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Lake Erie Smallmouthing

Lake Erie Smallmouthing

Lake Erie has blossomed into one of the country's top smallmouth bass fisheries. Luckily for us, it's right in our own back yard!

Photo by Jim Barta

By Jim Bartap>

Each year, more and more testimonies on the richness of Lake Erie come to light as one professional angler after another brags about this bountiful fishery. It doesn't matter whether the topic is walleyes, pike, perch or bass - if sportfishing highlights the conversation, Lake Erie is sure to be mentioned.

One topic that's discussed at length more and more is the way this Great Lake has blossomed into one of the country's top smallmouth bass fisheries. Whereas at one time fishing-related television shows centered their attention toward the great angling possibilities in the south, many are heading north to the waters of Lake Erie.

Where stained or off-colored water once provided anglers with a steady diet of strictly walleyes, today's bait- and lure-drowning crowd is treated to the acrobatic fighting abilities of smallmouth bass. From this angler's perspective, here's a fish with a natural ability to show how badly it resents getting in that boat with you! Believe me, they know how to fight, and pound-for-pound they are one of the hardest-fighting fish found anywhere.

For some time now, local anglers have known about the incredible smallmouth fishery that Lake Erie has held. Charter captains, local tournament anglers and weekend warriors to the lake have enjoyed a continuing increase in the size and numbers of smallies available. But this isn't the kind of thing that's easy to keep quiet. Recently, major bass angling tournaments like the Stratos Boat, Bass Fishing League and Angler's Choice have recognized Lake Erie's potential and have organized their events to center on this body of water.

Chris Williams, a top Lake Erie guide and member of the prestigious Team Stratos National Pro Staff, is quick to give rave reviews about the lake.

"I fish the entire country for bass," states Williams. "When it comes to smallmouths, it would be hard to find another body of water that an angler can consistently catch the quality and numbers of fish that he can out on Erie."


Prime smallmouth habitat has come as a result of increased water clarity due to the introduction of zebra mussels. These tiny exotics combine with the efforts of environmentalists to create a sort of smallmouth heaven. Constant flowing of oxygenated water over sand and gravel beds provides ideal conditions for spawning, as well as the rearing of young fry.

"The overall condition of Lake Erie's water has improved remarkably in recent years," said Department of Natural Resources biologist Bob Hass. "Pollution control, fish habitat and water clarity are three of the most significant factors behind the increase of smallmouths in the lake. As most anglers know, Lake Erie's bottom is nearly covered with zebra mussels. These crustaceans filter tremendous volumes of water each day, and that - coupled with intense efforts by the DNR and other environmental groups to clean up the lake - has brought about a huge turnaround in the water clarity.

"Lake Erie has an immense forage base that includes shad, shiners and young-of-the-year fish from a multitude of other species," continued Hass. "Spawning habitat in the form of rocks, sand reefs and manmade structures are ideal for smallmouths. Another positive factor is that predation from other species is relatively low, allowing good back-to-back year-classes of fish."

Michigan's portion of Lake Erie is considerably less than that of its neighbors, Ohio and Canada. With less than 50 miles of shoreline that begins at the mouth of the Detroit River and extends south to the Ohio/Michigan junction, our state controls only about 100 square miles of water. Anglers looking to work strictly within the Michigan waters of Lake Erie will find that the widest portion lies to the north where it is only three miles across to the Canadian line.

With invisible borders that are so easily crossed without realizing it, it's advisable that anglers have licenses from both states and Canada before attempting to do much traveling in search of smallmouths. Michigan licenses can be purchased from a number of bait and tackle shops along the state's shoreline, but a combination of Michigan and Ohio licenses can only be purchased from Bottomline Bait and Tackle in Brownstown (734-379-9762), Brest Bay Party Store in French Town (734-289-1389) or from the State Park Party Store in Monroe (734-289-3383). To purchase a Canadian license, a trip by car or boat into Canada will be required.

Another beneficial factor to the smallmouth fishery in Michigan's portion of Lake Erie is a current that carries a massive influx of forage base made up of numerous baitfish species. The combination of current, cool water and baitfish makes the area where the river and lake meet a prime holding location for smallies.

