13 Best Smallmouth Bass Fishing Lakes & Rivers in New York

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Some of the best smallmouth bass fishing in America is located in the state of New York. From the depths of the Great Lakes to countless miles of secluded rivers and streams, the Empire State offers smallmouth enthusiasts endless options. 

Nothing fights like a smallmouth. It’s been said that smallmouth bass, pound for pound, will outfight any fish in freshwater.

So when a surly 5-pound bronzeback decides to take a swipe at whatever’s on the end of your line, you can bet you’re in for a tussle. Few states offer a better shot at tangling with a bass of that caliber than New York. 

Smallmouth bass fishing opportunities are available throughout the warmer months, but some of the best fishing for smallmouths in New York is usually in spring and fall. 

Spring and fall are the seasons during which more and bigger bass are likely to be in shallow water.

Smallmouth bass prefer water temperatures between 67 and 71 degrees (a bit cooler than largemouths favor). They will seek out their optimal temperature range whenever possible.

Catch-and-release bass fishing is allowed in New York year-round, but the traditional season for both smallmouth and largemouth bass runs from the third Saturday in June to November 30.

Smallmouths typically spawn from late May to early June, so the season helps protect the bass while they reproduce. 

New York’s state record smallmouth was recently caught at Cayuga Lake, which you’ll find down into our list.

That beast of a bass bested a previous record of two tied fish by 2 ounces. Those earlier bass came from Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence River, still among our top smallmouth choices.

It also shows that record-class smallmouth bass come from several of the state’s waterways, including many you’ll find here on our list of the best.

Before we show you the best places to catch smallmouths, we also want to point out that at the end of this article you’ll find more information about bass fishing, including the top fishing techniques and also the best largemouth fishing lakes in the state.

Best Smallmouth Lakes in New York

Lake Erie

Honestly, could this list have started any other way? Lake Erie has been called the best smallmouth bass fishing lake on Earth. Even in a state like New York, with its wealth of prime smallmouth waters, Erie is simply unbeatable.

The shallowest of the Great Lakes and second-smallest by surface area, Lake Erie shares its 871-mile shoreline among four U.S. states and one Canadian province. New York lays claim to the easternmost end of Lake Erie, right before it empties into the Niagara River.

New York’s portion of Lake Erie includes seemingly endless reefs, shoals, rocky shorelines, drop-offs, and tributaries. In other words, all the habitats smallmouths love. 

Buffalo Harbor is a great place to start. The seasonal movements of Lake Erie’s smallmouths are fairly easy to predict, and the area around the city of Buffalo offers almost year-round bass fishing opportunities.

Starting in mid- to late April, smallmouths will head toward the warmest water they can find, which usually means the mouths of tributaries. Eighteenmile Creek and Cattaraugus Creek are great early-season spots.

If you can get on the water on an unseasonably warm, sunny late April day, the action can be non-stop. Minnow imitating stickbaits, hair jigs, and streamers are great baits.

In May, smallmouths will be gearing up to spawn, and the best places to fish are sheltered areas like Buffalo Harbor and the Black Rock Canal. Live bait is permitted starting on the first Saturday in May, and live shiners are popular.

Post-spawn, the smallmouth bite moves to rocky structure in 15 to 20 feet of water.

The quality of the fishing stays fairly consistent through summer, though by July the bass may be in 20- to 40-foot depths. Some of the best spots in eastern Lake Erie are Seneca Shoal, Myers Reef and Woodlawn Bar. 

Dragging tube jigs and fishing vertically with drop-shot rigs are the go-to tactics.

Some smallmouths will also remain within casting distance of shore all summer long, but shallow summer bass tend to run smaller. The big 4-plus-pound smallies will be out on the deep rocks.

A lot of bass return to shallow harbor areas again in fall. Buffalo Harbor State Park offers shore and pier fishing, as well as a marina with boat launch facilities and docking.

