Day one: The drive to Lake Erie is about 13 hours. I met Chris (Bump) at the Va line. Its a drive I'm becoming all too familiar with, up I77 to the north. I've fished Erie on the Detroit Michigan side, but never the NY side. I hear it's alot clearer, not sure how that can be, you can see 20 ft down in Michigan. I also hear it is also alot rougher. Dang, the west side is bad enough. But a southwest wind blows straight across the big lake, creating huge rollers of waves that build miles out to the inland sea. This place is like fishing the ocean, no place to hide. It can get so bad, they have build a huge dike miles long that protects the city of Buffalo and creates an inner harbor area for lake side business, like the marina basin we will launch from.
Today, I am going to explore what Erie has to offer. The B.A.S.S. event earlier was won deep, around 30 ft, dragging tubes and drop shots over the many shoals and ridges that dot the lake. When I say "dragging", it refers to having a drift sock, maybe 2 or 3, depending on the wind, and basically drifting across the shoal in the target depth. It can be very productive, and a very popular method on the lake. In fact, its called the Erie Drag. A good friend of mine fished the BASS Open, and has pointed me in the direction of a popular off shore reef to attempt this. I will admit, this has to be the most boring way to fish I have ever encountered. You basically are just sitting there, holding a rod, bopping in the waves, waiting on a bite. You can literally drift for miles without knowing it because it becomes hypnotic from the vass expanse of water and waves. It also can make you very sea sick!
As the photo shows, the skyline of Buffalo is just barely visible 15 miles out on the lake. A GPS is essential here. After about 3 hours of what seems aimless drifting, one bite and consuming every snickers bar in my boat out of boredom, I decide enough. I will see if I can figure out something else, perhaps a shallow bite. My first stop shallow, will produce 3 nice smallies. There will be no Erie Drag for me. The day will turn out to be rather calm seas for Erie, and a very productive one. Man, do those smallies fight.
Day 2:Today, again will be somewhat calm for Lake Erie, only 2 to 3 foot waves I will travel further out South to explore my little pattern. It will work again today, having another good limit of smallmouth. I still can't get over how these brown fish fight. And they hit a bait like a freight train. I'm feeling pretty good about my practice. Today, the wind will pick up in the afternoon, making movement on the large lake more painful. My plan was to expand even further south, having put at another landing closer to Penn line. Its kind of strange how isolated you feel fishing this lake, it really can swallow up boats. You can see one here, one there, way off shore. And sometimes a group of 5 or more on one reef.
Day 3:Today, Erie will be the monster most fear, with a SW wind 25 mph and more. It will produce 6 to 10 foot rolling waves. Bump says he is going to go out and try his hand at dragging. I think twice about even venturing outside the protected dike. I watch as Bump blast out into the rough waters. The huge dikes runs parallel to the city in three staggering lengths. To get onto the lake, you have to run thru a little shoot between the dikes. Its like running into a wall when you shoot out it. The calm before the storm. Until you have experienced it, there's not description that justifies the bone jarring it can put on you when you hit that opening.
I watch as Bump tries to work his way out into the storm, slowing going off in the distance. He will be only in sight when he rises up from a swell, then out of view as he goes over the wave. I'm hitting the river today. The river has a good population of largemouth, but not a history of high finishes. A smallmouth limit will outweigh the smaller largemouth, and not be much of a factor in the tournament. Only if the lake is so rough you cannot get on it, like today. I will manage a decent limit of largemouth in the river, securing a backup plan if needed. A couple hours into fishing the river, Bump comes running by me and starts fishing. I idle over to him to ask "what you doing in the river"? His comment, "I got sea sick out there." He even had to come back in to calmer waters and lay on the deck of his boat to feel better. It was bad out there, so bad that before I decide to call it a day, I tuck behind one of the huge break walls to fish some pilings, only to have a huge lake wave come completely over the dike and soak me.
Day 4: Today will be a short one, and another rough one. I feel pretty good about my chances to do well, maybe even win this thing. Only thing that worries me is the wind, where I can't run my shallow pattern. Big waves can actually pick you up and throw you aground if not careful. Plus it makes long runs out of the question, or atleast bone jarring. At the pairings meeting, everyone is talking about how it will be a sack fest, with possibly taking over 35 lbs to make the top 20 cut. My first day co-angler partner is a familiar one, having been paired with him twice before in the FLW Tour. He has never seen or fished Erie. I tell him to be prepared to get wet, get beat and get his line stretched.
Tournament Day 1: Todays forecast is for a SW wind up to 20 mph. Not what I wanted. It will make getting around tough, but I'm going. The day will go very well, securing a limit that will weigh almost 18 pounds, putting me in 17th place. It was a sack fest as predicted, with over 15 lbs being 50th place, and 20 lbs leading. Its tight, only ounces separate the top. I really thought I had around 15 lbs, but these smallmouth are thick, and will weigh.
Tournament Day 2: Today will dawn windy and blustery. You can see all the flags in the harbor standing straight out, and all you hear is the "tink tink" of sail boats mast hitting the poles. Word is that FLW Outdoors officials are considering canceling the days competition. There is a small craft advisory in effect. Honestly, I wouldn't mind if they canceled it, I'm in 17th place, will make the cut, and have rested my fish. Not to mention resting my weary bones. After about an hour delay, several conferences with the Harbor Patrol, we will go. One that I think is the right call. There's fishable water inside the dikes, and almost 20 miles of protected river.
