Catching Lake Erie's Lunker Smallmouths

Now is the perfect time to be on Lake Erie for smallmouth bass in the 5-pound class. Try these proven hotspots off the Ohio and Pennsylvania shores for rod-bending action this month.

by Mike Bleech

Lake Erie is a smallmouth bass angler's dream come true. This is the place to catch 5-pound smallmouths until your arms get sore, and maybe top the day with a 6- or 7-pound fish. And this kind of action takes place all along the southern shore of the lake, from the western basin east through Pennsylvania.

May is the best month for Lake Erie smallmouth fishing because the bass will be in relatively shallow water, and they tend to be aggressive during this pre-spawn period. The big lake warms slowly, but the shallow, near-shore water warms first. This warmer water stimulates action up and down the food chain, starting with plankton. Smallmouths invade the shallow water to feed heavily on shiners, smelts, shad, crayfish and, more recently, round gobies. In fact, studies have shown that the invasive gobies have become the major dietary item for Lake Erie smallmouths.

Jigs are generally the top lures for springtime smallmouth bass fishing on Lake Erie, where 'shallow' water might be deeper than the 'deep' water in smaller lakes. Other artificial lures spend too much time out of the fish-catching zone, but jigs get down fast and stay where the fish are.

Vertical jigging is the ultimate fishing method when smallmouths are in water more than about 20 feet deep. Keep your lures close to bottom. Jigging spoons, vibrating blades and various lead-head jigs can be productive.

In shallower, clear water, a boat might spook shoreline smallmouths. In this situation, casting jigs is usually more effective.

Photo by Dennis Schmidt

With all-metal jigs, spoons or vibrating blades, silver has traditionally been the best color. Various shades of brown have been productive lately, perhaps because of the shift in the smallmouths' diet to gobies, or perhaps because it resembles crayfish. Red-brown metal primer paint is excellent for doctoring metal jigs.

One major exception to lure choices occurs in some of the bays or harbors where springtime smallmouth action starts first. Water in these places often has more color. Fishing might take place in depths of less than 10 feet, where crankbaits or spinnerbaits can be very effective. If you use a spinnerbait, start with a single, silver Colorado blade. If you opt for a crankbait, start with a fire tiger pattern.

In Lake Erie, finding smallmouth bass is a matter of finding the right bottom structure.

Rocky rubble, a jumble of rocks of various sizes and shapes, is the best bottom type. Find a hump, a hole, or a dropoff in rocky rubble, and you will almost certainly find smallmouths. Another major smallmouth structure type is bedrock ledge. Bedrock flats rarely hold more than a few scattered smallmouths.

The bottom of the western basin is mostly vast expanses of silt and sand. You might find smallmouths over these bottom types, but the odds for success increase tremendously if you fish around the bedrock reefs and surrounding gravel bottoms. This type of structure is most common around the islands area that separates the western and central basins. Most smallmouth experts agree that Lake Erie's island area is the best of the best.

Port Clinton is a good starting point for exploring the Bass Islands area and the complex of reefs to the northwest. It can be reached by taking exits 6 or 7 from the Ohio Turnpike (I-80), or Route 2, which follows the lakeshore. This is a popular tourist destination, with numerous facilities for anglers.

Contact the Ottawa County Visitors Bureau, 109 Madison Street, Port Clinton, OH 43452; or call (800) 441-1271.

The eastern side of the islands area, including Kelleys Island and the nearby shoals, is north from the entrance to Sandusky Bay. Good smallmouth action can also be found near Marblehead and Marblehead Reef outside the bay, during periods of rough weather, or a bit earlier in the spring, inside the bay.

Route 2 provides access through Sandusky.

Information about boat launches and local services can be obtained from the Erie County Visitors Bureau, 4424 Milan Road, Suite A (U.S. Route 250), Sandusky, OH 44870, or call (800) 255-3743.

Silt covers most of the bottom of the central basin, which extends from the islands area eastward into Pennsylvania. Shale and rubble bottoms are scattered along the coast. One good spot is off the clay bluffs near Vermillion. Ruggles Reef is a popular smallmouth hotspot here.

Vermillion can be reached by taking Route 6 west from Cleveland. Boat ramps are available in the Vermillion River. Contact the Erie County Visitors Bureau for local information.

Smallmouth hotspots off the central basin shoreline are too numerous to mention them all. One of the popular launching sites east of Cleveland is at Fairport Harbor. The quickest way to get here from east or west is via Interstate 90, exiting at Painesville.

From Fairport Harbor, turn eastward to breakwaters and a large reef off the Perry Nuclear Power Station. You might also find smallmouths along the harbor breakwaters.

For information about area services, contact the Lake County Visitors Bureau, 1610 Mentor Avenue, Painesville, OH 44077, or call (800) 368-LAKE.

Shale covers most of the near-shore bottom from Fairport eastward to Pennsylvania. Other popular starting points for smallmouth anglers are at Ashtabula and Conneaut. Exits off I-90 to both areas are clearly marked.

For information about local services, contact the Ashtabula County Convention and Visitors Bureau, 1850 Austinburg Road, Austinburg, OH 44010, or call (440) 275-3202,

Ohio's liberal season also allows bass fishing year-round in Lake Erie. The daily creel limit is five bass, combined species, with a minimum size of 14 inches.

Walnut Creek Access, a Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission facility, is the primary boat access between the Ohio border and Erie. Take Dutch Road or Manchester Road off Route 5 to this area. Most smallmouth anglers head west from here to Elk Creek and on to the Ohio border.

Be sure to have both Ohio and Pennsylvania licenses if you wander over the border. Walnut Creek is the dividing area between the central b

asin and the much deeper eastern basin.

Presque Isle Bay warms much quicker than the main lake. Springtime smallmouth action here usually gets started by mid-April, sometimes sooner. Water in this bay generally has more color than the open lake water, so be prepared to fish in water less than 10 feet deep.

Some of the better areas are inside the harbor entrance near the mouth of Misery Bay, outside Marina Bay, and several rocky areas on the Erie side of the bay west from Dobbins Landing.

There are several launch ramps around the bay. One of the easiest to find is Marina Lake in Presque Isle State Park. Follow the signs to the park from Interstate Route 90 or Route 5. Route 832 leads to the park from either of these highways.

East from Erie in the eastern basin, Northeast Marina is the main boat access off Route 5 about two miles from the New York border. This provides access to numerous excellent smallmouth hotspots. For example, turn west from the harbor about a mile to find an area of rocky humps. To the east, there are dropoffs toward and past the New York border.

The water will probably be clearer in this area than in the central or western basins. It might be easier to fish deeper, unless wave action roils the shallows. On calm days, you can see the bottom in 35 feet of water. At times like this, look for structure in the 30- to 40-foot depths.

Though much of the best smallmouth bass structure is relatively close to shore, most of this cover is several miles from the nearest safe harbor. Anglers must understand basic navigation, carry good charts, and comply with all applicable Coast Guard regulations. First-time visitors should consider hiring a charter boat.

The Keystone State has a special season designed to provide anglers with the opportunity to catch big smallmouths while at the same time protecting the resource.

Bass fishing is allowed year-round in Pennsylvania's Lake Erie waters. During most of the year, anglers may keep four bass per day, and the minimum length is 15 inches. But from mid-April through mid-June, when spawning smallmouths are most vulnerable, anglers may keep one fish per day, and the minimum length is 20 inches.

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