During the last half hour of our 4 ½ hour drive from the GTA to New York’s Lake Chautauqua my son Izaak and I were beginning to think we might not get out fishing as the constant rain, cold and wind did not look all that inviting. When we pulled into the gates at We Wan Chu Cottages, it had stopped raining and Peter, the owner was there to greet us. We would be staying in the same cottage as last year and our boat in the same slip. This would be our home away from home for the next five days and the familiarity and inviting atmosphere of this fish-friendly resort helped get us into vacation mode right away. As it was already close to suppertime, and the rain started again, we chose to just launch the bass boat, tie her up to our slip and get ready to fish the next day.
Early Monday morning of June 1st, we were glad to see the heavy rain had stopped, but the wind and cold sure hadn’t. We faced a constant drizzle and a group of other Canadians, also there for the early Catch & Release Bass season, told us the water temps had dropped from 74F to 64F over the last couple days. A full ten degree drop meant only one thing and that was slow fishing! Indeed it was, but we still managed to catch a handful of bass in this bass-filled lake.
Our first bass of the trip was caught on a red Rattlin’ Rap on the west side of the lake out from the shores of Mayville. Variations of this color also proved to be quite effective throughout our trip with our jerkbaits
With another day and night with the heat on in our cottage, we were beginning to wonder if the weather and the fishing would heat up at all. Seeing only sporadic success that first day, it was tough to stay positive but we knew conditions would improve. Thankfully, by the next day they had and slowly but surely we began to see the sun. After making some adjustments to our tecniques we did catch more fish. Past experience on Lake Chautauqua had taught us that if one pattern doesn’t work, another often does. This lake for instance has long been recognized among avid bassers as an incredible dock lake ... and the shores are loaded with them. When the hugely popular Major League Fishing (MLF) Series filmed its championship event here a couple of years ago, the dock pattern prevailed not only for MLF champion Denny Brauer but all of the other finalists as well.
Since the dock revelation was made so very public, more and more anglers are flipping docks on Chautauqua. So, instead of ignoring docks all together we decided to limit our time on them and for those we do fish, to throw something other than the standard jig and pig or plastic creature that so many anglers use.
Trigger X Flutter Worms did produce dock fish for us, but only after we switched from a wacky rig to the Tex-posed rig shown here. Not only does this produce a completely different look, but the streamlined approach and a Gamakatsu Skip Gap Hook allows for much easier skipping far underneath the docks where the leery largemouth were sitting.
Can't Ignore Docks: There is no question that largemouth rule on Chautauqua and that docks produce more and bigger largemouth here than any other pattern. This fact was brought home not just for Denny – arguably the best dock flipper and pitcher on the planet, but this continues to be the case for most other tournament and recreational anglers as well.
Interestingly enough however, during the MLF series filmed here, the pro anglers spoke about trying to catch a few of the more elusive yet often oversized smallmouth bass. Despite their efforts however, I can’t recall many smallmouth cooperating during their stay. Knowing that smallmouth can be finicky wherever they reside, Izaak and I were determined to give the early season smallmouth a try.
We thought back to previous trips and realized most of our smallmouth came from the east shore as much of it consisted of hard bottoms with a mix of rock, sand and gravel. So, the next day this is where we focussed our efforts and it paid off handsomely as offshore smallmouth were in no short supply. While other bass boats would go in and flip docks, we stayed out and made long casts for beautiful smallmouth
This five pound smallie with a very distinctive notch on top of her head was the biggest of the trip
Bedding Bass: Considering it was still early June, you would think chances of seeing and catching bedding bass would be quite high here. During early June the spawn would be in full swing back home in many of Ontario’s lakes. However, after three years now of visiting Chautauqua during the same timeframe, we have yet to see bedding smallmouth or largemouth bass. Of course, being further south, and with water temps that were already approaching the mid 70’s before we arrived, it shouldn’t be surprising that we saw lots of shallow, empty beds. This tells us most bass are finished spawning although I’m sure some bass were still on beds somewhere.
Anyway, the early catch and release bass season means immediate catch and release using artificial lures only is permitted from December 1st thru the Friday preceding the 3rd Saturday in June. This is when the regular bass season allows some harvest and coventional catch and releas bass tournaments. Anyway Chautauqua continues to be a very healthy fishery and for avid anglers from southern Ontario who want to get a jump on some early bass fishing it’s a perfect opportunity that’s too good to pass up.
About Lake Chautauqua: This glacier, or natural lake, offers some of the best largemouth and smallmouth angling in western New York State. It is easily accessible for anglers from southern Ontario travelling west on I-90 until Hwy 394, and travelling south on it for about 20 minutes. Covering more than 13,150 acres, (about 18 miles long and up to 1 ½ miles wide) the lake is actually made up of two basins separated by a huge bridge near the Village Casino. In this whole area there is a lengthy slow zone so Izaak and I stay within the north basin. Here the famed Chautauqua Tower is an undeniable landmark within site of We Wan Chu cottages. The northern basin has an average depth of 25 feet and any of the hazards are well marked and quite close to shore. My Navionics Chip in my Lowrance HD Sonar unit clearly identifies these and helped us plan where to fish each day. The south basin up around Jamestown NY has an average depth of just 11 feet so is much shallower.
