Early Season Bass Fishing on Lake Chautauqua in New York

Wil WegmanThe state of New York has an early spring Catch and Release season for large and smallmouth bass that is extremely accessible for thousands of keen Ontario based bass anglers.  Two of those anglers visited Lake Chautauqua in late May for a few days to sample some of that state’s finest bass fishing.   My brother Marcel ... aka Red, and I stayed at Irwin Bay Cottages during our stay and needless to say it was a memorable trip that provided plenty of great bass fishing and excellent accommodations right on the waters of this marvellous bass fishery.

Lake Chautauqua

From Toronto Irwin Bay Cottages is about a four hour drive.  Wil and his brother crossed the border at Queenston Lewiston  on the way there and in Buffalo on the way home

The lake is approximately 17 miles (27 km) long and 2 miles (3.2 km) wide at its greatest width. The surface area is approximately 13,000 acres (53 km2). The maximum depth is about 78 feet (23 m). At the southern end is the City of Jamestown. We stayed near the Village of Mayville at the northern end.  Here we purchased groceries and had our choice of several restaurants for the occasional meal out if we so choose. While the lake has a similar geologic structure (a very long, narrow valley) to the famed Finger Lakes further east, it is not within the same watershed and therefore not considered one of the Finger Lakes.

Lake Chautauqua Map

Marcel and I spent the first half of our first day and morning of the next ... trying to learn the lake and figure out what makes the bigger bass here tick.  We soon learned that Chautauqua is a fairly eutrophic, nutrient rich body of water with plenty of aquatic plant growth that benefits the warm water fish community here.   Some areas, particularly to the north are extremely clear and offer almost aquarium like viewing of all the wonderful fish that reside here.
Neither of us has had too much experience fishing early spring bass during a time when bass could be either pre-spawn, spawn or perhaps even some post spawn already. That first day we fished under a stiff breeze and saw many empty beds some of which could have been large or smallmouth bass, others bluegill or pumpkinseed sunfish.   We were informed by several sources that docks were the deal on this lake in spring ... and without too much other physical structure visible out from shore; we did spend most of our time that first half day fishing docks.
One of those docks paid off handsomely for Red who finally got our first good bass- a very scrappy four pound smallie that took his 5” Emerald Oil colored Trigger X Flutter worm screwed onto a  on a 1/8 oz VMC Shaky Head Jig Head. “I tossed the bait right beside that ladder over there near the boat and that fish picked it up and swam off so fast I could barely reel fast enough to catch up and set the hook,” he remarked. So for the rest of that first day we spent more times fishing docks ... and ladders.

Landing Bass

Red landing his nice smallmouth and then holding it for a quick photo before release

Unfortunately ... so far most of our bass- both large and smallmouth were nothing to write home about – or worthy to write about here.

We came in early ... on that first day to re-group, have an early supper and then head back out to try something else.  Fishing a new lake, especially one the size of Chautauqua at an unfamiliar time of year can be a daunting task but we knew the fish were there and we just had to figure them out.   We began our late afternoon quest by staying about 20-30 yards or so out from the docks, fishing the 4-5 foot break interspersed with patchy weedgrowth.  We did see the occasional bass on a bed out here but most were roamers. My brother was throwing his shaky head while I used a Gamakatsu EWG 1/16th oz weighted hook with a screw in spring to hold my tube jig -Texposed style.  Moments after we hit our first spot Red stuck a nice three pound largemouth and a couple of casts later another almost as big.

We hadn’t moved but a few yards further when a three pounder finally connected with my tube. I quickly released it and made another long cast out and let the bait settle ... Bang another one and this time the weight was almost double the first!  The big largemouth attempted a couple of jumps in the shallow water but I managed to keep her down and brought her alongside the boat where I could lip her and get a couple of quick photos taken before she was gently put back. “Whew ...now that’s more like it”, I said in sheer relief as suddenly we developed a whole new outlook towards this body of water and the bass that reside here.

Wil Wegman Bass Fishing

Wil Wegman Holding Bass

Above a nice bass Wil caught on Trigger X Flutter Worm
followed by and even nice one on his X Rap

From that moment until we had to leave three days later we experienced a true taste of what an early season, catch and release bass fishing trip to Lake Chautauqua had to offer. For two avid bass anglers anxious to get a jump start on the season it was just what the doctor ordered.   This is not a lightly pressured lake in the wilderness of northern Ontario- where bass seldom see anglers let alone their lures. Rather, Chautauqua is in a state where their nation's largest metropolitan area reached a population of 19 million earlier this year. 

Overall this lake can be a busy one, however ironically enough early spring is a time when you can still have an entire shoreline to yourself and Red and I experienced that many times.  We were also surprised to see that most visiting anglers were Americans fishing for the lake’s very prolific panfish.  Big bluegill pumpkinseed, yellow perch and giant bullheads were in no short supply almost everywhere we went. “You’d think more Canadians would come across the border when our season is closed to fish bass here,” my brother remarked as he released another three pounder from his hot flutter worm/wacky jig combo.

