Chautauqua County NY - An Early Season Bass Fishing Trip

Wil Wegman

Southern Ontario has some remarkable bass fishing! I love fishing our home waters from the day after our season opens (3rd or 4th Saturday in June) until it closes November 30th.  During that period of time all the bass I catch, are live released – to help sustain our local fisheries and to provide the same joy I had for other anglers lucky enough to catch those same fish.  Yet despite these great opportunities … we are still missing out on some exceptional catch and release fishing experiences, and that is why I like many other Ontario anglers, make a short trip south of the border into nearby New York in the spring.

Largemouth & Smallmouth Bass have a special Catch and Release only Season in NY that starts on December 1st and runs thru the Friday preceding the 3rd Saturday in June. (That’s when the regular catch and keep - if you want season starts.) Artificial Lures only are permitted and bass may not be retained in live wells- so this means conventional bass tournaments are not permitted in the spring. By all accounts, this regulation has not adversely affected bass populations there. Almost all anglers abide by it and are appreciative for the early spring season. After several trips to NY for this early season, it has been my experience that I see very few bass on beds still protecting their young- and most are out and about cruising the shorelines, hanging out under docks or set up within an offshore weed bed  ready to ambush their prey for their next meal.

alt

Lake Chautauqua is a highly productive fishery for a wide variety warm water species. It is also a very popular destination for anglers from across the US and Ontario with many resorts, marinas and fishing access sites. With all this pressure, there is no question the quality of this fishery would not be as good as it is without a concerted conservation ethic with many anglers practicing selective harvest and catch and release all season long.

This spring, I returned to one of my favorite NY early bass fishing season destinations … We Wan Chu Cottage Resort on Lake Chautauqua. This time I went with longtime friend and former bass tournament partner Gerry Heels. Gerry, now retired from his first career, has set up a remarkable business devoted to recreational angling.  It’s no wonder he calls it Heels Recreational Fishing Services. He guides on several lakes within an hour or so Barrie. Anglers also come from all over southern and central Ontario to have various marine electronics and other installations from trolling motors to Power Poles installed by Gerry. www.heelsrfs.com

One of the great things about Lake Chautauqua is that it’s just over 4 hours from the south end of Lake Simcoe. An easy drive along I-90 west from Buffalo brought us to Peter Wiemer’s We Wan Chu Cottage’s. This well-established fishing resort is located right on the water and has a boat launch and a well-lit docking system with plenty of slips to leave your boat charged overnight (or you can rent one there). Cabins come equipped with air conditioning, full fridge and stove, patio, most have 2 bedrooms or more, TV  and hot showers.

alt

Plenty of overnight mooring options await visitors staying at We Wan Chu Cottages.  During unsettled weather like we had, many elect to fish right from these docks –especially for panfish as several guests did while we were there.

After buying most of our groceries from nearby Tops Friendly Markets in Mayville, we quickly loaded them into the cottage and then hit the lake late that first afternoon.  We downloaded all of my previous Chautauqua waypoints from my Lowrance onto Gerry’s Gen 3 unit and headed to one that marked several productive docks across the lake.  With just a nominal north wind, water clarity was excellent so we stayed well back from those docks as we flipped our baits underneath.  Not much happened for the first 100 yards or so until I my chatter bait was hammered in between two large metal docks and I pulled out a nice 3 pound largemouth.  The next cast produced a smallmouth a touch smaller in the same area.  A look to see if either was on a bed revealed that no bed was present … these bass were just cruising around doing what they normally do- looking for food.

alt

One of Wil’s first bass of the trip – a typical Chautauqua largemouth

For the next 15 minutes or so the action switched over to docks and stick worms and almost all the fish we caught the rest of the day were good sized spawned-out smallmouth.

As is often the case with Chautauqua, areas loaded with fish are often abutting areas void with them.  These hot spots can switch around from day to day or even from morning to afternoon – dependent on such factors as water clarity (waters can muddy up quickly), wind direction or even a couple boats fishing the area before you arrive.  Basically spring bass fishing here means covering lots of dock-lined shorelines – and at one time or another all those docks can produce fish. Noteworthy though is that if bass are not on those docks (if its overcast for instance), they’ll be either just out front, in between two sets or recuperating from the spawn in a newly emerged weed bed.  Finding these little gems and marking them on your GPS can pay big dividends but does take time.

alt

Gerry’s first day and experience on Lake Chautauqua saw him catch plenty of these nice smallmouth bass from the shorelines we fished.

That evening we fished until about 9pm when darkness descended upon the 17 mile long Lake Chautauqua. We realized putting dinner off until that late, was not in our best interests so from then on, we’d plan our outings better and eat much earlier before heading out for the evening bite.
Over the next few days we caught a variety of species including: Rock bass, bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish, large and smallmouth bass, walleye, white (silver) bass and even a small muskie. Besides that we saw huge long nosed gar and lots of brown bullhead.

Although visiting previous waypoints for areas I had confidence in paid off for the first day and a bit … we soon got the itch to try new waters. This was hastened by an ever changing wind direction and especially when winds really picked up with 35-40k gusts. At the north end when a strong south wind blew, the clear waters we saw the first day turned to mud and the bite really turned off.  

