The first Saturday in May marks the beginning of the early smallmouth season on Lake Erie in New York State waters. The DEC classifies this as the “trophy season” as anglers are only permitted to take one smallmouth per day measuring 15 inches or greater. This season continues until the opening of the regular bass season, which is the 3rd Saturday of June. The waters included in the early season are New York waters from the Pennsylvania border all the way to the Peace Bridge near downtown Buffalo.
These waters are infested with these bronzebacks that average 2 1/2 to 4 pounds. Anglers can also expect to catch many fish in the 4 to 5 1/2 pound class on each trip out, and possibly land a smallie of a lifetime over 6 pounds. Every year, reports of 7+ pound fish are reported as well. The weather during the early weeks of this season can vary greatly. Daytime highs can be near freezing one day, and up in the 70’s a couple days later. No matter how warm it is though, the water is still quite chilly yet, and has a major impact on how warm the air is. I have been out there on 75 degree days onshore, yet had to wear cold weather gear because the water was only in the upper 40’s, making the air very chilly. Wind is another consideration on Lake Erie. The lake has a reputation of being very brutal during periods of moderate to high winds. Boaters must always pay attention to forecasts and current weather conditions, because things can turn very nasty in a heartbeat. Southwest winds are going to be the worst, and you probably don’t want to be out there in anything greater than 20 miles an hour or so.
Smallmouth can be found almost anywhere at the start of the season, but nearly always, they will be found near rocky bottomed areas, or near ledges and humps. The depth of these fish will generally be anywhere from 4-50 feet, dependant mainly on water conditions (temperature, water clarity etc) as well as what stage of the spawn these fish are in. I usually start my search in 20 feet of water, and work deeper from there until I find fish. If I still don’t find fish, I will then go in shallow. Drift fishing will be the best way to locate, and catch these fish. If the wind becomes a little too much for a natural drift, a drift anchor can be tossed out to slow the boat down a little. I have also heard of people dragging a sack full of stones on the bottom to help slow them down.
Although many baits and lures will catch smallmouth at this time of year, there is not much that can out produce the tube jig. Tubes account for many many fish brought to the boat on Lake Erie, and have also won lots of money in tournaments held there. A proven method for fishing the tube is “dragging”. While drifting along, simply drag the tube on the bottom behind the boat. Of coarse, the weight of the lead insert will depend on the wind speed, but always try to use the lightest weight possible. While fishing this way, I keep several weights on hand, including those from 1/8 ounce all the way up to 3/4 ounce. Tubes colors can play a big part for the difference between success and failure. Most generally, dark natural colors work best, such as pumpkin and watermelon shades. But don’t forget about pearls and chartreuse’s. 3 1/2″ lengths are standard, but smaller and larger tubes can also be productive at times.
Spinning outfits are superb for this style fishing. My personal setup is a 6 1/2 foot St. Croix rod in a medium light action with a fast tip. I like 2000 series Shimano reels for this outfit, as I feel they are just the right size for the application. 8 lb test line will do for most applications, and I use Trilene Vanish or Stren Sensor, and have had great results with both. There used to be a time when 6 lb test was popular on Lake Erie, but since the introduction of zebra mussels, this has become less common due to line abrasion and resulting breakoffs. I am sure any of your favorite setups in these size will produce just as well for you. You will want to make sure your bait is bouncing along the bottom at all times, and may have to let out additional line to achieve this. Bites can be a nearly undetectable take to a thunderous freight train strike. You must be aware of what your bait is doing at all times, as you never know when they will try to eat it. Once a pod of fish is found, repeated drifts over the same area can produce strikes on each pass. Marker buoys and/or GPS units are vital on the big water for telling you exactly where you are, and will allow you to make nearly exact drifts over and over again. Open tournaments are very popular during this early season, and a complete list of them on New York waters can be found at my website www.wnybass.com
Access sites are plentiful along the Lake Erie shore. Major ones include Erie Basin Marina in downtown Buffalo, Small Boat Harbor just south of downtown, Sturgeon Point, Dunkirk Harbor and Barcelona Harbor. All offer more than adequate facilities. So why not take advantage of this early season smallmouth bonanza, you may catch a trophy of a lifetime!