If you’re like most people you’ve probably heard stories of how legendary the smallmouth bass fishing is in NY. From Ontario, Erie, St. Lawrence, Oneida, Champlain, Cayuga, Susquehanna, you can find yourself hooking up with smallmouth in the 5-7+ pound range on every trip if you know what to look for, what to bring, and what to expect. Come unprepared, however, and you will leave with a coldness in your heart as deep as those lakes.
1. Go Big.
Forget everything you’ve been told about smallmouth fishing. Our fish are a different breed. Ask anyone who’s ever caught one here and you’ll learn quickly that these brown fish have a serious attitude problem. The real fight won’t begin until the fish can see the boat. With that in mind, you want to leave your medium light spinning rod and four-pound-test fluorocarbon line at home. These fish require a different strategy, and heavier game plan. Your three main baits are going to be cranks, tubes, and drop shot.
I prefer to use a 7 foot, medium heavy spinning rod like my Dobyns Champion Series 704SF. This is a great rod because it affords you the sensitivity you need to feel when you’re getting bit, but packs plenty of backbone to allow you to have some input while reeling in the fish. Lighter rods will leave you at their mercy. This rod, combined with 10 or 12 lb Seaguar InvizX, will let you horse those fish a little more. It will also let you work a tube if you choose. However I prefer the Champion 734C for that, with the same line. For my cranks I use a 765CBGLASS. Not only is this a great rod and useful for many different depths, it’s strong enough to fight those bigger fish and still have the give in the tip that you need when throwing cranks.
2. It’s Nautical.
These lakes are known as much for their big waves as they are their big fish. Make no mistake, the weather here can get gnarly in a real hurry and you need to know that ahead of time. Weather Underground has a wave forecast area on their website (see a sample for Lake Ontario here) and it would be very wise to check that before heading out. If you’re running the new Ion series from Humminbird, you can actually access the internet through your graph, which will allow you to have unlimited access to that weather data. It should also be noted that 3 foot waves here are very common. I know from my time fishing Southern lakes like Douglas, Santee Cooper, or Smith Mountain, that that is considered extreme by most people. Be sure your mechanicals are in good working order, that you have a good case for your phone to prevent it from leaking. I prefer to use my SLXtreme by Snowlizard because it will not only keep my phone dry, but has additional battery supply that will fully charge my iPhone 5 twice if I need it to. It also has a solar panel on the back to keep it charged in an extreme situation. For personal protection, I highly recommend either a Stormr Strykr or Fusion rain suit. Even when it’s not raining, the waves will pound you and you’ll need to stay dry to fully appreciate your trip.
3. They’re aggressive.
These fish don’t play around. Gary Dobyns told me he couldn’t believe just how easy it was to catch them. Drag a tube, wiggle a worm, or rip a crank, and as long as you’re near the fish, they’ll eat it. Look at your map and try to find any kind of isolated structure or shoal and start there. At Erie, for instance, there’s a huge shoal offshore outside of Dunkirk where you’ll often find many anglers stacked up. Get used to being close to other boats and be friendly. There are TONS of fish for everyone, so treat the community holes like a community. My favorite baits are listed below and in order of preference:
Berkley Gulp Nightwalker, 6 inch, green pumpkin.
Big Bite Baits Tube, Road Kill (dip the skirt in chartreuse).
Rat-L-Trap Knock-N Trap Series in either Sexy West or Chartreuse Flash.
When you drop shot, you’ll want to use a minimum of a half ounce Elite Pro Tungsten weight, tear-drop shaped for ultimate maneuverability around rocks, and you’ll want 3/4 ounce if the waves are over 3 feet to allow you to maintain constant contact with the bottom. You’ll want to pair that with a 1/0 Trokar hook. This is key because you’ll drastically reduce the number of fish you lose with this hook, and it will allow you to nosehook bigger baits when you go looking for bigger fish. When using the tube I prefer a wide gap Trokar hook, with a pegged 1/2 ounce Elite Pro Tungsten weight, and I rig the tube Texas.
For my Trap I use a modest gear ratio reel, something like a 6:3:1 or a 6:6:1, and flutter it up and down by raising the rod tip from 7-12 and reeling on the fall. This is a dynamite presentation and can be deadly on smallies.
Some other suggestions: Rapala DT10 Hellsinki Shad, Lucky Craft Sammy, Carolina Rigged Big Bite Bait Lizard Green Pumpkin.
4. Know where you are
Lots of our lakes have different rules depending on where you are. Know that different laws apply if you’re in Canada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and it’s particularly important to know that there is NO catch and release for bass in St. Lawrence County; meaning that you can only target bass during bass season. A quick call to the local DEC office will let you know of any special regulations to your area. It’s also important to know that you can’t use lead sinkers, and that there are specific Alabama Rig laws in many different bodies of water, or that you can only have 4 fish per man in your livewell while in Pennsylvania and fishing Lake Erie.
5. Install a second bilge
Not just because you’ll want a backup. You may actually find yourself in situations where it’s necessary to run two bilge pumps. I can’t stress to you enough how severe this weather can get. Nor do I want that to dissuade you from coming. I simply want you to be prepared so you can fully appreciate your time here. There are few places on the planet where you can catch a 7 pound largemouth, and a 7 pound smallmouth on the very next cast. It’s well worth visiting, but like anything else, preparation is the key!