals, and sometimes can be found in canals and on chunk rock-gravel points. Jigs score well, but when water temperatures warm, crankbaits, soft plastic jerkbaits, and spinner-baits are big takers of fish.

While Lake Erie smallmouth fishing is well known, the bass in many areas are not heavily pressured. Anglers often have 20- to 50-fish days, especially in spring and summer.

While Lake Erie smallmouth fishing is well known, the bass in many areas are not heavily pressured. Anglers often have 20- to 50-fish days, especially in spring and summer.

Erie smallmouths commonly school tight, and anglers are wise to cover a lot of water until a pod of fish is located, then use floating markers to pinpoint areas along structure where smallies are holding. Good anglers should have no trouble locating prime smallmouths structures on their own, but they need a precision depth finder. Experienced fishermen prefer to drift or slow troll to locate bass because many structures are so large, sometimes 400 yards long or more.

Many choice smallmouth structures are in open water, so are not easy to consistently locate. For that reason use a GPS navigational device to repeatedly find them. Anglers without Erie fishing experience or GPS, however, can discover great smallmouth structures in many areas simply by referring to maps, watching for islands, and keeping a close eye to water color changes (indicating depth changes). Rely on your depthfinder, however, no matter how well you believe you know or understand the water and structures fished. This is a good idea for boating safety, too.
It’s wise to remember that Erie is literally an inland sea, cold, big and it can get rough fast. It’s no place for a small boat far from shore, so use extreme caution in questionable weather.

Finally, although Erie gets lots of fishing pressure and plenty of press, there still are “sleeper” areas that see remarkably light fishing pressure. Eastern Lake Erie, for example, has been overshadowed for years by the great angling out of Port Clinton, Ohio area and nearby Bass Islands.

One autumn day, for example, John Lincoln, of Syracuse, caught a five smallmouth limit within the shadows of Buffalo, N.Y. that totaled an astonishing 30 1/2 pounds! The smallest fish weighed 5 1/2 pounds, and the largest was a 6 1/2-pounder.

Amazingly, Lincoln’s heaviest bass that day didn’t win big-fish honors in the club tournament he was entered. That smallmouth weighed a hefty 6 3/4 pounds!

The Union Sportsmen’s Alliance website is designed to provide valuable articles about hunting, fishing and conservation for members of AFL-CIO affiliated labor unions and all sportsmen and sportswomen who appreciate hunting and fishing and want to preserve our outdoor heritage for future generations. If you would like your own story and experience from the outdoors to be considered for our website, please email us at USAmembers@unionsportsmen.org.

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