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Smallmouth Bass Fishing on Lake Erie

Lake Erie anglers holding 8 pound smallmouth bass.

The finest smallmouth bass fishing in New York State and arguably the entire United States can be found in the waters of Lake Erie. Bass are found along the entire New York shoreline, with hotspots along rocky structure and drop-offs in 15-35 feet of water. However, smallmouth bass in Lake Erie are very widely distributed and are also available to anglers fishing inshore zones with waders, kayaks and other small vessels. Most bass caught are between 2 and 4 pounds, but there is good opportunity to catch a hefty 5 or 6 pound bronzeback. The last five New York State record smallmouths have come from Lake Erie, with the current record standing at an impressive 8 pounds, 4 ounces.

Smallmouth bass are the most frequently caught fish species in Lake Erie and fishing trips for smallmouths make up about 25% of all Lake Erie fishing trips for the entire year. Anglers travel from across the country to fish for Lake Erie bronzebacks. The Bassmaster Elite Series also periodically makes tournament stops at our top smallmouth bass fishery and tournament catches are usually spectacular.

Anglers can enjoy an early bass season on Lake Erie to take advantage of the great fishing available for smallmouth bass during spring. From the 1st Saturday in May to the regular season opener of statewide black bass season on 3rd Saturday in June, anglers may take one bass at a minimum of 20 inches per day in Lake Erie and its tributaries. The use of natural baits is permitted during Lake Erie's early bass season.

Lake Erie Smallmouth Bass Fishing Hotspots Map (710 KB pdf file)

Spring

Angler holding a Cattaraugus Creek smallmouth bass.

The best smallmouth bass fishing of the entire year is in the spring on Lake Erie's nearshore reefs, harbors and tributary streams. The number of bass caught can be outstanding due to the higher concentration of bass in those areas. Some of the largest bass are caught in spring; anglers have a better chance of catching a 6 pound plus trophy bass in spring than any other time during the year. After ice-out, smallmouth bass begin to seek out areas where water warms up faster than the open lake. The bass are seeking areas for spawning as well as to feed on schools of emerald shiners which also move into these warmer areas. This spring bass bite starts in April and lasts through the regular season opener in late June. The basic progression of fish concentrations is tributaries (April-May), harbors and canals (May), open lake reefs and shoals (May-June).

Smallmouth bass start moving into tributary streams in mid to late April and will stay through May. Fly anglers do very well drifting or swinging woolly buggers and minnow patterns, especially emerald shiner patterns. Productive lures used by spinning anglers include stickbaits, crankbaits and other lures that imitate minnows/shiners. Starting on the first Saturday of May, use of natural bait is permitted, including minnows and shiners which work well. Smallmouth bass will run up many tributaries along the Lake Erie shoreline, but the most popular (due to number of fish and amount of public access) are Cattaraugus Creek, Eighteen Mile Creek, Canadaway Creek and Chautauqua Creek. Bass concentrations are highest in the mid to lower areas of the streams. Public fishing rights maps for these streams are available for printing.

Smallmouth Bass Sections of Tributary Streams
Stream Bass Section Map
Chautauqua Creek Railroad trestle (between Route 20 and I-90) to mouth 651 KB pdf
Canadaway Creek I-90 to mouth 612 KB pdf
Cattaraugus Creek *Mid-Seneca Reservation to mouth 795 KB pdf
Eighteen Mile Creek Route 20 to mouth 474 KB pdf

*Fishing license issued by Seneca Nation needed to fish on reservation.

Bass fishing is also good in harbor and canal areas in May and early June. Good locations include Black Rock Canal, Buffalo Harbor and Dunkirk Harbor. These areas are also good places to retreat to and still catch fish when conditions get rough on the open lake.

From late May through late June, fishing is great near shallow reef areas. Concentrate efforts around rocky structure in 15-20 feet of water. Some especially productive areas include Seneca Shoal, Woodlawn Bar, Myers Reef, Evans Bar and Van Buren Bay. However, many smaller rocky areas along Lake Erie's coast also hold bass. The best method is casting and retrieving of lures. Top lures include tube jigs, twister tails or deep diving stickbaits, spinnerbaits and crankbaits.

Summer

As Lake Erie waters warm, post-spawn smallmouths move to deeper water zones where they will hold during the summer months (late June through August). The bass bite is usually best between 20 and 40 feet of water, however bass can be found deeper. The key to successful summer smallmouth bass fishing is to locate bottom structure. Rocky rubble, rubble piles, humps, holes, drop-offs and ledges are all areas that will hold bass. Areas such as Myers Reef, Evans Bar and Van Buren Reef have traditionally been among the top destinations for summer bass anglers.

Woman angler in kayak holding smallmouth bass.

Anglers need to take a vertical approach to fishing for summer smallies. Productive lures include jigging spoons, blade baits and spoonbill jerkbaits; however tube jigs, soft plastics and live bait are angler favorites. "Tubes" are a top artificial bait for Erie smallmouths and can be used effectively through cast and retrieve, vertical jigging or combined with a drop-shot rig. Depending on depth, combine a ¼ to ½ ounce leadhead jig (3/8 oz. is good for 35 feet of water) with a 21/2 to 5 inch tube. Consistently productive colors are those that imitate the bass's natural prey items, colors like smoke/charcoal with flecks and greens (baitfish) or browns (crayfish, round goby). Soft plastics such as grubs, worms, baitfish imitations and other creature baits work best when combined with a drop-shot rig. Live bait combined with a drop-shot rig is another popular method. Minnows and crayfish are top live bait offerings, but nightcrawlers and leeches will also work.

The drop shot rig has become very popular among Erie bass anglers as an effective way to fish bait just off the bottom. The drop shot rig can be used to fish with live bait, soft plastics and even tube jigs (hooked through the nose of tube). The rig consists of a hook tied directly to the line with a Palomar knot with hook point facing up and a weight/sinker (¼ to ½ oz) tied to the end of the line below the hook. The length of line between hook and weight can vary from 1 to 5 feet. Cast the rig or simply let it drop over the side of the boat. Reel in the slack line so you can directly feel the weight on the bottom and any strike on your bait. To give your bait action, slowly lift and drop your rod tip in a jigging motion.

Fall

During autumn, smallmouth are found in the same locations and are caught by the same methods as described above for the summer period. In fact, sometimes the fall smallmouth fishing quality exceeds the summertime experience. However, autumn weather is often increasingly uncooperative and anglers are advised to pay particular attention to the forecast when planning their trip.