As shown by Emilee Sperry, a visit to New York’s “Grape Belt” cam also yield additional rewards to crappie anglers. (Photo: Mike Sperry)
Days of Wine and Crappie
by Ken Perrotte
Lake Erie’s Grape Belt a Destination for Wine Lovers and Crappie Anglers Alike
The northwestern edge of New York state is known for its expansive borders along two of the Great Lakes, Erie and Ontario. Chautauqua County, the county that abuts Pennsylvania, has an abundance of water riches, with 50 miles of shoreline along Lake Erie plus an inland lake that offers a bonanza of fishing opportunities ranging from crappie and yellow perch to that “fish of 1,000 casts,” the muskellunge.
Chautauqua Lake is western new York’s largest inland lake, covering 13,156 acres with more than 42 miles of shoreline. It is divided into two basins of nearly equal size by an area called “the narrows” and Bemus Point.
Mike Sperry, a licensed guide and musky specialist who has fished the region for more than 40 years, says Chautauqua is almost like two separate lakes. That’s because the south basin is very shallow, ranging up to 19 feet deep, compared to the north basin that has some expansive holes 77 feet deep. The south basin has extensive weed beds and some productive shoals. The north basin also has weed beds in its shallow bays but the north basin’s water is deep enough that the water stratifies during summer. A thermocline usually occurs around 30 feet.
Like many northern, natural glacier-made lakes, Chautauqua is known for clear, clean water.
Sperry likes the more fertile southern basin, mainly because it warms up quickly after the winter ice melts.
“Water temperature is everything in the spring,” Sperry said. “Once it reaches the upper 50’s and is close to 60 degrees, the crappie stage in 5-8 feet of water, often over areas with rocky bottoms or full of clam shells. And just before then, crappie also can be found chasing shiners into narrow canals and creeks off the lake. People often target them from shore,” Sperry added.
“We’ve got a lot of 14’s and up in the lake. Someone gets a 17-incher every year.” ~ Mike Sperry
Rich Davenport, an outdoor writer from Tonawanda, New York and an appointee to neighboring Erie County’s Fisheries Advisory Board, has fished Chautauqua Lake since he was old enough to hold a fishing rod.
During the peak of the May spawning season, both anglers like simple setups – light tackle. Sperry prefers sensitive noodle rods with reels spooled with 4-pound line, slip bobbers and jigs or naked hooks baited with minnows or shiners. Small artificials also produce, plastics like twister tails and small minnow presentations, Davenport said.
Sperry likes Cubby Mini Mite jigs when he is sight-fishing for crappie in the clear water and it’s easy to see the lake bottom.
Warming water promotes the growth of aquatic grasses and weeds, including milfoil. Sperry said other grasses such as eelgrass and pondweed are also abundant. Both fishermen and fish don’t begrudge the vegetation. It provides superb cover for predators and baitfish alike. It is also a big reason why techniques such as spider rigging and trolling for crappie aren’t more popular on Chautauqua. Anglers end up cleaning too much “salad” off their equipment.
“As water temperatures rise and weeds begin emerging, crappie schools head out to the main lake and will amass over the emerging weeds, typically in depths between 8 and 14 feet,” Davenport said. “You use the same tactics, light tackle with jigs and minnows under floats, but adjust depth to get the bait just over the weeds.”
Structure Fishing Also Productive
“Depending on the area, the shoreline does have deadfalls and brush, along with lily pads and such that can hold crappie and make for wonderful fishing right through end of June,” Davenport said.
Autumn is when crappie fishing again heats up, said Sperry. “I just target deeper crappie, looking for the schools on my electronics and then setting up on them. I also know a few structure hotpots,” Sperry said, adding that the lake has a couple sunken steamboats that make excellent reefs.
Justin Brewer, A New York fisheries biologist, said, “The lake contains a good mix of black and white crappie that both grow to trophy size. Along with trophy potential, there are obvious new year classes coming in at least every few years or so based on good catches of sublegal fish (8 inches and less). I suspect that a couple large year classes have reached the trophy class right now, while five years ago we would catch easy limits of 9 to 11 inch crappies with a few but less fish over 12 inches.
“There were good numbers of 5-8 inch crappies being caught this spring,” he said. So that is a promising sign for the future. Regardless, year class variability is typical and makes sense considering the diversity of habitat in the lake and the abundance of other top predators like walleyes, musky, and bass.”
