I’ve FISHED MANY great lakes, but never one of the “Great Lakes.” So, when an opportunity came to spend three early August days in western New York’s Chautauqua County fishing on Lake Erie, it was, “Put me in coach!”
Lake Erie is renowned for its walleye fishery and 2018 is a banner year, according to Dave Barus, the Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau outdoors consultant.
“The walleye population in the lake is estimated at 41 million,” Barus said, adding that New York has a generous six fish per day limit and most experienced charter captains are catching 25-35 walleye in a short four-hour trip.
“Catching fish 7 to 10 pounds isn’t unusual, and earlier this year one walleye larger than 14 pounds was caught,” Barus said.
Many people consider walleye a top freshwater species for table fare. The best-eating size fish weigh about 2-4 pounds, precisely the size of most being caught this year, Barus said.
Lake Erie is the shallowest of the Great Lakes. Barus points out it is also the cleanest. Diverse underwater habitat and clean water combine to help create an outstanding fishery.
Barus, New York outdoors writer Mike Joyner and I went after walleye and lake trout while four others set out in bass boats looking for legendary Lake Erie smallmouth. Bass to 7 pounds, veritable monsters in the smallmouth world, are possible.
The 31-foot Tiara walleye boat of Dream Catcher Sportfishing (dreamcatchersportfishing.com) was the best choice on this morning—at least when it came to comfort. Westerly winds pushed big swells and heavy rain squalls pounded us while thunderstorms raged offshore. Waves 3-5 feet in height were the norm.
There wasn’t much boat traffic where we fished several miles out. Capt. Jim Steel and mate Rich Fliss did all the heavy lifting. To tell the truth, with all the pitching of the boat, I don’t know how they detected bites. But, they did. Walleye typically hit baits in the thermocline, the transition layer between warmer, mixed water at the surface and cooler deep water below. Lakers like the colder deep water. By the time we pulled in the lines, clear skies reigned and the livewell was loaded with walleye and lake trout to 14-plus pounds.
A Lake Monster Bites
Despite the weather, the guys fishing with local bass pro Scott Gauld in his 19-foot boat gave the big lake an early morning go, heading toward rockpiles that were known smallie hangouts.
One angler, Pennsylvania writer Tyler Frantz, said the rough conditions made things a little bouncy as they prepared to cast tube jigs. Frantz pitched his lure, feeling it sink. Wha-boom! He felt the solid thud of a chunky smallmouth taking the bait. A couple minutes later he held a fish weighing nearly 6.5 pounds.
The early hook-up was fortuitous. Weather conditions deteriorated rapidly. They decided to live to fish another day, prudently heading in and trailering the boat to a sheltered inland lake for the rest of the morning.
The next morning saw us joining the 10th Annual Lake Erie Experience, which included a half-day fishing charter followed by a classic walleye fish fry at the Northern Chautauqua Conservation Club. Barus, Paula Piatt, an editor with Outdoors News Publications, and I fished with Captain Jim Skoczylas of Ultimate Outdoors of Western New York (on Facebook at Ultimate Outdoors of WNY). Local chamber of commerce member Ellen Luczkowiak and Dan Tone, mentor of the Erie County Federation of Sportsmen and founder of the Western New York Environmental Federation, joined in. Fellow charter captain T.J. Yetzer was the mate.
Again, came the rains. Skoczylas runs a 31-foot Tiara also so we stayed mostly dry except when cranking in fish. Winds had diminished. Waves were easily managed, making fishing considerably more enjoyable. Although we just had a few hours on the water, the crew put us on a limit of keepers, every fish in that good-eating size range.
Day three was supposed to be my turn in the smallie bucket, fishing with Gauld on Erie. A late-night storm squelched those plans. Instead, we fished Cassadaga Lake. This area with three, interconnected small lakes is also home to a gated community of spiritualists and mediums.
Across four hours of fishing, I received no otherworldly intervention, finishing the morning skunked. Gauld caught a nice northern pike, while teenager Nathaniel Archer caught his best largemouth ever, a nice 3-pounder. He also snagged a lawn chair near a dock!
Meanwhile, fishing on bigger Lake Chautauqua, Frantz (the man with the golden horseshoe) continued his winning streak by enticing a nice muskellunge to wallop his lure.
For now, my biggest bronzeback remains the 5.8 pounder I caught eight years ago in my boyhood home waters of Lake Champlain, Vermont. I’d like to give Erie another try soon.
If You Go
It’s about an eight-hour drive to Dunkirk, New York. A six-hour charter typically costs $500 for up to four people. Up to two additional anglers can be added at extra cost. It’s technical fishing and, unless you’re drifting and jigging, it’s equipment intensive. The reels all sport line counters. Lead-core line was on several rigs. Our trolling spread featured a mix of downriggers (which caught the lake trout), various small planers and diving discs designed to penetrate deep into the water column. We used a variety of colorful stickbait lures, although walleye anglers also use something called a “crawler harness,” a two-hook setup with spinners and a single nightcrawler.
A trip with a charter captain is a good way to learn – our skippers and mates readily shared gear and lure choices for our fishing conditions.
If you trailer a boat there, the county has multiple Lake Erie access points. Some marinas offer mooring.
Chautauqua also has an excellent cold weather fishery for trout and steelhead, with anglers often catching them in the creeks draining into the lake.
The area offers accommodations ranging from motels off major interchanges to lakefront cottages available for weekends or by the week.
Upstate New York is famous for its wine. Grape varieties there differ from most seen in Virginia. New York wines favor semi-sweet tastes. Twenty-one wineries are nearby and fun to visit after fishing.
For more, see tourchautauqua.com or call 866/908-4569.