Moving to the well protected south end but still before the bridge paid off in spades as we found new water and new fish!  It was here I caught my 2nd Chautauqua walleye – a beautiful 4 pounder that came up from deeper water and inhaled my Rapala X Rap in almost slow motion. This one was kept for the fry pan later that night.  Along that same shore we also got into a flurry of largemouth bass – mostly on stick worms close to docks.

alt

The biggest largemouth of the trip was this five pounder that was quickly released after the pic

For all you South Central Ontario based bass anglers who love to flip and pitch docks or work shorelines then Lake Chautauqua will definitely be your cup of tea. During May and early June the lake is really not that busy and this time we noticed most boats were not alongside cottage docks yet and few cottagers were up. Weed growth is also sparse early season so travelling shorelines is easy with your electric motor.  The remarkable aspect of fishing here … unlike so many cottage lakes back home … is that after several visits, I have yet to feel uncomfortable fishing around someone’s dock even if they are present. 

Residents seem to all fully expect and accept anglers to fish their docks – because they know that’s where the fish often are and that they don’t own the water around them. Most are extremely friendly … eager to discuss their lake or the fish that live there.  I don’t know if I have ever seen more than the occasional wooden dock there- most are stainless steel, so getting hung up doesn’t occur too often.  Be sure to retrieve your baits though when they do – the last thing we want is to leave our calling card disrespecting that person’s private dock.

alt

Hundreds of docks like these dot the shorelines of Lake Chautauqua. This early in the season many are without boats moored to them.  Boats can offer additional structure and shade so those with boats received extra casts. Still, plenty of bass came from non-descript docks or other objects in the water along the shore.

alt

One of the truly unique features of We Wan Chu Cottages is this indoor saltwater lap pool. At 25 yards long it’s official US high school and most college competition pool length. I like to swim laps almost every day back home at the Bradford Leisure Centre so this pool is a real treat. I had it and accompanying hot-tub-whirlpool all to myself during our stay
Interesting Notes About Lake Chautauqua:

  • Chautauqua is a natural lake, with an elevation of 1,308 feet (399 m) above sea level. It is higher than any of the Finger Lakes to the east. It is also one of the highest navigable lakes in North America. A contour map of the north part of the lake can be found here: https://www.dec.ny.gov/docs/fish_marine_pdf/chautnlkmap.pdf
  • There is one bridge that connects the opposite sides of the lake, the Veterans Memorial Bridge (also known as the Chautauqua Lake Bridge). The structure was completed on October 30, 1982. Many visiting bass anglers myself included, seldom travel south of the bridge.  A long slow zone on either side of the bridge deters boaters.
  • We Wan Chu Cottage resort is situated not far from the famed Chautauqua Institute and landmark Tower well north of the bridge.  Our fishing area over the years includes east and west sides of the lake from the bridge north Mayville – where a beautiful No Charge public boat launch exists
  • Anglers staying at We Wan Chu will truly appreciate how this resort caters to their needs.  The night I filleted our walleye I was able to do so at a well-equipped and very clean fish cleaning station close to our cottage. Complete with sink, lights, spray hose and stainless steel counter – it was great.
  • We Wan Chu Cottages is a 10 minute drive from Mayville and all your shopping and restaurant needs are there – as well as a large marina should you need service. Also within 10 minutes is the famed Chautauqua Institute that hosts lectures, concerts and other events. There’s a golf course and if you want to try Lake Erie’s famed smallmouth it’s less than 30 minutes away out of Barcelona Harbor in Westfield. (My son Izaak and I fished here last trip: Fishing Lake Chautauqua - Three Times A Charm!

alt

Largemouth Bass, Muskie, Smallmouth Bass and Walleye all seemed to have a color preference for Wil on Lake Chautauqua. Not willing to give too many of his secrets away, he refused to come right out and divulge what it was though ... lol! 

alt

Our last night on Chautauqua after a T Storm produced our first double header and first sunset worthy of a photo …  All back-to-back glory!

Onto Dunkirk New York and Lake Erie:

alt

A great public boat launch ($7.00 with Parking) got us into Dunkirk Harbor. Although it was an industrial setting not nearly as picturesque as parts of Lake Chautauqua – it still offers spring bass anglers the security and thrill of fishing Lake Erie’s famed smallmouth bass. We saw tow-vehicle license plates from all the neighboring states, plus from as far away as Texas, Georgia, Virginia and South Carolina.  For a Friday it was quite busy - and its no wonder as everyone seemed out in their bass boats was catching fish!

alt

Gerry with one of his big smallies.  We didn’t need to go far within the Dunkirk Harbor to find where the fish were.  All the ones we caught were on a large flat out in front of a spawning bay in 7-9 feet of water.

alt

Smallmouth bass like these move to the harbor in Dunkirk from the big waters of Lake Erie to spawn. From the many other anglers who were there fishing for them too, we learned the spawn was over for a week or more, meaning most of these bass were already post spawn fish.  The ones I caught came from green tubes jigs while Gerry got his on drop shot.

As we heard the big waves smash the break wall on the outer side of the harbor that afternoon, we were glad there was no need to face those nasty elements out in the main lake.  Each of us have spent many days fishing those waters (mostly out from the Niagara River and Buffalo) and when it blows up it is no fun at all.  Spending the afternoon fishing here though on our way back to Ontario was the perfect ending to another perfect Chautauqua County Fishing trip. The drive home was rather un-eventful - which is always a good thing when you are crossing the border... Quick and easy (both times)! For more informtation or to book your own trip to Lake Chautauqua be sure to check out www.wewanchu.com