Are you wondering what fish are in Lake Erie? This guide will show you the twenty-two main species in the lake and which ones are fishable.
First, let’s start with a little background about the lake.
Lake Erie is one of the shallowest, warmest, most productive, and southernmost of the Great Lakes. Also, is the most complex postglacial and glacial history.
Created by glacial ice that expanded and deepened a basin more than a thousand years ago. Which allowed fresh water to accumulate and provide a crucial environment for fish and wildlife.
Lake Erie is apart of a grand ecosystem that includes multiple microclimates.
Today, the stability of its ecosystems seems to depend on the its fish and aquatic plant species, and unfortunately human caused nutrient inputs.
Unfortunately, one of the main issues is large amounts of annual phosphorous loading during storm events. Phosphorous is a problem because it leads to erosion and is not bioavailable (creates cloudy water).
This leads to Eutrophication which promotes large amounts of algae growth. Called harmful algae blooms aka HABs.
Preventing runoff during storm events would really help the lakes ecosystem and can be done by building swales and rainwater harvesting systems.
Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
In spite of all the pollution in the 1900s, the lake formed the most abundant populations of fish. Supporting more species than all the other Great Lakes.
Lake Erie is also one of the most populated Great Lakes. Including Toledo, OH, Buffalo, NY, Clevland, OH, and Detroit, MI on its U.S. shores.
Being so populated it is no surprise that the lake has the Great Lakes largest commercial fishery. Mostly harvested on the Canadian side of the waters.
Walleye and yellow perch and the main species commercially harvested in Canada. While, in the U.S. those species are generally dominate charter and recreational fishing.
Unfortunately, the area includes the Sandusky River. Which is famous for being the first known habitat for Asian carp. They first collected Asian grass carp eggs back in 2015.
Pollution, invasive species, overfishing, and habitat degradation have unfortunately caused some of the fish species to disappear.
One example being the Ciscoes. Once-prolific and common commercial catch on Lake Erie is now gone.
Around the St. Clair area adult sturgeon are making a slow comeback, but not in any meaningful numbers.
Luckily, the lake still is home to around 130 different fish species.
Below is a list of the main ones presently found in the lake.
1.) Bigmouth buffalo (Ictiobus cyprinellus)
Reanore, CC BY-SA 4.0
Bigmouth buffalo are one of Lake Erie’s longest living freshwater teleost (of around 1,200 different species). Found to be up to 112 years old.
Large in size this one will lead to quite a fish story. But, getting one on the hook may be difficult. Their population numbers are in decline as they reproduce sparingly, and can be quite rare and elusive.
Bigmouth Buffalo we purposely stocked in the 1900s and led to commercial fishing targeting the species.
Not much is known about the Bigmouth as researches don’t know much about its habitat preferences and where they populate in Lake Erie.
You’ll forever have a tale to tell if you land one of these big guys!
2.) Northern Pike (Esox Lucius)
While Lake Erie is known for its walleye and perch fishing, there is also great northern pike fishing.
Northern pike is the lakes top predator. Which preys on a range of smaller fish using its super sharp set of teeth. Typically hunting alone the pike will stalk its prey and only dart forward to attack when the time is just right.
Many European communities consider pike to be edible, but most anglers in the U.S. release them. As pike is known to have a bony flesh.
Its all about the size! Pike can grow up to 50 pounds in size and make for some great photos. E. Lucius can get up to around 60 inches in length.
Top tip – One cool thing about Lake Erie is that if you catch a northern pike you can bring it to a local restaurant around the lake and they will process and cook it for you!
3.) Yellow perch (Perca Flavescens)
Yellow perch used to be a dominant species in Lake Erie, but since the white perch was introduced around 50 years ago the population has declined by 79%.
To make matters worse hatcheries are having difficult years and the yellow perch number have not been restored.
This has led many DNR’s to place limits on yellow perch. Ohio placed a 10 count limit in 2021.
Environmental conditions must be optimal for the yellow perch to fully recover.
They consume mainly crustaceans and mollusks, and are the prey for bigger game fish like the pike.
Yellow perch are often seen in schools and hide in weeds for cover. Minnows, worms, and larvae all can work well as bait.
