Lake Erie fishing is one of the most significant angling options in both Pennsylvania and Ohio, summoning folks from far distances seeking its bountiful rewards.
From a fish population standpoint, all three premier species appear to be in good shape. Smallmouth numbers remain stable and provide the opportunity for not only high numbers of fish, but big ones as well.
Whether you launch from the shores of Pennsylvania or Ohio, you’ll have some great places to fish for smallmouth bass, walleyes and yellow perch.
Yellow perch and walleye populations are also fine, with several year classes present. Walleye production was especially strong in 2015, which was the strongest spawn since the record hatch of 2003.
Good levels of yellow perch reproduction have been recorded in recent years too, boding well for not only this year but future years as well. The rapidly developing largemouth bass fishery in the western basin’s near-shore areas adds another component to the bass picture.
In this article, we’ll cover some top places to fish for all three species in both states.
PENNSYLVANIA SMALLMOUTH HOTSPOTS
Pennsylvania’s share of Lake Erie provides two contrasting venues for springtime bass fishing: main-lake areas sandwiched in between Ohio and New York, and the 3,300 acres within Presque Isle Bay.
By May bass will be on the move, leaving the deeper main-lake sanctuaries in favor of shallower zones where they will eventually spawn. The spawn also drives the annual influx of brown bass into Presque Isle Bay. Typically, the first fish show up in April. By the end of June most smallmouth will have returned to the big lake, though the bay has a good resident largemouth population.
The waters of Lake Erie proper warm slowly. Often, it’s mid-June before main lake brown bass spawn. Since main lake fish are in a state of transition during the spring, it’s important to fish a variety of depths.
Key areas within Presque Isle Bay include the edge of the shipping channel that runs from the bay’s mouth (located at its eastern end) to the Port of Erie. Here flats 6 to 8 feet deep rapidly drop into the 30-plus-foot depths. A tube jig, hair jig, or soft swimbait, worked down the side of this edge, is often productive. Jigs tossed up on the flat, as well as suspending jerkbaits, often excel when targeting the adjacent shallow flat.
The sandy flats that extend to both the east and west of Marina Bay (a large bay within Presque Isle Bay) often hold bass, which wait along the edge of the emerging weeds to ambush baitfish.
Main-lake anglers should be prepared to work depths from 30 feet to 5 feet. Rocky humps that rise from the deeper basin hold fish. Tube jigs, drop-shot rigs with soft plastic bodies (ones that mimic round gobies excel), jigging spoons and blade baits can all work when working these deeper ledges. The areas out from Shades Beach and North East feature many deeper humps and are most popular with smallmouth anglers. Both are west of the City of Erie. The “Dumping Ground” is found a relative short distance to the northeast of Presque Isle Bay and is popular with anglers launching from this area. It shows up on most electronic mapping programs.
Shallow zones will also hold bass, particularly flats that extend out from incoming streams. Suspending jerkbaits are often tops here, as well as soft swimbaits or swimming grubs. Many of the better shallow flats are west of Presque Isle Bay.
Presque Isle Bay gets crowded now. A popular strategy is to be prepared to fish the bay, but venture out into the lake if the winds are light. The best wind direction includes the word “south” in it, and is light.
On both Presque Isle Bay and Lake Erie, from mid-April until mid-June, only one smallmouth bass of at least 20 inches can be creeled. Check your 2017 Rules and Regulations book for the exact dates.
OHIO SMALLMOUTH HOTSPOTS
Like Pennsylvania, Ohio features varying habitats that hold springtime smallmouth bass, as provided by both the western and central basins. The western basin, which stretches from the mouth of the Detroit River east to the Vermillion River region, is shallow and warms quickly. This area is rich in islands and reefs, many of which attract springtime smallies.
Springtime bass hotspots in the western basin include the Bass Islands complex and well as Kelleys Island. The Reef complex to the west of the islands — near Camp Perry — holds May bass. Try a variety of depths when fishing near the reefs to determine the depth the bass are using that day. Main lake waters off Catawba and Marblehead are good bass areas, as is Sandusky Bay.
The fishing in the central basin is quite like that of Pennsylvania waters, i.e. targeting humps and ridges that collect smallies. Popular areas include Ruggles Reef, offshore and nearshore areas out from Vermillion, Fairport, Ashtabula and Conneaut. The artificial reefs near Cleveland are also good springtime brown bass spots.
Ohio waters have a catch-and-release season on Lake Erie that runs through late June. Bass can be targeted, but none can be kept. Last year the C&R ran from May 1 through June 24. Check your current regulations book for the exact dates this season.
