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Lake Erie's Shallow-Water Fishing Opportunities

Lake Erie's Shallow-Water Fishing Opportunities

Warm weather is not a given on Lake Erie in May, but the fishing close to shore can be hot.

Photo by Jeff Samsel

The obvious good side of a lake that covers nearly 10,000 square miles is that it offers an enormous amount of habitat to support big numbers of fish. The flipside is that those fish have an abundance of room to roam, making them tough to find at times.

During May, though, many of Lake Erie's most important game fish spend their time in much shallower water than during other times of the year. They pile up in the mouths of tributaries, in harbors and bays, and often fairly close to the shore within the lake proper. The water in these areas tends to be shallower, and the cover is more easily found, making Erie's amazing fish populations more accessible than at any other time of the year. Let's take a closer look!

Considered by many as the world's finest smallmouth bass destination, Lake Erie is at its best during May for several reasons. First, the fish tend to be concentrated, creating opportunities for fishermen to experience furious action. Making a good thing even better, the areas where the bass commonly concentrate are fairly accessible to many anglers. Finally, because the smallmouths spawn during the spring, May offers the best opportunity of the year to catch the giant fish that set Erie apart from other fine smallmouth destinations.

May days typically will have fish in all stages of the spawn, according to veteran Lake Erie guide Frank Campbell. Some will be in a pre-spawn mode, some will be spawning and others will have just finished. That means there will be big groups of fish in a range of depths that can be caught in a variety of ways.

RELATED READ: Catching Lake Erie's May Smallmouths

Most of the best spring smallmouth concentrations will be in within large tributaries, bays and harbors and over nearshore shoals and reefs. These waters warm faster than deeper waters farther out on the main lake, which is doubly good for the smallmouth because it's more comfortable for them and the warmth attracts concentrations of emerald shiners and other forage. Additionally, rocky areas that range from expansive shoals to isolated reefs and rockpiles provide excellent spawning habitat.


Campbell does the bulk of his spring smallmouth fishing with one of two types of offerings: live shiners and soft-plastic tubes. Some years are better for one of the baits than the other -- which the bass prefer may be a product of the relative abundance of shiners and gobies any given year. (Tubes imitate gobies very well.) The best option can vary daily, though, so Campbell often will begin a day with one angler in his boat fishing with a tube while the other is fishing with a live shiner.

For either approach, Campbell generally drifts, beginning with his boat upwind of where he wants to fish and having anglers drop their baits to the bottom and keep their rods in hand and their lines tight as they drift. He rigs tubes with open hooks on insider-style jigheads and nose-hooks the live bait, adding a pencil weight on a dropper a few feet up from the hook.

As effective as drifting can be, an angler also shouldn't overlook jerkbaits such as Smithwick Rogues and XCalibur Xt3 Twitch Baits for serious smallmouth fun during the spring. "When the water gets to about 50 degrees, we can get a really good jerkbait bite," Campbell said.

Veteran guide Frank Campbell notes that during May, steelhead are often caught close to the banks of the lake. Photo by Jeff Samsel.

Campbell typically fishes a jerkbait around boulders and rocky outcrop areas in about 10 feet of water. Suspending jerkbaits work best, and they should be worked with series of jerks broken by distinct pauses. Sometimes it's necessary to let the bait suspend motionless for several seconds between jerks, and the fish will attack the bait when it's just hanging there, knocking all the slack out of the line and taking off running.

In May, the walleyes typically have just finished spawning, and fishing opportunities can be very good, according to Campbell. The most consistent action calls for an extra dose of hardiness, though, because it occurs after the sun has gone down -- and the night fishing on Lake Erie can be a bit brisk during May!

The walleyes move shallow to feed at night this time of year, and anglers can find very good success by trolling stickbaits in water that ranges from about 2 to 15 feet of deep. Campbell suggests anglers try Bomber Long "A" plugs, including the 14A and the 15A, for nighttime trolling. He focuses on shallow areas in the lake's main basin, often just outside the bays. Night fishing for walleyes also can be very good around breakwalls.

For anglers who prefer to do their fishing by day, another excellent way to catch walleyes during May is to vertical jig with a blade bait, such as a Heddon Sonar. Campbell looks for fish on his graph along sharp bottom breaks where the water is in the 15- to 25-foot range and jigs a Sonar.

RELATED READ: Bait Color Is King For Walleye

"What makes it extra fun is that everything moves along those breaks," Campbell said. "We'll also catch bass and perch and other fish. With the Sonar, you just start reeling when you hook a fish, and you don't know what you have until you get it to the surface."

May also brings a host of opportunities to target Erie's outstanding populations of steelhead and brown trout, with the fish cruising shallower than normal. Big-water trolling techniques account for most of these fish throughout the summer because the open water maintains the cooler temperatures that trout require; however, spring brings opportunities to catch some of these fish closer to shore and with smaller vessels or even by wading and bank fishing.

Steelhead provide excellent surf-casting and shore-fishing opportunities during May, because the fish are just completing their spawning runs and returning to the lake and the shallow waters along the lake's margin remain sufficiently cool for them. Brown trout also use the shallower edges more during the spring than at other times, finding plentiful baitfish to keep them happy.

As the water warms, the shallow fish will begin to disappear. Through most of May, though, the steelhead and brown trout will abound in and around the mouths of rivers and creeks and around breakwalls and riprap banks and other shoreline cover, putting them in easy reach of many shore-fishing and wading anglers.

Among the best ways to catch spring steelhead from a tributary mouth is to tip a small jig such as a Lindy Little Nipper with a waxworm and drift in the outflow current under a float. Most tributaries flows will be warmer than the main lake, though, so the fish won't stay in the current long once they reach the lake, instead following the shore and orienting to cover.

Other very effective alternative approaches are to cast in-line spinners, jerkbaits (fished with a steady cranking action, not a jerk and pause) and small crankbaits to the edges of the current and to shoreline cover.

Campbell also does some trout fishing in the far eastern end of Lake Erie, where the current of the Niagara River begins pulling significantly. He typically drifts with a three-way rig, with either an Quikfish, an eggsack or a nose-hooked minnow at the terminal end. It's a very seasonal bite, he noted, but early May is prime time.

Frank Campbell runs Niagara Region Charter Service. To learn more visit or give Campbell a call at (712) 284-8546. 

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