If aggressive bass in shallow water interest you, then this is your month. From the expansive shallows of Lake Erie to comparatively diminutive flowing rivers and streams, bass are up and at ‘em!
May’s warming water temperatures will stimulate bass into making their annual movement to spawning areas. One can expect to find pre-spawn fish in fairly thin water close to areas that provide good habitat for reproduction.
The pre-spawn bite is one of the best of the year for big bass, as the larger females tend to feed heavily. Once bass go on beds they are still catchable. But keep in mind that we are in the springtime catch-and-release season, which runs from mid-April until mid-June; repeatedly targeting bedding bass is illegal.
Here’s a look at seven top picks from across the state, starring with the northwest region, which is especially blessed with high quality black bass waters.
Lake Erie is known far and wide as one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries on the planet, particularly for oversized bronzebacks. The past decade has witnessed a shift in the lake’s smallie population, one where there are fewer, but larger fish. You have to work for them, but when you hit it right, there are few places on Earth that can match Erie for quality smallmouth bass over 4 pounds.
Massive Lake Erie warms much more slowly than inland waters, so anglers should be prepared to find smallmouth bass in a variety of stages on the big lake. There might be fish in the shallows, and there will likely be fish out in the 30- to 35-foot range, with others scattered in between.
Rocky shallows, often associated with incoming creeks, are top spots for targeting brown bass in 5 to 10 feet of water. Streams like Four Mile, Six Mile, Seven Mile, and Eight Mile creeks (creeks east of the city of Erie are named for their distance from the center of the town) are good examples of places to check out.
Bass holding in the shallows tend to be a bit more active, and will often respond to a moving bait. Top choices are suspending jerkbaits like Lucky Craft’s Pointer and Rapala’s X-Rap. The water will still be quite cold, so use a slow, twitch-stop retrieve with lengthy pauses. Swimming a Galida’s Grubz over the shallows is also productive.
Fish holding in deeper water tend to relate to hard-bottom humps and ridges (particularly the edges of such) that rise abruptly from the lake bottom. The classic presentations for this situation are tube jigs and goby-imitating soft-baits fished on a drop shot rig.
Again, remember to keep an open mind with regard to springtime smallmouth bass location on Erie, as fish can be taken anywhere from 5 feet of water to 35 feet, often on the same day. Also, weather conditions play a big factor as days when wind and waves allow you to fish are far outnumbered by days that keep you off the big water. Carry all your Coast Guard required safety equipment, a VHF radio and cell phone. Monitor the weather carefully, fish out of an adequately-sized boat, and never push your luck.
Public access sites along Pennsylvania’s shoreline include ones out of Erie (both within and east of Presque Isle Bay); at North East (near the NY state line); and Walnut Creek (toward the Ohio border).
When it comes to black bass, Crawford County’s sprawling Pymatuning Lake manages to fly under the radar, as most angler attention is directed toward walleyes, muskies and panfish. But this 13,000-acre border lake (shared with Ohio) supports a dense bass population featuring both largemouths and smallmouths.
Most of the bass fishing pressure on Pymatuning happens during the spring, often in the form of bass tournaments, since this lake has no closed season. As a testament to its productivity at this time of year, during the Keystone Bass Buddies Circuit event held there last May, 40 of the top 50 teams had six-bass limits (the balance had four or five fish bags). Though fish over 5 pounds are possible, the norm is chunky 2 to 3 pounders.
There’s an axiom about Pymatuning’s largemouths that says “if your trolling motor isn’t kicking up mud, you’re fishing too deep.” This certainly applies to springtime fishing there.
Bass-fishing expert and tournament veteran Deron Eck finds Pymatuning largemouth in both back bays and main lake shorelines in May.
“One of the key areas in May is flats with old lily pad stems,” noted Eck. “Also, black bottom areas, like ones around Red Cross and Padanaram, draw in largemouths. And they set up on sandy bottomed main lake shorelines.”
Laydowns sitting in a foot or two of water can be picked apart with a jig-n-pig, or Brush Hog-style baits rigged Texas-style.
Smallmouths, Eck has found, tend to be a bit more nomadic during the pre-spawn. He uses a spinnerbait or Zoom Super Fluke around spots near Tuttle Point, and near Stocker Island, for smallies.
MIDDLE ALLEGHENY RIVER
One of Pennsylvania’s most under-utilized angling resources is its flowing water smallmouth bass fisheries, especially ones on shallow rivers like the middle portion of the Allegheny. Excellent smallmouth action is available during the springtime from West Hickory downriver to East Brady.
Although the river is smaller in its upriver reaches, when smallmouths begin to move toward spawning areas the deal is pretty much the same: rock/gravel bottoms in areas protected from the main force of the river’s current hold the fish. Typically these areas are found around incoming streams, as well as the backsides of island channels. Not all island areas have the “right stuff.” But enough of them do to make all worth investigating.
Sinking worms, like Yamamoto’s Senko, Yum’s Yum Dinger, and Case Plastic’s Magic Stik excel when smallmouth bass move toward spawning flats. Fish them weightless, allowing them to drift slowly in the mild current. Windy days, which are common this month, can make it difficult to fish a Senko. One trick is to hold your rod tip close to the water, so there is little line for the wind to push against. Reel ultra-slowly to maintain just enough line tightness to detect a bite. I find that soft plastics swimbaits are also quite effective at this time.
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