Observations from the Water – 05/23/2021

by | May 22, 2021

Days on the Water: 7
Who we fished with: friends, clients
Where we fished:Lake Ontario, Lower Niagara, Upper Niagara, Lake Erie
What we caught: smallmouth bass, king salmon, steelhead, lake trout
Tactics: spoons, ned rigs, bait


Observations from the Water – this Past Week (17-23 May)

It was a tough week – we started at dawn every day in order to get a solid session in before getting waked off the river by boats and jet skis. I’m burnt to a crisp after enduring sun and temperatures more common to mid-summer than spring. The allergies are cranking due to all the pollen. Bottom line, the easy/wonderful days of the spring bite have ended. It was an awesome season – time to put in work during the transition.

If you casually follow the fishing scene around Buffalo Niagara, you’re likely accustomed to thinking this is prime time for everything that swims. If you’re basis for that thought is the historical average, you’d be right. However, this year isn’t the historical average. Lake Erie water temperatures are higher than they have even been at this time of year. It’s no wonder – we’ve experienced a couple weeks of windless days and unseasonably warm temperatures. Unfortunately, this has had an adverse effect on the fishing. Here are our latest observations:

Smallmouth bass: I watched it all happen this week. As I was taking the boat out of the water at the Sheridan Boat launch on Monday afternoon, I noticed a bass, likely a male, poking around the break wall – classic bed prospecting/making activity. I was crushed to see this so early in the year…but I knew it was coming/predicted it about a month ago when I saw the water temperatures becoming abnormally warm for that time of year.

As I launched on Tuesday morning, there were at least 4 beds around the launch and many more throughout the river – the spawn has begun. Other natural events that coincide with the spawn are:
– The emergence of caddis – locals call them sand flies. They are just starting to hatch now, and that emergence will grow to blizzarding levels soon. You’ll notice the rudd eating them off the surface with splashy rises around the banks of the river.
– The moss flow – green algae/moss/gooey weeds release from the rocks on the bottom of the river and flow downstream. It was non-existent on Monday. It’s in full swing as I type this.
– Cotton wood seeds and heavy pollen cover everything – you don’t need to live on or by the river to see this – just look out your window.

We caught excellent numbers of bass throughout the week, but the overwhelming majority were small – another indicator that the spawn is taking place. We avoided spawning flats and fished feeding lanes with heavy current throughout the river. Neds and swimbaits worked best.

One quick note on bass fishing during the spawn – you should leave bedding bass alone. If you’re a recreational angler with a boat and you get on the water over the next few days, you’re going to notice some huge bass on beds. You may find yourself thinking, “That’s a monster, I’ve gotta catch it.” If you think that, your desire to catch a big fish and take a photo is clouding your judgement. Again, you should leave it alone.

Bass on beds are guarding eggs and if you pull them off their beds, most of those future bass will get consumed by the gobies that are waiting close by to raid the nest. If you question the validity of this claim, talk to some of the older charter captains and guys like me who started fishing the river back in the 80’s (or just go to Youtube and watch videos of it taking place). Back then, 100+ fish days were common. 200+ fish days weren’t rare. Since the arrival of the goby, days like that don’t happen anymore. Sure, we have bigger bass nowadays – but that’s likely because gobies are culling the population – so please don’t contribute to the problem/create more uncertainty.

The bass population in Lake Erie, the Niagara River, and Lake Ontario isn’t studied all that much – all the money for research goes to studying walleyes, sturgeon, lake trout, and king salmon. Folks just assume that because we have big bass, everything is awesome. However, myself, and many captains who have been fishing this place a lot longer than me, can tell you the bass population is in a delicate balance/under threat by an invasive fish that isn’t going away.

In short – if you want to catch biggies for years to come, exercise some patience and let them spawn/don’t harass them when they are on beds.
If you want to catch bass while all the mature fish are on beds, avoid the spawning flats and cover water – work the fast, shallow stuff – the feeding lanes. You’ll find a mix of sizes – from pre-spawn fish, to post spawn fish, to juveniles. All will hammer finesse tackle – from neds to drop shots. Don’t worry, in a couple weeks, all those big fish you see on beds will be back on the feed – now you know where they’ll be – same general area – just a little deeper.

Salmon: Unfortunately, I don’t have great news here either. The bite has been tough. There are numerous theories floating around to justify this. Some think that all the warm water around has them in a pattern that’s similar to the early summer lull – the time of year when they hammer the big schools of bait that congregate along the warm/cold water border. After they fill up on the real stuff, so goes the theory, they drop down into the cold water where their metabolism doesn’t have to work so hard. In other words – a big meal goes a long way when a fish can just drop into cold water and chill after eating.  Whatever the case, the bottom line is that the bite is slow. As we observed last week, the best time of day to catch a king has been the hour prior to dawn and the hour or 2 after sunrise.

Steelhead: we didn’t target them this past week, but we caught them while finesse fishing Devils hole for bass. So…they’re still in there and definitely willing to eat meat. You’ll notice from the photos, all are emaciated/post spawn. With the water temperatures rising so quickly, they won’t be in there much longer.

Walleyes: given everything we mentioned above, Lake Erie gold will be our focus in the upcoming week or so.

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Looking Forward (24-30 May)

This forecast for this upcoming week is dicey – Monday and Thursday look promising if the forecast holds. I’m sure Memorial Day weekend will be a zoo on the water so we won’t be fishing/we’ll be taking a short break.

The summer pattern will be upon us soon. Bass will be off beds in the next couple weeks and will go on a feeding frenzy. Walleyes will be on the menu. Kings should be easier to pattern. In short, we’re going through a difficult but brief transition right now. Things will improve shortly. Stay tuned!

Stay healthy my friends – mentally and physically,