As a testament to this area's worth for smallmouths, during a large tournament last summer two anglers - Todd Dreysse and Jeremy Burns of Grand Rapids - made a 32-mile run from the starting point in Lake St. Clair to the mouth of Lake Erie. After choosing to pass up the tremendous fishery of St. Clair, these two anglers boated fish after fish of Erie smallies, culling bass until they had a five-fish limit that weighed in excess of 26 pounds. That's over a 5-pound average! The run to Lake Erie won these anglers several thousand dollars in prize money and, I'm certain, was well worth the effort to them.

In areas of big water such as Lake Erie, smallmouths tend to be much more migratory than those confined to inland lakes. Water temperature plays a key role in the day-to-day activities of smallies, dictating everything from spawning to feeding activity.

"One of the first things I do before a tournament is to check the water temperature," said Mel Glazier, touring BFL and Angler's Choice tournament angler. "The water's temperature will have a direct influence on bass activity during the day, and I want to take advantage of every piece of information I can get. By understanding how various temperatures will affect the fish, I can predict how deep they're likely going to be, how active they are and what lures should work the best. It makes sense that if the fish are going to be slightly lethargic, I don't want to be throwing fast-moving topwater baits. In a case like that, I'll need to downsize my lures as well as slow my presentations. By the same token, if the fish are actively feeding, I want to make as many casts as quickly as possible in the amount of time that I'm allotted."

Success on Lake Erie can depend on knowing the effects water temperatures will have on the fish. Surface temperatures can be used to precisely follow the movements of smallmouth bass throughout the year, from the spring ritual of s

pawning through summer and into late fall.

For example, at 38 to 42 degrees, most Lake Erie smallmouths will still remain deep in a winter holding pattern. Areas with depths of 15 to 25 feet will be ideal in waters with that temperature. To locate these depths in the shallow waters found in the Michigan portion of the lake, anglers should key on the shipping channel edges off Monroe.

As water temperatures reach 43 degrees, begin checking the outskirts of flats such as those found south of Celeron Island off Erie Metro Park in Brownstown and various inside turns of nearby channels. These are particularly good areas because of the deep water that comes close to shore on several main-lake points.

A period of early pre-spawn occurs as the water temperatures reach 46 to 47 degrees. This is a key changeover period into the upcoming spawning season. Smallmouths will begin to make journeys into shallow water, although spawning is likely yet to occur. Most activity will center on outside turns of channels where the current sweeps baitfish or other food near holding structure that lies close to the primary dropoff.

Definite shallow movements will begin as the water temperatures reach 48 degrees. Beyond this, almost all feeding will take place in shallow water. Anglers will certainly want to target this period because activity for the bass will begin to soar.

Shallow water and Lake Erie's western basin are almost synonymous. Anglers have a multitude of back bays, coves, canals and shallow-water flats to probe during this period. Brest Bay, just out from Sterling State Park, offers several square miles of shallow flats laden with structure such as rock, wood and weeds that are home to plenty of smallmouths. With bass so willing to feed, anglers can enjoy a number of preferred tactics used to catch them. Whether you relish topwater action, casting crankbaits or simply the casual tactic of dragging plastic, these fighting smallies are looking to brawl.

At 58 degrees, Lake Erie smallmouths will begin building their nests and start the process of depositing eggs, while rarely stopping to feed. Shortly after spawning, the females will quickly return to the deep water, leaving the males to guard the nests. Much of the feeding will taper off for a period of time, but once spawning is complete and the bass resume normal day-to-day activities, replenishing lost nourishment will be a high priority.

"When it comes to using water temperatures to locate fish on big water like Erie, I think it's especially important that anglers check the surface temperature in each of the areas they plan to fish and not simply at the launch site," said Glazier. "You could be launching from a ramp such as the one at Erie Metro Park where there's a warmwater discharge located only a mile upstream. If you based the day's fishing efforts on temperature readings there, it could be a long, fishless day."

During the summer months, Lake Erie smallmouths can be found almost anywhere at any given time. They do, however, have particular preferences. As with any species of fish, security, comfort and food are key factors in determining their location.