The Village Casino is right on the water and boaters can pull up and tie off they like. It’s about a 10 minute run by boat from We Wan Chu Cottages.
Our finest smallmouth outings typically occurred during the mornings. If the water had a slight ripple after the sun came out, we could still convince smallmouth to come up and hit our topwater lures. When they stopped hitting the topwaters, jerkbaits became the ticket to success. When the lake is calm, it’s surprising how clear the water is, so we found long casts were crucial. Most bass would hit within a few feet of where you cast. These smallmouth were roaming; likely feeding on the abundant perch found in the lake early in the day and crayfish later on.
The hot top water lure for Wil on Chautauqua was the Rapala Saltwater Skitter Walk which his Focus on Fishing site, ranked as the Number One lure for 2014. More details on how to work this topwater can be found here
When conditions were calm in the mornings the rhythmic motion of the Skitter Walk worked best but when a chop came up you could still catch a few on the louder Storm Chug Bug before you had to reach below the surface with a jerkbait.
Our other hot lure for the trip was undoubtedly the Rapala X Rap. The hot head color of this tried and true jerkbait was especially productive regardless of the time of day or conditions we faced. Chautauqua’s smallmouth can be some of the prettiest on the planet!
The X Rap also produced more than its share of largemouth bass for us. This one Izaak caught had the typical worn out tail ... A clear sign that it fanned out a nest this spring.
Spring fishing on Lake Chautauqua this year was especially inviting for not only bass anglers from across New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Ontario but also for avid muskie anglers from the same regions. For the first time they enjoyed their earliest season opener ever ... on May 31st and we saw several hard core muskie anglers trolling for them throughout the week. Chautauqua is home to New York’s largest muskie hatchery, and Izaak and I enjoyed a behind the scenes tour last year that you can read about here.
Although not targeted, Wil managed to catch his first Lake Chautauqua muskie ... this small one that was quickly live released. Its left pectoral fin was clipped, telling us it was definitely a stocked fish.
After three years of fishing Lake Chautauqua’s docks and marinas during our trips, we have yet to hear a negative word from their landowners. The lake is recognized as a primary tourist destination and residents and business owners realize the primary draw is the quality of the recreational fishing. Bottom line is local folks know docks hold fish and that they don’t own the water beneath or around them so they have come to expect and even welcome anglers who fish around ‘their’ docks.
A typical dock setting on Lake Chautauqua. These docks provide great shade and cover for bass and panfish. Plastics baits rigged so they are snag resistant are required to fish them effectively and when anglers do get hung up occasionally, it is commonplace for them to retrieve their baits and hooks.
After 4 ½ days of fishing Lake Chautauqua our trip was just about done ... but not quite. We had one pit-stop to make on the way home only 9 or 10 miles from We Wan Chu Cottages. Our gameplan was to fish for smallmouth in Lake Erie out of Barcelona Bay because it was so close and convenient. After fishing Chautauqua for a couple quick hours that morning, we packed up, took the boat out, said so long to our amiable host Peter and headed to Erie. The public launch there was enough to launch 3 or 4 boats at a time and the $5 fee seemed reasonable enough. We were fishing by 11:00 am and didn’t even need to leave the harbor. I lost one gorgeous bass that would have pushed 6 lbs off of a sunken piling almost right off the bat.
Although I figured the water would be cooler in Lake Erie, I was surprised to see that it was downright cold still – hovering between 52 and 54 F. That didn’t seem to slow down the smallmouth however; in fact, they preferred our jerkbaits over the tube jigs I was throwing initially.
A Pleasant Surprise: Izaak locked into his first Lake Erie fish and it was also another first for him! His muskie was notably larger than the one I caught in Chautauqua and was 'a natural', not a stocked fish. It was caught on a perch colored Husky Jerk and quickly released in great shape after this quick photo.
Once Izaak finished with his muskie, he was not done catching alternate species. This white bass was caught right at the mouth of the harbor in about 8 feet on a silver and black X Rap. “I guess there isn’t a fish around that won’t eat a jerkbait" Izaak declared.
Most of the smallmouth we caught were 2 ½ pounders like this, but Erie is known to produce far larger bass with averages running double this one’s weight. The bass we caught related to rocky bottoms in about 5-10 feet of water.
Our goal was to be off the water by 2pm so once we were finished fishing the mouth of the harbor we fished our way back in towards the launch. Izaak continued catching fish too and figured he really had to outdo his old man by catching and releasing one more muskie.
The last fish of our early season bass fishing trip to Western New York came two minutes before our cut off time. Actually, that’s not entirely true, because while I was waiting for Izaak to get the truck and trailer I made a couple of casts around the boat launch and landed a couple more smallmouth bass ... telling me that our future trips to this part of New York definitely have to include more visits to Lake Erie.
For more information on fishing Lake Chautauqua or to book a cottage visit www.wewanchu.com This resort comes highly recommended and provides everything an angler and his friends or family needs for a memorable fishing vacation. There are fishing boat rentals, a launch, dockage with power for your own boat, fish cleaning stations (lots of anglers come here fish for perch, sunfish, crappie or walleye) a large, indoor pool and hot tub, playground for the kids, volleyball court and horseshoe pit ... the whole bit. For those who want to do more than just fish there are golf courses, vineyards, the Chautauqua Institute, shopping and fine restaurants and there’s even a Lucille Ball Museum you can visit.