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Big Water, Ample Hunting & Fishing Options on Lake Erie

Lake Erie and its onshore marshes offer potential for big smallies and wondrous waterfowling.

Big Water, Ample Hunting & Fishing Options on Lake Erie

Photo by M.D. Johnson

There's no denying that Lake Erie and walleyes are inextricably linked. In many angling circles, the big lake on Ohio's north coast is dubbed the walleye capital of the world. Its unparalleled walleye fishing aside, Erie offers two other great fall opportunities: smallmouth bass fishing and duck hunting.

These pursuits aren't often linked, but whether one’s interest lies with hard-fighting bronzebacks or decoying puddle ducks—or both— the lakeshore can provide plenty of memorable adventures. So let’s examine a handful of duck hunting options around the Buckeye State’s northwestern corner and take a look at what bass anglers might expect as they hit the water.

WESTERN BASIN SMALLIES

Stationed at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Division of Wildlife office in Sandusky, Travis Hartman first served the sportsmen and -women of the state as a fisheries biologist from 2003 to 2016. Today he’s the program administrator overseeing all the fisheries work done on Lake Erie. As such, how would he describe Erie’s fall smallmouth fishery?

"Exceptional," he says without hesitation. "Obviously, as a Great Lake, Erie is large, but there's lots of habitat there. And lots of opportunities. Right now, there's great trophy [smallmouth] potential, but there's also the numbers. If an angler has any experience with or knowledge of smallmouths, there's an awfully good chance he or she can go out and catch some big ones."


Hartman went on to say that Erie's smallmouth population peaked in the 1990s, at least in the Ohio portion of the big lake. That timeframe, he says, is the proverbial standard by which everyone judges the fishery. From 2000 through roughly 2010, smallie numbers dropped a bit.


"Now we're somewhere in between," he says. "We're seeing young fish come into the population, and the trophy potential is still real. We're in a pretty good place [now]."

LakeErie
While Lake Erie produces good numbers of fall smallmouths, the chance for a whopper is very real, as well. (Photo by M.D. Johnson)

WHERE AND HOW

Lake Erie has 871 miles of shoreline, 313 of which serve as the Buckeye State's north coast. Piers. Rockpiles. Island edges. Offshore humps. Where's an angler to begin?

"In my mind, it's more of a baitfish connection than it is habitat," Hartman says. "You have fish feeding for winter, you have cooling water and you have shad and shiners schooling up. In the fall, it's more important to find bait on your sonar than it is [to find] a specific bottom type."

However, there are a handful of traditional smallmouth haunts that can pay off for anglers if they can locate the bait around them:


Kelley's Island: The eastern shore of Kelley's Island, Hartman says, "provides structure all up and down the shoreline." In the southern portion of that shoreline, Airport Reef can be a great area, as can the whole of that eastern edge.

"Anywhere you find rock or a sharp drop-off can be good," Hartman says.

West Reef: Immediately west of North Bass Island, West Reef is a "large area with humps and rocks, and a lot of unique structure," Hartman says. "It's not a spot, per se, but an area. A big area."

One of Hartman's favorite spots on the big lake, West Reef can run from 6 to 8 feet on top of the structure, but, as the biologist reiterates, "it's more important to find the bait than it is the structure."


Marblehead Lighthouse: A popular landmark for tourists and anglers alike, the waters off Marblehead Lighthouse can prove to be an excellent nearshore smallmouth fishery for those not wishing to venture too far away from terra firma.

Camp Perry Reef Complex: This huge reef complex is where Erie's walleye population spawns in March and April.

"Come September and October, a lot of those reefs in the Camp Perry area have lots of smallmouth on them," says Hartman. "If the [fall] walleye fishing isn't incredible, a lot of the charters will switch over to smallmouth fishing on those reefs."

This area includes the famed Niagara and Crib reefs, both very viable fall smallmouth options.

It's important to note that Camp Perry is an active training center, so be sure to always know where you are on the water and stay out of the marked danger zones. Being shelled while fishing is never a good thing.

According to Hartman, unless you find schooling shad with smallies really busting them up, the topwater bites of August and September usually give way to more standard fall fare on Lake Erie. He cites drop-shot rigs, jerkbaits, crankbaits and swimbaits as solid options—basically anything that looks, feels and sounds like a shad. On the drop-shot setups, he recommends soft plastics that imitate shad or the invasive gobies that predators like smallmouths and walleyes have come to love since their introduction to Erie via freighter ballast water in the 1990s.