I will choose to go to my lake fish. Its a long rough ride, but another productive one. The day becomes less windy by noon, and bright sunny. I will actually move up in the standings to 13th place, making the cut with another limit close to 16 lbs. Lucky 13 I hope. This place is awesome, having taken over 31 pounds to make Top 20. The weigh in are slow due to the huge numbers of fish being caught. I am the second from left boat in picture, behind the guy walking by, waiting on my bag number to be called. Its a rare chance to sit , relax, not bobbing up and down in the boat.
Tournament Day 3: Today, my partner is from up North. He just can't believe how shallow I am fishing. He has drug that tube in 40 feet and deeper every day. I feel really good about my chances to make the Top 10, even to win this thing. In practice, I managed one or two really big smallies, but have not capitalized with one yet. Today, I hope will be the day. The big bite will come, but it will be for my co-angler partner, one well over 5 lbs, perhaps even 6.
I have secured another good limit, feeling pretty good as we make the long drive to the Wal-Mart weigh in. The route for the precession of boats takes us by the Buffalo Bills football stadium. I can just picture people out there tailgating on those figid winter days up here with all that lake effect snow. But about my success fishing, you really just don't know, the lake is producing such large bags of fish.
You can feel the tension as the weigh in begins. Ounces will be the difference in who fishes tomorrow, or who goes home. My limit will come in at just less than 18 lbs, and will go out in 2nd place tomorrow. The weights carry over, and it will be tight. The guy ahead of me has alittle over 2 lb lead. But the guys behind me are only separated by ounces. 2 lbs is alot on Erie, but I still haven't had my big bite, so I'm confident I can still win this thing. With fishing, specially smallmouth, anything can happen. And with such a big body of water, and the weather playing more a factor than any lake I have fished, its anyone's game. I will be paired with the 2nd place co-angler, he is from Michigan and amazed that my southern pattern is working.
Finals - Top 10: The weather today has me alittle worried. The forecast is for severe thunderstorms, gusty wind SW and rain. What I am doing requires the sun, the more the better. It may also force cancellation of the days final round. I really want an opportunity to win this thing. If worse comes to worse, I still have my back up pattern in the river to go to. The wind makes the deep fish bite, the sun makes my shallow big fish bite. The early morning will dawn with black clouds over Buffalo.
We will go out on time. I tell my partner to batten down the hatches, strap on his rain gear, I'm going to my lake fish. Its where I will need to go if I am to win this thing. It takes about 2 minutes to reach the little opening in the dike wall, the little opening to big water and waves. It reminds me of a ride at a local theme park, called "White Lighting". On it, you shoot out from a start that goes from 0-70 mph in seconds. Going thru that opening, hitting that wind and big waves can be intimidating. Once we manage to get to my starting area, things begin pretty quickly, with both I and my partner catching one keeper. As the day progresses, the storms intensify in strength. You can see the huge black clouds building off in the lake distance. And hear the rumble of thunder. Several times sharp lightning pops around us. On Erie, theres no where to get out of it. Several times, I am worried that a huge wave is going to pick up my boat, slam it aground in the shallow water. The rain gets heavier and heavier. But the wind has laid. I tell my partner that its now or never, I have an area thats a pretty good run, that I feel to win this thing, need to gamble by running to it. I had several really big smallies there, and thats what I will need. The move seems to be a good one, as I catch a 3 lb smallie my first cast there, then another in a few more. I will manage a limit quickly, with more fish today, but the size will only be 3 lb fish. I just can't seem to upgrade. My co-angler partner has 4 fish, two in the 4 lb range. I tell him I got a place he can finish out his limit, only been catching 2 pound fish off it. It doesn't take long, he has his fifth fish. I make the comment we need to leave, go hit another big fish spot when he hooks into a really nice smallie. Unfortunately, he wilL jump and throw his bait. Without the sun, my chances of that big kicker fish I need are slim. Right before we have to leave for the long run back, the rain stops, the sky brightens, and the fish turn on. I look at the same 3 lb fish several times, never getting to cull up. My partner will again lose another good fish.
During check in, and trailering of boats, everyone is quiet. No one is to talk about their day. I know I don't have enough to win, but you just never know when it comes to fishing. The leader could stumble, and with the weather, things did change. The ride to Wal-Mart seems forever, giving time to reflect on the day and week. The co-anglers will weigh in first. My today partner will finish 2nd, with the fish that got off costing him, since he lost by ounces. My final days limit will go only 15 lbs, smallest all week for me. It will drop me to 3rd place. In practice, I managed one or two really big smallies, but did not get one during the Tx. The winner won the tournament, having another big bag the final day. I didn't lose the tournament. I weighed in over 66 pounds of smallmouth this week. My hands are sore, my legs are weak.
Overall, I am really pleased with my finish, specially being a southern on a northern lake. This place is awesome. And it is rough. When you are on the water, catching those smallmouths makes you forget about all those aching muscles and bones. I really envy those who get to fish the waters regularly.