SPRING FLING ON ERIE
by Darl Black
"They arrived on Friday," explained Dave Lefebre excitedly over breakfast at a restaurant near Presque Isle State Park. "Absolutely beautiful and in better shape than I have ever seen. You will get some gorgeous photos of bronze beauties today."
Anyone listening to our conversation may have mistakenly believed Lefebre was talking about a photo shoot with Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. But our talk centered on a topic much more important to anglers - smallmouth bass!
Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, schools of smallmouth bass show up in Presque Isle Bay each spring. When that phone call comes, I'm on my way to Erie. I do my best never miss the initial movement of bronzebacks into the Bay.
Lefebre had been checking the usual "first encounter" spots for several days, fishing just long enough at each site to be satisfied bass had not yet made appearance. But when he nailed four good bass at one of the stopover sites for early season schools, it was time to give me a call. I was there the next morning.
That particular day in early April turned out to be exceptional for the first contact of the spring. We caught and released perhaps two dozen smallmouth, all over 15 inches in length. Three of the fish measured greater than 20 inches. Following a quick snap of the shutter, each was returned to the water.
"Unforgettable" certainly is a word used by many anglers drawn to Erie in recent years to sample the bass fishing, particularly during the spring trophy season. Special Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission regulation permits the harvest of one bass over 20-inches between mid-April and mid-June from Presque Isle Bay or Lake Erie. Even though one trophy may be kept, dedicated bass anglers release all their fish - as verified through Fish Commission creel surveys.
For the smallmouth angler, springtime on Pennsylvania's North Coast is heaven on earth. Nowhere else can an astute angler catch and release dozens of two to four pound smallmouth each day, and usually manage to land at least one bass going five pounds or better. Lures and techniques for Erie spring smallies may be somewhat different from what inland bass anglers are accustomed to. But if the visiting angler follows an established game plan, they will enjoy outstanding fishing.
Before setting out for an encounter with Erie smallmouth, it's a good idea to understand the lay of the land. At 640,000 acres, Lake Erie is hard to miss when looking at a map. Pennsylvania borders only a small section of the big lake. The Keystone State's North Coast is approximately 40 miles long, with roughly 20 miles of lakeshore on either side of the City of Erie.
Although 14 tributaries enter the lake within the Pennsylvania section, all are too small for boats to enter. The only natural harbor along the Pennsylvania shoreline is 3,800-acre Presque Isle Bay, created by a sandy peninsula extending into the lake like a curved finger.
The Pennsylvania shoreline is characterized by alternating cliff-like banks and narrow valleys where tributary streams enter. But the radical shoreline contours do not continue into the lake. The lake bottom (comprised chiefly of sand, marl, and rock rubble) has a fairly slow taper with ridges, rises and small drop-offs. In early spring, bass relate to deeper structure features, eventually moving onto the shallower flats once the water climbs into the high 50s.
The most effective approach to fishing is from a boat. Several excellent boat ramps are located within or just outside Presque Isle Bay. Along the rest of the 40-mile shoreline, only two sites have suitable protected ramps to safely launch and retrieve a boat -- Walnut Creek Access west of Presque Isle in Fairview and North East Access east of Presque Isle near the New York state line.
Springtime Smallmouth Movements on Erie
While largemouth bass reside in Presque Isle Bay and connected lagoons the entire year, most smallmouth bass caught in the bay are transient visitors. The main lake is the domicile of smallmouth.
Smallmouth bass winter in deep water, probably in the 35 to 45 foot range. As the ice cover disappears in the spring and Lake Erie gradually warms, schools of smallies begin moving shallow. Whether the bass movement is a direct reaction to water temperature or simply predator bass following their prey, no one can say for sure. Warming water increases the microscopic life which baitfish feed on - so the chain of life simply pulls gamefish to the warmer water because that's where the food is located in the spring.
