World’s Greatest Smallmouth Fishery
By Mark Hicks
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
BASINS OF LAKE ERIE
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.
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”
prime smallmouth locations along the northeast Ohio coastline include near shore
areas off Ashtabula and Conneaut.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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