Live bait fishing for small mouth bass on Lake Erie: Amazing success is only a dip away.

Posted on January 1st, 2013 by Captain Jim

When booking a charter with me for small mouth bass on Lake Erie, I am often asked by new customers, “what quantity of fish can we expect to catch?”. My response for the last 25 of my 35 years in this business is 35 to 50 small mouth per day. I say 25 out of 35 years due to the fact that when I started guiding, I was a die hard tournament fisherman and would have rather perished than put a live bait on my hook. One day on the water, which I will never forget, changed my view of using live bait forever.
  It was a typical cold Lake Erie day with the wind blowing out of the northeast after a cold front had passed through. It caused the temperature of the lake to drop about 5 degrees in the area I was fishing. I was guiding a couple of my regulars using tubes and having a tough time putting any decent number or size of small mouth in the boat. We arrived at Sturgeon Point Marina at the same time that my old buddy and fellow guide, Jeff Tedesco, was coming in with a trip. Jeff seldom fished Lake Erie because he was a full time guide in the lower Niagara River for kings and steel head, but happened to be there that day. We exchanged greetings and he asked how we had done. I told him we had only put 7 smallies in the boat, and that I had caught 4 of them. In return I asked how he had done and he pulled me out of hearing range of my clients. I wondered what he was doing when he very quietly said that he had put 50 bass in the boat in the same amount of time I had been on the water. I was shocked and asked him what he had been throwing and his words still ring in my ears to this day, “Live bait Jim, never leave home without it”. Let the truth be known, I haven’t!
  Using live bait for guiding almost guarantees that no matter what the weather throws at you, you will still put at least a decent catch of Lake Erie small mouths in the boat. Does that mean that I have abandoned the use artificial bait when I guide? No way, I use them often in fact. My clients love tossing tubes, drop shots, blades, and spinner baits, (check out some of my articles on fishing artificial) but when you are on the water everyday, in every imaginable weather condition, it’s your duty to make sure the client’s lines are tight. There are a few tips to making sure that you are fishing with the right live bait for the time of year, and also some simple yet highly successful rigs that work every day.
Bait choice
Keep in mind that the time of year in which you are fishing for small mouth bass on Lake Erie will make your bait choice easy. My simple rule of thumb is this: In early spring, use emerald shiners dipped or purchased locally for freshness and availability. They are the best of the best for catching cold water spring small mouths but are only good on your hook for a short period of time. When they look weak or are dead, change them immediately. Always remember that warm water will kill emerald shiners lickety split!
As spring moves into summer, the availability of emeralds will subside and make way for the purchase of golden shiners from one of the many bait shops in the area. Golden shiners are hardy and last a long time on your hook but still need to be checked for swimming ability. If you see your baits turning over and you can see their bellies, change them. As summer reaches its peak in the area, it’s hard to beat crayfish for bait. Some locals call them crabs, some fishermen from the south call them crawdads, I call them wonderful. If you can find soft shell craws, ones that are molting out of their old shells, you will not be able to get the bait to the bottom before something grabs it and stretches your line. One drawback to using craws is that not only do small mouth love them but so do sheepshead, or as I have renamed them, northern red fish. Fresh water drum, as they are also known, grow large and numerous in Lake Erie near Buffalo, NY. At times you will load the boat with sheepshead using craws, but seldom will customers complain when they hook into a 10 lb “northern red fish” which pulls the drag for several minutes.
As summer moves into fall and the Lake temperature begins to drop, you will find going back to using golden shiners is your best bet. Hook your minnows, both emerald and goldens, through both lips. Push your hook up through the bottom of the jaw and then out through a nostril. Many old timers insist on putting the hook through the back but at the speeds we are drifting, they spin and drown easily. Take my advice and lip hook your minnows for best results; they will live longer and catch many more smallies.
Small hooks are a must when using minnows for Lake Ere small mouth. I use anywhere from a size 2 to a size 6 super sharp circle hook. I use 2’s on super big emerald and golden shiners and crayfish, and 6’s on small ones. Use a size 4 on medium baits for best results. You don’t want to overpower the movement of the minnow and take away its ability to look and swim naturally with an oversize hook.
Big Lake Erie small mouth don’t get that way by being dumb, so like a good fly caster, matching the hatch is imperative. Tie that super sharp circle hook on about a 3 to 5 foot, 8 to 10 lb test fluorocarbon leader and attach the other end to a 3 way swivel. Tie another shorter leader to the 3 way for your weight, using no more then 8 lb test line. You want that one to be able to break should it hit a rock or zebra muscle patch. I use weights anywhere from 1/16 to 2 ounces depending on wind speeds and depths. Make the sinker lead anywhere from 6 inches to a 1 ½ feet so you are able to keep your baits above the gobeys if the small mouth are a being lethargic. Gobeys will gobble up their share of live bait no matter what you do. If you get more gobeys biting then bass, it’s time to move. Active gobeys are a sign of inactive bass. Smallies that are feeding will eat any gobey dumb enough to go after your baits. Its been reported by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, that in many cases, 100% of Lake Erie small mouth’s diet are gobeys.
Tie the 3rd part of the 3 way to your main line and you are almost ready to drop. I like using the thinnest braid I can get away with, as 6 lb diameter is the one I use. The 3 way rig or Wolf River Rig as some call it, is the one to use when the wind is blowing and your boat is in a good drift. I also like using a drop shot rig for a lot of my bass fishing when I am fishing vertically or when the wind has stopped blowing. For the drop shit rig, tie the hook right to a piece of 8 to 10 lb fluorocarbon using a Palomar knot and attach to the line going to your rod with a very small swivel. Leave about a foot below the hook and attach a drop shot sinker with enough weight to get it to the bottom with good feel. I like to use 7 foot medium action rods for best results. I often have to talk a client out of using an ultra light action rod for this type of fishing. I do this for a couple of reasons. The first is that we often need a weight of up to 2 ounces to keep our baits close to the bottom and the light rods simply can’t handle it. The second is that it can and will kill a big small mouth by fighting it too long. It might seem like a blast to you taking 10 minutes to land a 5 lb bass but its almost certain death for them upon release due to lactic acid build up in their systems.
I hope that my “conversion” to using live bait will help you along the way. Dragging a big minnow or crayfish over a deep hump, drop off or shoal any time of year for small mouth bass, near Buffalo NY, will keep everyone on board happy, and keep lines stretched to the max. For more information about fishing on Lake Erie near Buffalo New York, check out my web site at