LakeErie
One of the great things about hunting northern Ohio’s marshes is the opportunity for multi-species action in many areas. (Photo by M.D. Johnson)

MARSH MADNESS

Of course, another thing northwestern Ohio has going for it this time of year is some pretty phenomenal waterfowling action. Although much of the state has seen a reduction of its wetland areas, marshes stretching from Maumee Bay to Sandusky Bay offer quite a bit of prime real estate to resident and traveling hunters, alike.

Jim Schott, the current manager stationed at Pickerel Creek Wildlife Area (WA) and an avid waterfowler himself, has served with the DOW since 1996. In addition to Pickerel Creek, he also manages Willow Point, Resthaven and Pipe Creek wildlife areas—all premier waterfowl spots. Additionally, he points to other great nearby spots such as Mallard Club, Toussaint, Portage, Metzger, Magee and a number of private clubs.

While this stretch of northwestern Ohio yields plenty of home-grown mallards, wood ducks and Canada geese each season, the area isn't a major draw for migrators. However, Schott says, there is a substantial amount of waterfowl production to the north of the Sandusky Bay area, and some of those marshlands are very attractive first stops for birds migrating south.

"As soon as these birds cross Lake Erie, they hit these marshes here," Schott says. "And in the fall, as those birds head south, we have hunters standing here in those key areas."

GET IN THE GAME

Ohio's public waterfowling program is unique in that hunters have several different ways to access the various state-owned wetlands. Some are free to roam with no check-in or check-out required. Hunters simply choose an area, set up shop and hunt. Other procedures are a bit more involved, especially now with the global pandemic as a variable in almost all equations.

For example, due to the virus, the application process for many of Ohio's controlled hunts on excellent WMAs and national wildlife refuges, such as Ottawa, has changed radically. This year, all in-person draws have been eliminated. The DOW accepted computer applications back in July and successful applicants were notified in mid-August.

Obviously, this does little for hunters who haven't already been awarded slots and are looking to hunt right now. Luckily, many of these areas also offer walk-in opportunities that don't require a draw. Here are a few options.

Willow Point WA: Located in Erie and Sandusky counties, Willow Point (419-424-5000) encompasses some 650 acres of mixed wetlands adjoining Sandusky Bay. This means waterfowlers here have a chance not only at harvesting dabbling ducks, but, given the right weather (i.e. downright nasty) also divers such as canvasbacks, redheads and ringnecks. Schott says this area can be good for wood ducks early in the season and great for divers as the weather worsens later in the season.

Resthaven WA: According to Schott, this nearly 2,300-acre wildlife area (419-684-5049) shared, like Willow Point, by Erie and Sandusky counties, offers no controlled waterfowl hunting. The entire huntable portion is free to roam to waterfowlers seven days a week. The area offers mallard purists some shots, but Schott says the area's ample wooded spaces and ponds means it's primarily a wood duck shoot.

Pickerel Creek WA: To the south and west of Willow Point, the 3,200-acre Pickerel Creek Widlife Area (419-424-5000) is as popular a waterfowling venue as one will find in Ohio. Schott says the area offers both controlled and open hunting.

The section known as the Area Headquarters, he says, was assigned via computer draw earlier in the summer. Those spots have already been awarded for the season. For the three "opening days"—the September teal opener on Sept. 5, the big duck opener on Oct. 10 and the first day of the second duck split on Nov. 7—drawings have already been held via computer. Drawings were also held for the youth season dates of Oct. 3 and 4. Apart from these exceptions, Pickerel Creek WA is otherwise open to hunters during the season.

To the west of Willow Point, Resthaven and Pickerel Creek, Lucas County's Mallard Club Marsh WA covers 400 acres along the shores of Maumee Bay. Like Willow Point, it provides gunning for both dabblers and divers.

Farther east of Mallard Club, Metzger Marsh WA provides an additional 550 acres of first-come-first-served opportunity.

Hopefully, 2021 will see a return to normalcy and the return of traditional drawing methods. In the meantime, waterfowl hunters looking to get after it can explore some of the free-to-roam areas mentioned here.

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