Kayak Fishing Lake Erie
It’s an exercise in preparation. And sometimes, despite how much preparation you put into it, things can go awry.
That was the story on Saturday July 7th when myself and two other members of the Western New York Kayak Fishing Association (WNYKFA) set out to get smallmouth bass on Lake Erie on Meyers Reef. I was in my KC Kayaks K12, and Jimmy Yansick and Randy Bergin were both in Jacksons. Fortunately (and now a prerequisite for any serious Lake Erie kayak fishing trip) all 3 boats were self bailing with scupper holes. This played a big role in me being here to write about this trip.
We set off from the mouth of 18 Mile Creek at roughly 7:40 AM, and made the short paddle up through the creek entrance to open water. Lake Erie was absolute glass. A small breeze blew in from WSW. It was the picture perfect day for kayak fishing on Lake Erie.
Meyers Reef is a renowned smallmouth hotspot, and it would be a 2 mile paddle for us to get there. So roughly a half hour. Playing the angles of the Lake Erie shoreline, that would put us anywhere from a mile to 2 miles offshore when we arrived. It’s the kind of distance that sounds insane to some, but if you were there looking back at shore, you’d realize it isn’t half a world away. Again, we’re looking at 20 to 30 minutes of paddle time. And all 3 of us are experienced kayak anglers with dozens or hundreds of trips under our belt. That said, Lake Erie is not for the novice. And it can be a handful for the experienced. As you’ll soon see.
How’s the Weather Over There?
Initially, we had planned on fishing Upper Cassadaga Lake, but upon seeing the morning conditions forecast for Lake Erie, we knew it was a very rare morning. Low winds, no waves, and what breeze there was lined us up for smallmouth success.
I was using the ScoutLookWeather app for Android, and Jimmy was on his phone as well, checking conditions. We expected a thunderhead to move through at roughly 1 PM. It has hazy out, as you can see from the pictures, but there was no threat when we arrived at the reef. Several other boaters were out there, but not the numbers you would expect for such a nice morning. Perhaps that should have been a red flag, but we chose to think of it as good luck. We had the reef to ourselves.
It was by no means fast and furious, but for the short amount of time we had to fish, it was steady. We spent about 2 hours on or around the reef, fishing 20 to 30 feet of water. I was banging a Smallie Beaver on the bottom, and hooked 2 fish in the first half hour. However, I’m not a very experienced jig fisherman (more of a cast and retriever), and I missed both hook sets. I saw both fish though, and they were deeply colored with tiger stripes. Randy had taken a sheepshead (freshwater drum for those of you not from Western New York), and Jimmy had battled a good smallmouth before losing him to the Lake right at the kayak.
We had drifted a bit further out, but not quickly, and we decided to head back to where we were having hits and hookups. It was roughly 9:15AM now, and our phones weren’t telling us anything was up. However, all the boats had moved on.
We were alone out there.
As we paddled out of the 30 foot depths and back to the 20, the sky was starting to turn a bit pinkish.
When we stopped paddling, there was a VERY thin line of clouds over Canada. Based on my Lake Ontario experience, I guessed we had 2 hours of “safe time” before we had to deal with those clouds, and even then, they weren’t the legendary low, tall nasty clouds you sometimes see coming out of Canada when you’re out on Ontario. These were thin, dark, wispy clouds. I didn’t give it much thought.
Just then, jimmy Yansick hooked into a smallie, and I did too. We had a double hook up going, and we were excited. Both fish were landed (mine is pictured), and we were sitting on a very flat, windless Lake Erie for a minute or so afterwards, in about 21 feet of water, 1.5 miles offshore.
Then it turned on us.
Lake Erie is a Bear When it Churns Up
I’ve fished some big lakes in my kayak before, and fought through 2 footers on Black Lake, Hemlock, and other long lakes that give the water a chance to really stand up. None of that prepared me for what I was about to experience. It helped me get through it with all my gear and my life, but by no means did it PREPARE me.
