Tips On Lake Erie Smallmouth Bass Fishing
Lake Erie is an unbelievable smallmouth bass fishery, arguably the best that North America has to offer. Fish over 5 pounds are common and mules over 7 pounds are never out of reach.
There’s more than one way to catch big Lake Erie smallmouths, but these 10 tips, gleaned from more than a dozen years of Lake Erie tournament experience, will help you put bigger smallmouths in the boat from Ohio’s western basin to Pennsylvania’s Safe Harbor area or anywhere in between.
UNDERSTAND THE SPRING SPAWN
Whether you are fishing Erie’s main-lake shoreline or one of the large, protected bays, springtime smallmouth movements revolve around the spawn.
From mid-April into early May, fish start to migrate from wintering areas, which are usually the first major dropoffs adjacent to spawning areas, and begin to stage on underwater points between 15 and 30 feet deep.
Male fish cruise the spawning flats in search of prime bedding locations, which are usually found in depths between 10 and 20 feet, while the larger females feed heavily in the deeper water surrounding the flats. When water temperatures reach between 55 and 60 degrees, female bass filter onto the flats and begin to spawn.
The bass spawn later as you move east, with western basin smallmouth spawning activity peaking in mid-May, the central basin spawn usually peaking in late May, and in the deep, clear waters of the eastern basin, bronzebacks will spawn between early and mid-June.
After spawning, the bass move to the deeper water surrounding their spawning areas to feed and rest before migrating to the deep offshore humps and shoals they call home during the summer and early fall months.
IDENTIFY SPAWNING STRUCTURE
Structure includes the basic make-up and configuration of the bottom. Most spring bass activity revolves around the spawn, so it is important to be able to identify prime spawning areas. Spawning bass prefer shallow flats close to the shoreline, particularly areas with an erratic bottom consisting of sand, chunk rock and gravel.
Look for large rocks that may be scattered over flat areas. Males will make beds against these large rocks, requiring them to stand guard over just three sides of the nest. The largest and most dominant females will deposit their eggs into these well-protected beds.
Often, excellent spawning structure may be found around the mouths of the many creeks and rivers that feed the lake. Also, be aware of shoreline features such as beaches, riprap walls or gravel banks, which give an indication of what may be below the water’s surface.
Consistently successful smallmouth fishermen fully understand their LCD fish-finder, which can be used to identify prime bass structure, baitfish or schools of bass. These units also allow anglers to easily distinguish between several types of hard and soft bottoms, which is important because smallmouth bass spend more than 90 percent of their time over some type of hard bottom.
LCD graphs are excellent tools for fishermen if utilized to their full potential. Every model of LCD is different, so get familiar with the functions of your particular unit. Browsing your owner’s manual is fine, but the real learning will come through on-the-water experience.
FIND THE BAITFISH
Before and after the spawn, smallmouths won’t be found far from an easy meal. It’s true that Erie’s bass dearly love crayfish and gobies, gobbling them up when available, but the lake’s abundant supply of baitfish are a primary food source and also the easiest for anglers to locate.
Search the dropoffs surrounding spawning areas for schools of emerald shiners, shad or yellow perch. On an LCD unit, these schools will appear as large, dark masses suspended in the water column, directly over the dropoff.
A tightly grouped mass of bait usually indicates minimal bass feeding activity, while bait schools under attack will appear horizontally elongated or broken up as bass and other predators rip through them. These active schools of bait can attract dozens of bass and should never be overlooked.
HOVERING AT DROPOFFS
There are several ways to catch active bass near dropoffs, but none are as effective and deadly as the “hovering” technique.
To “hover,” point the nose of your boat into the wind and use the trolling motor to hold the boat steady off the edge of the drop. Work tubes, grubs or drop-shot rigs tipped with shad or goby imitators with the wind. Cast to the fish repeatedly, keeping the lure in front of the fish longer to produce more bites.
When using this technique, mark the edge of the drop with a buoy. This will help reference the target so you can reposition the boat accordingly.
DRIFT THE FLATS
When bass are scattered over spawning flats, drifting is usually the best producer. Drifting means letting your lure drag along the bottom as the wind pushes the boat along. When the fish are spread over large areas, drifting allows you to cover water rapidly as you search for cruising or bedded bass.
Tube baits from 3 1/2 to 5 inches long are great for drifting and will perfectly mimic shallow-water prey like crayfish and gobies, drawing strikes from bass that are feeding or guarding nests. Tube baits in shades of watermelon or green pumpkin fished on 1/4- to 1/2-ounce tube heads will cover most situations.
Experiment with water depth, drift speed and lure weight. In windy conditions, a drift sock will help to slow your drift.
It’s not uncommon to catch several fish in one area, so when you catch a fish, mark the area with a buoy and drift it several times.
RUN AND GUN
“Run and gun” is a term tournament fishermen use to describe the technique of running their boats to specific fish-holding structure, making several casts, and then moving on to another area. This technique is great when you know fish may be found in particular areas.
When running and gunning, start by making a list of spots you want to try. Start with areas that are farthest from the boat ramp and fish your way back, not spending any more that 30 minutes in any one spot.
It is common for the largest, most dominant fish in an area to feed first, so this technique allows you to catch the best fish t
hat each hotspot has to offer, and can produce several trophy fish in a single day.
ADD A RATTLE
Smallmouth bass are curious creatures and sound can be a major attractant. Scuba divers tell about being surrounded by 4-pound bass by simply banging two rocks together, so adding noise to your favorite lures could improve your fishing.
Insert glass rattles into soft plastics and use snagless rattling sinkers to add sound to your drop-shot rigs. Rattles work so well that I modify all of my tube jig molds to incorporate a rattle chamber into the heads.
USE AN UNDERWATER CAMERA
Underwater cameras are great tools for smallmouth fishermen. The cameras can be used to identify schools of bass, find bedded fish on spawning flats, or examine irregular bottom features. The camera can also be used to determine the most available forage in an area and the presence of vegetation.
More importantly though, an underwater camera can help you to interpret what you see on your LCD. It drastically shortens the learning curve, by allowing you to actually see what is underwater and then compare it to the reading on your graph. Be aware that, on average, Erie’s water conditions only allow good camera visibility about 50 percent of the time, so a camera should never be used as a substitute for a good LCD.
KEEP A LOG
I can’t emphasize enough the importance of keeping good records. Carry a logbook on every fishing trip and jot down any detail of the day that seems relevant. Record items such as weather conditions, wind direction, locations and depths of catches, GPS coordinates, bottom types and water temperatures. Information must be accurate and the more details that you can include, the easier it will be to piece the smallmouth puzzle together.
Your logbook can also make very interesting reading. It’s very refreshing to relive past fishing experiences and formulate new game plans, especially when Old Man Winter takes hold and cabin fever sets in.
Catching Lake Erie’s smallmouth bass can be very challenging, but by doing a little research, keeping good records and incorporating these tips into your fishing, you will soon understand why the waters of Erie are referred to as the best smallmouth bass fishing in North America.