Lake Erie's Summertime Smallmouth Bass
This Great Lake offers prime habitat for smallmouths. Here's where to catch them.
From the relatively shallow island areas of the Western Basin to the deeper rocky ridges and humps of the Eastern Basin, Ohio’s share of Lake Erie offers prime habitat for smallmouth bass.
And the fish respond by being present in both numbers and size.
Smallmouth bass are available during much of the open water season. But it’s the summer months that provide the most stability in terms of weather, an important factor when considering a lake that has the potential to turn nasty frighteningly fast.
For anglers accustomed to fishing inland lakes, by the time June rolls around the annual spawn is complete. This isn’t necessarily the case on Lake Erie, which warms slower, a factor that affects early summer fishing.
“In general, in early to mid-June smallmouth bass will be shallow, either spawning or wrapping up spawning, “explained Travis Hartman. Hartman is the Ohio DNR’s Division of Wildlife Lake Erie Program Administrator. He is also an avid Lake Erie angler that pursues its many species on a regular basis. “Typically, by July the spawn will be over, and the fish will start moving deeper.”
SMALLMOUTH BASS LOCATIONS
Within the extensive cluster of islands sprinkled throughout the Western Basin, several include the moniker “bass” within their names. And for good reason. The rocky points and shoals associated with them furnish ideal smallmouth bass habitat, offering both spawning substrate and a buffet of forage that includes crawfish, insects and minnows. Understandably it was the first area Hartman suggested when queried on areas to target for summertime bronzebacks.
“I like South Bass Island,” Hartman noted. “South Bass Island sits southwest to northeast. That northeast tip, where there’s shallow water and then that small island – Buckeye Island – can be excellent. Right across the channel is Ballast Island. That whole area features a lot of rocky, shallow area. It’s a big area.”
South Bass Island sits due north of Catawba Island (which is actually shoreline-connected). Anglers will find boat ramps on Catawba. South Bass Island is developed, so you also have the option to secure lodged there in the case of a multi-day trip. Put-in-Bay is where most of the commerce is located. There is also a ferry service that runs between Catawba Island and Put-in-Bay.
As Hartman said, one of the key areas associated with South Bass Island is the long, extended shoal that juts out from the northeast tip of the island. This shoal connects with Buckeye Reef and then transitions into a deeper channel that separates it from Ballast Island. Across the channel, a long rounded, smallmouth-gathering point comes off the south end of Ballast Island. Channel edges are marked with navigation buoys.
A word of caution is appropriate here: The same rocky areas that attract smallmouth bass also pose a navigational hazard. Some of these points get extremely shallow rather quickly, such as the Ballast Island point. Keep a sharp eye on the depth finder and be aware of any wind wanting to blow you into the trouble zone. These areas are also productive due to current, which funnels though the passages surrounding the islands. But be prepared for heavier current and waves within these passages when the wind picks up.
“Beyond that North Bass Island can be good,” Hartman continued. “Also, the north bay and eastern shore of Kelleys Island. It seems like with Kelleys the north bay is exceptionally good during the spawn, but not so popular post spawn. Also, along the east side you have Airport Reef and that long northeast tip and all the current and rocks associated with it.”
A key area to explore along North Bass Island is the narrow point that extends into the lake from the southeastern tip. There is a more rounded point at the southwestern corner. The entire southern shoreline shallows of North Bass Island – in between the mentioned points – has the turns and inside cuts that can hold summertime smallies, particularly early in the season.
As Harman mentioned, on Kelleys Island look to the eastern side of the island to find the best smallmouth cover. This includes the long narrow point that runs to the northeast. Its tip is marked with a green can buoy. Along the same general heading sits Kelleys Island Shoal, a submerged shoal marked on its western side with a green can buoy.
Airport Reef sits along the eastern side of Kelleys Island. This entire area is rich with irregular contours that provide the character to hold smallmouth bass not only early in the summer, but well into the warmer months as well.
Perhaps due to the dramatic increase in the largemouth bass fishery, which utilizes the near-shore main lake area, Hartman said he sees little smallmouth presence associated with this zone in recent years.
“It seems like most of the smallmouth action, at least early in the summer, takes place out on the island areas,” he noted. “I can recall just six years ago catching both largemouth and smallmouth in those areas. But now, it’s mostly all largemouths.”