In this picture, Jimmy had just released his fish, and was on his phone looking at the weather. There had been a very recent noticeable air temperature drop, and the winds were picking up. No gusts mind you, just a bit breezier. As I was getting ready to cast again, Jimmy said something to the effect of “Ummm, there’s an aviation warning in effect from here to Lockport. Storm is bearing down at 45 miles per hour…”
It’s moments like those that put your head on a swivel. I was scanning North for signs of a big storm about to swallow us, but all I could see were the pink skies and the thin wispy clouds heading at us. Turns out, on Lake Erie, that’s enough. Ahead of it getting bad, I announced (although I don’t think I needed to), that we needed to get digging. So we turned the kayak noses to shore, and started paddling.
Then it got ugly.
The storm was moving at 45 miles per hour right at us, and directly from behind us. It pushed high frequency 2 and 3 foot white cap breakers right into us, and not exactly in line with where we wanted to go, which was a little stretch of beach in between two cliff faces. The gusts had to be in the 40 to 50 MPH range as well, directly behind us. As you can see in the picture of me holding the fish, my spare paddles (never go out in big water without spare paddles) were acting like a sail, and my kayak was getting pushed around big time.
I was struggling to keep the nose pointed at shore, and every time I crested a wave, the kayak would ride it down, angling me away from the beach. That also put me broadsides to the next wave coming in. I learned quickly that if I JUST paddled on the right side, I was able to stay fairly straight. Don’t fight it… work with it.
The winds eventually were blowing so hard that they toppled my spare paddles and the milk crate they were attached to, which of course also held my Canon EOS Rebel. By some miracle, all the contents including the camera spilled into the boat. I thank the hollow dug out canoe style design of the K12 for that. I lost no gear, but I lost time as I tried to put everything together. I really didn’t want to lose the camera. My fellow shutterbugs will understand.
The next 15 minutes of one sided paddling seemed to take forever. My personal gear adventure had put me a bit behind Jimmy and Randy, but they were both looking back checking on me. Jimmy hit the beach first. Some day laborers had come down from the beach house and were watching us come in. You never want to be in a situation where people say “I’ve got to see this” when you’re out on big water. They likely thought we were in big trouble. Frankly, if were less experienced or didn’t have scupper holes, we likely would have been.
The last five minutes or so were in shallows. 5 to 8 feet I’d say, so I really started to feel better about the whole thing then. I could see the bottom in between waves, so I relaxed, and was able to fully concentrate on landing the boat where I wanted to. Randy helped me beach up, and we started going through our boats, making sure everything was accounted for.
We waited about 20 minutes, then when the winds died a little, we hit the water and paddled for the creek mouth through much better surf. Not glass, but glassy enough by comparison.
The Takeaways – Kayak Fishing Lake Erie
So what did I learn out there that day?
- No matter how prepared you think you are for Lake Erie, it’s never enough.
- All the weather forecasts in the world could be wrong. Things change. Keep your head on a swivel.
- Small clouds do not always equal small weather.
- When in trouble, don’t just paddle madly. Play the hand you’re dealt.
- On Lake Erie, keep your gear secured the WHOLE trip. You never know what might happen.
- The Smallie Beaver kicks ass. Go buy some.
I don’t want to overstate or understate the danger we were in out there. My life did NOT flash in front of my eyes, but it’s only because we all stayed calm, and made our break the second we saw things turning. My bigger concern was losing gear. That can get expensive. That said, if you don’t know what you’re doing, you can get killed out there. Plain and simple. We were fortunate that there wasn’t driving rain and lightning with this storm.
That would have been a game changer.
So, you have any tips for kayak fishing Lake Erie or big water? Share them below. Storm stories too, if you have them.
Until next time… and there WILL be a next time….
[important]You can read Jimmy Yansick’s account here: Eerie Erie[/important]