Western New York is truly blessed with an abundance of sportfishing resources. It doesn’t take much to convince members of the outdoor media how special it is –just take them fishing. The fish do the rest and take center stage all on their own. However, sometimes it’s a bit more difficult to create a better awareness for our outstanding natural resources on the local front – with area politicians, elected officials, local business leaders and even members of our tourism industry. For the last 10 years, members of the Erie and Chautauqua Fisheries Advisory Boards have collaborated on a unique (and successful) “Lake Erie Experience” VIP/Media Day out of Dunkirk.
“The ‘Lake Erie Experience’ VIP Fishing Day is a great way to showcase the amazing Lake Erie fishery to public officials, media, and others in the western New York area,” says Andrew Nixon, Executive Director of the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau. “It is essential that local stakeholders and marketers know just how good the fishing really is, and how important it is to take care of this vital natural resource. In addition, Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau uses the VIP day as one part of a three day ‘Fishing Camp’ to inform outdoor travel writers about the appeal of Lake Erie and surrounding bodies of water. This year we hosted six outdoor travel writers and they enjoyed the area immensely.”
With a focus on Lake Erie, it helps that walleye fishing is on an upswing. In 2017, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) tabulated a record catch rate for walleye for New York waters. And with the way the fishing has been this year, we could be looking at a repeat performance for 2018.
“The days of the smoke stack industry are gone,” said Capt. Lance Ehrhardt of Sassafras Charters, one of the organizers for the VIP Day with Zen Olow, Chair of the Chautauqua Fisheries group. “We wanted to show what Lake Erie has to offer as a resource and for tourism. It is growing more and more, year after year. From the Pennsylvania state line up to Niagara County, we have it all in Western New York with the different types of fishing and fish species, all year long.”
"At Chautauqua’s ‘Fish Camp’ we offer a 3-day fun fishing camp adventure on Lake Erie,” says Dave Barus of East Aurora who helps coordinate the media outings outside of VIP Day. “While the media is here, on one of those days, VIP Day, we share important factors about monitoring the fishery and the lake resource over a home-cooked fish fry where they meet our legislators, DEC staff and charter captains. The writers learn about our incomparable walleye fishing, giant lake trout, feisty steelhead, monster smallmouth bass, musky in Chautauqua Lake and access to Lake Erie, as well as our focus for family-oriented adventure, kayaking, clean beaches, wineries, accommodations and the hospitality to be found here."
Tyler Franz, an outdoor writer from Annville, Pa. had this to say about his Lake Erie Experience: “As an outdoor writer from central Pennsylvania, I had always wanted to fish Lake Erie, and when given the opportunity to do so, as well as sample all the great fishing Chautauqua County has to offer, I was happy to make the five-plus hour drive north. I not only racked up my first-ever musky, walleye and lake trout over the course of two days, but I also caught my largest smallmouth to date! I couldn’t be more impressed with the quality of this excellent fishery or the professionalism of the experts who call these waters home.”
Ken Perrotte of King George, Virginia chimed in, too. “Yeah, we got a little wet. The captains and the mates did all the real heavy lifting, though; God bless ‘em. The VIP Day was a superb opportunity to catch fish, make new friends and gain valuable insights about the incredible fishery that is Lake Erie. It’s a treasure, for sure.”
“Smiles were easy to be found from a great day on Lake Erie,” said Mike Joyner, current president of the New York State Outdoor Writers Association. “The results of grand cooperation from so many dedicated sportsmen, Chautauqua and Erie County Fisheries Advisory Boards and their Tourism Bureaus, Eastern Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, DEC, and the tireless efforts of public staff and professionals have created a world class fishery that is a must do on your bucket list. Best Walleye fishing to be had, bar none. ”
It sounded like mission accomplished. Our boat was the Bait Master, a 26-foot Sea Ray Amberjack captained by Joel Ruggiero of Clarence (www.baitmastercharters.com). At the steering wheel was Jeff Rasmus of Dunkirk, a bait master in his own right. Some of the lures he painted himself were among the most successful we used for the morning. Also on board were Joe Fischer, a local legend relative to his involvement with the fisheries of Erie County and New York State. He is the current chairman of the Erie County Fisheries Advisory Board. Andrew Nixon with Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau was on board along with Tom Meiler of Lockport, too.
With the weather questionable, we stayed close to Ruggiero’s home port of Dunkirk. Our targeted depth was 60 to 63 feet of water with the harbor in sight, using downriggers and lead core line presentations off inline planer boards to haul in walleye after walleye. We used anywhere from 3 colors of lead core to 8 colors of lead core to cover a larger zone. Worm harnesses and Renosky stickbaits were the top enticements with purple and pink colors at the top of the list. We boated our 24 walleyes in short order with the biggest being around 4 pounds. We only had one “short” fish below the 15-inch minimum size.
Of course, using live bait on the harnesses will attract other fish species, too. Fischer, living up to his name, also reeled in sheepshead, silver bass, white perch and yellow perch to achieve a personal “slam” of sorts. It was all in good fun.
Rasmus was a key to our successes because of the baits we were using. One in particular, a “blueberry muffin” pattern that he painted himself, caught at least one limit of six fish. Some of the blades were “hatchet blades” that offer the fish a little bit different look. So did the Warrior serrated willow leaf blades. And if things slowed down a bit, Ruggiero would pop a worm harness from the rigger and let the bait float up through a school of fish, more often than not triggering a strike from an angry (and hungry) walleye.
The day ended with an outstanding walleye fish fry at the Northern Chautauqua Conservation Club courtesy of Charter Captain Phil Swiatkowski and Take Five Sportfishing. His “secret” batter is outstanding! Presentations on lake research by DEC and threats to the resource from Rich Davenport of Tonawanda completed the experience.