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Our Finest Fall Hotspots for Smallmouth Bass

Our Finest Fall Hotspots for Smallmouth Bass

Don't stow your fishing tackle away just yet. New York's fall smallmouth fishery is one of the most productive in the East, and Labor Day is just the beginning! (September 2008)

In early September, smallmouth bass anglers throughout New York breathe a collective sigh of relief. More than a few rub their hands together in gleeful anticipation. The cause of all their emoting is Labor Day weekend -- and the mass exodus of summer campers and tourists that follows immediately thereafter.

Before the holiday, fishermen on most lakes had to yield the depths to careening watercraft and surrender shorelines to splashing kids and dock-lounging parents. By the end of this weekend, however, most of the summer folks will head for home.

That leaves plenty of elbowroom for anglers to catch big smallmouths in lakes and rivers from shore or boat.

The timing couldn't be better! These shorter days and cooler temperatures of late summer and early autumn seem to prompt smallmouths to eat and eat and eat!

The following are some of the best places in the state where fishermen can toss their lures to hungry bronzebacks this month:

These days, Lake Erie is the yardstick by which all New York smallmouth fisheries are measured. That's because Erie has produced the last five state records for the species, including the reigning champion -- an 8-pound, 4-ounce monster boated back in 1995 by Pennsylvania angler Andrew Kartesz.


Like most truly giant smallmouths, Kartesz's title-taker was an egg-laden hen. And like the previous four record-setters, it was caught during Lake Erie's early-May to mid-June "trophy season."

In view of the lake's track record for trophies, it's only natural for anglers to swarm to Lake Erie's ports in spring. But its fall fishing is also phenomenal.

If you've never caught a smallmouth of 5 or 6 pounds, this month could be the right time -- and Lake Erie's eastern basin the right place.

Though Kartesz's record fish has held its crown for 13 years and doesn't appear likely to be toppled any time soon, the average bass on Lake Erie are adding inches and ounces at a rapid pace.

They owe their chunky frames to the round gobies that now make up a huge share of their diet.

Those gobies are stunted, perch-sized pests. Less than a decade ago, they hitchhiked their way to North America from Europe in the ballast tanks of ocean-going freighters. Since then, they've spread eastward through Erie and on into Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

As far as fisheries biologists can tell, their one redeeming grace is the seemingly endless supply of calories they provide to smallmouths and other game fish.

When you visit Lake Erie, be sure to bring some goby-imitating lures. But don't try the real thing -- the use of gobies or their transport from one body of water to another is illegal.

Traveling anglers can launch their boats at numerous Lake Erie ports, including the public marinas in Barcelona, Dunkirk and Sturgeon Point -- all of which lie off Route 5 in Chautauqua County.

For information on motels and other amenities, call the county Visitors Bureau at (716) 753-4304.

If Lake Erie claims the No. 1 spot on the western New York smallmouth chart, Chautauqua Lake is a close second -- in more ways than one.

Just 10 miles east of Barcelona, Chautauqua is a convenient alternative on those many days when Erie's east shore is pounded by high winds and therefore treacherous or impossible to fish.

Though it has yet to serve up any 8-pounders (that the New York Department of Environmental Conservation knows of, anyway), Chautauqua donates a few 6-pounders to livewells and stringers every year.

Late September and October, local guides say, is an ideal time to connect with such dandies, in part because vast sections of this 13,100-acre lake in southwest Chautauqua County are lightly fished, once vacation time is over.

For strategic purposes, you can think of Chautauqua Lake as two lakes in one. Its northwest basin is deeper and generally has a rockier bottom than the shallow, weedy southeast basin. Bemus Point, on the west shore, is the dividing line. However, both basins offer fine smallmouth fishing in fall.

To obtain a basic contour map as part of the informational packet, call the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau at (716) 753-4304. (Continued)

U.S. Route 86 (formerly state Route 17, a.k.a. the Southern Tier Expressway) crosses the lake at Bemus Point, making Chautauqua not only convenient to Buffalo-area anglers, but also just a half-morning's drive from Binghamton and Elmira.

Long Point State Park, on the northeast shore, has a first-class public boat launch.

If the sprawling expanse of Lake Erie and the slightly less imposing fishery at Chautauqua Lake are still a bit more than you wish to tackle in your small boat, check out little Cuba Lake, about two miles north of the village of Cuba in Allegany County.