Best fished in warm pockets of water in the spring months.
4.)Walleye (Sander Vitreus)
Welcome to walleye heaven! This body of water has some of the biggest walleyes around and are in abundance. Some researches are estimating around 100 million walleyes are in the lake.
Walleye season usually begins in early April and commonly into summer. In the spring they usually stay close to the lakes surface.
This Lake Erie fish species can get to a be about 15-24″ in length with trophy fish from 2003-2010 year classes. While 2020 had the 4th highest record of walleye harvest 2021 and beyond should still provide excellent fishing.
Best time to try your luck at walleye fishing is night fishing. As walleye are sensitive to light. Which also makes choppy, or overcast days good candidates as well.
Smallmouth bass (Micropterus dolomieu)
Lake Erie has some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in the U.S. Also known as M. dolomieu, bronzeback, bareback bass, or brownie.
These bass can usually be found on the New York shores in rocky structures with drop-offs. A depth of 15-35 feet is usually ideal.
Anglers can also fish inshore with kayaks, waders, or other small floating vessels.
Most smallmouths will be around 2-4 pounds, but its not uncommon to catch one in the 5-6 pounds range. In fact, the New York commonly holds the state record for bronzebacks coming out of the lake.
The current Lake Erie smallmouth bass record is 8 pound and 4 ounces.
Being a predator they like to stay where minnows are located. Which means warmer pools in the spring and moving deeper in the summer months (20-40′ deep next to structure rich locations).
Here is a PDF of Lake Erie smallmouth bass hotspots.
6.) Steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss)
Migratory rainbow trout are called steelhead and are an anglers preferred choice in spring and winter (April to October).
The lake was introduced to steelhead in the 1880’s and continue to attract anglers form all over the states.
Steelheads usually head upstream from Elk Creek and Walnut Creek to spawn. Causing what is called a steelhead run where you can view them energetically leaping in the air.
You can also find them in Buffalo and Dunkirk harbors.
Steelheads are usually around 5-8 pounds and can get up to the 10-12 pound range.
7.)Brown Trout (Salmo trutta)
Unlike the steelhead species above, the brown trout (also called lake trout) spawn in the fall instead of the spring.
Brown trout favor water that is rich in oxygen and in the lower 60 degrees F in temperature.
Pennsylvania currently has a stocking program with the goal of adding 100,000 to one million brown trouts a year.
Nightcrawlers are an anglers favorite for brown trout. Why they are exactly attracted to the nightcrawler no one quite knows. It could be the scent.
If you are able to catch brown trout you will be rewarded with a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, iodine, and protein. Making it one of the most desired fish species in Lake Erie.
8.)Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch)
Known for its protein and spurts of energy chasing lures, salmon are the fishing industries backbone in North America and the Pacific coast.
Also referred to commonly as “silvers”. Coho, Pink, and Chinook can be found in Lake Erie.
Fish for salmon in areas where baitfish are present. Which would be calm river stretches. Otherwise you will want to charter a boat and troll to get to cool and deep water.
Late spring and summer is when Lake Erie’s tributaries peak for fishing.
January and February, along with November and December are low season.
So, if you’re looking for a fun catch and a tasty dinner salmon is the species in Lake Erie you should target.
9.)Lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens)
In the Great Lakes sturgeon are its largest freshwater species getting to be about six feet long. Although there are also dwarf sturgeon that are about the size of a bass.
With sturgeons ancient looking appearance many thought the species to be what they considered “a living fossil”. Although, the actually science is showing sturgeon in Lake Erie and the rest of the Great Lakes are rapidly evolving.
Sturgeon have a pointy nose, bony plates that run the length of its streamlined body. Making it look quite scary… almost shark like! But, don’t worry these guys are gentle giants.
They mostly eat from the lake bottom. Looking for soft food due to not having teeth. Forcing them to swallow food whole.
Sturgeon have suffered from overfishing and are protected in some areas by federal law. In fact, by 2024 sturgeon may be an endangered species in Lake Erie.
So please, catch and release only with sturgeon.
