The World’s Greatest Smallmouth Fishery
By Mark Hicks

Lake Erie, the undisputed “Walleye Capital of the World,” reigns as the “Smallmouth Bass Capital” as well. From Ohio’s Bass islands to Buffalo, New York, Lake Erie gives up scads of quality smallmouth bass.

At this writing, Lake Erie has produced state record smallmouth bass for Ohio, 9 pounds, 8 ounces, and New York, 8 pounds, 4 ounces. Now that Pennsylvania has opened a trophy spring smallmouth season, their current state record smallmouth, taken on an inland lake, is in serious jeopardy.           

“With the trophy season,” says Gary Moore of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, “we hope to see the smallmouth record become part of the Lake Erie system. If there’s anytime it’s going to be broken, it’ll be between mid-April and mid-June.”            

Southern states have yielded bigger smallmouths, but no place gives up quantities of quality bass like Lake Erie. It’s common for a pair of anglers to land more than 50 smallmouths here in one day.           

Before the introduction of the Clean Water Act in 1972, unchecked pollution and unregulated commercial netting devastated many of Erie’s game fish populations, such as walleye and the now extinct blue pike. But even during the worst of times, smallmouth bass thrived around the many islands in western Lake Erie and in other areas. Thanks to a steady decline in pollution and the spread of no-till farming practices, Lake Erie’s water quality has improved dramatically over the past 25 years. Smallmouth bass, and the anglers who pursue them, have benefited.           

“I’ve run bass charters on Erie for over 20 years,” says noted charter captain Dave Demeter, who docks at Fox Haven Marina on Ohio’s Catawba Island. “The lake has always produced lots of 3- and 4-pound fish. But now we’re catching more bass over 5 pounds.” 


The foundation for this peerless smallmouth fishery can be described in one word—-habitat. Lake Erie is the southernmost, shallowest, warmest and most fertile of all the Great Lakes. Here smallmouth bass enjoy a long growing season, abundant baitfish and crayfish, and ample hard-bottom areas where they spawn and feed. 


When zebra mussels invaded Lake Erie from overseas in the latter 1980s, they proliferated at an extraordinary rate. These tiny shellfish now cover virtually all the hard rock and gravel bottoms that Lake Erie’s smallmouths call home.           

Each mussel filters over a liter of water per day as it feeds, removing small particles, including plankton, the base of the food chain. The result has been a dramatic increase in Lake Erie’s water clarity, which is a primary reason for the sudden surge in the smallmouth population.             

Fisheries biologists feared that zebra mussels would undermine the smallmouth fishery by reducing nutrients and spoiling spawning areas. As it turns out, smallmouths spawn nicely on top of the zebras. So much so that smallmouths are establishing strong populations in areas where they previously existed in small numbers. The extensive reef system to the west of Ohio’s Catawba Island, for example, has long been a key spawning area for walleyes in the spring. Now that zebra mussels cover these structures, smallmouth bass are caught here in much greater numbers.           

The increased water clarity caused by zebra mussels also has improved the smallmouth’s feeding efficiency. The bass can see and assault baitfish and other forage from greater distances than in the past, hence the increase in their size. 


Other exotic species in Lake Erie have caused concern regarding their impact on native fish. One invader is the round goby from the Black Sea, which looks a lot like a sculpin, a native Lake Erie species. Gobies feed primarily on zebra mussels and also compete with sculpins, darters and other bottom-dwelling fish for snails and aquatic insects.           

Gobies have intruded upon the rocky bottom structures that smallmouth bass call home. Though the overall impact of this nuisance species is negative, smallmouths find the plump, soft-finned goby to be an easy meal.  “Gobies cause a decline in sculpin populations and an increase in smallmouth bass populations,” says Roger Thoma, an Environmental Specialist with the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency.                       

Zebra mussels, gobies and other exotics were introduced by ocean going ships that dumped ballast water from overseas into the Great Lakes. In an effort to prevent other nuisance species from entering the Great Lakes, ships traveling the St. Lawrence Seaway from foreign ports now must exchange ballast water before passing through the first U.S. lock.


Stretching 210 miles northeast from Toledo, Ohio, to Buffalo, New York—with a breath of 57 miles—Lake Erie contains three distinctly different basins. It is divided along its length by the Canadian boundary line. Fabulous smallmouth fishing exists in Canadian and U.S. waters. 

WESTERN BASIN           

Lake Erie’s shallow western basin contains the most extensive smallmouth habitat and receives the heaviest fishing pressure for this species. The western basin averages 24 feet deep and lies west of an imaginary line extending north across Lake Erie from Cedar Point, Ohio, to Pelee Point, Ontario. This portion of the lake contains the Ohio islands of South Bass, Middle Bass, North Bass and Kelley’s, as well as Ontario’s Pelee Island. The hard bottoms around these islands feature countless points, humps, flats and drop-offs, which are prime smallmouth structures.           

Smaller islands and many offshore reefs in the western basin also furnish excellent fishing, as do the near shore areas around Catawba Island (actually a peninsula) and east to Sandusky Bay. Sandusky Bay and the protected marinas on Catawba Island produce good smallmouth fishing in the spring, but bass generally run bigger on the main lake.           

