March 03, 2015
By Al Raychard
It's no great secret these days that New York is home to some of the best largemouth and smallmouth bass waters in the country. Some resident enthusiasts no doubt wish the word hadn't gotten out, but it has, and this year anglers will travel from far and wide to take advantage.
A Top Desination
To hordes of general anglers and tournament participants it comes to no surprise that several Empire State waters have made Bassmasters list of 100 best bass lakes in the U.S., not only in 2014, but each year since 2012 when the first listing appeared. Lakes are selected based on various criteria, including access, stocking practices, health and quality of the fishery, catch rates and population studies.
In 2012 and 2013 four New York lakes made the list. Last year the number was six. Overall California, Texas, Florida and other Southern states dominated the top 100 but no state in the Northeast had more listed than New York. If you go by such indicators, bass fishing in New York is only getting better. No wonder a recent survey conducted by the Department of Natural Resources at Cornell University and funded by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's Bureau of Fisheries found nearly three quarters of anglers were satisfied with their bass angling experiences.
New York's nationally-recognized bass fishery can be attributed to several things, but research and good management have to be at the top of the list. Since the early 2000s numerous studies have been conducted by the DEP's Bureau of Fisheries, Cornell University and other contractors on black bass. A number have been specific to individual bodies of water, such as studies on the lower Hudson, Lake Champlain, Lake Erie and Oneida Lake. Others are regional in scope, and a number have been done on the bass fishery statewide.
These studies and research programs provide important data and insight to biologists, allowing them to develop improved practices and regulations to better manage the resource on a local, regional or statewide basis. Black bass (largemouth and smallmouth) are the No. 1 sought-after freshwater game fish in the state, avidly pursued by nearly 400,000 resident and nonresident anglers annually.
Excluding the Great Lakes, that boils down to over five million angler days, 48 percent more than for trout, the second-most sought-after species group. Add in the angler days on Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, and nearly 30 percent of all angling in New York, including saltwater, is directed towards black bass.
A Balancing Act
Knowing this, managers with the NYSDEP are constantly seeking to balance a fishery that offers bass of quality and quantity. A good case in point are the bass angling regulations currently on the books.
Typically, closed fishing seasons are set to ensure production and recruitment is not jeopardized. The goal of the closures is to limit or prevent the removal or disturbance of adult fish protecting nests and fry during the spring spawning season. Because New York is so large and covers so many environmental zones, what is needed to maintain a healthy and quality fishery vary from one lake or river to the next. In other words, living conditions and production capability of a bass lake in the Adirondacks is entirely different than on Long Island or in the western counties.
Other criteria come into play as well, including annual fishing pressure, the number of bass removed during the season, and habitat quality, to name but a few. Studies have clearly proven this and for several years now certain waters or most waters within a given county or region of the state have been managed under rules other than statewide regulations, particularly during the spring spawning period. For the most part, these local rules seem to be working.
The statewide bass season presently opens the third Saturday in June and ends November 30; the minimum length limit is 12 inches and the daily creel limit is five fish. On Lake Erie and its tributaries anglers can enjoy one of the best smallmouth bass fisheries in the northeast, but the retention limit is one fish with a minimum length limit of 20 inches until the statewide opener.
Starting December 1 and running through the first Saturday in May all bass fishing is catch and release by artificial lure only.
Several lakes in the Finger Lakes chain have special bass regulations contrary to the statewide regulations, as does Lake Champlain, parts of the Hudson River, most bass waters on Long Island and numerous lakes, ponds, reservoirs and rivers in specific counties. Although the current regulations may seem confusing, and certainly require that an angler check the regulations before heading out to fish, they have helped provide anglers with one of the healthiest largemouth and smallmouth bass fisheries in the northeast
Some Prime Spots
New York is truly blessed with so many bass hotspots — some that are well known and others that are "sleepers" — that local anglers all have their favorite honey holes and opinions. Here are four fisheries that many will agree consistently produce good action in terms of quantity and quality for one or both black bass species throughout the season.
Throughout the season it is difficult to go wrong on the big lake, perhaps the premier smallmouth bass fishery in the state. The last five state records smallmouth bass came from Lake Erie, including the current record, which tipped the scales at over 8 pounds. Most specimens run between 2 and 4 pounds, but larger bass are not uncommon, especially during the early season before the statewide opener and in the fall when bass are closer to shore and shallow reefs. Success during the summer season calls for deep-water tactics.
Due to the numbers of fish available and good public access, most Lake Erie tributaries also offer superb smallmouth opportunities, in particular Cattaraugus, Eight Mile, Canadaway and Chautauqua creeks.
The DEP web site has an informative page on prime fishing locations and access points on Lake Erie as well as Public Fishing Rights Maps for the various tributaries.
Covering more than 13,150 acres in two basins, Chautauqua Lake offers some of the best largemouth and smallmouth angling in western New York. The north basin, separated from the south by Bemus Point, has an average depth of 25 feet; the south basin has an average depth of just 11 feet. Both basins are infested with weeds that provide plenty of good cover for the fish but demand that anglers be prepared to use weedless spinner baits, plastic worms, crankbaits and surface lures.
