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If you’re going to go fishing, you need to plan a trip to Erie
June 14, 2009

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There are any number of reasons why Erie has become one of my favorite destinations in Pennsylvania and why I visit there as often as my schedule permits. The fishing opportunities are certainly one of the main attractions because this corner of our state offers a combination of quality, quantity and variety found in few other angling destinations. With so many possibilities, every trip to Erie can be, and usually is, a different adventure, and my most recent trip during the first week of this month was no exception.

I arrived in Erie late in the afternoon of June 3 and, after checking into my hotel room, drove to the western side of the county to meet a friend at the mouth of Elk Creek. He likes to fly-fish for the hordes of smallmouth bass that migrate into the lower reaches of the creek in the late spring. A small boat ramp there provides an easy place to launch my kayak and allows me to enjoy my favorite style of fishing. The smallmouths were indeed there, but a sudden cold front had put them out of the biting mood for the most part. I did, however, manage to catch and release three nice bass, a sheepshead and a rock bass before we decided to return to town for dinner.

Early the next morning, I headed to Presque Isle State Park where I started the day in Thompson Bay at the eastern end of the peninsula. I have always done well at the edge of one particular weed bed there. Back in April, I hooked and lost what was probably the biggest largemouth I had ever tangled with in Erie at that spot, so I was hoping for a rematch. I began fishing with a Carolina-rigged creature bait, followed by a tube jig, with no results. Then I cast my favorite go-to bait for Erie, a 3-inch Yum Dinger in watermelon/pearl laminate. This two-tone soft-plastic stickbait looks a lot like an emerald shiner, probably the most abundant baitfish around Presque Isle and one that is on the menu of about every game fish there as well.

That first cast with the Dinger yielded a solid strike. I set the hook, and instantly a northern pike rocketed out of the water, followed by two more quick jumps. After those acrobatics I was able to get the two-foot fish close to the boat, but having no net, the matter was far from being decided. I finally managed to tire the fish enough so that I could hold the rod between my legs and paddle over to shore to get a picture of it.

Pike are common around Presque Isle, although not all that numerous. This was the first pike I had ever landed there, even though I had fished for them several times in the past few years. I was glad finally to add a northern pike to my personal list of Erie catches.

After releasing the northern, I began casting the Dinger along another usually productive weed line. Soon I had another strike, this time almost the moment the lure hit the water. Again, I set the hook, and again a large fish vaulted out of the water. It was longnose gar about 28 inches long. Gar are ancient and strange-looking fish, which could best be described as part fish, part snake and part crocodile. They are quite numerous around Presque Isle, and I have seen some there nearly four feet long.

Gar are supposed to be aggressive and voracious, and I have wanted to catch one since the fist time I saw this prehistoric relict. And although gar readily take the baits and lures of anglers, their hard, bony mouths are lined with rows of small, needle-sharp teeth, making them almost impossible to penetrate with a fishhook. Somehow, the hook in my Dinger had managed to find some purchase at the tip of the fish's snout, so just as with the pike, I subdued the fish and then towed it to shore for a quick photo session and a close-up look at this unique fish.

The gar was relatively easy to handle because it not that slimy and its scales were quite rough. The scales are also diamond-shaped and do not overlap as they do on most fish but were arranged edge to edge like so many mosaic tiles. I also noticed that the pupils of its eyes were perfectly round and not egg-shaped as are those of almost all other fish.

After that encounter, fishing got back to normal as I caught three nice largemouths before breaking to eat lunch. That afternoon, I moved down the peninsula to one of my favorite stretches of Misery Bay. I took an ultralight outfit with me and had some fun catching a few big bluegills and pumpkinseeds. Later that evening, the bass bite kicked in as I boated about a dozen fish then, including two dandy smallmouths.

The next morning I returned to Misery Bay but after an hour or so had landed just one small bass. At one spot, I noticed the sandy bottom was cratered with the spawning beds of some large bluegills, and I considered fetching my ultralight rig again for another session with some panfish. As I drifted past the big bluegills, I noticed the shape of a huge fish hovering near the bottom just a few feet in front of me. "If that's a largemouth bass," I thought to myself, "it's surely the state record." A better look quickly revealed the fish was a bowfin that appeared to be nearly 30 inches long.

I flipped the Dinger into the water and watched it settle next to the fish. When the bowfin turned and snapped the lure, I struck hard, burying the hook solidly into its upper jaw. Its first run was fast and powerful, and I barely kept it from burying into a weed bed. The big fish literally towed my kayak in circles for the next several minutes as I wore it down with as much pressure that my 6-pound-test line could stand. During the tussle, it occurred to me that I might want to start bringing a landing net on future Erie excursions. By now, however, I had the drill down pat and soon had another photo op.

Bowfin are another prehistoric oddity. Fossil records trace members of the bowfin family back 100 million years. They are found sporadically throughout Pennsylvania and are also fairly common around Presque Isle.

This was the first bowfin I had ever landed, and it was one of the biggest I had ever seen, measuring 29 1/2 inches and probably weighing 9 or 10 pounds.

As I watched the big bowfin swim away, I couldn't help but reflect. I managed to catch nine different species of fish, including two I had never caught anywhere before. I caught a bunch of bass, including a couple of big ones.

As is said at the outset, fishing in Erie offers the opportunity for quality, quantity or variety - and sometimes a dose of all three at the same time.

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