Lake Erie fishing in Ohio waters should provide great action this season for bass, walleyes and perch.
With the bluffs of Lake Erie's central basin shoreline a mere 2 miles distant, my boat's sonar unit displayed an abundance of arches in the 20- to 30-foot depths.
In this area of the lake, between Conneaut, Ohio and the Pennsylvania border, an enormous underwater shelf quickly drops from depths in the 25-foot range into 40 feet of water.
A huge school of walleyes had been relating to it in recent weeks. I hoped the picture on the sonar screen meant they were still here.
It wasn't long before a rod bent back, indicating the first walleye of the morning had engulfed a trolled crankbait. Within a couple hours, the cooler held our limits of eating-size walleyes and we were on our way back to Conneaut's harbor.
That experience happened three years after the record walleye hatch of 2003, the start of several years of exceptional walleye fishing on Erie.
According to Travis Hartman, the Ohio Division of Wildlife's Lake Erie Program Manager, it's likely we are entering the beginning of another walleye boom. The fisheries manager feels the outlook is excellent for walleyes, and good for yellow perch and black bass as well.
Here's a look at the current picture for these three premier Lake Erie species, as well as how and where to catch them this summer.
From trophy-sized fish to eating-sized ones, along with various lengths in between, 2017 should be the start of consecutive banner years for Lake Erie walleye anglers.
Ohio Division of Wildlife Lake Erie Program Manager Travis Hartman said walleye anglers will still find fish from the 2003 year class, a testament to the species' longevity in Lake Erie waters, as well as the phenomenal size of that spawn.
The 2014 walleye hatch was the strongest since 2003. Though not as successful as the prior year, 2015's was above average. Hartman said some of the 2014 fish were legal by the fall of last year, many of them in the 16- to 18-inch range, thanks to fast growth rates. Those from the 2015 hatch ranged from 11 to 13 inches. Some will be legal this summer.
"Last year's hatch, though below average, will also contribute in the years ahead," the biologist added.
The success of walleye hatches varies greatly on Lake Erie, the reasons for which remain somewhat of a mystery. Much of the walleye population is produced in the western basin, which is rich in shallow-water habitat. Vast numbers of walleyes migrate eastward as Erie's waters warm, following baitfish.
As such, walleye fishing within the western basin tends to wane as summer progresses, while the action in the central basin, from the Huron area eastward, picks up later in July and August. How quickly this migration takes place depends on the weather of the year — essentially, how fast Erie's waters warm up.
Hartman also said that while walleye production varies greatly, in general, nesting success has been more consistent in recent years. And fish from those below-average spawns will be present and help fuel the walleye fishing, accounting for many of the fish in the low to mid 20-inch range.
Even though lake-wide walleye action is driven, in general, by the summer's west-to-east fish movement, central basin waters have local fish, and account for some of the early summer action.
It's also significant to note that young walleyes, such as those two- and three-year-olds that will be common this summer, tend to stay closer to the shore. This is especially true during summers that lack above average water temperatures. This can provide some great "in close" action, such as that described at the outset.
Walleye Locations And Tips
Given decent fishing conditions, by June western basin anglers should fare well drifting/trolling basin areas out away from the island complexes. Traditional offerings such as spinner/'crawler rigs bumped along the bottom will take their share of fish. Trolled crankbaits such as Reef Runners and Hot-n-Tots will excel at contacting fish suspended in the water column.
In the central basin walleyes tend to be taken over deeper water, often 50 to 65 feet, out from the Geneva-Ashtabula-Conneaut areas. And though most folks head off-shore to the deeper zones of these trenches, they should take note that there's often a near-shore bite that happens in June, likely comprised of resident fish. As noted, younger walleyes, such as those from the 2014 and 2015 hatches, tend to stay tighter to shore. Anglers targeting depths in the 25- to 35-foot range can contact these fish by long-line trolling deep-diving crankbaits like Rapala's Deep Taildancer.
Hartman expects 2017's yellow perch fishing to be good, particularly within the waters of the western basin. Perch populations in central basin waters may be down somewhat.
"Yellow perch populations in the western basin currently are as good as we've seen in years," Hartman said. "We've had four good hatches in a row."
Consistent perch production of late, combined with the fast growth rates of Lake Erie, should combine to provide western basin anglers with good numbers as well as size structure of yellow perch.
"Yellow perch are shorter lived than walleyes," Hartman explained. "So, when you have some years with below-average spawns, you feel it. Unlike walleyes, perch from the record 2003 hatch are now gone."
The perch picture isn't as bright in central basin waters. Hartman said this area of Erie, from Huron east to Conneaut, has been in a down cycle, with less consistent recruitment.
Creel limits for yellow perch (and walleyes as well) are set each spring, after the March meeting of the Lake Erie Commission. Items that factor in include fish populations as well as recent harvest, both from sport anglers and commercial fisherman. It's not uncommon for there to be separate harvest regulations for western and central basins. 2017's regulations can be found on the Ohio Division of Wildlife's webpage at www.wildlife.ohiodnr.gov.
