Lake Erie - Head to Walleye Heaven & See Why Pros and Novices Can Have a Blast!
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
I've often heard Lake Erie described as the best walleye fishing in the United States, but never made an opportunity to fish this lake and see just how "Great" it is. After seeing how quickly we were able to catch two boat limits of fish in early August - in some tough weather, to boot - I'll readily admit, it's pretty great!
We fished out of Dunkirk, in Chautauqua County, the westernmost county in New York that borders Lake Erie. It's a beautiful area with many small farms and gentle hills that feed down to fertile lowlands and wine country as you near the lakefront.
The Chautauqua County Visitors Bureau coordinated our "Fish Camp" and myself and a handful of other enthusiastic anglers staged out of a small cottage in Irving, just one street off the sprawling beach in Sunset Bay.
We were conveniently located to a beachfront watering hole and restaurant called Cabana Sam's. This vacation partying destination was packed for the all-you-can-eat crab special on our arrival day. We watched the sun set as we worked on several servings of succulent snow crabs cooked to perfection.
Dave Barus, outdoors consultant for the Visitors Bureau, was our host, our tour guide and resident fishing expert. He explained that Lake Erie is having a banner year for walleye.“The walleye population in the lake is estimated at 41 million,” Barus said. New York has a generous six fish per day limit and most experienced charter captains are catching 25-35 keeper walleye in a short four-hour trip (usually $400 for four anglers). “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 one of the top freshwater species for table fare. The best eating size are fish in the 2-4 pounds range, precisely the size of most of the fish being caught this year, Barus added. Almost all the fish we ended up catching fell within that range. Our charter captains and mates said the wealth of fish this year already has them salivating about next year. Every one of those fish will add a pound or two and next year's filleting tables should be loaded with chunky walleye. Besides walleye, Erie also has a superb lake trout fishery and its yellow perch can be jumbo-sized. There is also an excellent cold weather fishery for migrating trout and steelhead, with anglers typically catching them in the creeks draining into the lake.
Barus, New York outdoors writer Mike Joyner and I fished with Captain Jim Steel (Dream Catcher Sportfishing) and his long-time mate Rich Fliss the first morning. Not long after launching, stormy weather that had been threatening offshore edged closer. I was glad we were on Steel's 31-foot Tiara. Westerly winds pushed big swells and heavy rain squalls pounded the deck. Waves 3-5 feet in height were the norm. The boat was wonderfully stable, with its 12-foot beam and great profile. It was sometimes tough, though, to keep your balance at the back while winding in a fish. We saw few other boats. Steel and Fliss did the heavy lifting in the crappy weather. Steel's StormR rain gear kept him completely dry during a couple 30-minute deluges while he stood in the stern ready to grab rods when fish bit. To tell the truth, with all the pitching of the boat, I don’t know how he or Fliss detected bites. But, they did. By the time we pulled in the lines, clear skies reigned. We had a livewell loaded with walleye and lake trout to 14-plus pounds.
A Monster Bites
The others in our party were scheduled to fish out of bass boats looking for legendary Lake Erie smallmouth. Bass to 7 pounds, veritable monsters in the smallmouth world, are possible. Despite the weather, the guys fishing with local bass pro Scott Gauld in his 19-foot boat gamely gave the big lake an early morning go, heading toward rock piles that were known smallie hangouts. One angler, Pennsylvania writer Tyler Frantz, said the rough conditions made things a little bouncy as they prepared to pitch tube jigs.
Frantz made his first cast, feeling the lure sink. Thud! He felt the solid crunch of a powerful smallmouth taking the bait. A couple minutes later he was marveling at a fish weighing nearly 6.5 pounds. The early hook-up was fortuitous. Both wind and rain rapidly worsened. Frantz and Gauld were getting drenched in the open boat. They prudently decided to live to fish another day, heading in and trailering the boat to a sheltered inland lake for more fishing.
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. Over a leisurely lunch, we heard presentations from fisheries biologists and conservationists about the state of lake. Particularly interesting was a presentation that involved radio tracking tagged walleyes to see migration patterns. Fish at the southwest end of the lake roamed far and wide during the year. Fish spawning near Buffalo were more homebodies. Fish and wildlife biologists get to do such cool stuff.
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 Thomas Yetzer was the mate. Day two was also rainy, but Skoczylas also a 31-foot Tiara, so we stayed mostly dry except when cranking in fish. Thankfully, winds had laid down considerably, making waves more manageable and fishing 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. Again, we fished in water ranging from 60-120 feet deep. Skoczylas sets his lines in a similar fashion to many guides I've experienced in the Chesapeake Bay, running traditional planer boards off each side, with multiple lines extended. He also uses small bells on some rigs to tip you off when a fish may be hooked up.
No Smallies for You!
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, known for its bass and muskellunge, the largest fish in the pike family. This area with three, interconnected small lakes is also home to a gated community of spiritualists and mediums. It was "go big or go home" for me and for nearly two hours I tossed and retrieved, at my own choosing, a hefty 3D realistic lure that just might have provoked a big predator fish to strike. That'll wear you out. I eventually traded for a white chatterbait. I could have used some otherworldly intervention from all those spirits hanging around 'cause I finished the morning in the "skunked" category. Gauld caught a nice northern pike, while teenager Nathaniel Archer, grandson of Pennsylvania writer Leon Archer (who makes some great pickled spicy peppers, by the way), caught his best largemouth ever, a nice 3-pounder. Nathaniel even snagged a lawn chair near a dock!
Meanwhile, over on Lake Chautauqua, a bigger body of water, Frantz (the man with the golden horseshoe) continued his winning streak, enticing a nice muskellunge to wallop his lure. For now, my biggest bronzeback remains a measly 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.
Trip Notes - Family Friendly - Eductional
* A six-hour charter typically costs $500 for up to four people. Up to two additional anglers can be added at extra cost. Walleye trolling is a bit technical 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. Favored lures were Renosky, Bay Rat and Challenger stickbaits.
But, the good thing is the captains are family friendly and, on days with decent weather, you can introduce novices and youngsters to fishing without burdening them with a lot of technical stuff. The key is, they will catch fish! If you're an experienced angler, whether a walleye specialist or not, another interesting observation is that these charter captains readily share in detail why they're fishing a certain way, to include trolling tactics, gear and tackle selection and more. A person with a boat and a little ambition, but not a lot of walleye experience, can go to school quickly during a couple trips with these pros. And, if you did decide to trailer a boat there, the county has multiple Lake Erie access points. Some marinas offer mooring opportunities.
* This family-friendly area offers accommodations ranging from motels off major interchanges to cottages along the lake that are available for weekends or by the week. There are some beautiful beaches in the area and plenty for the family to do when you're not fishing.
*Upstate New York is famous for is its wine. Grape varieties grown there differ from most seen in my home state of Virginia. New York wines favor semi-sweet tastes. Twenty-one wineries are in close proximity and are fun to visit after a morning of fishing.
* For more, see www.tourchatauqua.com or call 866/908-4569. For the latest fishing report, visit the Lake Erie fishing hotline: www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/fishhotlines.html. Chautauqua's Dave Barus explains more about all the area has to offer in the short video clip below.