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Lake Erie Trifecta: Perch, Smallies & Walleyes

Lake Erie Trifecta: Perch, Smallies & Walleyes
(Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

Lake Erie
Erie's early spring shallow bass can be caught on a variety of lures. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

These three species are all good bets for May fishing on Lake Erie.

Anglers like to fish for walleyes, yellow perch and smallmouth bass. All three of these species have their special qualities, from the renowned fighting ability of the brown bass, to the succulent table qualities of perch and walleyes.

Many inland waters provide excellent angling for these finned prizes. But when you are fishing the big waters of Lake Erie, the potential rises to another level. Smallmouth bass in excess of 5 pounds; walleye action that ranges from eatin' size to wall-hangers, often during the same day; yellow perch that define the term "jumbo."

Here's a look at how to cash in on the action this spring.

Lake Erie
The beauty of spring walleye fishing on Erie is that the fish tend to be closer to shore. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)


Last year was an excellent year for walleye anglers on Lake Erie, and more can be expected this year. Survey work by various resource agencies reveal excellent-to-average walleye hatches in three of the last four years. Many of the fish that were just sub-legal last season will be in that desirable 17- to 19-inch range this spring. These young fish will complement older age-class walleyes (including remnants of the record 2003-year class), creating a fish population base that should give Erie walleye enthusiasts a banner year, boxing fish of all sizes, including trophy fish.

The beauty of spring walleye fishing on Erie is that the fish tend to be closer to shore. Older fish heading to shore, combined with a strong population of younger walleyes, which by nature seem to hug the shallower zones, creates a situation where anglers in smaller boats can reap the harvest, since they can stay much closer to port. Depths of 20 to 45 feet can be productive at this time, which are within two to three miles of Erie's southern shore in many areas.

While there are many tactics for taking Lake Erie walleyes, during spring and early summer I've had excellent success employing these three: flutter spoons fished behind a Dipsey Diver; trolling stickbaits on leadcore line; and pulling deep diving crankbaits on thin diameter braided line.

The spoon/Dipsey Diver combo is a classic on Lake Erie with spoons like Michigan Stinger Scorpion being effective. Dipsey Divers are directional trolling sinkers that come in various sizes. The larger the diameter, the deeper it will dive. The device can also be adjusted in various degrees to run to the left or right, though doing so lessens the depth it will achieve. This feature allows you to run multiple lines off to the side, and out of the boat's path. When a fish hits a lure pulled behind a Dipsey, the device "trips," so you can fight the fish without the strong resistance presented by the Dipsey.

Here are some tips when using Dipseys: Keep the length of the leader, the section of nylon monofilament that runs between the Dipsey and the spoon, of modest length, no longer than the length of the trolling rod. Too long a leader will make netting walleyes difficult. Likewise, don't go with too light a leader. Steelhead and freshwater drum also hit spoons; you'll experience break-offs from these species during the initial strike if you use light line. I prefer 20-pound test Gamma Edge. There's an adjustment screw on a Dipsey that governs the amount of pressure needed to trip it. You'll need to experiment with this tension screw, attempting to achieve the right balance so the device doesn't trip from the added pressure experienced in outside turns (and bouncing in waves), but still trips when a fish hooks up.

Leadcore line trolling and longline trolling are also effective, the latter more so when working depths in the 25- to 35-foot range. Leadcore line, particularly when teamed with a line counter reel, allows for precise depth control. Stickbaits like Storm's Thunderstick and the Renosky are classic producers behind leadcore.

Deep diving crankbaits — I've had great success with Rapala's Deep Tail Dancer — can get down in the 20-foot range when run back 125 feet on 15-pound-test Gamma Torque braided line with a fluorocarbon leader. With both setups, attention to detail is crucial. Experiment with let-out and color choices until success is achieved, and then duplicate things to continue the walleye fest. Trolling speeds in the 2- to 2.5-mph range tend to be best.

Lake Erie
Erie remains a world-class lake for big smallmouths. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)


Though smallmouth bass fishing isn't as easy as it was a couple decades ago, in part due to the added forage option of the invasive round goby, Erie remains a great destination for bronzebacks, particularly for big ones.

Bass fishing expert Deron Eck has plied the waters of Erie for decades, winning major tournaments on the lake, and learning its secrets throughout the seasons. During the spring and early summer, his advice is to fish shallow.

"At that time of year, I'll first look at areas close to shore that are in the six to 10-foot range," Eck noted. "Especially productive are places where there are incoming creeks."

Creek mouths typically feature rocky shoals that extend well out into the lake. The habitat is attractive to the fish. And in some cases, when the feeder stream is of significant size, bass will actually ascend the stream to spawn. So, these shoals act as staging areas of sorts of pre-spawn bass.

