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Driftwood Outdoors: Bass Islands of Lake Erie like the Florida Keys of the Great Lakes

by Brandon Butler | June 4, 2023 at 12:01 a.m.
“Paddle” Don Cranfill fishes for smallmouth bass on Middle Bass Island in Lake Erie. (Contributed photo)

When summer rolls around, there are special destinations in the Midwest where you can combine vacationing with fishing. One of my favorite places to do so is the Bass Islands of Lake Erie. As the shallowest of the Great Lakes, Erie is known for walleyes, yellow perch and smallmouth bass. The Bass Islands are known for parties. Like the Keys of the Great Lakes.

The Bass Islands are part of the Lake Erie Islands archipelago. Along with the Bass Islands, there is Kelley’s Island, Pelee Island, and several others in the chain. The Bass Islands and most of the others are in Ohio, but Pelee Island and other smaller islands are in Ontario. So if you are fishing by boat, you must remain aware of where you are in order to be properly licensed.

Sandusky, Ohio is home to Cedar Point Amusement Park. It’s an attraction I have visited since. After learning about Put-In-Bay, a friend and I decided to ride the ride and now I have taken my own children there. There is a ferry to South Bass Island from Sandusky. So it’s easy to access the islands.

A few years back, I visited the islands with my friend, “Paddle” Don Cranfill. We were two fellas toting backpacks around the lake side mansions. We were armed with fly rods in search of shoreline smallmouth on the fly. We made quick friends while standing in line for the Miller Ferry heading out to the islands. We figured our attire was going to draw some attention. It did, and some nice folks gave us permission to fish the shoreline in the yard.

With a deep affection for islands, mostly stemming from my love of Lake Michigan’s Beaver Island, I’m always on the lookout for new angling adventures that are island based. The incredible smallmouth bass fishery of Lake Erie is not a secret to those who are in the know about bronzeback destinations, but it really is the walleye fishing most people recognize as the main attraction to Lake Erie. I thought a multi-purpose trip to the Bass Islands would be both a unique and exciting adventure. My goals were to enjoy all the area has to offer as far as tourism goes and to stalk giant smallmouth along the rocky shore.

South Bass Island is home to Put-In-Bay. It’s by far the most touristy of the three Bass Islands. This is not a bad thing. In fact, Put-In-Bay is pretty awesome, with all kinds of shops, restaurants, and bars. But, Paddle Don and I were traveling on the cheap and staying in tents so we opted for the more remote seclusion of Middle Bass Island. We camped at the state park. The campsites were primitive, but the marina was beautiful with great shower facilities. Traveling to the island by private boat is quite popular, and if one wanted to do so, they could camp at the state park and have wonderful facilities.

Once on the island, we rented a golf cart from JF Walleyes, the main eatery and watering hole on Middle Bass. For the next two days we cruised around with our fishing gear loaded on the golf cart. We caught a few funny stares from folks wondering about the fellas in waders. When we found a promising spot, we waded out into the water and commenced to catching smallies. Most of the water around the shore of Middle Bass is accessible and easy to wade. Certain stretches are home to shallow flats that allow you to wade a 100 yards or more off shore. We picked up quite a few nice bass early and late on these flats.

The Bass Islands are a great vacationing spot for the angler who is interested in having an all-around good time. The food and nightlife of Put-In-Bay is a must and the slower pace of Middle Bass Island is a welcome retreat. We found was a bustling nightlife in a neat, clean island setting. Put-In-Bay is often referred to as the Key West of the Great Lakes and the comparison is a very good one.

See you down the trail. …


Brandon Butler is an outdoors columnist for the News Tribune. Contact him at [email protected].


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