Here’s how to unlock the best fishing that Lake Erie has to offer this summer.
Ohio anglers are fortunate to have exceptional fishing for a variety of species on their northern doorstep. Few places offer the level of sport for smallmouth bass, walleye and yellow perch as does Lake Erie, and things are looking great for the coming summer season.
Recently I spoke with Travis Hartman, Lake Erie Program Administrator for the Ohio Division of Wildlife. In addition to his work as a fisheries biologist, Hartman is also an avid angler, familiar with the lake from that perspective as well.
It’s a return to the good old days of walleye fishing on Erie, with plenty of fish well distributed throughout the lake. This means that good walleye fishing should be available this summer — including fish of various sizes — ones willing to respond to a variety of walleye tactics.
“We are very fortunate to have had good hatch success and good recruitment lately,” reported Hartman. “The 2015-year class is a really big one. Although time will tell, I think it’s comparable to the 2003-year class. What’s interesting is that when we get those exceptionally big year classes like ’03 and ’15 you get them lake-wide. So, in years when we don’t have as good of recruitment we tend to only have young fish in the west. Those fish don’t migrate until they reach adult age. With these large year classes, we get contributions lake-wide, from walleyes that spawn in places other than the west. Last year, in Fairport, Ashtabula, Conneaut, anglers casting from shore were catching two-year old walleye. So instead of having only young fish in the west, and older, migrating walleyes in the central basin, we had young fish everywhere. Our catch rates were as high in Ohio in 2017, honestly, as high as we’ve ever seen in a creel survey.”
Anglers can also expect most of their hook-ups to result in fish-in-the-box, as few short walleyes should be experienced. Fish grow fast in food-rich Erie.
“Most of the 2015 walleye were legal or very close to legal by the end of the 2017 season,” Hartman noted. “The proportion of legal compared to short fish this season will be extremely high. The early assessment of the 2017-year class of walleye is positive, so there will be yearling walleye in the system in 2018, but the number of 3- and 4-year-old fish combined should distinctly dwarf the number of yearling fish, and yearlings don’t tend to big enough to hit most common walleye baits.”
In addition to the younger fish, anglers will still have a good shot at putting larger, older walleyes in the boat.
“We still have trophies from ’03,” Hartman said. “And decent year classes from ’07 and ’10. There are plenty of bigger, older, migratory fish that you can follow all year and catch. And now we have these great young year classes which will be available in the west, as well as the central basin from what we saw last year.”
Walleye Locations And Tactics
Typically, staying on Erie walleyes throughout the summer months means being mobile, keeping in tune with the migratory patterns that see adult fish move from west to east throughout the summer months. That’s certainly still an option, just not quite as much of a necessity. With such an abundance of walleye in the system this year, there will be more options. And walleyes will be available to a greater number of anglers, including ones who might not usually fish for them.
“Early summer is a great time because you have the adult fish that have completed spawning and have already starting to migrate east,” said Hartman. “So, you can follow the migration of the big fish.”
Hartman said that specific to the western basin, June can be really good around the island area (such as Kelleys Island). And, he added, depending on the weather and how quickly things warm up, June fishing can also be incredible in places like Vermillion, Huron, Lorain and Avon.
“So, as those fish migrate east the central basin fishery starts to fire up too. Now, with these young year classes, I honestly feel you can pull out of any port in June, and depending on the migration might catch big fish, but (wherever you fish you will) catch plenty of the younger fish that seem to be everywhere right now.”
In the shallower waters of the western basin, June walleyes can be taken on a variety of presentations, including trolled or drifted ’crawler harnesses and long-line-trolled minnow-shaped crankbaits. In the deeper waters of the central basin, flutter spoons fished behind Dipsey Diver directional set ups are a top offering, particularly when fishing farther off shore. But this isn’t necessary when targeting younger fish.
“Those younger fish are much closer to shore in 20 to 40 feet of water,” Hartman explained. “You didn’t need to make the run out to 70 feet where those adult migrators hang out. They are definitely more accessible. And you even have the option to cast for them, which you normally don’t have in the central basin.”
Long-line trolling a deep-diving crankbait like Rapala’s Deep Taildancer is a good option for working the 20- to 40-foot depths that Hartman referred to.
As big was walleyes get, and as hard as smallmouth fight, it’s the tasty fillets of the yellow perch that get many anglers’ adrenaline flowing. The news is good, particularly for anglers that target the western portion of the lake.
