WNY Bass and Walleye Hotspots for NY’s Great Lakes

Bill Hilts, Jr.

Bass and walleye combine for a very effective one-two punch for New York’s Great Lakes in Western New York.  For this section of the state, that includes the Eastern Basin of Lake Erie and the Western Basin of Lake Ontario – and connected by 40 miles of Niagara River, a strait divided by the mighty Cataracts of Niagara Falls.  This is a fishing mecca that seemingly knows no bounds. Of course, we know better than that.

Ever since the state changed its bass regulations, more and more fishermen have been targeting smallmouth and largemouth bass during the time that was formerly known as pre-season.  We grew up recognizing that bass season opened the third Saturday in June and ended November 30.  The advent of an early trophy bass fishery on Lake Erie starting the first Saturday in May has been tweaked a bit, but the current season sports a one-fish daily limit with a minimum length of 20 inches– a true trophy in anyone’s book.  That fishery has blossomed into becoming widely recognized as one of the top smallmouth destinations in the world.
“Springtime ‘smallies’ on Lake Erie from Buffalo to Dunkirk can be second to none,” says Captain Steve Drabczyk of Lewiston (Drab6 Fishing Charters,, 716-807-6248). The term “ice out” is one that he focuses in on this time of year, as the lake will not begin to warm until the ice is gone. That fluctuates from year to year based on the severity of the winter.  An ice boom placed at the head of the Niagara River between Buffalo and Fort Erie, and in Ontario in Canada is used to control ice formation and dissipation to minimize damage along the shoreline and to keep water intakes open.  Once the ice is gone, waters will start to warm and these fish will begin their natural spawning cycles.

“This is prime time to catch these fish, when they are most vulnerable,” says Drabczyk.  “I’ll normally target these fish in the shallows when they are on their beds from Buffalo to Sturgeon Point in six to 18 feet of water when I’m looking for numbers of fish.  Three to four pound fish are plentiful.  When the water clarity is good, I like to sight fish for bass.”  Drabczyk also notes that “while the pre-season catch and release-bass fishing is with artificial baits in the rest of the state, you can use live bait for the special Lake Erie season.  That said, this time of year, these fish really aren’t feeding when they are on the beds.  They are protecting their beds from invasion.”  Drabczyk says, “I like to use a lure that is tied directly to the line such as a tube jig, spinnerbait or bucktail jig”  in order to detect hits or strikes.

Because of that mindset, Drabczyk uses line that can be anywhere from eight- to 12- pound test.  Line visibility isn’t as much of an issue in the slightly turbid waters, and he matches the line that he uses to the skill level of his customers, and adjusts it based upon whether or not there’s a lot of debris in the water.  His preference is Trilene XT with high abrasion qualities, especially when he’s around structure like rocks and drop-offs.

Drabczyk says, “For the big monsters, I’ll target waters that are as deep as 40 feet.  Find structure, and you’ll find spawning fish in that 25 to 40 foot range, and most of those fish – once you find them – will be in excess of four pounds.”  He goes on to say, “Every spring I catch fish in excess of six pounds with many over five pounds.  Work the perimeters of shoals and reefs.  Hiring a guide is a good way get an on-water educational lesson and learn the ropes on where and how to catch these fish.”

According to Drabczyk, “Presentation is critical, like it is any time of year. I like to keep the boat moving, be it from wind on the lake or the use of my bow-mount trolling motor.  My best speed is anywhere from 1.5 to 3 miles per hour. And with the influx of gobies in the system, anything that can imitate a goby will certainly attract the attention of the bass attempting to protect their nests.”
Another good bass guy is Captain Tom Marks of Derby (GR8 Lakes Fishing Adventures, 716-997-6919,  He likes working the breakwalls around Buffalo Harbor for starters in early May, along with some of the near-shore areas for spawning fish.  One area in particular is “the flats” – four to eight feet of water from Athol Springs, to just beyond the Wanakah Water Works. Favorite baits include a variety of crankbaits like Junior Thundersticks, Rapala Shad Raps or Strike King Sexy Shad.  Spinnerbaits and tube jigs can also be productive, casting between the rocks of the outer break walls.

“The secret to finding bass is to understand their life cycle,” says Marks, “and knowing where and when they spawn.  Many spawn out in the lake but we do have bass that spawn in the tributaries that will be very close to shore working into those streams.”

