How To Catch Bass: Lake Erie Smallmouth

Surefire Smallmouth Tactics, Part 2

How To Catch Lake Erie’s Eastern Basin Smallmouth

By Darl Black

How to catch bass photo of lake erie smallmouth

Want to catch husky bass like this? Fish the eastern basin of Lake Erie for smallmouth.

When conditions are right in May or June – a sun-filled day during a multiple-day warming trend with a south or west breeze of between 8 mph and 12 mph – I head for Lake Erie’s Eastern Basin for smallmouth. If I’m accompanied by a new friend on his first Erie smallmouth outing, I’ll begin humming theme music from the movie “Jaws” as we work lures on a known big bass area waiting for that first solid thump.

Newbies may wonder what the deal is… until confronted with the biggest smallmouth bass they have ever seen on the end of their line.

Likened to the line from Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars, “All of Gaul is divided into three parts…” – only in this case, Lake Erie is divided into three basins: Western, Central and Eastern. The Eastern Basin covers the portion of the lake from Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle Peninsula eastward to Buffalo.

Today, this is the basin where “the Big Bass” grow – lots of 5- to 7-pound smallmouth. The back story on these oversize smallies involves zebra mussels, gobies and global warming, but it’s too involved to detail here. Suffice to say if you are interested in catching multiple big smallmouths, you need to make the trip to the Eastern Basin during the spring or early summer.

Hot Fishing Tips for Late Spring into Early Summer

How to catch bass image of lake erie smallmouth with tube jig.

Make sure you have a tube jig; it's a killer bait on Lake Erie.

The earliest shallow-water movement of smallmouth occurs at Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle Bay, which is the natural harbor for the city of Erie. Smallies typically move onto the flats in early May to begin their spawning routine. Meanwhile, things are just starting to warm up farther east on the Lake near Buffalo. Waves of smallmouth move in and out of spawning habitat up and down the southern shoreline of Erie during May and June.

In the main lake, spawning generally occurs deeper than the protected bays, harbors and inlet areas along the shoreline. Out in the Lake, I’ve witnessed smallmouth on beds in 20 feet of water as late as early July. Yes, some years the water is clear enough to see bass in 20 feet, but sandy silt stirred by storms and algae growth often reduce visibility.

I’ve never endorsed targeting bass on beds. Ample pre-spawn and post-spawn smallmouths roam the Erie waters throughout this period, making that unnecessary.

My Favorite Patterns for Pre- and Post-Spawn Bass, and How to Use Them:

(1)   Pre-Spawn Deepwater: Call me old fashioned, but my early season vote goes to a 4″ tube jig or 5″ swimming grub for bass in 18 to 30 feet of water. Run a few passes over a deep flat or extended point to spot check, but don’t be upset if you don’t actually see bass on the screen. Many times they hug the bottom so tightly beside rocks that you miss them. Either drop visible structure markers or GPS icons at interesting sites, then set up a drift that allows you to fish by these icons or markers. Use a sufficiently heavy jig head to occasionally bump bottom on the drift, and remember to deploy a drift sock if breezy.

(2)   Immediate Pre-Spawn: As water temps warm and waves of smallmouth begin moving toward shallower water (less than 18 feet), suspending jerkbaits often reign supreme. Be sure to carry both normal models (dives to 3 to 5 feet) and deep suspending models (dives to 6 feet or deeper). Fish your favorite colors, but be sure to bring Clown.

(3)    Shallow Roamers During Pre- and Post-Spawn: Only need two baits for shallow smallies – a Green Pumpkin sinking worm rigged wacky style and a Hot Pink soft jerkbait. Wow, what a fun time to fish!

(4)   Post-Spawn Moderate and Deep Smallies: Very often in bays, harbors and inlets, smallmouth will hold on offshore humps to feed before actually migrating out to the main lake. This is crankbait time, thereby allowing you to fish fast and check a lot of territory. You want baits that have a sharp dive plane and reach 10 to 12 feet.

(5)   Post-Spawn/Summer Deepwater: This is the best time for the increasingly popular drop-shot method. Gobies are very active by now and smallmouths are feeding heavily on them. Rig a goby-like fish shape, tube or 4-inch worm on a drop shot rig and probe rock piles, sharp drop-offs and odd rocky bottom structures at depths from 15 to 30 feet.

Lake Erie Eastern Basin at a Glance

  • Where the fish are:  Roughly 100 miles of nearshore waters to fish between Erie, PA and Buffalo, NY. Vital depth for bass in spring and early summer ranges from shallows to about 40 feet.
  • Season:  The Lake Erie spring smallmouth season is geared to catch & release with minimal harvest. PA: 1 bass, 20-inches from mid-April to mid-June; NY: 1 bass, 20-inch minimum from early May to late June. Regulations are subject to change, so check before you fish.
  • Safety:  Lake Erie can quickly become a very dangerous place when winds shift or increase in velocity. Be sure your boat is big-water seaworthy with all required safety equipment including Coast Guard Approved Signaling Devices for Great Lakes.
  • Launching: Safe harbor launch sites are limited, but adequate. In Pennsylvania, launch sites include several in Presque Isle Bay at city of Erie, Shades Beach Park (small boats only) and North East Marina near town of North East. In New York, safe harbor launch sites include Barcelona, Dunkirk, Angola and Buffalo Small Boat Harbor.
  • Lodging:  Variety of lodging near the lake. Contact www.visiterie.com for PA info; www.tourchautauqua.com and www.visitbuffaloniagara.com  for NY info.

Next post: How To Catch Smallmouth Bass – Part 3, Green Bay

Click here to See How to Catch Smallmouth Bass – Part 1 

About Darl Black…

A lifelong freshwater angler and veteran writer/photographer, Darl tackles a wide variety of fishing related stories for print publications and websites.  Of all fishing, angling for smallmouth bass is his favorite pastime.  He may be reached for assignment at darlblack@windstream.net.

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