Catching Lake Erie's May Smallmouths

Catching Lake Erie's May Smallmouths

Try these proven tactics for catching big smallmouths off Ohio and Pennsylvania shores this month.

Early spring smallmouths await anglers down to 35 feet where tube jibs and trolled crankbaits will take them.
Photo by Jeff Knapp.

Lake Erie's reputation as one of the finest smallmouth bass fisheries on the planet is well deserved. Hit the lake on the right day and there are few places where a person can put more magnum-sized bronzebacks in the boat.

But as is the case with all things natural, Lake Erie is a lake of constant change. Factors such as available forage species, spawning success and spring weather affect angling success. Here's how to take advantage of this incredible smallmouth fishery this spring:

PENNSYLVANIA
The Keystone State's portion of Erie is within the lake's central basin. The habitat may be characterized as rocky shoals, humps and ledges within a band of water that runs from the shoreline out to 35 to 40 feet. Generally, this band is within two or three miles of the shoreline. During spring, when smallmouth bass are actively feeding and reproducing, it's common to find fish in a wide variety of depths, often during the same day, which shows that all the bass aren't doing the same thing at the same time.

"In spring I start off fishing as shallow as four or five feet and work my way out to as deep as 35 feet," said Dave Lehman, a skilled multi-species angler from northwestern Pennsylvania, and a veteran of many springtime Erie bass campaigns. "I look for bottom irregularities that tend to hold bass. When I get out over the deeper spots, say 15 to 20 feet or deeper, I also look for fish on my electronics."

Because there are days when the shallow bite is the hottest, Lehman said he starts off near shore. Foraging springtime bass will often get on rocky flats in four to six feet of water relatively close to shore.

Often, but not always, the more productive areas are near incoming streams, especially between Presque Isle Bay and points east. Feeder streams include Four-, Six-, Eight-, Twelve-, Sixteen- and Twentymile creeks (indicating their distance east of the city of Erie).

Lehman said the keys to finding productive shallow flats, whether associated with incoming streams or not -- is to find the ones where the 5- to 10-foot flat falls quickly into the 5- to 20-foot depths.

Shallow fish are a joy to catch because they tend to feed on visible schools of baitfish. Often though, most of the bass will be in the intermediate or deeper spots: rocky humps and ledges that feature abrupt depth changes.

"There are specific areas, especially between the bay and North East, where you can be running in 20 to 30 feet of water where there are humps and bars that rise up to 12 or15 feet," explained Lehman. "I stop and fish these humps if I mark fish on my graph. If I don't find fish in those in-between depths, I'll move out to 35 or so feet in my search."

The humps and bars Lehman spoke of exist in a variety of shapes and sizes. He said many of the larger structures are more consistent smallmouth producers. In this day of economically-priced and easy-to-use GPS units, it's a simple matter of marking good areas so they can be returned to during subsequent trips. In the old days it was necessary to take rifle sightings from shoreline fixtures, a process that often had you wondering if you ever actually fished the same spot twice.

One particular lake section is loaded with irregularly shaped humps. It is about halfway between Presque Isle Bay and the North East Marina, the area is known locally as "the Ws." The soft bluff banks that front this lake section have a series of erosion channels cut in them, that from a distance they appear as a series of the letter W.

The area west of Presque Isle Bay doesn't suffer the bass-fishing pressure of the eastern areas, but that's not to say it's unworthy of attention. Though the lake bottom is a bit flatter, there are still ledges that hold bass. In my experience this area features large ledges that drop into deeper zones rather than the more isolated humps and bars that exist to the east.

Presque Isle Bay is a springtime bass hotspot and a good choice for days when the big lake is too rough to fish. The bay's bass relate to sandy flats with emerging weeds, hard-bottom humps that rise up from surrounding soft-bottom basins and the edge of the shipping channel, where the depth rapidly falls from six or so feet down to 25 to 30 foot depths.

OHIO SPOTS
Ohio's lengthier stake of Erie contains parts of both the central basin and the much-shallower western basin.