Red

While Red did well with a slow approach … overall most of my bass came from a much quicker reaction type-bait. My lure of choice was a Rapala X Rap … in a color I seldom use back home, but for whatever reason, whenever I am fishing New York waters, it always seems to be my go-to color. That pink and white suspending jerkbait could be cast a mile and although I didn’t twitch it as fast and furious as I would have in summer back home, it did allow me to effectively cover these Yankee waters, quickly with great success.

About Chautauqua County:

In the village of Chautauqua you can visit the popular tourist attraction known as the Chautauqua Institution which was founded in 1874.  Here visitors can enjoy concerts, opera, theatre and much more. The region is also recognized as prime wine country and several wine-related events occur throughout the year.  Golf, nature trails, horseback riding, birding and cycling are some of the other most popular recreational activities in the County.  In nearby Jamestown … tourists love to flock to the home town of Lucille Ball and visit her museum. Of course with just a few days in Chautauqua fishing was our prime focus, so we spent long hours on the water and didn’t have much energy afterwards for much else.  

In Mayville, there is an excellent free public boat launch not far from the full service Chautauqua Marina.  It was here that Lou helped us out with some immediate and friendly service to my boat when upon arrival I noticed that my gas cap had gone missing!

About Irwin Bay Cottages:

Julie Holland runs this mid-sized cottage resort situated right on the lake not far from the village of Mayville. Our recently renovated cottage for the week was extremely clean and bright with new appliances, comfortable beds and cable TV.   The boat slips were out from our cottage and came with nearby plug-ins to charge our boat batteries.  What I really like about the resort was that everyone who stayed there came to fish. Early to bed, early to rise … no loud parties or music at night – totally fish-focussed and just what we came for.  It was re-assuring to know that 70-80% of guests at Irwin Bay are repeat customers and I‘m sure one of the reasons was the great customer service Julie offered.  At one time one of the other clients noted that the free wireless Wi-Fi went down and Julie immediately went to Town to look after it.

Red Bass

Red with another average size bass from Chautauqua

Our cottage had a huge fully screened–in porch however to be honest we did not see one mosquito or black fly during our entire stay.  I couldn’t help but think of my 25 year old son Izaak who was undertaking a week long solo kayak trip into Algonquin Park at the same – a period when black flies are known to make grown men cry. (Afterwards- when I saw Izaak with all his bug bites I asked if they made him cry … but he swore they didn’t. The dude was alone though- so I guess we’ll never really know!).

Boat

Docks with boats on them were few and far between ... mainly because we were there just before the busy Memorial Day long weekend when most cottagers come up for the first time of the year and put their boats in. Those few docks with boats however were far more productive than the many without. On the first day of our arrival, the green tarp on this boat ... was all green. Day 2 it had one white streak, Day three, the blob above, and on our last day the other white streak appeared right on cue. We each wondered what the boat would like in a few weeks!

Lake

The evening bite was one of the best and we would typically fish till dark

Wil Wegman 2012

Most of Wil’s bass came from the pink and white Rapala X Rap

As mentioned, most of the anglers during our stay appeared to fish for panfish … bluegill and pumpkinseed sunfish, black crappie and even some good size yellow perch. The lake also has walleye however and is teeming with huge bullheads. We would see pods of 10-30 of these catfish cruising along in many of the places we fished. It was interesting to note that often if we looked close enough, a good largemouth bass was not far behind. Of course watching big, longnosed gar or the mighty muskie sulking alongside the boat always gets your adrenaline going as well. The lake in fact has a tremendous muskie fishery, thanks in no small part to a muskie hatchery right on the lake.

Fishing Lake Chautauqua for the early season catch and release bass fishery is a real treat for Ontario based anglers who typically have to wait until the fourth Saturday in June to fish for bass back home. Most anglers fish for largemouth but there are plenty of nice smallmouth as well.  Julie reported that one of her female clients had caught a smallmouth over seven pounds the week before we arrived. That’s a smallmouth that would rival Lake’ Erie’s, which is just a short distance away for those who want to combine Big Huge waters with more the secluded ones of Lake Chautauqua.  At any rate, with just a over four hour drive away you can get a great head start on the bass season at Lake Chautauqua and you’ll find friendly and comfortable accommodations at Irwin Bay Cottages ... I guarantee it.

For more information visit:  www.irwinbaycottages.com

For more details on fishing the lake, you can contact Craig Robbins who is a Sports Fishing & Hunting Consultant for Chautauqua County: www.tourchautauqua.com

Wil Wegman

Wil pictured above near landmark clock tower of the Chautauqua Institution

Wil Wegman