Summertime Great For Smallmouths
By Richard Martin
It's a little amazing sometimes that fertile Lake Erie has so many species of fish waiting for boating anglers. There are plenty of walleye, much smaller numbers of yellow perch this year, and a fine mixed bag of steelhead, channel cats, white bass, white perch, sheepshead, and did I forget? Very good numbers of smallmouth bass. That's great, because the golden brown, red-eyed bronzebacks are vicious fighters, high leapers, and bulldog specialists that will test an anglers skill and tackle to the limit. They’re a fish worth going after.
Smallmouth bass are found literally coast-to-coast along Lake Erie, and they're extremely plentiful around the Bass Islands who drew their name from these game fish. But while you can catch some at Conneaut, Ashtabula, Cleveland, and elsewhere, it's in the Western Basin that the colorful fish is king. And while they'll bite all summer and fall, the next month or two is prime time to catch some.
It's important to remember that these bass have a closed season from May 1 through June 25 because they're spawning then, and they have a 14-inch and five fish limit at other times. So, while you can fish for bass during the closed season, all of those caught must be returned to the lake. Many boating anglers love to seek spawning smallmouths because catches of 15 to 30 or more are easy to come by and it's exciting fishing. Others refuse to fish for them when they're on the spawning beds and wait impatiently for June 26. It's a suit yourself choice.
Those who like to cast for early June smallies will find them in shallow water at this time. These fish love rocky shores and sometimes move into only 3-4 feet of water to fan out a nest. Once nest activities are finished, they'll wait for a female who deposits 2,000-15,000 eggs, fertilize them, and stand guard against marauding carp, suckers, gobies, and other egg lovers. To catch such fish, many boaters like to work shorelines along Marblehead, in Sandusky Bay, Huron, Vermillion, and Catawba Island, floating along quietly and casting nearly to dry land.
Tube jigs are always good, especially in chartreuse, for nesting bass, and some like to work black or brown quarter to half-ounce jigs with twister tails in the same areas. Very small spinnerbaits can produce, again in white or chartreuse, and miniature crankbaits, especially those that are brown, wiggle madly, and imitate crayfish, can produce.
It isn't even necessary to launch your boat to connect to some fighting bass. Many an angler will walk along the riprap shorelines of marinas and rocky shorelines where they have access and cast the same lures, working the shores with parallel casts, starting deeper and working shallow. But remember, it's vitally important that landed fish be released as close to their nest as possible, kept in the water as much as possible, and not fought to exhaustion.
Once the open season begins, boaters can keep some bass or not as they wish. They're not bad eating, though substandard to walleye and perch, and if kept on ice are fairly palatable. But personally, the only bass I keep on the big lake are those that are throat hooked, bleeding, and likely to die. Such fine game fish, in my opinion, should be released to fight again.
Anglers need to remember that these later season fish are usually well off the spawning beds and in deeper water now. Again, tube jigs fished around small reefs and upcrops are going to produce, especially if your fish finder shows blips over and around its margins. If you're on the water at first light, bass are likely to be right in against shoreline rocks foraging for leeches, minnows, and crayfish.
Many a time I've worked the Kelleys Island shoreline near the state park and caught a dozen to fifteen fish of up to four pounds. Or cast around the inside curve of Put-in-Bay harbor and done the same. Or worked the Marblehead shoreline for a few fun hours. But as a morning progresses, most bass move into deeper water and, again, stage around reefs and in deeper holes.
You can still do well on jigs, but if they're being temperamental, a better choice can be a bottom bumping Lindy rig with a lip hooked minnow. I once fished a hole off Ruggles Beach and caught over 50 nice bass on emerald shiners. That was a good day. Leeches are a wonderful smallmouth bait too, when you can find them, and a soft craw or even a hard shelled crayfish fished along the bottom can produce.
Come evening, the pattern reverses itself with many bass swimming back to shallow water for a late evening or after dark snack. So, switch back to jigs, spinners and crankbaits again and ring the evening dinner bell. It isn't rocket science, but smallmouth fishing is lots of fun. Give it a try this summer.
SMALL MOUTH BASS
COMMON NAMES: Smallmouth bass, Brown bass, Brownie, Smallie
SCIENTIFIC NAME: Micropterus dolomieu
IDENTIFICATION: Smallmouth bass look very similar to largemouth bass and spotted bass. The distinguishing characteristic is the mouth. When closed, the mouth does not extend beyond the rear border of the eye. Color varies from yellow-green to olive-green with a bronze reflection. The sides are faintly barred.
RANGE AND HABITAT: Smallmouth bass are native to Ohio and are found in every county of the state. This species thrives in streams with gravel or rock bottoms with a visible current. Smallmouth also do well in the reef areas and rocky shorelines of Lake Erie, especially in the islands area near Sandusky Bay.
LIFE HISTORY: Smallmouth bass spawn in May and early June when water temperatures range from 55 to 65 ° F. Nests are built in gravel or hard bottom substrates in 2 to 20 feet of water. The female lays between 2,000 to 15,000 eggs. The male guards the nest and the fry for a short time. Young smallmouth feed on zooplankton and midge larvae. Adults feed on aquatic insects, crayfish, and suitable sized fish.
ADULT SIZE: Average smallmouth bass are between 1 to 2 pounds, and range from 12 to 15 inches in length. The state record smallmouth bass weighed 9 pounds and 8 ounces.
FISHING METHODS: Fly fishing, baitcasting, and spincasting are popular means of catching smallmouth bass. Live-bait anglers have good success in streams using hellgrammites, soft craws and minnows. During May, many smallmouth bass are caught in small tributary streams. The Bass Islands area of Lake Erie is one of the best smallmouth bass fishing spots in the Midwest. The best time to fish there is late spring and late summer. Emerald shiners, small crayfish, and a variety of artificial lures produce good results when fished over reefs, sandbars or gravel bars in 2 to 10 feet of water.