Great Lakes Walleye and Bass Fishing Spots

Man admiring his smallmouth bass while Great Lakes walleye and bass fishing near the mouth of the Niagara River.
Capt. Frank Campbell admires a smallmouth taken near the mouth of the Niagara River

Great Lakes Walleye and Bass 

Great Lakes walleye and bass combine for a very effective one-two punch for fishing in Western New York. For this section of the state, that includes the Eastern Basin of Lake Erie and the Western Basin of Lake Ontario – and connected by 40 miles of Niagara River, a strait divided by the mighty Cataracts of Niagara Falls. This is a fishing Mecca that seemingly knows no bounds. Of course, we know better than that. 

Lake Erie Bass Fishing

Bass Regulations

Ever since New York State changed its bass regulations, more and more fishermen have been targeting their spring Great Lakes Fishing efforts on smallmouth and largemouth bass during the time that was formerly known as pre-season. We grew up recognizing that bass season opened the third Saturday in June and ended November 30.

The advent of an early trophy bass fishery on Lake Erie starting the first Saturday in May has been tweaked a bit, but the current season sports a one fish daily limit with a minimum length of 20 inches – a true trophy in anyone’s book. Lake Erie bass fishing has blossomed into becoming widely recognized as one of the top smallmouth bass destinations in the world, a great reason to go Great Lakes fishing.

The Impact of Ice

“Springtime ‘smallies’ on Lake Erie from Buffalo to Dunkirk can be second to none,” says Capt. Steve Drabczyk of Lewiston. The term “ice out” is one that he focuses in on this time of year as the lake will not begin to warm until the ice is gone.

That fluctuates from year to year based on the severity of the winter. An ice boom placed at the head of the Upper Niagara River between Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ontario in Canada is used to control ice formation and dissipation to minimize damage along the shoreline and keep water intakes open. Once the ice is gone, waters will start to warm and these fish will begin their natural spawning cycles. 

Water Conditions and Small Mouth Bass

“This is prime time to catch these fish when they are most vulnerable,” says Drabczyk. “I’ll normally target these fish in the shallows when they are on their beds from Buffalo to Sturgeon Point in six to 18 feet of water when I’m looking for numbers of fish. Three to four pound fish are plentiful.

When the water clarity is good, I like to sight fish for bass. While the pre-season catch and release bass fishing is with artificial baits in the rest of the state, you can use live bait for the special Lake Erie bass fishing season. That said, this time of year these fish really aren’t feeding when they are on the beds. They are protecting their beds from invasion. I like to use a lure that is tied directly to the line such as a tube jig, spinnerbait or bucktail jig.” The reason is to detect hits or strikes.

Smallmouth Bass Fishing Setup

Because of that mind set, Drabczyk uses line that can be anywhere from eight to 12 pound test. Line visibility isn’t as much of an issue in the slightly turbid waters and he adjusts what line he uses with the skill level of his customers and whether or not there’s a lot of debris in the water. His preference is Trilene XT with high abrasion qualities, especially when he’s around structure like rocks and drop-offs. 

Deep Water Fishing for Smallmouth

Man posing with fish while Great Lakes Fishing
Mark Davis with a Lake Erie “hawg” taken while Great Lakes fishing in May.

“For the big monsters, I’ll target waters that are as deep as 40 feet. Find structure and you’ll find spawning fish in that 25 to 40 foot range, and most of those fish – once you find them – will be in excess of four pounds. Every spring I catch fish in excess of six pounds with many over five pounds. When I go Lake Erie bass fishing, I work the perimeters of shoals and reefs. Hiring a guide is a good way get an on-water educational lesson and learn the ropes on where and how to land these fish.”

Presentation is Everything

“Presentation is critical, like it is any time of year. I like to keep the boat moving, be it from wind on the lake or use of my bow-mount trolling motor. My best speed is anywhere from 1.5 to 3 miles per hour. And with the influx of gobies in the system, anything that can imitate a goby will certainly attract the attention of the bass attempting to protect their nests.”

Understanding the Lifecycle of Smallmouth Bass

Another good Lake Erie bass fishing guy is Capt. Tom Marks of Derby. He likes working the breakwalls around Buffalo Harbor for starters in early May, along with some of the near-shore areas for spawning fish. One area in particular is “the flats” – four to eight feet of water from Athol Springs to just beyond the Wanakah Water Works. Favorite baits include a variety of crankbaits like Junior Thundersticks, Rapala Shad Raps or Strike King Sexy Shad. Spinnerbaits and tube jigs can also be productive, casting between the rocks of the outer break walls.

“The secret to finding bass is to understand their life cycle,” says Marks, “knowing where and when they spawn. Many spawn out in the lake but we do have bass that spawn in the tributaries that will be very close to shore working into those streams.”

Lake Erie Fishing Opportunities

Marks’ specialty is Great Lakes walleye. Lake Erie walleye populations are also highly touted and with the season opening the first Saturday in May around the state, most of the action early on is along the shoreline at night as these fish come in to spawn or feed. Marks has gotten away from the night troll in recent years – in part because he’s found a day bite good enough to not lose his beauty sleep at night.