At just 493 acres, the lake is downright cozy -- yet roomy enough to accommodate some sizable smallmouths. Joe Evans, a DEC biologist, reports handling bronzebacks up to 22 inches and 7 pounds, although the average specimen in Cuba Lake is a scrappy 12- to 15-incher.

In the fall, the likeliest areas to find a whopper are along the 20-foot contours off the north and west shores. Steer clear of the extreme northwest arm of the lake, which lies within the Oil Springs Indian Reservation.

Cuba Lake is an impoundment on Oil Creek that's governed by an organization of lakeside cottage owners. At the time it was completed in 1855, the lake was touted as the largest manmade fishing hole in the world.

Thanks to cooperation between local residents and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, traveling anglers have excellent access from boat launches on the West Shore Road and South Shore Road.

You can download a map at the DEC's Web site,

Or if you're not computer-savvy, request a printed map from the DEC's Region 9 office in Allegany by calling (716) 372-0645.

To reach the lake, take U.S. Route 86 (formerly Route 17) to the Cuba exit. Then follow Route 305 north to Route 25, the South Shore Road.

For help in finding lodging in the vicinity, contact the Allegany County Tourism office in advance of your trip. The number is (716) 268-9229.

Though it's a work in progress, the Chemung Basin River Trail currently allows adventurous paddlers to get up close and personal with smallmouth bass and other game fish. At last check, the trail includes a dozen put-ins (and take-outs) for canoes and small cartop boats along the Chemung River between Corning and South Waverly -- more than 40 miles of bends, flats and gentle riffles.

To request an updated brochure on the paddler's trail, call the Southern Tier Regional Planning and Development Board at (607) 962-5092.

Although it's ideal for canoe-fishing, much of the Chemung River's length in Steuben, Chemung and Tioga counties is also accessible from shore at urban or suburban bridge crossings, as well as by asking permission from private landowners in more rural areas.

For starters, try the DEC's launch site at Mossy Glen Road, south of South Corning, or the marked access sites off state Route 352 between Elmira and Big Flats, which local rod and gun clubs maintain for the public's use. Dennison Park, off Route 225 in Corning, is another shore-fishing possibility.

The Chemung is populated by smallmouths that typically run between 10 and 14 inches. But skillful fishermen have a decent shot at 2- to 3-pounders, too.

Along with bass, the Chemung has good numbers of walleyes and the occasional tiger muskellunge.

For information on lodging and other amenities, dial up the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-627-5892.

Thanks to a proliferation of local and regional bass tournaments in the Syracuse area, there are few, if any, truly secret fishing holes remaining.

The Seneca River's great fall fishery has been common knowledge among central New York anglers for a decade or more.

When you ply the river, you can expect to see plenty of other fishermen, but there are enough smallmouths to go around. Between Labor Day and Thanksgiving, those bronzebacks will be gorging on gizzard shad and other baitfish in the river's deepest pools. By the end of November, some of those bass will be pushing the 6-pound mark.

The Seneca River is nearly 50 miles long from its birthplace at the outlet of Seneca Lake to its confluence with the Oneida River south of the village of Phoenix in southern Oswego County.

Along the way, it is diverted here and there to make shortcuts in the Barge Canal system, spills over a dam in the Onondaga County village of Baldwinsville and spreads out through Cross Lake before resuming its meandering, generally easterly course. Around Baldwinsville, boaters must be prepared to negotiate canal locks. But on the whole, the river is easy to traverse. It's deep and slow enough to accommodate either small johnboats or roomy, tournament-style vessels.

Popular launch sites for fall fishing include the Lions Park ramp about a mile below the dam in Baldwinsville and the Onondaga Lake Park marina on Onondaga Lake Parkway in Liverpool. From the latter spot, anglers zip across the lake and into its short outlet, which connects with a placid but productive stretch of the river.

For information on lodging in the Onondaga County section of the Seneca River, contact the Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce at (315) 470-1800.

The easternmost body of water in the Finger Lakes chain, Otisco Lake is also one of the smallest, at 2,124 surface acres, and therefore has an intimate, friendly quality.

