August 08, 2013
Lake Erie is one of the premier smallmouth bass fisheries of North America. Beginning shortly after ice-out, massive schools move into the area to feed and spawn. What sets this fishery apart from many others is the size of bass available to anglers at this time of year. Five-pounders are so common, they rarely come up in discussion. A fish has to be over six to garner any bragging rights, and experienced anglers stand a good chance of catching a few of this size any given day. Seven-pounders aren't out of the question for savvy veterans. Big smallmouths are so numerous at this time of year they can be caught with about every presentation. Whether you're drop shotting, dragging tubes, jigging spoons, or casting the shallows you will catch fish. With so many 3- to 5-pound fish, an angler can be lulled into complacency, but those who fish hard and often tend to modify their presentation to target the biggest of the big.
A newcomer might take the view that catching a 6-pounder should be a numbers game. Not so says Frank Dimarcantonio, local guide with over 15 years of experience on Lake Erie. He's developed strong opinions about big-fish patterns, backed by plenty of lunker catches to bolster his case.
Of the many big fish (over 6 pounds) he and his clients have caught, he credits jerkbaits in early spring for at least half of these heavyweights. Bucking tradition, he rarely casts suspending stickbaits, relying instead on trolling or controlled drifting.
The Triumph of Trolling
Use of suspending jerkbaits for early-spring bass rose to prominence in large part through their use and promotion by tournament anglers. Early practitioners customized floating models to run deeper and to hang motionless to draw strikes from wary smallmouth bass.
Demarcantonio and other local experts have discovered this suspending property is deadly in trolling or controlled-drifting situations as well. At times, a straight troll is all that's required, although rarely does this approach outproduce an angler actively working a jerkbait.
But by trolling slowly (1 to 1.5 mph), Demarcantonio is able to impart similar action to the lure with a pulsing motion. "Pull the bait forward, then let it fall back on the pause," he instructs. "Bring the rod forward to speed the lure, then drop it back to give slack line. This replicates the action you can impart when casting a jerkbait, but you cover much more water. That's the key to finding groups of bass and active bass in big waters like Erie."
He's found that for the pause to be effective, a true suspending bait is required. Ones that barely float upward or sink don't draw as many strikes. With a suspender, anglers can impart sufficient hang time to tempt outsize bass.
He finds trolling more efficient because less time is wasted recasting and working the lure down to the appropriate depth. If you cast jerkbaits regularly, you've likely had days when tentative bass follow the lure but break off the chase, perhaps distracted or spooked by the angler or boat. Trolling, on the other hand, enables bass to follow a lure for extended periods before committing to strike.
Stickbait characteristics most important to this trolling program are diving depth and size. In spring, smallies can be moody. Some days they're eager to race up and hit a lure high overhead, especially in clear water. At other times, you need to get lures down near bottom, even ticking structure once in a while. For this reason, his stickbait selection includes a range of both shallow and deep divers. As for size, bigger is better at this time of year. Some of his mainstays include the Lucky Craft Pointer 100 and DD100 and the Suspending Rattlin' Spoonbill Rebel D22S.
Bigger baits not only select for larger fish, but also match the size of smelt that Lake Erie bass key on in spring. Other lures in this class include Rapala X Rap XR10, Husky Jerk HJ12 and 14, Deep Down Husky Jerk 12 and 14, Jackall Squirrel, and Livetarget's shallow and deep diving Smelt. Recognizing the value of greater depth for deep-holding bass, Megabass has added the Vision Oneten + 1 with an extended lip to its highly acclaimed Oneten lineup, and Strike Pro has released the long-billed Alpha Diver.
"You often mark clouds of smelt holding just off the break in 20 to 30 feet of water," says Dimarcantonio. "When they're spawning, smelt migrate into the shallows at night to drop eggs along shorelines, then move back to deep water when the sun comes up. It's not uncommon to see stressed or wounded smelt just on or below the surface."
As for lure color, one might guess that smelt-like colors such as silver, white, and chrome would be best, but his experimentation has showed that color is much less important than size and diving depth. He's caught big fish on virtually every color combination he's tried.
For trolling, Demarcantonio relies on a G. Loomis CBR 783 and 903 crankbait rods spooled with 10-pound-test monofilament. Over years of testing various combinations, he's found them ideal for fishing smallmouth stickbaits in the size and diving depth needed for early spring action on Erie.
Electronics also are critical on big waters. "Erie fish are constantly roaming, so the fact that you caught a fish here doesn't warrant dropping a waypoint," he notes. "The areas you want to plot on your graph are key structures that form high-percentage spots, either travel routes or holding areas for bass. They attract fish year after year. If I see a unique piece of structure on sonar and I catch a couple big fish there, I generally drop a waypoint."
He's a master at reading his Lowrance LCX27C that's fitted with a broadband sounder to boost power to display subtle changes in bottom density. This combination allows you to spot individual bass hugging bottom. It also helps identify sand-rock transitions he's found to be important travel routes and holding areas. Over the years, he's mapped dozens of prime transition areas, often distant from traditional fishing areas, allowing him to follow fish as they pursue seasonal migration patterns from deep to shallow and eventually back out to summer locations.
Other uses for suspending jerkbaits also are emerging on Lake Erie. Anglers who drift and drag tubes are also now starting to longline stickbaits on a second rod, which is legal in New York. Even over deep water, this technique regularly accounts for bass that anglers wouldn't otherwise catch, fish suspended in open water or holding near the bottom in deep water. Even a shallow running bait like a Husky Jerk, which runs 7 to 8 feet deep on 14-pound fused line, can draw strikes from fish holding 20 to 30 feet down.
This approach often selects for larger fish. On windy days, the surging of waves imparts a pull-pause action to the baits, not unlike Demarcantonio's trolling approach. In this scenario, driftsocks are essential to control drift speed. The momentum of the boat, sharp hooks, and low-stretch line contribute to high-percentage hookups even without a true hook-set.
On big-water bass fisheries across the continent, these tactics put the odds in your favor. And if there happens to be a local tournament, the competitors might stare jealously as you haul in one big brownie after another.
*Lonnie King, Ottawa, Ontario, is a fishery scientist and a freelance writer and photographer. Contact: Frank Dimarcantonio, 905/788-9384, niagarasportsfishing.ca.