Probably every state has a great bass fishery that is ignored by local fishermen for one reason or another. In Pennsylvania, that overlooked bassin' water is Presque Isle on the south shore of Lake Erie. This shallow 3,800-acre bay — created by a 7-mile long sand spit — is a natural harbor for the city of Erie making it Pennsylvania's only Great Lakes port.
One of the largest cities in the state, Erie does not lack fishermen. But the city's anglers lack interest in bass. Erie is home to several large angling organizations with hundreds of members whose focus is directed at steelhead, walleye and yellow perch. Yet the sole local bass club struggles to maintain a roster of a dozen active members.
According to professional bass angler Dave Lefebre, Presque Isle Bay (PIB for short) may be the most productive bass fishery in the state of Pennsylvania. Lefebre should know. A resident of Erie, he has fished it regularly for the past 15 years.
"The most impressive thing about the Presque Isle fishery is the quality and quantity of bass — both smallmouth and largemouth," states the 32-year-old pro. "The number of good size bass that a knowledgeable angler can catch in a single day is the envy of fishermen everywhere. I've fished most lakes in Pennsylvania plus numerous destinations during Bassmaster Tour and Open events, but nowhere can I catch as many 2- to 4-pound largemouth in a single session as the Bay. On more than one occasion, I have boated and released over 100 largemouth and smallmouth bass in a day."
Even though the Presque Isle largemouth population is strong and perhaps even expanding, the maximum size of greenbacks does not achieve that of bronzebacks. Smallmouth over 6 pounds are taken each year in the Bay, but largemouth top out at about 5 pounds.
Best In State?
Craig Billingsley, Regional Biologist for Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission (PF&BC) agrees with BASS pro Dave Lefebre. "The largemouth population in Presque Isle is exceptional — it is one of the best in the state. Our surveys show bass of all year classes including plenty of 20-plus-inch fish. Largemouth reproduction is consistently strong and the population does not appear to be suffering from the invasions of gobies and zebra mussels. However, we only find smallmouth bass in the Bay during the spring when they come to feed and spawn."
Billingsley explains that his early fall young-of-the-year surveys rarely turn up smallmouth fingerlings, suggesting either the smallmouth spawn is not successful or the young fish leave the Bay for the main lake rather quickly after hatching.
Lefebre's experience supports the theory that smallmouth do not make the Bay their year-round home. "Smallmouth begin moving into the Bay around early April. The numbers are strong for about 10 or 12 weeks, but by the end of July, they are totally gone. For the balance of the season, this is a largemouth fishery."
During the week, Lefebre has little competition on the Bay from other fishermen. "As someone who has fished for every species, I find it hard to believe that local anglers would rather fish for walleye — a fish that fights like a wet dish rag — when leaping largemouth and spunky smallmouth are available. But that's probably a good thing. Erie anglers are a fish-eating bunch. They devour walleye and perch. Should they take a liking to bass, it would probably hurt the population."
Many anglers come to Pennsylvania's North Coast with hopes of fishing smallmouth on Lake Erie, but often settle for fishing in Presque Isle Bay to avoid high waves on the main lake. "From my personal viewpoint, I would rather fish the Bay than the main lake," confesses Lefebre.
"Smallmouth are fun in the spring, but I'm more interested in working on largemouth techniques that may help me out on the national tournament circuit. If there is an undiscovered bass fishery at Presque Isle, it's the largemouth."
Trip check report
The bay is located near the city of Erie, Pa., in the northwest corner of the state. For a great map of the bay, go to www.fishusa.com/fisherie/map9.asp.
The peninsula that creates Presque Isle Bay is a Pennsylvania State Park with the name Presque Isle, of course. The Park has day-use areas and several boat launch sites, but overnight camping is not permitted. (www.presqueisle.org)
For more information on camping, motels, restaurants, local tackle shops and other boat launches, contact Erie Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at 800-524-ERIE or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Links to many area venues can be found at www.visiterie.com or www.visiteriepa.com.com.
For lures to pack, best times to go, and techniques for fishing Presque Isle Bay, visit bassmaster.com/magazine.
4.6 — Length in miles of Presque Isle Bay
20 — Average depth in feet of the Bay
180 — The number of artificial fish habitats located in PIB
4/15/07 — The opening day of trophy bass season
Deadsticking Bay Bass
An interesting bassin' technique that isn't exclusive to Presque Isle but certainly produces more largemouth and smallmouth on the Bay than on other area lakes is "deadsticking." For a handful of anglers, it has become a staple presentation for fishing PIB.