An experienced bass fisherman armed with a basic sonar unit and a contour map of the lake -- available on the state Web site or by calling the DEC's Region 7 field office in Cortland at (607) 753-3095 -- will feel he understands Otisco quite well after a couple of days exploring its points, coves and dropoffs. That confidence is justifiable, considering the results of recent angler-diary surveys.

In 2007, the 18 fishermen who maintained diaries about their pursuit of warmwater species in Otisco reported catching 91 smallmouths as long or longer than the state-standard minimum creel length of 12 inches. Those bass ranged up to 18.3 inches in length.

Dave Lemon is a DEC Region 7 biologist who oversees management of Otisco's fishery. He said that its 2007 catch rate of 0.59 legal bass per hour -- smallmouths and largemouths combined -- was higher than what was reported for 11 of 12 New York bass lakes analyzed during a four-year study in the late 1980s.

Otisco lies in southern Onondaga County about 15 miles south of Syracuse. To find it on a map, trace U.S. Route 20 west from Albany to LaFayette. Then keep going another 10 miles or so to the intersection of Route 174. Travel south on Route 174 and bear left onto Otisco Valley Road, which closely parallels the east shore of the lake.

Anglers may launch at the Otisco Lake Marina or Ryfun's boat launch, which lie north and south, respectively, of an old roadbed known as "The Causeway" that separates the lake into two basins about four miles south of the dam.

In Otisco, consistently good smallmouth spots include Lader's Point on the west shore, the steep bluffs almost directly across the lake from the Otisco Lake Marina and Fitzgerald Point on the east shore.

The aforementioned Greater Syracuse Chamber of Commerce can provide pamphlets on lodging near Otisco Lake.

The Susquehanna River winds along a good chunk of the New York border before slipping into Pennsylvania. It then right-turns back into the Empire State before making a final about-face into the Commonwealth near Waverly.

From there, it flows majestically all the way to Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. The smallmouth fishing near the Pennsylvania capital city of Harrisburg is renowned, but don't overlook the bronzeback possibilities on New York's end of the watershed.

In the upper Susquehanna, chunky hard-fighting bass average about a pound. But any time anglers wade or float this broad river, they have the opportunity to hook smallies that tip the scales at 3 or even 4 pounds.

For lure-fishers on the Susquehanna, tube jigs are an excellent choice because they do a great job of imitating the crayfish that are abundant in most sections of the river.

But live hellgrammites are even more effective. Hellgrammites, of course, are the nasty-looking, pincer-mouthed larvae of dobsonflies.

Collect them one at a time by turning over rocks in the river shallows. Or capture several at once by teaming up with a friend equipped with a fine-meshed kick net, made by tacking a window screen to a couple of wooden dowels.

Put a No. 4 hook under the hellgrammite's collar, let the bait drift into a dark river pool and hang on tight to your rod. The larvae are 2 to 5 inches long and have tough skin. You can sometimes catch three or four smallmouths on each one.

Much of the Susquehanna appears to have been divinely conceived to suit the desires of canoeists and shore-fishermen. Its path takes it through many friendly small towns where strangers are welcome to park their cars and wet their lines for a couple of hours.

My hunting and fishing buddy Wayne Masters runs float trips on the first New York section of the Susquehanna He swears the river fishes better with each succeeding month of the season through mid-October.

After that he can't say, because he's bowhunting. But Masters will attest that catches of 20 to 30 smallmouths a day are not unusual on an autumn float or wading junket until a couple of weeks before Halloween, if not later.

Masters is especially fond of the stretch between Nineveh and Windsor in Broome County. That section is roughly paralleled by county Route 233 and may be covered from shore at many locations, including under the Route 86 (formerly Route 17) bridge in Windsor. It has many hat-floater pools, rippled by strong currents at their top ends.

The second New York stretch of the Susquehanna River, between Binghamton and Waverly, is noticeably larger than the upper section, but similar in terms of its makeup, accessibility and fishing prospects.

At the Rock Bottom Dam in Binghamton, waders tossing shallow-running crankbaits can often catch two or three dozen bass a day. Of those, perhaps one in four will be 12 inches or longer. But lunker specialists will do better by launching a bass boat into the deep holes above and below Hickories Park in Owego.

The DEC's Region 7 office, listed above, regularly includes information on the Susquehanna in its weekly fishing report, available by calling (607) 753-1551.

For tips on lodging, request travel brochures from the Broome County Convention and Visitors Bureau at 1-800-836-6740.

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