Spring Fishing Techniques for Great Lakes Walleye 

“I’ve been able to find active walleye during the day in May, but it is usually in the early morning,” insists Marks.  “Sometimes even on bright, sunny days I can land fish consistently until noon. The early season is close to shore, trolling stickbaits or worm harnesses in 10 to 15 feet of water. Long leads are the key. These are most likely the same fish that were in the shallows at night, moving out to deeper water.

Drop offs are good spots to target, with many of these fish hanging on the bottom of the slope. Trolling slow Lake Erie walleye lures is the normal approach, but don’t be afraid of speed. I’ve moved along as fast as 3 miles per hour to snag a fish. Use your maps and electronics to find the drop offs and stay near the known spawning areas. In fact, spend some time just looking for that key structure.” It could probably be likened to scouting for deer or geese. 

Great Lakes in the Early Summertime

By the time June rolls around, the walleye have moved out to deeper waters, but staying in the warmer water near the surface. For example, the fish may be holding 10 feet down over 25 foot depths. Using his downriggers, he’ll put the ball down five feet below the surface and run his baits 150 feet or more back behind the boat. In-line boards will also allow him to get the baits away from the boat and down that critical 10 foot depth. “One of the keys to walleye fishing is depth control,” says Marks. “Keep your baits in the zone.”

Great Lakes Walleye Spawning Stocks

Warm water fisheries expert Don Einhouse with the Lake Erie Unit of the Department of Environmental Conservation says this:  “In a nutshell, Lake Erie bass is expected to remain stable; walleye is a bit more complicated. The big west-central basin walleye resource is declining due to some below average spawning success of late, and we know those fish contribute to our state fishery.  However, our local walleye spawning stocks have had pretty good recruitment success in recent years.” 

Western Basin of Lake Ontario

Seeking out Spawning Bass 

In the shadow of the excellent Lake Erie resource is the lower Niagara River. The Niagara Bar and several points east when it comes to bass fishing. The techniques of chasing bass in the colder water during the non-traditional “season” of May and the first three weeks of June are similar, seeking out spawning bass in the shallows while Great Lakes fishing.

Fort Niagara is an Awesome Spot 

“One of my favorite spots for Great Lakes Walleye fishing is off of Fort Niagara in the main lake,” says Drabczyk, who recently opened a Lewiston tackle shop – Creek Road Bait and Tackle on Route 18. “While the numbers, size and consistency of Lake Ontario Walleye can’t compare with Lake Erie, it’s an area that can surprise you. Under certain conditions, the lower river and Niagara Bar can be every bit as good as it’s Lake Erie counterpart.” 

Artificial Lures for Lake Ontario

Because this is part of the statewide catch-and-release season, only artificial lures can be used for Great Lakes walleye until the third Saturday in June. Best baits for Great Lake Fishing for bass include tube jigs, hair jigs and spinnerbaits to name but a few. Last spring, writer Jeff Knapp of Pennsylvania reeled in a personal best while fishing this very area the first week of May, a seven and a half pound smallmouth that hit a goby-colored tube. While fish that size is quite a feat, Drabczyk has noticed an increase in the overall size of the bass in these waters. 

Warmer Waters

One of the anomalies that is a catalyst for bass cooperation is a northeast wind on Lake Ontario. When it blows hard enough and flips the lake over – especially when the Lake Erie water is warmer than Lake Ontario – bass will seek out the warmer river water. This phenomena makes the Great Lakes fishing for bass almost as easy as shooting fish in a barrel – if that were legal. That type of a situation doesn’t normally occur until the summer, but you should be aware of it whenever you are in the area.

Prevailing Winds

Another important consideration while Great Lakes fishing is prevailing winds. Winds normally blow out of the west or southwest in WNY. A strong southwest wind may keep you off Lake Erie. However,  those conditions are ideal for Great Lakes fishing on the lower Niagara River and the near shore structure along the lake. One of the best things is that you can use a small boat most of the time, be it in the lake, the river or the nearby harbors to the east – Wilson, Olcott and Oak Orchard.

An Anglers’ Dream

Man releasing smallmouth bass back into Lake Erie while Great Lakes Fishing
Terry Jones releases a nice smallmouth taken on an unusually calm day for Lake Erie

No matter what Mother Nature will throw at you, there’s always some place to enjoy some Great Lakes walleye and bass fishing in Western New York. While the harbor areas may be more suited for largemouth bass, some smallmouth action is still available in the spring as waters are cool and bass do their spawning thing.

Original Article By Bill Hilts, Jr.

About The Author

Bill Hilts, Jr. has been Niagara County’s Sportfishing Promotion Person and Outdoor Sports Specialist for Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation.  He has served as president of the Lake Ontario Sportfishing Council and past president of the NYS Outdoor Writers’ Association.  He has been an active member of the Outdoor Writers Association of America,  Professional Outdoor Media Association, and president of Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers.

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