In the Michigan waters of Erie, limited smallmouth habitat exists compared to the rest of the lake. But Ontario waters, from the mouth of the Detroit River east to Pelee Point, deliver exceptional bass fishing. 

CENTRAL BASIN           

The central basin stretches from Cedar Point, Ohio, to Erie, Pennsylvania. In recent years, fishing pressure from Huron to Avon Point has increased substantially. However, the stretch from Avon Point to Erie, Pennsylvania, sees relatively few smallmouth anglers, with the exception of Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle Bay. The bottom drops off more sharply in the central basin, with depths to 30 feet generally within 1 to 3 miles of shore and a maximum depth of more than 80 feet. Hard bottom areas near shore comprise expansive smallmouth habitat.           

Key smallmouth waters in the central basin include near shore bottom structures from Huron to Avon Point, which lies west of Cleveland. Smallmouths are taken along the Cleveland lakefront, primarily off man-made break walls and Cleveland’s artificial reefs, but the mud and sand bottom in this area is generally not conducive to smallmouth bass.           

East of Cleveland, rocky smallmouth habitat again shows up at Fairport Harbor. The best fishing takes place from the break walls in front of the harbor west to Mentor Harbor. Many productive near shore spots all along the southern shoreline of Lake Erie are related to the mouths of tributaries.           

“Creeks and rivers bring fertile water into the lake,” says Ohioan Jeff Snyder, a career bass angler who probably has more firsthand experience fishing for smallmouth bass throughout Lake Erie than anyone alive. “More fertility means more food, more food means more shad, more shad means more smallmouth bass.”           

Other prime smallmouth locations along the northeast Ohio coastline include near shore areas off Ashtabula and Conneaut.

“It’s one of the best big fish areas on the lake,” says Snyder of Conneaut. “There’s a tremendous amount of rocks and drops out there. I do especially well along a 5-mile stretch just west of Conneaut.”           

Heading east from Conneaut into Pennsylvania waters, you are likely to catch bass along near shore areas all the way to Presque Isle. Hard bottom structures just west of Presque Isle are especially good.           

Presque Isle Bay, at Erie, Pennsylvania, is protected by Presque Isle peninsula. Many smallmouths are taken from weed beds in the bay in spring and early summer, but larger bass are generally taken out on the main lake.           

The Canadian side of the central basin offers comparatively few smallmouth fishing opportunities.  “That stretch,” says fisheries ecology supervisor Phil Ryan of the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, “doesn’t have the right bottom composition. It’s primarily sand and drops off sharply.” 

EASTERN BASIN           

East of Presque Isle lies the eastern basin, which continues to Buffalo, New York, and holds the deepest, clearest water in Lake Erie. It is bordered by cliffs, features deeper water closer to shore and plunges to a depth of 210 feet. The Pennsylvania waters east of Presque Isle see relatively few bass anglers despite excellent fishing, especially in front of Sixteen mile Creek and Twenty mile Creek.           

Moving east along Erie’s coast, near shore smallmouth structures—rocky flats, humps and points—become more prominent and expansive. Here smallmouths grow bigger and more abundant.           

Superb smallmouth fishing in New York begins at Barcelona. Launch here and you’ll find bass on near shore bottom structures to the east and west. Farther east lays Van Buren Point, which drops, into an extensive stretch of smallmouth habitat that reaches far into the lake.           

Next comes Dunkirk, which gives up good bass in its bay during the spring and along near shore structures to the east and west. The next hot smallmouth water is found outside Evangola State Park, particularly the stretch from Evangola east to Silver Creek.           

Farther up the coast lies Sturgeon Point, an especially popular fishing area. Put in here and fish west past Muddy Creek. The water from Sturgeon Point to Buffalo is home to Jim Hanley, a local bass pro, TV host, bass guide and fishing promoter for Erie County and Buffalo. Known as the “Dean of Smallmouth,” Hanley has witnessed Erie’s smallmouth bass explosion first hand.           

“The smallmouth fishing,” says Hanley, “has always been good. But with the dramatic increase in water clarity, it has gone from being a very good fishery to where, now, it’s just beyond belief.”           

Some of the better smallmouth fishing east of Sturgeon Point includes a series of humps and shoals in front of Eighteen mile Creek, Seneca Shoal (an offshore structure out from Buffalo) and near shore bottom structures in the very southeast corner of the lake.           

Rocky bottom structures and points along the Ontario shoreline of the eastern basin, from Buffalo west to Long Point, also support legions of bass. The Inner Bay of Long Point provides an important smallmouth spawning area. 

Note: This article is a condensed version of the first chapter in “Lake Erie Smallmouth,” a new book by Mark Hicks. The book tells where and how to catch smallmouth bass throughout Lake Erie and includes 41 detailed fishing maps.   Send $14.95, plus $3.50 shipping to Big River Press, P.O. Box 130, Millfield, OH 45761. (Ohio residents add $0.93 tax.) For credit card orders call: 1-800-447-8238.