Since shallow bass tend to be biting bass, Eck first employs some type of moving bait like a suspending jerkbait or shallow running crankbait. If the day is overcast, he goes with a perch pattern. If it's clear out, less colorful options like a shiner pattern often work better. He gauges the style of jerkbait to the depths he's working.

For instance, if he's fishing close to a shoal and covering water in the 5- to 7-foot range, it might be a Rapala Shadow Rap. When he moves farther out into the lake, he'll pick up a rod rigged with a Shadow Rap Deep.

More on Lake Erie fishing

 If a west or east wind is blowing parallel to shore, it can also be effective to simply allow the boat to drift with the wind while you pull suspending jerkbaits along behind. It's a highly effective approach when wind lessens your sense of feel. In the clear water of Erie, bass will rise up from 12-15 feet of water to hit a drifted jerkbait being towed along.

Also, not all the bass will be stacked up in front of creek mouths. If Eck finds good numbers of fish related to these areas in, say, 10 feet of water, he'll explore this same contour, looking for points and cuts that collect fish. These less-obvious spots are often overlooked by other anglers, but not by the bass.

Fishing Tips from the Pros

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In addition to hardbaits, Eck says soft swimbaits and swimming grubs can be deadly. He likes to make long casts and employ a steady retrieve.

Eck believes the most active, catchable fish during May and early June are in the shallows. But if those areas aren't producing, he'll move out to water as deep as 25 feet, looking for breaks in the contour that collect fish.

Key presentations in this situation are drop shot rigs teamed with soft plastics like Jackall's Cross Tail Shad, and tube jigs. For the clear waters of Erie, Eck likes 6-pound test Gamma Edge fluorocarbon line.

Protected bays and estuaries also come into play during spring smallmouth fishing on Erie, as some segments of the bass population move into places like Presque Isle Bay and Sandusky Bay.

Eck spends plenty of time in the former place, targeting 4- to 6-foot deep sand flats where bass will eventually spawn. Swimming grubs are one of his favorite presentations in this situation. Deeper humps out in front of Marina Bay can also be productive now.

yellow perch
Find Erie's yellow perch in deeper water as the summer progresses. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)


As with walleyes, Erie's yellow perch have had several good years of reproduction, so odds are in favor of good perchin' this season.

Fishing the waters near the Pennsylvania/Ohio border, Don Gariglio has many years of experience on Erie, chasing both walleyes and yellow perch. When considering spring and early summer angling for the latter, he suggests folks key in on the 25-to 40-foot depth range.

"Later in the summer it's necessary to work out in the deeper water, but now you want to stay shallower," Gariglio said.

Finding perch in a lake as vast as Erie, particularly when the most productive presentations tend to be stationary ones, can be a challenge. Fortunately, the network of information concerning schools of perch is extensive (radio chatter for example), but can be as simple as keeping your eyes open.

"There's always someone fishing, and catching perch," Gariglio noted. "So, seeing a few boats packed together is usually a good indication as to a potential perch spot."

Gariglio isn't recommending moving right in on other anglers, but perch schools are often extensive, so circling a respectable distance from others while scanning the bottom isn't poor manners. Expect to see perch fairly tight to the bottom on a sonar unit; they will often appear as a slight rise up off the bottom.

Once he's located a spot to fish, Gariglio anchors his boat, planning its position so it settles in right above the area he plans to fish. In other words, keeping in mind that he often uses most of his 150-foot anchor rope, he motors upwind the appropriate distance, drops a heavy anchor, and allows the boat to drift back into position. If, after 30 to 40 minutes he has no action, he moves.

Gariglio goes heavy on the line and leader, using 50-pound test braided line, and 20-pound test fluorocarbon for the leaders on his two-hook spreader rig. He feels this setup gives him good feel. Sinkers in the 1 1/4- to 1 1/2-ounce range are used to quickly lower the rig to the bottom. When the perch are on the feed he likes to fish fast, taking full advantage of feeding forays.

While he's had some success with soft plastic baits, such as grubs — especially when used on one hook of a two-hook spreader rig — he's a firm believer that live minnows will out-produce plastic in most instances. When he does use plastic it's on the upper hook of the two-hook rig.

During recent years securing live minnows has been an issue for Erie perch anglers, partly due to transportation restrictions to minimize the spread of disease throughout the Great Lakes, and also because of a down cycle in emerald shiner populations of late. But in Gariglio's experience, the minnows need not be emeralds to work.

"Emerald shiners are the native baitfish, but other species work well," he reported. "We've done just as well on small golden shiners and fathead minnows."

So, whether your passion is perch, smallies or walleyes, or perhaps all three, now's the time to head up to the big lake to enjoy the kind of action anglers from distant locations dream about.

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