Chaumont Bay (Lake Ontario)

Lake Ontario’s largest bay also happens to be the largest freshwater embayment in the world. Chaumont Bay spans 9,000 acres near the eastern end of Lake Ontario, and it’s arguably the best of that particular lake’s many excellent smallmouth spots. 

Chaumont Bay offers excellent smallmouth fishing from spring right through fall. The bay is shallow for its size, only exceeding 40 feet in a few areas. But it supports ⁠healthy weed beds in fairly deep water, including a lot of areas with a mix of weeds and rocks.

That’s a perfect combination for smallmouth bass. Several large, rocky shoals are standout features of the bay’s bottom, and you can find bass there almost year-round.

Herrick Shoal, Johnson Shoal and a handful of other unnamed shoals are killer smallmouth spots right after the spawn in early summer, and again when smallmouths go into their fall feeding frenzy.

A lot of smallmouths measuring over 20 inches and weighing around 4 pounds are caught here every year.

The bass in Chaumont Bay often sort themselves out by size, so if you start catching multiple smallmouths weighing just a pound or two, chances are the big fish are elsewhere.

Soft plastic jerkbaits and finesse swimbaits that mimic round gobies are favorite baits. They tend to work best on a drop-shot rig.

Live bait can be great too, but anglers often find the bait-stealing gobies to be too much of a nuisance to fish with live bait near the bottom.

In summer, the shoals can be hit-or-miss. You might have to look for deeper water, and some big smallmouths are caught along the rocky drop-offs near Cherry Island, a long, narrow island near the mouth of the bay.

Keep an eye on your electronics as you explore Chaumont Bay. Any minor bottom feature, from a rock pile to a single isolated boulder, has the potential to hold smallmouths if there’s food for them in the area.

Long Point State Park is one of several popular launch sites on Chaumont Bay. It also offers campsites and limited shore fishing access.

Additional boat ramps are located in the villages of Chaumont and Three Mile Bay.

Chaumont Bay hosts several other fisheries, including some very good catfish fishing.

Oneida Lake

Oneida Lake is a bass tournament regular, and a great big playground for bass fishermen in Central New York. At 50,894 acres, it’s also the largest lake that lies entirely within the state’s borders.

Largemouth and smallmouth bass are both abundant on Oneida Lake, and you’re likely to catch both species on any given day. If it’s smallmouths you’re after, the approach is simple. Find rocks, and you’ll find fish.

Before you hitch up the boat and head out toward Oneida Lake, the first thing you should do is glance at a depth contour map of the lake. The abundance of shoals that dominate the bottom of this mostly-shallow lake will be immediately apparent.

The largest of these, known as Shackleton Shoals, is located right in the middle of the lake. These shoals span a vast area, with depths ranging from 6 to 26 feet. There are pretty much always smallmouths here.

There are also numerous smaller rock piles, reefs and shoals throughout the lake, especially in the western half, where smallmouths abound. The number-one thing to look for when you hit the water is an area where rocks and weeds meet. 

May and June are great months to be out on Oneida Lake. As smallmouths finish spawning in shallow bays and flats, they’ll first head toward the first significant drop-off.

From then on through summer, the aforementioned shoals are where you want to be. Smallmouths often slide down toward deeper rocks as late summer water temperatures hit their peak and then transition back to the shallower structure in fall. 

A wide range of techniques are effective, including jigs, drop-shot rigs and crankbaits. Crayfish make up the largest share of smallmouths’ diet in Oneida Lake, along with gizzard shad, yellow perch and round gobies.

Oneida Lake also is one of the better places in New York to catch walleye.

More: Complete Guide to Oneida Lake Fishing

Best Smallmouth Rivers in New York

Thousand Islands (St. Lawrence River)

Encompassing a vast area in the St Lawrence River starting at the easternmost end of Lake Ontario, the Thousand Islands unlike any other place in New York. With over 1,800 islands to explore, the scenery alone is worth the journey.

