Smallmouth On the Rocks
by Melissa Hathaway

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It’s "Smallmouth on the Rocks" for bass anglers on the Ohio waters of Lake Erie. Mid-to-Late Spring and early Summer bass anglers on this southern-most Great Lake know that where there is rocky structure there are lunker smallmouth bass ready to turn on.

It is no coincidence that the "Bass Islands" of western Lake Erie are so-named. The rocky shorelines and drop-offs around the islands were historically known for quality smallmouth fishing, but the 1990’s exploded with a whole new wave of smallmouth mania, says the ODNR Division of Wildlife. Lake Erie’s entire waters are teaming with smallmouth bass.

Smallies are taken around all the Western Basin islands, Western Basin reefs, along rocky shorelines across the entire mainland, nearshore areas and breakwalls from Huron to Conneaut, and the open water.

The third most sought after species in Lake Erie, smallmouth bass is gaining ground on walleye and yellow perch as more and more anglers discover the joys of pursuing these high-jumping, feisty fish. Last year the popular In-Fisherman Magazine named Lake Erie "the World’s Best Smallmouth Bite."

As Lake Erie’s water temperatures exceed 50 degrees Fahrenheit in spring, bass anglers from across the country travel to Ohio to get a piece of the action. The procession of vehicles towing bass boats continues through October with the peak smallmouth fishing in May, June, August, and September. One or more bass tournaments, many on the national level, are held on the lake and Sandusky Bay almost any given weekend throughout the season.

It is ironic that these feisty fish are often nicknamed "smallies" because on Lake Erie they are not only plentiful, they are big! Catches currently average 14 to 17 inches, with many larger fish in the 18- to 20-inch range also caught. Ohio’s state record for smallmouth bass caught in the Bass Islands area in June 1993 weighed in at 9.5 pounds and was 23.5 inches in length.

Good spawning success in the 1990s, good numbers of forage fish eaten by bass, and catch-and-release practices by bass anglers have helped Lake Erie’s smallmouth population to thrive. (Angler interviews indicate that more than 80 percent of the bass caught on Lake Erie are released back into the lake.) Still, angling pressure for these fun-to-catch fighters increased five-fold during the 1990s. To help conserve the smallmouth bass population, the Division last year decreased the legal daily bag limit for smallm outh bass from eight to five with a minimum size length of 14 inches.

To get a better handle on Lake Erie’s smallmouth bass population, the Division of Wildlife is conducting studies to better determine harvest, smallmouth bass movements, habitat use, stock composition, spawning habitats, early life history, and biological factors that are affecting the bass population. This, in turn, will help determine appropriate management strategies and regulations for this popular species.

Division biologists have been tagging smallmouth bass in areas off Middle Bass, South Bass, and North Bass islands. Lake Erie anglers who catch a smallmouth bass bearing a metal jaw tag, are encouraged to report it to the Ohio Division of Wildlife at (419) 625-8062.

Besides the tagging studies, the Division is sponsoring research being conducted by The Ohio State University. Researchers are using scuba gear for underwater observations to document spawning habits and interactions between smallmouth bass and exotic species, particularly round gobies. Gobies, those plentiful, little, bait-stealing invader species that entered the Great Lakes in 1990, have been observed preying on eggs and fry of smallmouth bass.

The Division of Wildlife predicts that fishing for smallmouth bass on Lake Erie should remain good to excellent during 2001 and beyond. Bass anglers can expect to land smallies from spawns of 1995, 1996, and 1997 now ranging in size from 14 to 17 inches. Hot spots should include the Bass and Kelleys islands areas, Western Basin reef complex, Sandusky Bay, Ruggles Reef, artificial reefs in the Lorain/Cleveland area, and harbor breakwalls from Cleveland to Conneaut.

Anglers can find out more about smallmouth bass fishing on Lake Erie by requesting a Lake Erie Fishing Guide by calling 1-800-WILDLIFE (1-800-945-3543). The guide also includes information on launching facilities and who to contact for lodging and charter fishing information. A recorded Lake Erie fishing report is available by calling 1-888-HOOK FISH (1-888-466-5347).

Where and How to Fish for Lake Erie Smallmouth Bass

Knowing the habits of smallmouth bass is important to maximizing your fishing efforts. Smallmouth bass have relatively small home ranges and do not move great distances in Lake Erie like walleye. Smallmouth bass associate with bottom structure, preferring rock, rubble, gravel and sand substrates.

As water temperatures exceed 50 degrees Fahrenheit in the spring, adult smallmouth move from deep water wintering sites to shallow spawning areas. Spawning occurs at depths of 4 to 20 feet at water temperatures between 55 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, usually in May. After spawning, adult smallmouth move to summer foraging areas at water temperatures of 65 to 75 degrees Fahrenheit, usually by July. The depth of their summering area depends on water clarity, available forage, and weather. As water temperatures drop below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, they move to deeper waters in their home zone, where they remain in a semidormant condition during the winter months.

Structure is the key. Look for rocky structures: gravel bottoms, rocky ledges, shelves, drop-offs, humps, shoals, reefs, breakwalls, piers, rocky and rip rap shorelines, and rocky bottoms in open water areas. Boat anglers have more of an advantage by drifting and moving from spot to spot, but shore anglers catch their share of smallies from rocky shorelines, piers, breakwalls and docks, all popular haunts of smallmouth.

Many anglers use jigs, plastic worms, or scented baits fished over rocky bottoms in 8 to 20 feet of water. Live baits generally provide the best success with crayfish and shiner minnows the preferred live baits. A traditional presentation still successful today is a lead headed jig tipped with a piece of nightcrawler, or plastic worm, grub, or tube bait. Anglers also cast artificial baits, including crankbaits, spinners, and blades. Baits and lures are worked along shallow reef bottoms, shoals and ledges, and near bottom along rocky shorelines in the spring and fall. Anglers generally find better success in mid-summer by fishing along rocky bottoms in open water and nearshore areas.

Most bass anglers practice catch-and-release. But for those who prefer to keep their catch, Ohio law requires that smallmouth bass caught in Lake Erie be released back into the lake if they are less than 14 inches long. There is a daily bag limit of eight fish per angler.

Some smallmouth hot spots in the Western Basin include the Bass Islands, Kelleys Island, and as well as the other small islands, near shore reef complex west of Port Clinton, Sandusky Bay, and nearshore areas, shorelines, and piers along Marblehead, Catawba and Sandusky. Excellent Central Basin smallmouth territory include Ruggles Reef off Vermilion, the artificial reefs off Lorain and Cleveland, breakwalls at Huron, Vermilion, Lorain, Fairport Harbor, Conneaut and Ashtabula, Perry Nuclear Plant east of Fairport Harbor, and nearshore areas from Fairport Harbor to Conneaut. Contact: Melissa Hathaway, ODNR Division of Wildlife (419) 625-8062.