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Outdoors by Will Elliott: How the smallmouth are biting on Lake Erie

They informally call it a trophy season and the fishery lives up to that ranking every spring.

Lake Erie’s special bass season from the first Saturday in May to the third-Saturday-in -June start of the regular/statewide bass season is magnetic. At times, more out-of-state anglers are on Erie waters than Buffalo-area folk spoiled by a smallmouth bite that often includes bronzebacks well past the 20-inch and 5-pound mark.

DEC rules allow the keeping of one fish measuring 20 inches or more daily, but few anglers keep them. In a lake teeming with yellow perch and walleye schools, anglers have enough food fish to fillet and fry from Erie waters. DEC boat surveys typically end with a release rate at or above 90 percent.

For me and Capt. Sam Schrecengost of Sam I Am Charters, Tuesday morning it was a 100 percent release rate – for fish caught and the ones that “spit the hook.”

Schrecengost, a guide for nearly a decade and involved in Capt. Jim Hanley’s video productions a decade before that, has a handle on all three major fisheries on Erie’s eastern end. And he works steadily on the smallmouth bass fishery close to the start and end of the spawning cycle that are peak periods for smallmouth bites and fights.

When Schrecengost called with an open morning slot, it didn’t take long to meet that Tuesday morning at Buffalo Safe (formerly Small Boat) Harbor for a run to the pre-spawn flats just east of Myers Reef.

Typically, bass and other fishes relate to bottom structures and certain gradients, but these bass haunted a flat area close to bottom at depths of 36 to 38 feet with nothing but their continued presence to confirm the good fishing.

“Look how many times I’ve been there,” Sam said, pointing to a Hummingbird Sonar plotting screen that blanked out the area with green lines of passage.

That series of green lines was a continued go on drifts with a live minnow on a 3-foot leader behind a dropper weight. Bass, especially smallmouth, are noted for their smashing strikes and vicious fights frequented with a series of leaps to shake the hook.

But this early-season bass fishery has fish in waters below the 55-degree mark holding near bottom in deeper waters. Hence, Sam rigs his reels with Fireline to pick up light hits that often begin with nothing more than a perch-like tap/shake of the bait.

A field rep for Cabela’s, Sam equips his clients with a St. Croix spinning rod in the Mojo Bass series, a 7-foot, sturdy, medium-weight rod with a fast, sensitive tip to signal those slight bites that so often begins a bass battle.

Our stats were impressive but not significant. During four hours on the water we hooked into at least two dozen smallies, boated and released 12 that all passed the 2-pound mark, with one bruiser measuring just over 20 inches that Sam estimated might make the 6-pound mark.

Wind predictions that day were for high breezes, and home commitments for us both made it a short morning run. But a quick stop along the inside wall of the South Gap at depths just under 20 feet produced another round for bronzeback bites.

“With the water at 54 degrees and the bites coming where they are, this is the start of spawning. The fishing out here should be good for another two weeks,” Sam said that Tuesday morning.

Two days later the dayside walleye fishery kicked in and Thursday morning Sam was pulling ’eyes from mid-depths and bottom bouncing in waters off Buffalo Harbor.

With bass moving into shallower spawning and post-spawn sites, walleyes schooling in Erie’s eastern waters and perch showing in pocket/patch schools at the eastern end of Lake Erie, prospects look fine for the warm-weather fishing season in and around Buffalo waters.

For Schrecengost, a contributing charter captain in the previous 14 Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s BassEye Challenges, this looks like a good year for the fundraising tournament that requires catching good numbers of both bass and walleye in the June 24 competition. Details about the 15th Annual BassEye fundraiser can be viewed at

Chartering trips for bass and walleye should be better than good this season, with many big bass caught during the early season and fisheries’ reports of good-sized walleye stock in Lake Erie this year.