Not surprisingly, early spring location on central basin waters closely mimic those found in Pennsylvania waters, i.e., rocky humps and ledges in the middle to deeper areas, plus the rocky flats in the shallows. This pattern holds true from the Pennsylvania-Ohio border west to the Lorain-Vermillion area, where the central basin gives way to the shallower western basin. Additional areas to check out include the Cleveland Artificial Reefs, formed by concrete rubble taken from the old stadium.

Typically fished from Port Clinton, the western basin features a complex of reefs and islands that provide excellent shallow water habitat for smallmouth bass. The reef complex is to the northwest of Port Clinton, while the major islands are scattered from the northwest to the northeast of this popular fishing town.

Hilliard, Ohio, fishing expert Brandon Estep has fished western basin springtime smallies for years. He said that starting when water temperatures reach the mid 50s, there is awesome fishing throughout this area.

"Even more important than finding a particular spot is finding that magical depth for any given day," explained Estep, adding that many folks tend to fish a bit too deep.

"Anglers will find excellent bass fishing in four to seven feet of water on the reefs in the Camp Perry Firing Range," he noted. "There are big humps, little humps and everything in between. The islands can also be very good. North Bass Island is great. Rattlesnake Island is a smaller island that produces a lot of bass as well."

Because the prevailing winds tend to be from the north and west at this time of year, Estep concentrates his early season smallmouth efforts on the more protected southern sides of reefs and islands at this time.

"I like to pull up next to those four- to seven-foot flats on the southern sides of these structures and start throwing," he said. "And when I find out what exact depth

the fish are holding in, typically they will be at that same depth during that particular day."

EARLY SPRING LAKE ERIE TACTICS
Because Lake Erie smallmouth bass occupy a range of depths and display various levels of aggressiveness, anglers willing to try a list of presentation options tend to fare best.

When working the shallow flats of the central basin, Dave Lehman often starts off with a suspending jerkbait like a Lucky Craft 100 series Pointer or XCalibur Xs4 Stickbait.

In the cold water of early spring, Lehman works the bait slowly, imparting short twitches and lengthy pauses. He expects most of the hits to occur when the bait is stationary, so he will keep the line somewhat tight to detect these light hits.

When the winds are calm, Lehman uses the bow-mount trolling motor to slowly work along the edge of the flat, holding the boat off the deep edge of the structure while casting up on the flat. If there is a light wind from the east or west a good option is to cast the flat while the boat is pushed by the wind, making minor adjustments with the trolling motor to keep the correct distance from the edge of the flat.

Interestingly, when the wind whips up making it too rough to have a good feel for a cast jerkbait, it's possible to conduct a drift over the flat, trailing the jerkbait behind the drifting boat, imparting the occasional twitch to the lure. Lehman has taken smallmouths over depths of up to 15 feet while trailing jerkbaits this way.

Another good shallow-water option is a three- or four-inch grub, such as Venom's Galida's Grubz and Yum's Muy Grande Grub. Rig it on an 1/8- or 3/16-ounce jig head and slowly swim it over the rocks.

Brandon Estep prefers to use a bottom bait when working the shallow zones of western basin reef and island edges. At this time of year he likes a finesse-style tube like Warrior Bait's Teaser Tube, fished on a 1/4-ounce insert-style jig head. The use of the fairly heavy jig head (for the shallow depths) allows him to stay in close contact with the bait, even with some wind and wave action. When the bass aren't responding to the tube, he switches to a small worm like Warrior's Spear, fishing it weightless, so it sinks down slowly to the bass.

In mid-range to deeper areas, Lehman fishes a tube jig on a jig head, or a drop-shot rig with an offering such as a Berkeley Gulp Alive minnow. If it's calm, he makes short pitch casts. If it's a bit bumpy, he hovers the boat over the structure and fishes vertically.

A final ploy of Lehman's -- one he often employs when fishing deep humps in 35 or so feet of water -- is the jigging spoon. Using a 1/2-ounce Hopkins-style spoon, he works it close to the bottom, allowing it to settle on the bottom at frequent intervals.

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