PENNSYLVANIA WALLEYE HOTSPOTS
The most consistent walleye fishing within Pennsylvania’s share of Lake Erie is usually from mid-summer into early fall, when schools of migrating walleyes from the western basin are found in these waters. But there are resident populations of walleyes, plus early migrants, which increases the chances of catching walleyes in Pennsylvania during May.
The shallow flats near Lake Erie tributaries west of the city, namely Elk Creek and Walnut Creek, traditionally gather up local walleyes in May. Folks trolling these areas, particularly at night, often score on walleyes, including some big ones. Shore anglers casting large minnowbaits out into the main lake also catch fish. The shore fishing can be crowded, and the bite inconsistent, but the chance exists for a wallhanger.
Regarding migratory walleyes, it’s often the smaller walleyes that show up first in Pennsylvania waters. This can happen in May. This pattern is likely to be more pronounced this year than most, because there are a couple good year classes of younger fish. The bite is often close to shore – within a mile or so. The best areas, again, tend to be the ones to the west of the city. More specifically, between the Ohio line and the mouth of Walnut Creek.
Since these fish are in relatively shallow water — around 30 feet — it’s often possible to catch them without employing devices needed out the 50- to 60-foot depths. Simply long-lining deep diving crankbaits like the Rapala Deep Tail Dancer, or a Reef Runner, will often get the bait deep enough to catch walleyes. I’ve caught plenty running a Tail Dancer back about 150 feet on thin, braided line. Erie walleyes tend to suspend off the bottom, particularly during periods of stable weather.
Pennsylvania’s walleye season on Lake Erie begins in early May. The minimum size is 15 inches. The daily limit is set each spring by mid-April, so watch for news releases for this year’s creel limit.
The most consistent walleye fishing in Ohio’s portion of Lake Erie, in May, will likely be in the western basin. Typically, once the walleye spawn is complete the fish will scatter out from the shallows and feed heavily in the nearby deeper basins that run 20 to 25 feet deep.
In general, basins to the east of the island/reef complexes and river systems (Detroit and Maumee) gather many of the spawning walleyes and are prime spots from late April through May. These are the areas off Marblehead and Catawba.
Western basin walleyes can be scattered, so a “cover-the-water” approach is best. This can be done by either trolling or drifting. Sometimes the weather of the day will dictate which.
Trolled crankbaits that reach depths of 15 to 20 feet are often productive. Walleyes will suspend, so it pays to cover different zones. The fish will rise to a lure, but rarely dive for one. Minnow-shaped lures like Rapalas, Storm Thundersticks and Smithwick Rogues produce. Add weight 18 inches in front of the lure to get them down. Split shot and rubber core sinkers both work.
Drift fishing also works well. Bottom bouncer sinkers used in concert with ‘crawler harnesses excel, especially for bottom-oriented walleyes.
Like Pennsylvania, Ohio is part of a multi-state/province group that decides annual limits on walleyes and perch each spring. Be alert for this year’s limits, which will be set by now. They can vary from western and central basins as well.
PENNSYLVANIA YELLOW PERCH
Like Erie walleyes, the heaviest angler attention for perch in Pennsylvania waters happens later in the year, once the water warms up. But this doesn’t mean anglers don’t target perch. They do, but it can be a hit-or-miss affair.
Both Presque Isle Bay and the main lake can provide perch action. Shore anglers on the bay often do well fishing the piers of at the mouth of Marina Bay and the walls of the channel leading out from the bay into the main lake. Getting to the Marina Bay requires a drive out onto the peninsula (Presque Isle State Park). This is also true of the north wall of the channel. The south wall is accessed from the mainland.
Yellow perch gang up in schools, and tend to attract plenty of angler attention. The word spreads quickly when perch schools are located, particularly with today’s social media. A “parking lot” of anchored boats is indicative of a school of biting perch. Don’t crowd other boats, but don’t be shy either. Perch fishing is done directly under the boat, typically with enough weight to get down to the bottom, and a small shiner on a hook (or hooks with a spreader rig).
May anglers often get into yellow perch just outside the bay, off the lighthouse, in depths ranging from 40 to 50 feet.
There are many baits shops in the Erie area, both on the drive out onto the peninsula, and west and east of the city. These folks often have the latest word on the perch bite. Since you’ll likely need to stop by to pick up a bucket of minnows, ask about where the perch are biting.
OHIO YELLOW PERCH
The same areas that produce walleyes in the western basin tend to do so for yellow perch as well. In fact, perch often make the day when the walleyes are tight lipped. As such, it’s wise to carry a supply of minnows along even on a walleye trip, and be willing to join the perch pack when things are slow.
In central basin waters, Geneva, Ashtabula and Conneaut are all popular ports when the perch are biting. Expect the fish to be in 30 to 50 feet of water, and attracting plenty of attention from fishermen when they are schooled and biting.