- Thriving with walleye and smallmouth bass, Lake Erie is the most biologically productive of all the Great Lakes.
- The “Come-Fish-Lake Erie Program” provides one and all with access to many choices of affordable charter fishing services.
- Fishing with artificial lures, live bait, and planer boards – Lake Erie walleye fishing from Chautauqua County, NY, was exciting, educational AND tasty!
By Dr. Peter Brookes
As all three (!) of my social media followers know, I’m mostly a fly angler. But I recently went over to the “dark side” and did some—this is hard for me to write…deep breaths, deep breaths—spin fishing.
Yes, I said spin fishing…even trolling on a powerboat.
Perhaps even more egregious for a fly angler, I kept the fish I reeled in from the depths of Lake Erie. And then going even more off the rails for a fly fisher, I cooked and ate my catch of walleye and yellow perch when I got home.
I’ve been keeping that secret bottled up for a bit now; it’s so good to get it off my chest. Indeed, despite going astray, it was such a fabulous trip that I wanted to share it with you all—fly anglers or otherwise.
I was invited to Western New York (WNY) by the Chautauqua (pronounced” “shaw-taw-kwa”) County Visitors Bureau to do some fishing on Lake Erie and Chautauqua Lake in early August. It’s a six-to-seven-hour drive—plus stops—from the DC area through rural Maryland, Pennsylvania and then into the Empire State.
It’s a beautiful trip north through some very picturesque countryside.
My destination was Chadwick Bay in the town of Dunkirk. The first thing I noticed when I arrived on the sunny August day was the seemingly endless expanse of blue water and the cool breezes coming off Lake Erie.
It was in the high 70s and a welcome drop in temperature from the DC area.
At one point, I mentioned to the hotel staff that my air conditioner was having a hard time keeping my room cool. Without a second thought, she told me: “The AC is working really hard today…it’s almost 80 degrees out there.”
Being from DC, I burst out laughing.
I was very excited about getting back to WNY and out onto Lake Erie. I grew up along the Lake in a town called Orchard Park, the well-known home of the Buffalo Bills and some very snowy winters. (Go Bills!)
Orchard Park is often one of the places the cable weather channels report from when WNY gets a big snow. Last NFL season, the Bills had to move a game with the Browns out of town to Detroit due to an impending November snowstorm.
I left WNY for the Naval Academy (courtesy of the late Rep. Jack Kemp) and, after my Navy time, settled in the DC area. I’ve been back a few times for steelhead fishing (on the fly), but it had been a few years, so I was really looking forward to getting back “home.”
We’d planned for two days of fishing, but a weather front came through the day before my arrival, making the Lake a little too rough for a comfortable ride on Day One. As one charter captain said to me at a lunch gathering, “If the Lake looks like it’s covered in fluffy white sheep, don’t go fishing.”
Indeed, when he shared that with me, I laughingly wondered if he had “Ovinaphobia” (i.e., a fear of sheep), but then I looked out at the Lake and saw the white caps. It actually looked quite pastoral, as if there were gently rolling hills of blue dotted with a large flock of chalk-colored lambs happily grazing.
Not a very nautical saying—using sheep, that is—but it’s great advice.
On Day Two, we made a run for the Lake to hit a weather window before the winds and waves picked up. Out from shore a mile or two, our charter captain, Jim Klein, hustled to get our trolling lines in the water.
I was gobsmacked at how technical the fishing was. We used both artificial lures, live bait, and planer boards, trailing the boat at different depths and distances behind and out to the side, away from the boat.
In no time, we were reeling in good-sized walleye and yellow perch.
I’d heard that Lake Erie walleye could be big, but I have to say that I had no idea. The first walleye exceeded 20-inches and a couple of pounds. Locals told me that they catch walleye over 30-inches regularly, tipping the scales at five to six pounds.
No “Dirty-30 Club” membership card for me this time, but it turns out that Lake Erie is a world-class walleye fishery and, not surprisingly, the home of some very big walleye fishing tournaments.
After a couple of runs up and down the coastline, as predicted, the winds and the waves started to pick up; it was time to head into port. I’m OK with following seas, but a head sea coming right at you can be a bit uncomfortable—even for a salty old Navy guy.
I loved the Chautauqua County fishing, the mild summer weather, and getting back to WNY. But I was also really happy to see Lake Erie thriving. In the 1960s, Lake Erie was “dead” due to the pollution that poured in from the heavy industries and large cities that ring the Lake.
In fact, in 1969, the Lake infamously caught fire near Cleveland.
But now, Lake Erie, which is the 11th largest freshwater lake in the world, is now the most biologically productive of all the Great Lakes. Besides (great tasting) walleye and perch, it’s also a top fishery for lake trout, musky, steelhead, and largemouth and smallmouth bass.
Not too shabby!
My only regret is that due to commitments at home, I didn’t have more time to root around the area more, including visiting Jamestown, the historic Lake Erie lighthouses, local wineries, the Concord Grape belt, the famous Chautauqua Institute—and some childhood friends.
Of course, being disappointed in this case only means one thing: I’m going to have to go back soon.
Editor Note: Dr. Peter Brookes is an award-winning outdoor writer. Brookesoutdoors@aol.com