Marks’ specialty is walleye.  Lake Erie walleye populations are also highly touted, and with the season opening the first Saturday in May around the state, most of the action early on is along the shoreline at night as these fish come in to spawn or feed.  Marks has gotten away from the night troll in recent years – in part because he’s found a day bite good enough to not lose his beauty sleep at night.
“I’ve been able to find active walleye during the day in May, but it is usually in the early morning,” insists Marks.  “Sometimes even on bright, sunny days I can catch fish consistently until noon.  The early season is close to shore, trolling stickbaits or worm harnesses in 10 to 15 feet of water.  Long leads are the key.  These are most likely the same fish that were in the shallows at night, moving out to deeper water.  Drop-offs are good spots to target, with many of these fishing hanging on the bottom of the slope.  Trolling slowly is the normal approach, but don’t be afraid of speed. I’ve moved along as fast as 3 miles per hour to catch fish.  Use your maps and electronics to find the drop-offs, and stay near the known spawning areas.  In fact, spend some time just looking for that key structure,” he says.  It could probably be likened to scouting for deer or geese.

By the time June rolls around, the walleye have moved out deeper, but staying in the warmer water near the surface.  For example, the fish may be holding 10 feet down at over 25-foot depths. Using his downriggers, he’ll put the ball down five feet below the surface and run his baits 150 feet or more back behind the boat.  In-line boards will also allow him to get the baits away from the boat and down that critical 10-foot depth.  “One of the keys to walleye fishing is depth control,” says Marks. “Keep your baits in the zone.”

As far as a forecast for 2011, warm water fisheries expert Don Einhouse with the Lake Erie Unit of the Department of Environmental Conservation says this:  “In a nutshell, Lake Erie bass is expected to remain stable; walleye is a bit more complicated. The big west-central basin walleye resource is declining, due to some below-average spawning success of late, and we know those fish contribute to our state fishery.  However, our local walleye spawning stocks have had pretty good recruitment success in recent years.”

Western Basin – Lake Ontario
In the shadow of the excellent Lake Erie resource are the lower Niagara River, the Niagara Bar, and several points east when it comes to finding good bass fishing.  The techniques of chasing bass in the colder water during the non-traditional “season” of May and the first three weeks of June are similar, seeking out spawning bass in the shallows.
“One of my favorite spots is off of Fort Niagara in the main lake,” says Drabczyk, who recently opened a Lewiston tackle shop – Creek Road Bait and Tackle on Route 18. “While the numbers, size and consistency can’t compare with Lake Erie, it’s an area that can surprise you.  Under certain conditions, the lower river and Niagara Bar can be every bit as good as its Great Lakes counterpart.”
Because this is part of the statewide catch-and-release season, only artificial lures can be used until the third Saturday in June.  Best baits include tube jigs, hair jigs and spinnerbaits to name but a few.  Last spring, writer Jeff Knapp of Pennsylvania reeled in a personal best while fishing this very area during the first week of May.  He brought in a seven-and-a-half-pound smallmouth that hit a goby-colored tube.  While a fish that size is quite a feat, Drabczyk has noticed an increase in the overall size of the bass in these waters.
One of the anomalies that is a catalyst for bass cooperation is a northeast wind on Lake Ontario.  When it blows hard enough and flips the lake over, bass seek out the warmer river water– especially when Lake Erie is warmer than Lake Ontario  It’s almost as easy as shooting fish in a barrel – if that were legal.  That type of a situation doesn’t normally occur until the summer, but you should be aware of it whenever you are in the area.
Another important consideration is prevailing winds.  Winds normally blow out of the west or southwest in Western New York.  A strong southwest wind may keep you off Lake Erie.  However, those conditions are ideal for the lower Niagara River and the near-shore structure along the lake.  One great feature is that you can use a small boat most of the time, whether it be on the lake, on the river, or in the nearby harbors to the east – Wilson, Olcott and Oak Orchard.  No matter what Mother Nature throws at you, there’s always some place to fish in Western New York’s Great Lakes.  While the harbor areas may be more suited for largemouth bass, some smallmouth action is still available in the spring, as waters are cool and bass are spawning.

Bill Hilts, Jr. is Niagara County’s Sportfishing Promotion Person and Outdoor Sports Specialist for Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation.  He is currently president of the Lake Ontario Sportfishing Council and past president of the NYS Outdoor Writers’ Association.  He is an active member of the Outdoor Writers’ Association of America, Professional Outdoor Media Association, and president of Association of Great Lakes Outdoor Writers.  Contact him at

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