Security to a Lake Erie smallmouth usually comes in the form of rocks - and a lot of them. Although dragging lures or baits across a rock-infested bottom isn't high on most anglers' want-to list, here's where the highest majority of summer bass can be found.

When shipping channels were blasted into Lake Erie's lakebed, the broken rock was loaded aboard large barges and towed away. Much of this material was used to develop breakwalls and harbors along the Detroit River, but a portion of the debris was simply dumped some distance away from the blasting sites. This created a type of "smallmouth heaven." Smallies congregate and hold in large numbers among these dumping grounds, most of which are located one-half mile east of the Banana Dike off Gibraltar. Bass aren't the only species to take advantage of this hotspot. Walleyes, pike and perch all call this area home and can be regularly caught here throughout the summer months. Also contributing to this location's good fit into the smallmouths' needs are the schools of baitfish that are drawn to these rocks. In all, the rock-infested dumping grounds may just be one of the top locations for smallmouths in our state and certainly in Michigan's portion of Lake Erie.

Besides the large sections of dumping sites in this area, isolated rockpiles can be found scattered in various locations throughout the western basin. Smallies will use these secluded rocky reefs for spawning and may remain on them until mid-July when the weed growth starts to get too heavy. The thick foliage and warming water will begin to drive the fish into deeper water. Some of these small rockpiles appear on charts of the lake, but many can only be found while scanning the bottom with electronics or by fishing. Often, these uncharted locations can produce some of the best fishing success in the lake.

Approximately nine miles south of the Detroit River lays Stony Point. The waters from this point east for nearly two miles are probably the most heavily fished part of the western basin, and for good reason. Anglers congregate in droves here as they enjoy some of the best fishing around. Although walleyes and perch make up a large portion of the angling efforts, smallmouths are no strangers to people working these waters.

Over the years, current from the Detroit River has cut a dropoff into the lakeward side of Stony Point. Here, water depths up to 21 feet can be found less than a mile off shore and are home to numerous species of fish. This deep section has a diverse bottom makeup, but sand and weeds comprise most of the area.

Crankbaits that are cast and retrieved over the top of the weeds will often be more than most smallmouths can resist. These lures work best when used with a built-in rattle or with a rattle device attached. Much of the bass population here holds tight to the weed-thick bottom and needs the additional sound to gain their attention.

Tube baits offered in a drift-and-drag fashion along the bottom will also work well as they slide their way through the weeds. These plastic tubes follow the contour of the bottom and stay consistently in the strike zone where no additional sound is needed. Preferred tube colors may vary from day to day, but those in green, brown or any combination of the two are regular favorites to local bass anglers here.

When it comes to overall knowledge of the tremendous fishery offered by this Great Lake, it's hard to dispute someone who has grown up along its shoreline and spent a lifetime fishing it. Floyd Turner has been doing battle with smallmouth bass here for the greatest portion of his life.

"Whenever I get the opportunity to go fishing," says Turner, "I know that I can target any one of several species of fish on Lake Erie. For great eating, I prefer taking perch or walleyes, but when I'm just looking to have a great time battling a fish that knows how to fight back, I'm going after smallmouths. I love it when they break water so often that they seem to spend as much time in the air as they do in the water. You can't beat fishing like that!"

Opening day for bass on Lake Erie is the Saturday before Memorial Day in Michigan waters. Canada's opener doesn't begin until the third Saturday in June and, like Michigan, has a limit of five fish per angler, but release the smallmouths anyway.

There are numerous access sites along the Michigan shoreline, including the ones at Luna Pier, Toledo Beach, Bolles Harbor, Sterling State Park and Erie Metro Park, to name only a few. Anglers choosing to use live bait such as crawfish or minnows can find several sources at each of these launch sites. Access to Sterling State Park, Bolles Harbor or Erie Metro Park will require a yearly permit, but a one-day entrance tag can be purchased on the day of arrival.

For more information on the great smallmouth fishery offered in Lake Erie, call the Luna Pier Harbour Club at (734) 848-8777), State Park Party Store at (734) 289-3383), or Bottom Line Bait and Tackle at (734) 379-9762). To get in on the great smallmouth fishery with an experienced guide, call (313) 388-5847.

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