Tackling Lake Erie's Smallmouths

Here's the scoop on where and how to take Lake Erie's jumbo spring smallmouths from Pennsylvania or Ohio launch points.

Photo by Michael T. Williams

Though it continues to change, Lake Erie currently supports one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries in North America. Savvy anglers willing to keep a variety of location and presentation options in their bag of tricks should be able to enjoy consistent action on lunker smallmouths throughout the spring season.

Understanding how Erie smallmouths use the lake is vital to finding fish, simply because there is so much water. On a lake this big, success is a matter of finding the habitat type that's producing more than being on a specific "hotspot."

With this in mind, here's a look at the best areas to fish this spring for big Lake Erie bronzebacks:


North East Area

Close to the Pennsylvania-New York border is the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission's Safe Harbor Marina in the town of North East. This marina provides an excellent access area to search out the bass-filled waters within seven miles or so.

Bass anglers have several good options while fishing out of the Safe Harbor area. Smallies invariably relate to changes in bottom structure. A step of even a couple of feet can attract fish, though larger, more pronounced structures tend to pull in the most fish.

The waters around North East are well seasoned with rock ridges and chunk rockpiles that hold smallies throughout much of the season. Good bass-holding water can be northwest of the marina. Watch the sonar unit for depth changes. Some structure lines run north to south, while others run east to west. It pays to run the boat in and out from shore as well as parallel to it when looking for good spots.

Bass-holding breaks occur throughout depth ranges of 15 to 35 feet. While cruising, mark any potential spots with a buoy or a GPS icon. Look over the best areas slowly and carefully. If a spot seems like it has fish-holding characteristics -- sharp breaks, good size, the presence of fish on the sonar -- take time to fish it.

The most popular method of fishing such rocky structures is on a controlled drift. Stop the boat upwind of the structure, and then allow the prevailing wind and wave action to move the boat over the area. Tube bodies dressed on 1/8- to 1/2-ounce tapered-head, insert-style leadhead jigs are the preferred presentation. Match the jighead weight to the depth and wave conditions. Deeper water and rougher seas call for heavier jigs.

Good rocky structure can be found along the inshore areas from North East west toward Presque Isle. The most popular area is a few miles west of the landing, known locally as the "Ws," where erosion ditches on the face of the shoreline bank has etched a series of patterns that can be seen as the letter W. An abundance of rocky structure exists out from the Ws.

The Safe Harbor Marina is about 2.5 miles east of North East off Route 5.

Presque Isle Bay Waters

Presque Isle Bay is another hotbed of early-season action. The bay, 3,000-plus-acres fronting the city of Erie, attracts plenty of springtime smallies, and often provides the first bronzeback action of the year. Bass may be taken along the edge of the shipping channel, which is well marked with navigation buoys. Cast or drift tube jigs, twistertail grubs or bucktail jigs along the edge of this structure.

Smallies will also hold along the edge of the extensive flats that lie off the peninsula. Expect to find them in and around newly emerging weed growth. A suspending jerkbait can be excellent for working these flats. Bass may also be taken along the city side of the bay, along the many pilings and breakwaters found there.

Good springtime smallmouth fishing may be found in the main lake proximate to the Presque Isle entrance. One of the most popular is the "Cribs," two cement pilings in front of the Hammermill plant. Bass hold close to the pilings, as well as near natural structure in the area.

Between Presque Isle Bay and North East are several creeks that enter the lake. The rocky flats in front of these creek mouths can provide fast action when the fish are shallow. This is more excellent suspending jerkbait water. Twelvemile, Fourteenmile and Sixteenmile creeks are among the best areas.

An abundance of access areas are found both within the bay and close to it. The Presque Isle Marina in Marina Bay off Peninsula Drive is the best spot for Erie-sized boats headed for the bay from Presque Isle State Park. For main-lake areas close to the bay, consider the Lampe Marina off the Bayfront Parkway.


Western Basin

Ohio has a wealth of smallmouth water in Lake Erie, much of it in the western basin. Inshore areas of the central basin, from the Pennsylvania line west to the Cedar Point area, are similar to the spots mentioned regarding inshore areas along Pennsylvania's shoreline.

Find chunk rock humps and you will locate bass. Breakwaters along the various ports will also attract smallmouth bass. Manmade reefs out from Cleveland are poplar with anglers from this metropolitan area.

The western basin contains the best smallmouth habitat in the lake. The many reefs and islands hold smallmouth bass throughout the spring season.

Island Areas

Kelleys Island north of Marblehead is a key springtime smallie hangout, especially the east side of the island between Kelleys Island and Airport Reef. The depths run from about 5 to 20 feet. Use tube jigs, grubs and jerkbaits to cover this water.

Public access to the Kelleys Island area is via the Mazurik Area on Marblehead. Additional public and fee ramps are found in this section.

The Bass islands -- South, Middle and North -- as their names imply, are premier spring smallmouth haunts. The east side of South Bass Island in the area from the Perry Monument northward is considered some of the best bass water in this vicinity. Lucy Point, east of Middle Bass Island, is a springtime smallie hotspot. For North Bass Island, try the rocky areas off the eastern shore. The rocky bottom near Rattlesnake Island, which is west of Middle Bass Island, is also worth fishing.

Kelleys Island north of Marblehead is a key springtime

smallie hangout, especially the east side of the island between Kelleys Island and Airport Reef.


The public access area within Catawba Island State Park provides the best free access to this portion of the lake. Use extreme caution when navigating between the islands, as strong currents can form in these neck-down sections. Be careful also when fishing the described island areas because shallow rocks may be present, particularly when the lake is down a bit.

Reef Areas

Once primarily the haunt of early-season walleye anglers, the many shallow reefs west of Port Clinton also attract smallmouth bass. Major reefs include Niagara, Toussaint, Flat Rock and Little Pickerel, though several others are present in this area.

Several excellent commercial maps are available that list the GPS coordinates for these reefs. They are available in both hard copy and electronic formats.

Extra caution is needed when fishing these areas. In addition to the navigational hazards associated with the shallow shoals, some of the reefs are within the famous Camp Perry Firing Range, which is marked off by a system of buoys. Monitor Channel 16 on your marine VHF radio for firing times.

The Portage River Access, in Port Clinton, provides a good launch area for the reefs.

Bay Fishing

Like Presque Isle Bay to the east, fishing in Sandusky Bay can be productive. Though smallmouth habitat may be more limited here, bass are taken in the bay, particularly around the major breakwater pier off Cedar Point. Another spot worth checking near the mouth of Sandusky Bay is the rocky shoreline along Marblehead Point, northwest of the bay mouth and protected from strong west winds.

A public launch into Sandusky Bay is within the Dempsey Wildlife Area on the north shore of the bay.

Lake Erie is world-class water and it is big, requiring proper equipment and a good dose of common sense. Be sure to have all the required U.S. Coast Guard safety equipment onboard. A marine-band radio, though not required, is an excellent idea. Closely monitor the weather, which can change rapidly, and get off the lake before things get too rough.

In Pennsylvania, anglers are limited to a one-fish, 20-inch minimum length, from mid-April to mid-June. Ohio has a closed season, though catch-and-release fishing is permitted. The closed season runs from early May until late June.

Refer to the booklet supplied with your fishing license for exact dates.

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