“With yellow perch, it changes from year to year,” Hartman reported. “We went through decades where central basin fishing was really strong, high numbers of fish and big fish also. But recently, we’ve seen better recruitment in the west. So right now, the better yellow perch fishing in Ohio is in the western basin.”
Hartman said this trend has been building for a few years now, as in levels of reproduction and survival rates of these hatches have favored western basin waters.
“We’ve had consistent recruitment for five years now,” he noted. “We’re benefitting from it, as we’re seeing some of the highest catch rates as we’ve seen in decades. And now, suddenly, it’s a really good size grade. We’re seeing big fish in the west also.
Hartman also mentioned that the winter of 2017 also provided some good ice fishing for yellow perch, something that had not happened in three years due to a lack of ice.
“In the past you’d catch some incidental perch, especially around the islands when you were fishing for walleyes, maybe even ten or 15. But last winter we saw a lot of perch taken by ice anglers targeting walleyes.”
Locations And Tactics
Hartman says that since the walleye fishing is so good in the western basin in June, not as many people target perch. But that’s not a reflection on the perch fishing, which can be as productive at this time, as he’s found.
“I fish all the historical areas,” he noted. “East of Kelleys Island and north of North Bass Island are always popular, especially as the water gets warmer and the fish move deeper. If it’s a cool spring and early summer, then near-shore areas like Marblehead Lighthouse, and just west of Catawba State Park at the Catawba green navigational buoy can be good.”
Harman notes that the most traditional method is using a perch spreader — a spreader rig with two separate snells and single hooks. Baiting is with emerald shiners if they are available, goldens if they are not, and dropping the heavily weighted rig down to the bottom.
“Personally, I’ve had a lot of success using a drop shot rig,” he noted. “The reason I like using a drop shot is that you can feel so much more. With a spreader you have a big wire spreader with heavy snells and hooks. You don’t feel a lot with a spreader. With a drop shot rig, if you use braided line and a monofilament drop shot leader, you’ve got a weight right on the end of the line that you can keep in contact with the bottom. There are times I literally feel the shiners kicking around before you get the hit. You feel everything that happens.”
Harman says that there’s a lot of concern among anglers when emerald shiners are not available, a general consensus that “if I have emerald shiners, I have a better chance” attitude. But what he’s seen is, if you find active perch, if you learn what active perch look like on your sonar, it doesn’t matter which species of shiner you put in front of them. They will eat it. Even soft plastics.
His approach also differs when it comes to finding perch. He spot-hops much more when perch fishing than when walleye fishing. Always looking for active perch, using his sonar unit and even an underwater camera at times to verify what he sees on his onboard electronics.
“It’s kind of a tradition to pull out of the harbor and look for perch boats, and that can certainly take you to the hottest bites at times,” he said. “But if I pull up on a pack, and don’t see what I want to see on my sonar, I’m not afraid to go looking. You’re wasting time if you’re over water that doesn’t have perch.”
The ever-changing aquatic landscape of Erie has affected the lake’s smallmouth bass fishery, as factors such as possible nest predation by the invasive round goby are in play. But the brown bass population is still well worthy of angler attention, and seems to be on the increase.
“I’ve been here since ’03, and it’s been interesting to see the changes in our smallmouth bass fishery,” Hartman said. “We still have incredible smallmouth bass fishing. We’ve seen an increase in catch rates over the last four or five years. So, we have trophy fish, and we are seeing evidence of higher numbers of bass due to the higher catch rates in our creel surveys.”
The creel surveys that Hartman referred to ask, among other things, about the release of bass, smaller (but legal) bass included. These numbers have been on the increase.
“Smallmouth bass are harder for us to assess. We don’t get them in our open water trawls. Historically, we just don’t have the feel for smallmouth bass that we do for walleye and yellow perch. But we are seeing indicators that we are getting some recruitment, better population structures as far as ages and sizes. We still have our trophies, we’re seeing more young fish, so I think we’re heading in a positive direction.”
Smallmouth Bass Locations And Tactics
“June is peak to late spawning for smallmouth bass,” Hartman explained. “Normally, at that time of year, I’m going to start shallow, looking for cleaner, rocky areas, places that hold spawning or recently-spawning smallmouth bass. I’ll start with a jerkbait, fishing aggressively, and then move out deeper, going to a drop shot or deeper crankbait.”
The Bass Islands — aptly named — are obvious places to target in the western basin. Heading east into the Central Basin, Rubbles Reef near Huron is a productive, classic smallmouth bass hotspot. East of Huron the habitat becomes such that shoreline features — steep breaks that drop into deeper water — are more prominent, and are significant bass magnets. ■