Relatively shallow and protected, Presque Isle Bay warms before the main lake. Smallmouth bass migrate into the bay from the lake to feast on an array of preyfish. Some forage species have wintered over in the bay, and the warmer water now attracts additional species. Due to food sources and an environment conducive to spawning, many smallmouth remain in the bay through June.
Meanwhile the main lake is warming slower, thus smallmouth activity is not moving at the same speed as in the bay. Bass in both Lake Erie and the bay go through the same instinctive routine; it's just that things happen later on the main lake.
With water temperature readings in the mid 40s, it is possible to catch numbers of smallmouth bass. These fish are eating, but not chasing prey. Smallies will be schooled tightly in "relatively deep water", usually holding near a breakline or drop-off. "Relatively deep water" in the bay is around 20 feet, while on the main lake, it is closer to 35 feet.
As temperatures creep above the 50-degree mark, bass begin to move onto flats and spread out. While some smallmouth remain deep, others may be foraging as shallow as seven or eight feet. Smallies now engage in more aggressive feeding. By the time the water temperature climbs to around 60 degrees, more bass will be caught shallow than deep.
When water temperature reaches the mid 60s, anglers may notice a slow down in the bite as bass begin moving onto nests. Bedding bass do not feed. However, not all bass nest at the same time. There are plenty of fish to be caught without disturbing any bass observed on beds.
As smallmouth complete their spawning activities, they again form large schools and begin voracious feeding. Typically, with water temperature in the low 70s, smallmouth may be observed chasing baitfish near the surface. Once water temperature climbs to the mid 70s, smallmouth schools move out over deeper water.
Tackling Great Lakes Smallies
Before launching into specific lures and presentations, let's get one thing straight. Real bass anglers do not troll. The majority of serious bass fishermen would rather not catch bass than spend the day in a stupor dragging a crankbait on a heavy rod behind the sleep-inducing hum of an outboard. Bass fishing means the angler has his hands on the rod to manipulate the lure and set the hook, and to enjoy the acrobatic antics of the fish. Casting, vertical jigging, and drifting are perfectly acceptable bass presentations, but trolling is reserved for Erie walleye fishermen. With that said, here's how to catch those bronzebacks.
For Erie smallmouth in the spring there are four lures in the must-have column. These four lures - blade bait, jigging spoon, tube jig, and curl-tail grub - will cover 80% of the fishing situations in the bay and the lake. Another six or seven baits can be extremely effective at times. The baits that score under specific circumstances include spider jigs, crankbaits, jerkbaits, soft stickbaits, spinnerbaits, topwaters, and Carolina-rigged soft plastic.
Hang around Erie smallmouth anglers long enough and you'll hear them refer to the different "bites" that take place between April and July. Perhaps they may mention the blade bite, spoon bite, spinnerbait bite, Slug-Go bite, or topwater bite. These fishermen are referring to certain windows of opportunity when bass are readily caught on a particular lure. Some windows are very narrow and others extend over a longer period. The effectiveness of specific lures result from smallmouth's location, forage target, and degree of aggressive feeding behavior.
For example, with 45-degree water, the best artificial is a small blade bait worked vertically by employing small lifts and drops of the lure. The rod tip should be moved no further than a couple inches - just enough to detect the blade beginning to vibrate. Early spring is the best blade bait bite.
When the water gets into the 50-degree range, bass become more aggressive and willing to chase larger, more active prey. Dragging a 4 or 5-inch curl tail grub along breaklines, around humps and over flats can be very effective in depths from 15 to 30 feet. This is the grub bite.
With bass spreading out on the flats during pre-spawn, there is a brief period of very aggressive feeding in relatively shallow water. In the bay, anglers need to quickly cover water in depths from three to eight feet. This is commonly referred to as the spinnerbait bite.
As more and more bass come off the beds and cruise the shallows looking for an easy meal, the stop-and-go drift retrieve of a soft stickbait reigns supreme. This is known as the Slug-Go bite. Although many fishermen do not realize it, this lure can be effective in the bay and the lake.
