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4 Seasons of Bucket-List Fishing on Lake Erie

Walleyes in the spring, smallies all summer, fall steelheads, yellow perch on ice.

4 Seasons of Bucket-List Fishing on Lake Erie

Lake Erie is well-known for its excellent walleye fishing. (Photo courtesy of Powderhook)

It's no secret that the walleye fishing at Lake Erie is as good as it gets, and because of that, the fishery is a lifetime angling goal for many as written stories, videos, and angler testimonies keep showing.

But there’s far more to Lake Erie than the exceptional walleye fishing. It’s a case of bucket-list fishing opportunities multiplied several times over. Thanks to a wide variety of species found in the big water body along Ohio’s fabled shoreline, there’s little doubt that Lake Erie fishing is the adventure of a lifetime, a bucket list within a bucket list.

Spring Walleyes

college of Lake Erie walleye
Walleye fishing can get hectic on Lake Erie. (Photos courtesy of Powderhook)

If you’re an angler, then you might know that Port Clinton is often referred to as the "Walleye Capital of the World." But that’s not just an enthusiastic slogan from the local chamber of commerce, or a pie-in-the-sky wish for something to be true. When the stats from the Ohio Department of Natural Resource Division of Wildlife are considered, there’s little doubt that all of the fuss about Erie’s walleye fishery is based on facts.

In its "Status of the Lake Erie Walleye Fishery in 2022" report, ODNR-DOW biologists estimated an amazing 82 million adult walleye in the previous year. And since the 2021 hatch was successful in the western, central and eastern basins—record-breaking good, in fact—and the realization that five of the past eight walleye hatches have been above average to exceptional, and it's hard not to start planning a Lake Erie walleye adventure right now.

But hatches are one thing, catching is something else. And according to the DOW, the 2022 adult walleye population is within the top 20-percent over the past three decades and comparable to the legendary fishing experienced back in the 1980s, when the lake became a household name among walleye anglers. Add in strong hatches in previous seasons, and anglers should be able to target both quantity and quality of walleyes for many years to come.

In fact, in 2021, the Ohio Division of Wildlife says that the walleye harvest per hour figure was the fifth-highest on record, so let the good times keep rolling on this famous walleye water.

While the walleye fishing at Erie can be good at various times throughout the year, many anglers love to target the pre-spawn and early spawning portion of the spring months. The reasons are simple enough to understand, because as winter gives way to spring, the air temperature and water temperature both start to rise.

That draws anglers, as well as putting walleye into motion, fish that have spent the winter being couch potatoes that were not moving much and stockpiling the piscatorial groceries, according to author Keith Jackson.

Lake Erie walleye
Spring is a great time to hook a large Lake Erie walleye. (Photo courtesy of Powderhook)

But come spring, anglers can find walleyes moving toward a variety of areas, from the late-season wintering grounds to the staging areas they are moving through, and eventually, to the spawning grounds in rivers and along offshore reefs. As writer Mike Gnatkowski points out, there’s no shortage of spawning options for walleye in the western basin of Lake Erie, including the Detroit, Sandusky, and Maumee rivers, as well as offshore reefs like the huge Camp Perry Firing Range reef complex.

While Lake Erie is world-class good, it’s also world-class big, so you’ll want to do your homework before heading in the direction of the “Walleye Capital of the World.” One of the best ways to plan a trip at Lake Erie is to explore the trip-planning resource put together by Powderhook, which can provide a single location to find answers to pertinent questions, to provide planning assistance, and to even get your license before heading to the water.

a toothy walleye
Hungry walleyes await anglers at Lake Erie. (Photo courtesy of Powderhook)

If you're a seasoned walleye angler and have some experience on big waters, then Erie presents great do-it-yourself opportunities, both from the shoreline and from your own boat. If you’re going to fish Erie on your own, make sure that you have the right tackle and know how to find these great-tasting, hard-fighting fish.

But if you're not as confident in your walleye abilities, then consider hiring a guide in either a tournament-style fishing rig or a six-pack style charter rig who can help navigate the tricky conditions of spring and the challenge of finding walleyes ready and willing to bite.


Summer Smallmouths

closeup of smallmouth bass
Lake Erie smallmouth bass average three pounds. (File photo)

If Erie delivers world-class walleye action, then the big water’s smallmouth bass fishing is pretty stellar too. To see how good the lake has historically fished for smallmouths, take a look at professional fishing tournaments like the July 31-Aug. 3, 2008 visit from the Bassmaster Elite Series pros.