Public boat access and shoreline fishing is possible at Prendergast Point on the west side and Long Point State Park and Bemus Point on the east. Try casting plastic worms under docks along the shoreline, especially early and late in the day.
Casting from shore is also productive. Shoreline fishing is available at the places just mentioned as well as at Tom's Point Multiple Use Area and Stow Farm off Route 394 on the east shore and Cheney Far, off Route 430 on the east.
Both largemouth and smallmouth bass are well established in the 11 Finger Lakes and local fishermen who know the lakes well have their favorites.
Two lakes, however, are generally highly rated: Keuka Lake for respectable smallmouths and Honeoye for largemouths.
The smallmouth in Keuka run around 2 pounds, but much larger specimens are possible. Boat access will be found at Keuka Lake State Park in the Branchport arm off Route 54A and in the village of Penn Yan.
In recent DEC electrofishing surveys Honeoye was giving up 100 bass an hour. Biologists consider 20 adult bass per hour a high rate. Needless to say the lake is loaded with largemouth, thanks to its underwater jungle of weeds that provides prime cover.
Actually, it is difficult to go wrong on any of the Finger Lakes, but each has its secrets. To get a jumpstart, one of the best reference guides to accessing and fishing these waters is "Fishing the Finger Lakes," authored by J. Michael Kelly.
In eastern New York Lake Champlain reins as the premiere bass lake. The lake covers 490 square miles, so there is a lot of water to explore but certain locations are noted for producing smallmouth and largemouth action.
For smallmouth, Point Au Fer Reef off Chazy Landing on the north end, St. Albans Bay, the Long Point area off Point Au Roche, Valcour Island and waters around Westport and Crown Point are all popular, to name but a few.
For largemouths, the Catfish Bay area on Scales Point, Kings Bay and all bays south to Ticonderoga are worth hitting. Most of these areas offer boat access. More information is available on the DEC web site.
Fishermen should keep in mind that under the New York/Vermont reciprocal fishing license agreement New York anglers can fish all of Lake Champlain except the Missisquoi Bay, Inland Sea and Mallets Bay areas.
Catching Bass Around the Spawning Period
On New York lakes that allow angling early in the season, before the statewide opener, action for both can be some of the best of the entire year, especially for smallmouths. Smallmouths are more active in colder water than largemouths so it is worth hitting the water even when water temperatures are in the mid-40s.
The smallmouth bite really starts to increase when water temperatures climb into the low and mid-50s, usually in early May, depending upon weather conditions. Look for them hanging in 20 to 30 feet of water. Once the spawning season arrives later in May and into early June, structure and cover is important: brush piles, stumps fields, rock piles, large boulders and ledges, submerged logs and reeds and other grasses offering gravel or sandy bottoms. During the spawn smallmouth are typically closer to shore in two to six feet of water over gravel bottoms or mud flats.
Largemouths prefer warmer temperatures and really get on the feed bag and start to look for spawning sites when water temperatures get into the low 50s. They are nearly always found near cover and structure. Largemouths generally spawn in 1 to 3 feet of water along flooded shorelines, fallen trees, logs, stumps, water lily fields and grassy areas over silt, sand or gravel bottoms. Since the best cover is often close to shore, shore-bound anglers can find some prime action at this time but a tactful approach is advised.
Good offerings during the pre-spawn and spawning periods include a host of mid- and shallow water jigs, split-shot plastic worms, crank baits and spinner baits along with floating and mid-water Rapalas and Cordells baits in the shallows. Experiment with different color combinations and sizes.
Catching bass during the recuperative post-spawn period in late June or so can be a challenge. The post-spawn lasts about two weeks. Both largemouth and smallmouths will generally go to deep water, down to 20 feet or more. Fishing early and late in the day when bass may be found in shallower water with a top water rig often produces the best action.
The same is true during the summer. Bass typically hang deep during the day, moving towards the shore, mid-lake structure and cover to feed early and late in the day. Action can be good midday when overcast but hitting the water before sunrise and an hour or two before sunset are prime hours.
During the fall as water temperatures start to cool both bass will start moving and holding in shallower water, along the deep edge of points, sandbars, reefs and along the edge of channels, but again cover and structure can be important. Many of the areas fished during the pre-spawn can be productive, especially where shallow water drops to deep. Try working some topwater baits even flies to get a response early and late in the day switching to deep-running rigs when the sun is high.
Throughout the season keep an eye on the weather. Bass, like all predator fish, react to changes in weather conditions. The approach of a front, such as rain wind, overcast conditions or a change in daytime temperatures typically get bass on the feed bag and fishing can be productive throughout the day. The opposite is true of long periods of clear, warm, sun-filled days.
In general, if water temperatures are cool, such as during the early spring and fall, the warmest period of day will produce the best action. If the water temperatures are warm, such as during the summer months the coolest times of day, morning and evening, are best.