In early summer when smallmouth again school up to catch emerald and spot-tail shiners near the surface on calm days, it's an excellent time to work a chugger or dog-walking surface lure over 10 to 20 feet of water. Thus the topwater bite comes on strong with water temperature hovering in the low 70s.
But if there are two lures that epitomize Lake Erie smallmouth, they are the tube jig and jigging spoon.
The tube jig, perhaps better known to some by the brand name "Gitzit", is a lure that catches Great Lakes bass all season long. It is a hollow soft plastic with rounded head and multi-strand tentacle tail. A tear-shaped lead jighead - 1/8 to 3/8-ounce depending on depth - is inserted through the open end and pushed to the front of the lure. The eye of the hook is punched through the plastic and the line tied to the jig.
What a tube lure represents is a long-standing debate: baitfish or crayfish? But in reality, a tube jig simply represents food to a bass. Being an opportunistic feeder most of the time, a hungry bass will engulf the lure first and then determine if it's worth eating.
In cold water, tubes may be dragged or popped lightly on the bottom. Later in the season, if bass are chasing bait at mid depth, a swimming retrieve - like a twister grub - is the way to go. And if bass are busting baitfish on top, the tube may be streaked through the surface frenzy and then permitted to fall like an injured minnow. Versatile - that's why a tube jig catches smallmouth all year long.
Many long-time Erie bass anglers swear by only one color for their tube jigs - a greenish watermelon. A few insist on using only the Original Gitzit in color #200 green. But there are many quality brands of tubes on the market these days. And I have success with a variety of colors, including smoke pepper (black flake in smoke plastic body), firecracker (red, blue and silver glitter in clear plastic), sand (black and gold glitter in milky plastic), and more. By experimenting with retrieve and color, you will find the right combination for smallmouth bass on any given day.
A jigging spoon will likely be found tied to the smallmouth angler's rod all the time, too. The Hopkins Shorty is the most popular, but other choices include Cripple Herring, Krocodile, Kastmaster, and Rattle Snakie spoons.
More often than not, anglers use a 1/2 or 3/4-ounce spoon when a lighter weight tube jig cannot be fished effectively due to choppy seas. However, anytime you observe suspected baitfish and gamefish marks intermingling on your depthfinder several feet above the bottom, then the circumstances are right for a jigging spoon. Use a vigorous rod snap to make the spoon jump two feet or more.
The radical spoon action detailed above will not always produce smallmouth, especially in the cold water of early spring. An alternative method is to lightly pop the spoon off the bottom with small hops.
Although the number of fish are great, there is no guarantee of catching smallmouth until your arms hurt on every trip to Lake Erie. Just like smallmouth bass anywhere, Great Lakes bass can be negatively affected by factors beyond our control. An extended period of unseasonably cold weather after a warming trend will shut fish down. Storms, particularly big blows form the northeast, will disrupt fishing patterns. Everyday changes in weather and atmospheric pressure will result in ups and downs in the catch rate.
For example, compare two Erie trips only a few days apart. On April 12, my wife and I caught and released nearly 60 smallmouth in five hours of fishing under sunny skies. We returned days later, but were confronted with a windy, overcast day. I never had a detectable hit. Marilyn however managed to land five bass, one of which was 22 inches long and estimated to weigh slightly over 6 pounds. It was the largest smallmouth she has caught. A picture was taken and the fish was released.
A 7 pound 10 ounce State Record smallmouth was taken from Lake Erie in 1990, but it has since been eclipsed by an 8-1/2 pound smallmouth taken from a pond in Berks County. While both Ohio and New York established state record smallmouth from Erie over eight pounds in the 1990s, the burst of exceptionally big smallies may have run its natural course. Even though a new Pennsylvania record smallmouth from Erie remains a possibility, most anglers have resigned themselves to the fact it may not happen anytime soon.
Content © Darl Black
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