Smallmouth rich Lake Erie hosts pros, amateurs

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The fishing world will get its first real look at the phenomenal smallmouth population that lives in the enormous waters of Lake Erie when the $300,000 CITGO Bassmaster Northern Open comes to Buffalo, N.Y., Sept. 11-13.

About 10,000 square miles in size and bordering Canada and the states of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York, Lake Erie might be the best smallmouth fishery in the country and it has enjoyed its lofty standing for several years. Since the mid-1990s, the lake has also developed significant populations of zebra mussels and goby, a bottom dweller native to the Black and Caspian seas.

"The last time that any big tournament was held here was pre-zebra mussels and pre-gobies," said Jim Hanley, a Lake Erie guide, host of a local television series and a competitor in the Open. "The water clarity on a good day you can see down 25 feet and that's because of the mussels. And the fish are eating gobies. About 80 percent of their diet is now gobies. They are just pure nutrition and the reason the smallmouths are getting so big."

How good is the fishing on Erie? Consider that during the three Bassmaster tournaments held on smallmouth-rich Lake St. Clair in Michigan, many of the pros chose to make the long run to Erie. And in 1993, Randy VanDam, brother of Kevin, destroyed the Ohio record with a 9 ½-pound bronzeback there.

That fabulous fishing is expected to be on full display when the 200 pros and their amateur partners arrive in Buffalo.

width="200" alt="WXPort" align="right">"If the weather is good and we don't get southwesterly or westerly winds, I think this tournament will set records," predicted Ohio pro Joe Thomas, an Erie aficionado and four-time CITGO Bassmaster Classic qualifier. "The smallmouths are as big as I've ever seen them. And there's lots of them.

"September is a good month. The fish are still deep and in their summer pattern. But they've gotten big and fat because they're feeding up in preparation for winter."

Hanley agrees with Thomas' assessment.

"If it's anything like it is now, it's going to be unbelievable," he added. "If Lake Erie cooperates and stays calm for three days, we're expecting between 60 and 70 pounds (for the winner).

"And a lot of big fish. On my last three charters I had seven over 5 pounds. I'm guessing we'll see a very high 6 (pounder) or even a low 7 (pounder) in the tournament. The sevens have been showing up pretty regularly in tournaments."

If the wind blows hard or from certain directions, the competitors could be relegated to the Niagara River, which would limit them to attempting to catch largemouths under rather crowded conditions. It is the fully-grown smallmouths on the main lake that are the main attraction.

"There are lots of big fish and lots of numbers offshore," Hanley said. "The fish are still pretty deep. We're catching them up to 40 feet. Mostly on tubes, reapers and sissy baits on split-shot rigs."

Thomas predicts that tournament anglers will not be able to find a good shallow-water bite. Instead, main-lake structure like drop-offs and rockpiles will be the ticket to being competitive in the three-day event. And that gives local anglers like Hanley a sizeable advantage because they know the locations of such offshore spots, he says.

This is the second of three events that will send the top anglers to the inaugural Bassmaster Open Championship in December — and, ultimately, the coveted CITGO Bassmaster Classic next summer. The top prize in this event for the pros is $50,000.

Anglers will launch daily from NFTA-Boat Harbor Marina at 6:30 a.m. Weigh-ins will be at 2:45 p.m. at the marina.

BASS is the world's largest fishing organization, sanctioning more than 20,000 tournaments worldwide through its Federation. The CITGO Bassmaster Tournament Trail is the oldest and most prestigious pro bass-fishing tournament circuit and continues to set the standard for credibility, professionalism and sportsmanship as it has since 1968.