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Another Smallmouth Smackdown?

Another Smallmouth Smackdown?
Jared Rhode

A lot can change about a fishery in seven years, and not always for the best. The consensus on Lake Erie at Buffalo, N.Y., site of the second Costa FLW Series Northern Division tournament this weekend, is that the smallmouth fishing is better than 2011 when the Series last visited. This year’s event, presented by Polaris and hosted by Buffalo Niagara Sports Commission, begins Thursday morning at 6 a.m. ET out of Buffalo’s Safe Harbor Marina and will involve about 180 pros and an equal number of co-anglers. Participants have until the end of Wednesday’s registration meeting to sign up.

In 2011, Lawrence Mazur of East Aurora, N.Y., weighed in 64 pounds, 8 ounces to top the field of 100 boats. Besides Mazur’s three limits, there were 10 other 20-pounds-plus bags brought in. This time around, with some of the top sticks from the FLW Tour and the FLW Series at work, anything can happen. New York’s last five smallmouth records came from Erie’s eastern basin, including the current record of 8 pounds, 4 ounces (a record-tying fish was also caught in the St. Lawrence River). Numbers-wise, fishing isn’t expected to be as crazy good as the recent FLW Tour event on Lake St. Clair, but Erie’s well-deserved reputation for producing big smallmouths should be on full display.

“This is the first year in the last seven that I’ve seen what I would call an extreme abundance of legal-size fish and also fish less than 12 inches, which bodes well for the future,” says Joseph Fonzi, a Buffalo guide who placed 11th in the 2011 tournament and who’s fishing this year’s event. “My clients have put 36 fish over 6 pounds [each] in my boat so far in 2018. Five years ago we hit a low – 11 fish of 6 pounds or better – but it gradually worked back up into the teens and beyond. Our biggest fish in 2017 was 7-4.”

 

Goby snacks

Interestingly, it is an interloper from overseas – the round goby – that has helped fatten Erie’s smallies. Pint-sized predatory fish about 4 to 8 inches long, gobies were seen as a threat when they arrived in the Great Lakes a few decades ago. They came as stowaways in the flooded holds of freighters that sailed from central Eurasia, the fish’s ancestral home. Most Erie anglers probably would prefer having native minnows and such in place of gobies, but now they see the little bug-eyed critters as being beneficial cogs in the food-chain wheel.

The voracious aliens eat anything that’s smaller than them. Previously, crayfish were the primary forage of smallmouths in the warm months. Bass have since promoted gobies to favorite-snack status. While emerald shiners, spot-tail shiners and other food items come and go seasonally in the eastern basin’s shallow bays and inlets, gobies are on the smallmouth menu 24/7 everywhere. As such, they’re at the heart of most fishing patterns.

“The gobies just spawn so much and there are so many of them that they’re a constant food source for the smallies,” notes Fonzi. “The bass might prefer emerald shiners, but once they’re thinned out the bass go after gobies. Emerald shiners spawn in the Niagara River, and the smallies will stay with them as long as they can. When the emeralds move out deep to cooler water the bass switch off to the gobies. They like the same kind of rocky bottom that bass like, too, and smallies don’t have to work too hard to find them.”

 

Bottomed out

Besides being ugly and awkward-looking, gobies don’t have swim bladders. Unless they’re constantly moving, they sink. Consequently, they spend most of their time scrounging around on the bottom. They have pelvic fins on the undersides of their bodies that have almost grown together, enabling them to get a grip on rocks and other structure for support. Additionally, because gobies are somewhat shackled to the bottom, they tend to stay in reasonably shallow water where their prey’s possible windows of escape are reduced.

What this all means is that, generally speaking, anglers either bounce or drag dark-colored tube jigs along the bottom for smallmouths hunting gobies in their lairs or – when gobies are on the prowl and up in the water column – fish drop-shot rigs baited with soft plastics that resemble gobies or small perch and such.

“Grubs or anything else that resembles a goby and moves along the bottom will work,” notes Fonzi. “Crankbaits ­– not so much. We do have a shallow population of bass, but typically we’re talking about fishing in water that might be around 25 to 35 feet deep. If you’d asked me before now, I probably would have said that I don’t think the shallow population will play a big role in the tournament, but for the past two weeks we’ve been doing extremely well up shallow.

“When it’s calm and sunny, the fish have been doing exactly opposite of what you’d expect, which is to pull up in the shallows and just sit there in 75-degree water. As soon as the wind starts to blow and you get a little turbidity, they go right back out to deeper water.”

 

Wind is the wild card

In “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” Gordon Lightfoot wasn’t whistling Dixie when he sang about what happens when the gales of November come early. He was referring to Lake Superior, but the same can be said for Erie. Not particularly deep, it’s one of those lakes where the seas can build up quickly and make fishing and boating uncomfortable at best. Winds from due west can turn the southeast side of the lake into a churning cauldron. Waves of around 6 feet prompt small craft warnings. Depending on which side of the lake an angler is on, gusts from the north or south are manageable. At Buffalo in the summer, light breezes from the southwest predominate.

Wind or no wind, Fonzi’s plan is to get a limit early and then go to some of his piles where the smallmouths are few in number, but large in size.

“There are fish in the [Niagara] river and fish up shallow along the lake shoreline, but I don’t think the tournament will be won there,” he says. “The river here isn’t like the St. Lawrence where you’ve got 50 or 60 miles of good fishing. There’s only about four or five miles here. Just about everybody will be going to the lake if the weather allows it. On the south side, there will be some long runs down past Dunkirk, Van Buren [Point] and Barcelona [Lighthouse]. We’re talking maybe 42 miles, but it will be worth it if the fish are there. Canada, up north, is a whole ’nother deal.

“Locals have so many good waypoints that trying to figure out which spots have the best fish on them will decide it. Managing fish is also going to be critical. My strategy is to go on sort of a milk run, trying to get 21 or 22 pounds, and then get on all my secondary stuff for the rest of the day, hoping to get that 6-pound kicker.”

No doubt dozens of similar strategies will be in play, making for a tournament in which savvy Erie anglers like Fonzi keep one eye on the fish finder, and the other on the weather.

Tags: colin-moore  pre-tournament  2018-07-26-lake-erie-buffalo 

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