These fish are common throughout the Finger Lakes region and typically run from about 12” to 17”, with occasional bigger fish mixed in. Pound for pound they are one of the best fighting fish in freshwater. New York State now allows year around “Catch and Release” fishing for smallmouth bass on ALL the Finger Lakes! This is a golden opportunity to catch smallmouths averaging 15″ to 18″ in shallow water! Bigger fish are available too, especially on Owasco and Keuka Lakes.
My first choice for smallmouth bass in the Eastern Finger Lakes is Skaneateles Lake. Bass here behave like smallmouth bass should! They aren’t suspended over deep water chasing alewives. You can do just fine here without $20,000 of “live-scope” sonar on your boat. They are often found near shore, and they do a lot of feeding on bottom on crayfish. Even tough days are usually productive on Skaneateles. Keuka Lake is a good smallmouth fishery with big fish as well as decent numbers, though fish often go pelagic there. Owasco Lake is a fair smallmouth fishery, known more for size than numbers. Otisco Lake also produces some big alewife-fed smallmouths. Six-to-seven-pound smallmouth bass are a possibility on many of the Finger Lakes.
As of this writing the smallmouth population is down a bit on Cayuga Lake but appears to be bouncing back gradually. Quite a few small fish are around as well as some monsters! I was surprised but not shocked when the NY state record smallmouth bass came out of Cayuga Lake on opening day in 2022. It was a fat goby-fed fish taken on a spawning bed, which for better or worse (I say worse) is how many of Cayuga Lake’s smallmouth bass are caught. (The same angler re-caught that SAME fish in the same area in 2023! He said it was bigger!) They are caught in the spawn phase (when their nests are completely vulnerable to goby-predation) and more recently during the summer by anglers using “Live-Scope” sonar. The smallmouth fishing here still has a long way to go. When guys have to spend hour upon hour “scanning” the major structural elements on this lake in hopes of locating a few bass or a small group on perhaps a half of the elements they scan – or maybe just a quarter of them, the fishing leaves a lot to be desired. Don’t be fooled by the tremendous catches on Major League Fishing. Take those same anglers and put them on the lake without the surround sonar and most would be lost. And by the same token, people fishing Cayuga Lake back in the 1970s and 1980s using the common techniques of the times – like drifting live-bait, would think Cayuga was a brutal lake for smallmouths.
I’ve been reading over my old fishing logs and was surprised at how well we used to do for smallmouth bass on Cayuga Lake – especially the southern half of the lake, but throughout the entire lake. Fishing for them was very good in the early-2000s!
Seneca is full of small bass as well, so it’s on the rebound too. We will see some big fish come out of Seneca Lake now that round gobies made their way here via the canal system. I like the spring and fall for bass on Cayuga and Seneca Lakes. Tactics that work well for Finger Lakes smallies include topwater, tube jigs, spinnerbaits, stickworms, lipless crankbaits, jig ‘n pig, deep jigging and crankbaits – basically just about everything!
I did a lot of fishing for smallmouths in Lake Ontario during the 1990s and up until a couple years ago. The fishing was phenomenal for 12″ to 15″ bass. Action slowed down a lot in the late 2000s with the appearence of gobies. Slowly but surely things are reaching a balance and fishing has improved considerably since then. I’ve had some good to excellent smallmouth fishing over the past couple seasons around Oswego – in the river, harbor and the lake.