Ontario’s Pelee Island is Smallmouth Bass Paradise
Bob McNally 01.19.15
Less than 10 minutes running out of Dicks Marina, we slowed the boat 200 yards off a rocky point of Pelee Island, Ontario. The depth finder showed a broad 30-foot deep flat that suddenly rose to 25, 20, then topped out at 16 feet on an irregular, rocky hump. Spotted here and there on the fathometer screen in 16 to 20 foot depths were inverted “Vs.” They were showing the presence of fish.
“They’re here, plenty of smallmouths,” said D’Arcy Egan, smiling while the boat turned upwind. “Now we’ll see if they’ll cooperate.”
Our 30-foot boat ran well upwind of the structure, then the big boat’s motors were shut down, and we began digging for tackle.
“We’ve been having great success on smallmouths with two basic lures,” explained Egan. “Lindy ‘Swimming Fuzz-E-Grubs’ and crawfish-colored tube jigs are the hands down most productive bass lures I’ve used. Nothing takes bronzebacks like ’em, and we get a lot of walleyes fishin’ ’em, too.”
The fishing tactic was a simple one: drift across the structure and fan cast jigs around and on the hump, working lures slowly and methodically along bottom. If we found a spot where bass or walleyes were concentrated, he’d toss over a floating marker, and we’d carefully work the area. If no cooperative fish were found, we’d move to another structure.
For two hours we had no reason to search for fish elsewhere.
First cast D’Arcy made, he hooked a 2-pound smallmouth. On my third cast I took a solid 3-pounder. Egan followed soon thereafter with a 4-pound walleye, and boated another good bass.
“Not a bad way to start the day,” said D’Arcy, with his ever-present smile.
All that morning we were into fish, mostly smallmouths, but an occasional walleye, too. Egan hooked one especially large fish deep with a “Swimmin’ Fuzz-E-Grub” and battled the fish for many minutes on 6-pound test line and a light-action rod. Finally, the fish showed in Lake Erie’s clear, deep water, and we could see it was a good walleye. Egan grabbed the net, and shortly hauled aboard the fish, a long, healthy 6 1/2-pound walleye.
“We get ’em that size all the time, and plenty bigger around Pelee Island,” he commented as he removed the hook. “The growth rates of walleyes on Erie are tremendous, and during the course of a year we see a lot of 10-pound fish. Smallmouths weighing 4 pounds are common, too. In a typical smallmouth tournament with 20 or 30 anglers, it’ll take a limit catch of fish averaging almost 5 pounds to win.”
Such incredible smallmouth and walleye fishing is the norm these days on much of Lake Erie, especially near sprawling Pelee Island, south of Kingsville, Ontario. It’s located just over the international border on the Canadian side of Erie, a few miles north of the U.S. Bass Islands, and only 18 miles from the U.S. Ohio mainland.
Pelee is a quick trip for many anglers living in big cities such as Cleveland, Toledo, and Detroit. But Pelee Island is a world apart because the fishing is nothing short of sensational.
In fact, some of the best action for big smallmouths I’ve ever had was during my Pelee Island trip that summer with Egan. I have no idea how many smallmouths I caught during two full days of fishing, but we never had any trouble finding fish or getting them to hit. It seemed like we caught more 3-pounders than 1-pounders, and I never boated a so-called “dink” smallmouth.
An important plus of Pelee Island’s remarkably good fishing is that it’s all found right around the island. We never ran more than a half mile offshore. The area around the island is alive with smallmouths, and we fished dozens of very-easy-to-identify humps and reefs that were “clean” and simple to fish. Many of the most productive reefs were in 15 to 25 feet of water, and they are large structures not difficult to pinpoingt for anyone who knows how to use a fathometer.
Another Pelee asset is that the island is large, and there are good structures completely surrounding the island. Thus if there’s a strong north wind, you can fish the south side. If the wind is from the west, work the east shore. There are good launch ramps on all sides of the island for anglers wanting to bring and use their own small boats. Excellent daily ferry service is available to the island out of Kingsville and Leamington, beginning in March.
A number of bed and breakfast facilities are on Pelee, and there are motels and even lake-side summer homes for rent.
Erie is a huge inland sea, and fishing Pelee Island water from a large, sturdy 30-footer is great, but smaller bass boats and skiffs can be used very effectively.
Prime fishing around Pelee can be had from June through September. In summer, walleyes average 2 to 4 pounds, and in September they’re bigger. When fishing deep, open-water walleyes, many anglers prefer drifting and casting with weight-forward spinners with half a nightcrawler attached. Use the count-down method to “strain” different water depths until walleyes are located. Try 1/4-ounce weight-forward spinners for shallower work (10 feet), 3/4 to 1 ounce lures for deeper water, especially when it’s rough.
Crankbaits also are deadly for Pelee Island walleyes, as well as for smallmouths. Casting and retrieving crankbaits for deep, suspended fish works, but many anglers troll crankbaits and do exceptionally well around Pelee’s reefs and rocky humps.
Walleyes commonly are found on island structures, ledges and humps. But unlike what many walleye anglers are used to, the fish frequently feed on top of submerged islands, often in just 4 to 6 feet of water. This is because waves rolling over submerged humps and ledges bring baitfish on which walleyes feed. Big smallmouths can be found on the same structures, though usually in deeper water–the kind of depths most anglers believe walleyes would be in.
Pelee’s smallmouth fishing is excellent all summer, peaks in September, and sometimes good action is available well into October so long as good weather holds. During summer, the bulk of the area’s smallmouths, which average 2 to 3 pounds, are caught on the bottom, in water 20 to 30 feet deep. In September, 3 to 5 pound fish are on the same type structures, but shallower ones, from 15 to 24 feet. They’re caught from chunk-rock bottoms and along drop-off ledges near islands and humps. Controlled drifts along ledge edges are productive.
A bright-colored Lindy “Swimmin’ Fuzz-E-Grub” tipped with a golden shiner minnow can be deadly for bass. Fished with a lift-and-drop retrieve along bottom near ledges while drifting, it’s a killer for big bronzebacks and stout walleyes. At times when smallmouths are reluctant to hit, a softshell crayfish or leech worked from a Lindy Rig will take deep fish.
Standard tackle for everything is 6-pound test spinning gear, with fast-action graphite rods. Braided line works well, but leaders 3 to 5 feet long are advised because Erie is as clear as a dry martini.
Pelee Island smallmouths commonly are schooled tight, so anglers are wise to cover a lot of water until a pod of fish is located. Then they should use floating markers to pinpoint areas along structures where smallmouths and walleyes are found. Good anglers should have no trouble locating prime structures on their own, but they need a precision depth finder. Drifting structures is a preferred tactic because they are large, sometimes 400 yards or more. But because Lake Erie often is windy, dragging a sea anchor sometimes is needed to slow a boat drift and allow effective fishing.
Anglers can tap Pelee Island on their own, and there are excellent boating, marina, restaurant, and lodging facilities on the island. But they’re limited and advanced reservations are wise.
Some good accommodation deals can be found on Pelee. I checked on a summer rental house, for example, that was right on the lake front, with a beach where I could pull up my small fishing boat between outings. It was a spacious, clean, 3-bedroom house that rented for a reasonable weekly fee. It easily could have housed six anglers, or two close families looking for an outdoor adventure sure to provide fond fishing memories for many years.