According to Ohio Division of Wildlife fisheries personnel, the outlook for Lake Erie’s smallmouth bass population is possibly on the upswing, a welcome change.
“We have some assessment programs in place to try to better determine the impact of the catch-and-immediate release spring season that we instituted back in 2004,” said Ohio DOW’s Jeff Tyson, who supervises the agency’s Lake Erie Research Station in Sandusky “What we are seeing, population wise, is we’re getting fairly decent hatches for smallmouth bass. Our adult index data suggests that in fact the age distribution of our fish is improving. So we’re seeing some younger year classes come into the fishery, which is a good thing.
“Our bottom trawler assessment surveys, where we drag a trawler along the bottom to assess young fish abundance, 2010 and 2012 it appears we had pretty good hatches of bass. It is progressively getting better than that of the mid to late 1990s.”
Smallmouth numbers – particular in regard to young fish – seemed to drop off around the time the goby become established. Round gobies are one of a long list of invasive species that have become established in Erie. Research has shown gobies to be nest predators, and likely negatively impact smallmouth bass spawning success. One of the responses of the Ohio DOW was to establish more restrictive regulations during the spring nesting season, a time that had traditionally seen a lot of angler effort and harvest.
“The reason we implemented the catch-and-immediate release season back in ’04 was due to research that suggested that egg predation by round gobies had a potential negative impact on bass populations,” Tyson explained. “When we put that into effect angler effort and harvest were both significantly reduced. We think, in part at least, some of the response we’re seeing in the hatches in due to the implantation of that regulation. The gobies are still there. And they are still potential egg predators. But if the males are returned to the nest rather quickly it minimizes the impact of egg predation.”
The mention of bass fishing on Lake Erie brings an automatic assumption that smallmouth bass are the species being considered. This might soon change, as largemouth bass are showing up in significant numbers in certain areas.
“We’re seeing a fair effort targeted at largemouth bass, which is something kind of unique,” he said. “Largemouth bass are showing in within near-shore areas. I think part of this has to do with a recovery we are seeing of the near-shore fish community in general. We have an assessment program in place, off-and-on, for the past few years, which indicates a strong association of species like bass and sunfish with near-shore vegetation and submerged aquatic microphytes. So as the shoreline ages and reverts back to a more natural state we are seeing the fish community respond. These are areas that had been dominated by smallmouth bass. So now it’s becoming somewhat of a mixed bag in certain areas.”
Tyson noted that the presence of largemouth is happening in areas proximate to estuaries and backwaters that traditionally have had largemouth populations.
By June smallmouth bass will likely be in a variety of modes, depending on where on the big lake you are fishing. The quick to warm shallows of the western basin may have smallies in the post-spawn period, while to the east bass will likely still be on beds, or in the pre-spawn phase.
On the western basin center stage is set – smallmouth bass-wise – by the Bass Islands, as well as nearby ones like Kelly’s. An angler could spend the summer fishing the many shoals, points and humps that surround and encase the islands areas. A good example is the area east of Kelly’s Island, in the Long Point and Airport Reef area, where the bottom content and slope are attractive to smallmouth bass throughout the summer months. Rattlesnake Island, found to the west of Middle Bass Island, is another consistent producer of bass at this time. Concentrate on the rocky shoreline areas that surround the island, particularly its southern end.
Access is excellent in the western basin. Public access is available in Port Clinton at the mouth of the Portage River. This is a good area to take off from to work the reef areas to the west. Catawba Island contains great public access for anglers intent of fishing the island areas, which are due north.
Central basin bass are shoreline-oriented, typically found within three miles of shore. Central basin waters begin just to the east of Sandusky and stretch across the remainder of Ohio’s portion of the lake.
The central basin includes several jumping off points that make access to the lake convenient. These include Huron, Vermillion, Lorain, Cleveland, Fairport, Geneva, Ashtabula and Conneaut.