As noted, in a lake with the fish diversity of Chautauqua, you always might always catch something other than crappie, including yellow perch and smallmouth bass. A smallmouth on a noodle rod with 4-pound line makes for a delicate situation.
“We even hooked a musky last year on a noodle rod. Well, actually, it ate a perch we had hooked,” Sperry said.
The situation works in reverse, too.
“We sometimes catch really big crappie in the summer while trolling crankbaits for walleye,” Sperry added.
If you visit in the early spring, plan on targeting panfish primarily. Seasons for bigger fish don’t open until very late in May. Autumn, especially October, is the time to make a trip centered on a mix of crappie fishing and smallmouth, musky or walleye fishing.
Chautauqua Lake is a premiere muskellunge fishery, with many fish ranging between 40 and 50 inches.
“I book a lot of half-day musky, half-day walleye trips,” Sperry said.
Ice fishermen on the lake are typically after walleye, but crappie anglers can fare well also, especially in late March, just before the ice goes out.
“You can find a lot of crappie in 8-10 feet of water at that time,” Sperry said.
Davenport said one of the largest crappie ever to come out of the lake, a 3-pound, 14-ounce beast, was caught through the ice in January a few years ago. That fish tied the state record and was caught in 32 feet of water on a plastic gulp minnow.
A trophy crappie, something that could earn an Angler Achievement Award, is 14 inches in New York. Nine inches is the minimum “keeper” size.
“Our lake crappie usually run 9-13 inches,” Sperry said, “but we’ve got a lot of 14’s and up in the lake. Someone gets a 17-incher every year.”
After the Fishing
This northwestern corner of New York is part of the region’s famed wine country. Dozens of wineries are all within an hour or so from Chautauqua Lake. As the region’s reopens following the Covid-19 virus closures, visits to wineries are resuming, with tastings and events allowed as proprietors follow new, hopefully temporary, protocols.
Lake Erie’s “Grape Belt” includes 23 wineries and more than 30,000 acres of vineyards along a 50-mile wine trail. Growers in Chautauqua County produce approximately 65 percent of New York State’s total annual grape harvest. The grapes are made into wine and used in juices, jams and products sold around the world. Labrusca grapes such as Concord and Niagara are prominent in the region, but French-American hybrids and European varietals are also grown, resulting in myriad local wine selections ranging from dry to sweet.
Along with some fishing buddies, I got to experience several Chautauqua wineries during a “writers camp” near the city of Dunkirk in 2018. A couple favorites included Johnson Estate Winery, Liberty Vineyards and Winery and Merritt Estate Winery.
Beyond the wine tourism, though, the region offers travelers lots of fun opportunities.
Nearby Lake Erie has multiple excellent beaches, including the beach at Sunset Bay, just east of Dunkirk. There, you can dine and drink at the funky Cabana Sam’s Sunset Bay Grill. The outside upper deck affords great views of beach activities and the water. Long Point State Park on Chautauqua lake also offers a swimming beach and bathhouse, as well as a public boat launch and marina with restaurant.
The Chautauqua Harbor Hotel’s Lakehouse Tap & Grille offers fine dining, while See-Zuhr House on Bemus Point is a favorite burger/bar hangout. Other good options include the Village Casino, a rocking live music venue that once held the world record for most chicken wings served in 24 hours, and Ellicottville Brewing. The Hotel Lenhart, celebrating its 140th birthday this year, is unique destination offering period rooms, a restaurant and the Lamplighter Lounge, which usually features “Big Band” music.
Many Chautauqua Lake restaurants are accessible by boat.
Comedy fans will not want to miss the Lakewood/Jamestown area where Lucille Ball was born. The National Comedy Center and the Lucy/Desi Museum are popular attractions. The Comedy Center stages an annual Lucille Ball Comedy Festival, usually featuring dozens of events and performances by famed comedians.
www.tourchautauqua.com – for one-stop shopping of all things Chautauqua County
www.chautauquareeloutdoors.com – Mike Sperry website. Sperry offers a full-day, two-angler spring crappie charter special and discounts for senior citizens and military members.
www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/fishhotlines.html – For current fishing information visit the Lake Erie Fishing Hotline or call 716-855-3474.
www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/9230.html – Information about the lake and its species of fish, including a list of public access points