Deadsticking is simply letting a soft plastic bait (typically a tube or soft jerkbait) settle to the bottom and lie almost motionless, providing just enough flickering action to draw the interest of a bass. Representing a dying baitfish, deadsticking is practiced in both shallow and deep water. While this technique can work any time of the year, it is most effective with water cooler than 50 degrees in depths up to 10 feet.
The PF&BC likes to use the term "underutilized" to describe the bass populations in Presque Isle and Lake Erie. According to their creel surveys, the vast majority of anglers practice catch and release. Less than 10% of bass caught are harvested.
However, Lefebre strongly disagrees with the idea that bass are underutilized in Presque Isle.
"You only need to stop by the Bay on a Saturday or Sunday during the spring to see a hundred sleek bass boats and an odd assortment of aluminum craft with anglers fishing for bass," explains Lefebre. "But only a handful of them are local anglers. On some days, boat registrations from surrounding states outnumber the PA registrations. Upon inquiry of anglers with PA registered boats, the majority will be from outside of Erie County. I don't think 'underutilized fishery' applies to Presque Isle Bass."
Lefebre isn't the only professional angler who enjoys fishing Presque Isle. For a small body of water that does not host a single major tournament, you never know which bass pro you might encounter there. Many simply stop by while traveling I-90 between tournament destinations. In the inner circle of bass fishing, Presque Isle's reputation as a unique hotspot reels them in from all over.
Seasons on the Bay
The regular Pennsylvania bass season runs from mid June to mid April the following year, with a defined catch-and release season for the remaining eight weeks in the spring. During the catch and release season, no bass tournaments are permitted including paper tournaments — a regulation that is strictly enforced on PIB.
March Madness: The spring season kicks off as soon as the ice melts, typically by mid March. Hardcore bass anglers begin probing the 'Lagoons' — a labyrinth of marshy ponds on the peninsula connected to Presque Isle Bay by narrow channels. Here black-bottom shallows warm very quickly, drawing baitfish and largemouth. Lures in use at this time include sinking minnow baits, suspending jerkbaits, suspending lipless rattle baits, jig-n-chunk, and splitshot-rigged stick worms. The Lagoon bite continues strong through mid April.
April Showers: Early spring showers in Northwest Pennsylvania are just as likely to be of the snow variety, but the fish don't mind. Anglers must brave cold breezes on the main bay to catch chunky largemouth on spinnerbaits along sun-drenched breakwalls. By the second or third week in April, smallmouth have entered the Bay in good numbers, and angler emphasis switches to the bronze beauties. Smallmouth stage on humps and breaklines as water temperature climbs through the 40s to the low 50s. Tube jigs, jigging spoons and vibrating blades account for many of the pre-spawn fish in deeper water.
May Melee: Once water temperature on the flats reaches into the 50s and stabilizes, smallmouth begin moving into the shallows. Anglers again shift location and lure presentation. Lightly weighted tubes along with action-tail grubs and wacky-rigged stick worms catch the lion's share of smallmouth in depths from two to ten feet. Hard-body and soft jerkbaits draw strikes as well. Meanwhile the largemouth spinnerbait bite slowly disappears, as greenbacks switch to soft plastic.
Jumping June: Both species of bass can be found in pre-spawn, spawn and post-spawn modes at this time. As smallmouth slowly depart the shallow flats for breaklines and humps within the Bay, its time for topwater and crankbaits. By late July, smallmouth have exited the Bay and largemouth are firmly entrenched in weedbeds and on drop-offs.
Sensational Summer: During the early summer, largemouth presentations usually involve pitching a jig-n-chunk, Texas-rigged tube or worm along a weedline. By late summer, largemouth begin schooling on baitfish in the open water of the Bay. An incredible, but unpredictable, surface bite may break out at any time. Topwater — from buzzbaits to walking baits — as well spinnerbaits and soft jerkbaits draw vicious strikes from roaming schools of 2 to 4 pound largemouth.
Fantastic Fall: Open water schooling often continues through September until water temperature drops into the 60s. Largemouth return to weedline drop-offs where small profile spinnerbaits are particularly effective. As water temperatures continue to drop through November, suspending jerkbaits over weedbeds produce again.
Late in the month, the Great Lakes "Gales of November" bring an end to another bassin' season on Presque Isle Bay. For northern bass anglers, it's time to look South.