10.)Lake whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis)
Lake Whitefish (females and males) are harvested annually form the western basin in Lake Erie. Close to the western basin reef complex and Maumee River. Researchers don’t know if the fish spawn in this area, or if there are just moving through it to spawn somewhere else.
Whitefish tend to go into deeper water in the summer because they prefer cool water. Only migrating into the shallows in November through December. In which they spawn in the shallow cold water. Usually around a depth of 6.5 to 13 feet deep.
Preferring gravel or rubble as a substrate for eggs.
Mild in flavor makes the Whitefish commonly found in grocery stores.
Catch Whitefish with simple ice-fishing methods like a basic line and jig combo, or hooked waxworms.
Keep in mind whitefish swim very quickly when trying to reel one in.
11.)Round Goby (Neogobius melanostomius)
Round gobies (Neogobius melanostomus) have been in Lake Erie and other Great Lakes since the mid-90’s from ship ballast water. Causing more concern on how ballast water should be dumped.
Since the 90’s their population numbers have grown and now considered invasive. Due to competing with native Lake Erie fish for food and being able to change its diet to what is available. Causing declines in smaller native fish populations.
The benefit the round goby has created in the ecosystem is that it eats the also invasive zebra mussel.
Zebra mussel have been causing a decline in phytoplankton in the water column. Now that the round gobies are lowering zebra mussel numbers the smaller fish that depend on phytoplankton are increasing.
12.) Largemouth Bass (Micropterus salmoides)
Largemouth bass are a prized game fish in Lake Erie. Not getting the attention they deserve.
Having a large appetite to go along with their extra large mouth opening. These fish are able to consume prey as big as their mouth can fit. However, they seem to prefer small baitfish.
After the introduction of the round gobies in the mid-90’s largemouth bass in Lake Erie have been increasing in size.
While that sounds like a good thing, it is actually causing some issues for healthy meat. Since the round gobies eat zebra mussels. The toxins zebra mussels filter out and accumulate then end up in the round gobies. Which then transfers to the largemouth bass.
You can find largemouths in areas with reed, lily pads, riprap lined canals, and eel grass. The southern shore of Sansucky-Port Clinton is one option.
Throw out a topwater frog or texas-rigged bait and watch them leap into action.
13.)Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus)
Alewife, also called “kick” and “gasparot” in Canada does have some less fun names like golden shad, and grey herring.
This fish species was introduced to Lake Erie around the 1900s. Known to be a native of Lake Ontario and spread into Lake Erie through the Welland canal.
A key species of fish in Lake Erie as they are prey for other larger game fish like trout and salmon.
Spawning is usually done in sluggish parts of the rivers based on tidal influence in the spring.
Landlocked Alewife like those in Lake Erie usually get up to about 6″ in length.
14.)Common Carp (Cyprinus Carpio)
Being able to thrive in most conditions, the carp have been increasing in numbers.
Native to Asia and Europe, this fish was intentionally brought into the midwest lakes as a game fish back in the 1880s.
Nowadays with their numbers continuing to increase they have become invasive.
Carp do well in Lake Erie due to its warmer and shallower water.
Outcompeting other native bottom feeders in the lake.
Be careful though. Carp have a native look-a-like in Lake Erie. The bigmouth buffalo. You can tell the difference between the two by the barbells. Carp has them and a bigmouth buffalo does not.
Regulators are having a hard time controlling carp and have no problem with you fishing out this species.
15.) White Bass (Morone Chrysops)
White bass are pretty abundant in Lake Erie. Usually found in Portage, Maumee, and Sandusky rivers. The more you go upstream the higher density.
Spawning in the spring around riffles to make sure their eggs continue to get oxygen with the moving water.
They can get up to 17″ in length (most 10-12″) and have a silver-white sheen on their compressed bodies.
Live worms or minnows usually work well for white bass. As they are a visual feeder that normally feeds on water fleas and copepods. The larger bass will sometimes target smaller fish.
16.)Freshwater Drum (Aplodinotus Grunniens)
Drum or “sheepshead” is known for its grunting noise when spawning (only the males grunt). Whether this serves a biological purpose is unknown.
This species likes shallow water that is clear and spawns in the warmer months.