Staged in Erie’s eastern waters, Kotaro Kiriyama won with a four-day total of 93 pounds, 6 ounces while the late Aaron Martens was the runner up at 85-1. Edwin Evers was third at 84-8 and legendary bass anglers John Murray, Mike Iaconelli, Todd Faircloth, Gary Klein, Shaw Grigsby were among those in the Top 10.

More recently, Alabama pro Justin Lucas won the Tackle Warehouse Pro Circuit derby at Lake Erie in July 2020, when he brought in a four-day total of 20 smallmouth bass weighing 79 pounds, 2 ounces. Amazingly, that gave Lucas his second win of that season—by a single-ounce over runner-up Jacob Wheeler.

"I just love fishing for smallmouth and I always feel like I should be able to put myself in a good position in any four-day smallmouth tournament," Lucas said after his win.

Lucas also noted in a BassFan article that Erie stands out for smallmouth bass, even in a short window of fishing opportunity. He found that out on the derby’s final day when the wind finally died down and allowed him to access a key fishing spot. "I got to that area at 10 o'clock and between then and 1 it was pretty good," said Lucas, who caught eight keeper-sized fish in the location. "Everything I was catching seemed to be close to four pounds."

But you don’t have to be a bass pro headed for the Hall of Fame to sample some of Erie’s best smallmouth bass action. According to the Ohio Division of Wildlife, smallmouth bass fishing in 2021 remained consistent and on par with results in recent years as the Lake Erie fishery continues to do well. Biologists indicate that the fishery continues to be a catch-and-release destination with angler harvest and catch rates being 0.03 and 0.60 fish per hour, with some 95 percent of the smallmouths being released. When anglers did keep a smallmouth for the dinner table, the average size in 2021 was 16.4 inches long with a weight of 3.1 pounds, according to the state agency.

It's worth noting that for all of the smallmouth bass talk, fisheries biologists note that the Lake Erie largemouth fishing was also quite strong in 2021. According to the same report, the average length of harvested largemouth bass that year was 16.5 inches with an average weight of 2.6 pounds.

Fall Steelhead

Lake Erie steelhead trout
Lake Erie steelhead trout. (Shutterstock image)

With the arrival of fall colors and cooler weather, many people begin to think about the exceptional hunting opportunities found across Ohio. And for those who enjoy hunting, from upland birds like ruffed grouse and woodcock, to waterfowl like Canada geese and mallards to the world-class whitetail bucks that call Ohio home, there's loads of opportunity for some cast-and-blast outdoors adventures in the Lake Erie region each fall.

On the fishing side of the fall equation are notable opportunities for walleye and smallmouth bass as they gorge themselves on forage fish to build up their fat reserves for the coming winter. But there's another great fishing opportunity for anglers visiting the region in the autumn, and that's casting a lure or a fly at the bright silver steelhead as they make spawning runs into Great Lakes tributaries.

While some indicate that Great Lakes steelhead numbers aren't as robust as they once were, they are stable in Ohio since state officials maintain the Lake Erie steelhead trout fishery by stocking six- to nine-inch fish in the Vermillion, Rocky, Chagrin, and Grand rivers and the Conneaut Creek area.

How many steelhead are stocked each year? Well, in 2021, Ohio hatchery personnel raised and stocked 499,000 steelhead that were a mix of Shasta and Fish Lake strains. Similar numbers were targeted for stocking efforts last year as biologists hoped to put in place around 450,000 steelhead. While steelhead aren’t easy to catch anywhere, they can present anglers in the Lake Erie region a superb trophy-angling opportunity, since state biologists note that after two summers, this strain of steelhead trout can average 25 inches in length and up to seven pounds or more.

Winter Yellow Perch

yellow perch ice fishing
Try your luck at consistently good ice fishing for yellow perch at Lake Erie. (File photo)

When winter conditions allow, there are some great ice-fishing opportunities after Erie freezes. And when it’s hardwater season, there are few better things to do than look for a limit of yellow perch for the dinner table, another popular year-round target at Erie.

While angler success and hours targeting yellow perch have been down recently, there was a slight uptick in 2021. Plus, Ohio Division of Wildlife officials report that yellow perch catches have been near or above average for eight years in the region, signaling consistent fishing opportunities across multiple year classes of the species.

And when the snow is falling, the wind is blowing, and the ice fishing shanty is filled with good friends enjoying time outdoors in the piscatorial rich country of Lake Erie, there are few better ways to spend a winter day.

Come to think of it, no matter what time of the year it is and what the weather may be, there is no better way to spend a day than enjoying the piscatorial riches found in Lake Erie country.

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