Sport angler catch rates in the central basin have been down the past year or two, possibly indicative of a decline in yellow perch numbers. But other factors could come into play as well, including shifts in perch locations due to expansive dead zones caused by algal blooms, and forage changes. It's possible perch are feeding more on aquatic insects due to the decline in the emerald shiner population.
Perch Locations And Tips
Yellow perch fishing in the western basin is generally rolling by June, and continues throughout the summer. Perch don't migrate nearly to the extent that walleye do. Given the high numbers of western basin perch, it should be a good summer. Many anglers, in this part of the lake, switch over to yellow perch as the walleye fishing slows down. With strong populations of both species, however, it's likely good action will continue for both in 2017 — a nice situation.
Central basin perch fishing often gets better as the summer progresses. The fish move into more identifiable locations, schooling up in what has become traditional spots close to ports.
Perch fishermen are a gregarious sort, creating "parking lots" of flotillas over perch schools. Perch anglers can score well by simply moving away from the pack, and watching their sonar for unmolested fish that are either part of that school, or ones pushed to the side due to fishing pressure. So, consider the perch pack as a huge marker buoy, and then begin looking for fish off to the side.
Nearly all perch anglers fish from an anchored position, lowering a perch rig (typically a sinker and minnow) to the bottom, and then bringing it back up a few inches. Light jigs dressed with a small soft-plastic grub are another good choice, and more closely duplicate insect nymphs that perch commonly feed on.
It wasn't long ago that a discussion of Lake Erie's bass numbers was specifically aimed at smallmouth. Oh, sure, there were largemouth populations within embayment areas such as Sandusky Bay. But the largemouth fishery has been in expansion for several years, so much so that now that it's common to catch western basin largemouths within main-lake areas, ones that previously displayed a smallmouths-only sign.
"I'm optimistic about this year's bass fishing on Erie," noted Hartman. "Regarding smallmouth, I think it's still one of the top destinations in the country for trophy-sized fish."
Hartman said Erie's smallmouth fishery is difficult to assess. Unlike young walleye and yellow perch — which inhabit off-shore areas accessible to the agency's open water trawl efforts — young smallmouth bass frequent near-shore shallows. It takes about four years for hatched smallmouth bass to recruit to the fishery, where their presence is displayed in angler catches. That noted, he said fisheries personnel have been seeing more and more young smallmouth bass, a trend that's been happening for some years.
So, in general, fisheries personnel feel smallmouth numbers are on the increase, though it's difficult to say exactly why, if indeed there is one specific reason. It's likely from a combination of factors, one being the no-harvest spring season that was instituted in 2004. Reduced harvest is one direct result, plus lighter angling pressure. Fewer bass are being pulled off nests, perhaps lowering the level of nest predation.
This expanding largemouth bass fishery adds another element to the bass-fishing picture. Embayment fisheries like of Sandusky Bay remain strong. But main-lake areas are also holding green bass, particularly ones that feature cover that includes submergent vegetation with rocky structure.
Bass Locations And Tips
Naturally, the island areas of the western basin — the Bass Islands in particular — provide a wealth of rocky, shallow-water habitat. The water in this section of the lake warms quicker, so the bass should be further along in the spawn by June, perhaps even in the post-spawn period. Post spawn smallmouth bass are often finicky, and respond best to slow moving baits like smaller tubes and stickworms worked along the bottom.
Central basin smallies, living in a deeper, colder environment, often don't finish spawning until later in June. Bass nests can be in 10 or more feet of water due to the clarity. Extensive shoals that extend out into the lake are often good bets now.
The central basin includes several jumping off points that make access to the lake convenient. These include Huron, Vermillion, Lorain, Cleveland, Fairport, Geneva, Ashtabula and Conneaut.
In the Huron and Vermillion area, it's wise to explore the rocky near-shore flats, especially near the Huron and Vermillion rivers. Another top spot in this area is Ruggles Reef, which runs parallel to shore for several miles between these two ports. The reef tops out in five to 15 feet, dropping quickly into depths of 25 or so feet.
Good near-shore bass fishing exists near Lorain, again zeroing in along the rocky ledges that offer bass ambush points to pick off prey. The breakwalls at Lorain tend to hold bass throughout much of the summer; such places often offer up sport for anglers not equipped for taking on the main lake.
The Cleveland metro area provides some good near-shore smallmouth bass opportunities. Some of the best, particularly in the summertime, are found at the artificial reefs located in front of Lakewood. These include two "Cleveland Stadium" reefs, as well as three other artificial reefs found just to the west. Prior to summer, when fish are still relating to shoreline shallows and incoming flows, check out the possibilities provided by the Rocky, Chagrin and Cuyahoga rivers.
Central basin shorelines from Cleveland east to the state line all offer areas of rocky near-shore ledges and humps that hold summertime bass. Good access areas are found at Geneva, Ashtabula and Conneaut. As with areas to the west, breakwalls at access sites are worth investigating, particularly on days when the lake is too rough to fish. Sharp drop-offs to the east of Conneaut, near the Pennsylvania state line, hold bass throughout the summer. Look for water that drops from 25 feet down to 35- to 40-foot depths.
As far as western basin largemouths go, the areas around Marblehead and Catawba have been especially productive.