Commercial fisheries harvest about 1,000,000 pounds of Drum a year and has no catch restrictions. Surprisingly, their numbers remain healthy and are not being overfished.
Drum can get up to about 30″ long and live up to 13 years.
Most people do not find drum edible even though they do not have much for bones.
17.)Burbot (Lota Lota)
There is a big, elusive, eel-like fish that is found on the bottom of Lake Erie called a burbot (pronounced bur’bit in some areas). It’s known to be the only member of the cod family in freshwater.
Usually found in the southernmost part of the lake in the eastern basin.
If you want to catch this weird fish you will need to head out during the night in the peak of the winter season. Which makes them a challenging catch. Although in the 1950s anglers in Ohio were able to catch them offshore.
Pollution and sea lampreys have pushed them into the deeper water.
Burbot in Lake Erie can still be legally fished and captured, but they are a species of concern. Being elusive has made researchers job of tracking their populations difficult.
They are edible and often called “the poor mans lobster”.
18.)Gizzard Shad (Dorosoma cepedianum)
Introduced to Lake Erie in the mid-1880s the gizzard shad is apart of the herring family. Often used as a baitfish to catch other species that are meatier and larger.
Getting its name from a digestive system that has a gizzard. Which is used to separate inorganic materials from plankton.
Gizzard shad in Lake Erie spawn abundantly and grow very fast. Making them somewhat of a nuisance. Due to large amounts of nutrient waste from schools often contributing to algae blooms.
19.)Sea Lamprey (Petromyzon Marinus)
Sea Lamprey was first found in Lake Erie in 1921. Most likely from the Welland canal. Then spread to other Great Lakes.
Often called a “vampire”, this fish has been thriving for many centuries. Using its concentric rows of sharp teethto suck the blood of other fish species nearby. While emitting a fluid orally called lamphredin.
Regulators are trying to radically eliminate them to limit damage. Using electric currents and physical barrier with varying success levels.
20.)Emerald Shiner (Notropis atherinoides)
This species of Lake Erie fish was named after its emerald sheen. A minnow that gets to be about 3-4″ long.
Due to its attractive appearance it is often cultivated for aquariums.
Mostly captured in traps in the middle of the water column. Then, used for catching larger fish.
Read regulations and limits as there are rules such as the netting used.
Often found in schools feeding on pelagic types of food. Such as aquatic insects and zooplankton.
Spawning in early to mid-summer after reaching maturing around two years of age.
21.)Rainbow smelt (Osmerus mordax)
This fish was introduced in the Great Lakes around the 1900s and is known for having an iridescent color.
Rainbow smelt are weak swimmers so they don’t travel far to spawn.
They get to be about 7-9″ long when they reach maturity and are cylindrical and slim in size.
Preferring shallow, warm water that is found close to shorelines.
Larger adult rainbow smelt can have good sized canine-like teeth which help them consume other fish, larvae, and smaller crustaceans.
The adult fish will often go into deeper, cooler water.
22.)Longnose gar (Lepisosteus osseus)
The longnose gar is easy to spot as it lives up to its name with its torpedo shape, primitive nose, and bony features.
What is amazing about this species in Lake Erie is that it can breath in air as well as water! Allowing it to live in bodies of water that have lower oxygen content. Like backwater swamps.
While most anglers do not like longnose gar because they prey on sport fish, they do play an important role in the ecosystem.
Longnose Gar in Lake Erie are usually found in are with logs, downed trees, and vegetative rich shorelines.
23.) Channel Catfish (Ictalurus punctatus)
One of the most popular species of fish in Lake Erie is the channel catfish. And one of the most exciting to catch.
In the spring they will spend time in the creeks, but then head into the big lake.
A Carolina-rig is often one of the best ways to catch channel cat along with some stinky bait. As catfish have a great sense of smell.
Some anglers even leave their bait out in the sun to bake the day before they fish to make it extra smelly.
Food Web of Lake Erie Fish
That wraps up a quick summary of the fish in Lake Erie. If you’re wondering how this all ties into the larger ecosystem here is a PDF with images that breaks is all down.
Last Updated on February 17, 2022 by Davin