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Erie Smallmouth

Erie Smallmouth Erie Smallmouth
By Dave Adams

It is a give and take struggle, with the long runs preceding three spectacular jumps. Moments later, with the net straining under five pounds of fish, I’m admiring the first of the day, a 20 inch smallmouth bass.

If there is a heaven for the smallmouth bass angler, it’s here - at perhaps the best smallmouth bass water in the world. And once you’ve fished Lake Erie, you’ll agree too.

During June and for the better part of July, that statement is easy to make because at this time, bass fishing on Lake Erie is at its best. 40 fish days are common, and some bass caught will approach six pounds. To be successful, though, you’ll need are a few tips on locations and tactics.

As with any body of water certain “hot spots” are best. And two areas along the Pennsylvania shoreline of Lake Erie are “must try” spots for the bass angler: both have a gradual sloping rock bottom that consistently attracts large bass. The first (nicknamed the "cribs") is four miles east of Presque Isle Bay. Here, two concrete pilings, situated approximately one half-mile offshore, can be used as a marker. Fishing is best to the east of that marker. The second area (nicknamed the “W`s” for the water trails cut in the cliff) is five miles west of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission marina at North East PA. In this area, use the cliff as a center point and fish one mile east or west of the cliff. Depending on wind and direction of drift, and at both areas, work the 12 to 35 foot depths.

Although none are known as "the spot,” other areas along the rocky shoreline, also, are home to big hungry bass. These alternative fishing spots can be productive and as a bonus require a shorter boat ride. From Presque Isle Bay, turn the boat east (as you exit the bay, turn right) and try anywhere from the old Hammermill Paper plant (visible by the smokestacks next to the bay entrance) to the cribs. The 25 to 30 foot depths are best in this area.

Near the North East marina is a small, but productive spot nicknamed the “rock piles.” Approximately 150 yards wide and as long, it is one mile west (exiting the marina, turn left) and near the mouth of Sixteen Mile Creek. Begin in 12 feet of water at the tributary mouth, and continue working east and north towards the marina until you reach the depth of 35 feet. A key point here: The prevailing winds on Lake Erie are from the southwest. If you get a day such as that, don't overlook this spot.

Because of Lake Erie’s ever changing water clarity and food supply, tactics to catch bass vary as well. And many of these changes are a result of man’s intervention.

Most notable of all is the zebra mussel. This efficient plankton-filtering machine has increased visibility from four feet back in the "70's,” to currently, more than 50 feet. Another intruder, originally from the Black and Caspian seas, is the round goby. This small fish first appeared in Lake Superior’s Duluth/Superior harbor in 1995. Once firmly entrenched in the Great Lake’s food chain, they not only changed the feeding habits of bass, but forced anglers to alter fishing tactics, in particular, live bait presentations. Consequently, presentation becomes even more important. Bass can see the boat and lure from 50 feet; and if you’re not aware of the best times for bait fishing, the goby, with its voracious appetite, will engulf that live bait long before a lunker bass does.

During early June, when the water temperature is near 60 degrees, bass are hungry, but not quite on that post-spawn summer feeding frenzy. Gobies, however, are starving. Therefore, any attempt at live bait fishing is futile because this scourge of Lake Erie (the goby) will readily beat any bass to the dinner table. But the goby is a bottom dweller. And the most productive tactic to avoid this fish, by far, is trolling plugs. A favorite setup of successful anglers is the 3 ½ inch Thunderstick (darker colors) or 2-½ inch Shad Rap (black/silver). Since the strike zone for bass is 10 to 12 feet below the surface, a good mid-range trolling point is the 20 to 25 foot depths. With a lead of 120 feet, using eight-pound line, and a trolling speed of 1.2 MPH both the Thunderstick and Shad Rap will reach the strike zone.

For an extra-special touch in clear water presentations, use in line planer boards. By running plugs out and away from the boat the more intelligent (boat shy) and larger bass will be caught.

Around mid-June and continuing until the end of July, live bait or traditional jigs can be used. Sure, you will catch your share of gobies, but the furious action from aggressive and hungry post-spawn bass will more than make up for the aggravation of losing a minnow or two.

Minnows, nightcrawlers, leeches, tube jigs, and blade baits all will catch fish. Preferred jig colors are white or green jig, and the best size - depending on how much weight needed to allow constant contact with the bottom - is 1/4 to 1/2 ounce. Tip the jig with any minnow and drop it straight down. Let your boat begin to drift; and depending on the wind speed, allow the jig to drag along the bottom. Occasionally spool out line and allow the jig to stop.

The jig and minnow combination slowly drags along the bottom in the same manner as dead minnow floating along with the current. Use patience and work the jig very slowly and avoid setting the hook on the first strike. Wait for the bass to start carrying the jig and then set the hook.

When using a nightcrawler or leech, present a natural rolling drift. For best results, use eight-pound line, slip weight or walking sinker, number four hook size, and size 14 swivel. Again, the weight you use will depend upon the speed of boat drift. After putting the slip weight or walking sinker on the line, tie on the swivel and follow with a three-foot leader and hook. The leech or nightcrawler is hooked once through the top. This set up is dropped below the boat; and in a slow upward sweeping motion, occasionally lifted off the bottom. A bass will hit either on the drop or between lifts while the bait is being dragged on the bottom.

Tube jigs (2 1/2 inch is best) also work well from mid-June and into July. And since bass enjoy an occasional meal of goby ala carte, their favorite color is brown. While working the 12 to 35 foot depths, try both a vertical jig and the cast and retrieve. Blade baits (1/2 or 3/4 ounce) such as the Cicada and Bass Pro's Silver Buddy are new to the Erie scene, but during the last two years they have been very productive. The jury is out on which color is best, some anglers swear by gold and some only by silver - carry both.

The Pennsylvania early trophy bass season runs until June 15, during which, the minimum size is 20 inches, with a limit of one. After that, the minimum size is 15 inches, with a limit of four.

Boat launches are available at Presque Isle State Park and North East. To reach Presque Isle State Park, exit I-79 at Erie and follow Route 832 into the park. The West Pier Launch is at the first road past the administration building. Reaching the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission marina at North East can be done by following I-90, exiting to Route 89 north and turning right on Route 5.

On a final note, tomorrow might bring other fishing opportunities, but none such as the smallmouth bass fishing on Lake Erie.

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