Hartman surmises that the Western Basin’s largemouth bass fishery, in early spring, seeks out the warmest water in which to spawn. This would be in harbor areas, including the extensive estuary provided by Sandusky Bay. As the main lake warms many of these same fish move out to occupy near-shore areas of the main lake. He said an increase in aquatic vegetation and overall warming water temperatures are likely driving the upswing in green bass numbers. The Western Basin’s largemouth bass fishery includes plenty of quality-sized bass. If wind or unstable weather makes venturing out to the island areas unsafe, one could do much worse than to target largemouths.
One near-shore area that Hartman did point to for Western Basin smallies is the area around Ruggles Reef. This is found to the east of Huron. Concentrate your efforts in the area to the east of Huron Bay.
Later in the summer the extensive reef areas that exist to the west of the islands become smallmouth magnets. Hartman said is not uncommon for walleye charters to stop by the reefs on the way in to catch some bass. He also noted that there are a few dedicated bass charters that target this area late summer.As one ventures to the east, into the deeper waters of the Central Basin, smallmouth bass habitat becomes a little less obvious. There are no islands sticking above the surface shouting out “fish here.” But Hartman said the basic premise holds true.
“Current, rock, substrate transitions are going to be good wherever you find them,” he noted. Within the Eastern Basin, he pointed to the many harbor areas that exist along this portion of the lake. This includes places such as Conneaut, Ashtabula and Geneva-on-the-Lake.
Extensive harbors guarded by breakwalls, like that found at Conneaut, can hold early summer smallies. In the cooler waters of the Central Basin smallmouth bass spawning activity can extend further into June. Since the water’s quite clear along near-shore areas actual spawning can take place in 10 to 15 feet of water, making this a prime zone to target at this time. The best areas often will be associated with rocky ridges that break quickly into deeper water. As the water warms, expect bass to still be relating to sharp breaks, just deeper ones. Whereas early summer efforts might target 10- to 20- foot depths, by mid to late summer it could be 25 to 40 feet that’sproviding the bites.
Hartman said Avon Point, a horseshoe-shaped point that lies midpoint between Vermillion and Cleveland, exemplifies a classic Central Basin structure that serves as a smallmouth bass magnet. Electronics play a big role in finding Central Basin smallmouth bass. Side imaging makes the search for rocky ridges much more efficient, as do detailed electronic charts showing bottom contours. Traditional sonar, down imaging and side imaging all play a role in spotting bass.
ERIE SMALLMOUTH TACTICS
When compared to bass fishing tactics in general, those needed to consistently take Lake Erie smallmouth bass are relatively simple.
Early in the summer, when one can expect bass to be shallow water (which on Lake Erie is roughly five to 15 feet), a great first choice is a suspending jerkbait like Rapala’s X-Rap or Ripstop minnow. Jerkbaits cover water quickly; the jerk/pause retrieve typically employed has a great triggering quality.
Make long casts over rocky shallows like those along Airport Reef alongside Kelleys Island. After a couple turns of the reel to get the bait subsurface impart a sharp rod twitch to activate the bait and get a bass’s attention, followed by a pause. Don’t be skimpy on the duration of the pause, as this is when most hits occur. Three or four seconds often triggers bigger fish than ones of just a second.
Soft swimbaits like a Keitech Swing Impact and Galidas Grubz rigged on a 3/16 or 1/4-ounce lead head jig is another good cover-the-water option and presents a different look that the stop-and-go of a jerkbait.
As one works deeper baits such as tubes and drop shot rigs come into play. A four-inch tube bait like Z-Man Fishing’s TubeZ is a Lake Erie smallmouth classic. Carry insert-style jigheads in 1/4, 3/8 and 1/2-ounce to cover the deep-to-shallow bases. Round gobies make up a big part of an Erie smallie’s diet, so consider color patterns that mimic this invasive critter. Instead of a standard insert head, some anglers use football heads, feeling the fat-head profile it creates better suggests the goby.
Drop-shot rigs also catch their share of Erie smallies and keeping the bait above any bottom-hugging algae that can gum up a tube as well as sharp zebra mussels that can compromise line strength. Goby and crawfish-like soft plastics produce, though finesse profiles like Jackall’s Cross Tail and Z-Man’s ShadZ work when the bite is tough.
Both tubes and drop shot rigs tend to work best via controlled drifts, where one uses the force of the wind to push the boat along while dragging the presentation along with just enough weight to keep it on the bottom.
A strong case can also be made for carrying along metal baits, both jigging spoons and blade baits. When bass are ignoring plastics they often respond to a vertically jigged spoon or blade baits. With both, impart a lift-drop-hold action to the lure. Again, a controlled drift is often the best way to present the lure and cover water, zeroing in on the most productive water as bite occur.