But if the Thousand Islands region is known for one thing—aside, perhaps, from its namesake salad dressing—it’s bass fishing. Smallmouths reign supreme here, and 2- to 3-pound bass are so common that 50-fish days aren’t hard to come by. 

There are also more smallies here weighing 5-pounds and up than just about anywhere in the Northeast that isn’t Lake Erie. With countless miles of rocky shoreline and deep, canyon-like drop-offs, smallmouths have a lot of prime real estate to choose from. 

The St. Lawrence River is essentially an extension of the Great Lakes, and smallmouths here behave a lot like they do in Lake Erie. The best times to catch them in shallow water are spring and fall. 

In summer, smallmouths might be as much as 60 feet deep, but they tend to be mobile, often heading toward shallower reefs and shoals to feed.

Roving packs of smallmouths follow schools of baitfish, which in turn often follow clouds of plankton that are driven by both the wind and current.

Fishing around the islands is a good way to get started. Carleton, Round and Linda islands are perennial favorites, along with the narrows of Grindstone and Wellesley Islands. Chippewa Bay and Grass Point are hotspots as well. 

Jerkbaits are great “search” lures for covering water quickly. To fish a particular bit of structure more thoroughly, try fishing a white or yellow curlytail grub close to the bottom. Tube jigs and 5-inch wacky worms are also effective.

New York has about a dozen state parks in the Thousand Islands. Grass Point State Park and Wellesley Island State Park are both great for bass fishing.

The Thousand Islands area also supports some of New York’s best fishing for muskies and northern pike.

More: Complete Guide to Fishing the St. Lawrence River and Thousand Islands

Susquehanna River

The Susquehanna River starts in New York, briefly flows over into Pennsylvania, and then dips back into New York again before crossing the Pennsylvania state line one last time. In total, it traverses 444 miles to eventually drain into the Chesapeake Bay. 

The smallmouth bass fishing in Pennsylvania’s share of the Susquehanna River—especially the stretch around Harrisburg—is legendary. New York’s portion of the river falls a bit short of the world-class water farther downriver, but is still pretty great by any other measure. 

With the exception of the early spring snowmelt season, the Susquehanna River in New York is generally slow-moving and easily navigable by canoe or kayak.

It’s also mostly shallow, making it well suited for wading, and it has an abundance of public access. 

Some of the best fishing is between Oneonta and Sidney. This roughly 30-mile stretch is dominated by pools and riffles, with several bank access sites just off Interstate 88 and State Route 7. 

Smallmouths often wait at the upper end of a pool for the current to bring tasty morsels that have become dislodged from the rocks. Tossing a crayfish imitation into the head of a pool and letting the current sweep it down into the pool is a great tactic.

The area right below the dam in Binghamton is also a great spot for wading. In general, any break in the current, be it a boulder, a fallen tree or a bridge piling, is worth a few casts.

Scrappy river smallies measuring 12 to 14 inches and weighing about a pound are tremendously abundant, but you also have a decent shot at tangling with a 3-pounder. With persistence, it’s possible to catch even bigger fish.

Floating Rapalas, tube jigs, and live nightcrawlers are all excellent baits for Susquehanna smallies.

Fly anglers often do well with streamers too, especially Clouser Minnows, Muddler Minnows, and crawfish patterns.

More: Complete Guide to Susquehanna River Fishing

Niagara River

Given that the Niagara River connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario—both extraordinary smallmouth fisheries in their own right—it comes as no surprise that the river itself is also a major smallie stronghold.

The Niagara River traverses just 36 miles between the two Great Lakes and is divided into upper and lower segments by Niagara Falls. Each section has its own unique character, but both are loaded with feisty smallmouth bass. 

The Upper Niagara River is only about three-quarters of a mile wide as it exits Lake Erie, but it quickly broadens as it approaches Grand Island, a 33-square-mile island that splits the Niagara into two streams.

Some of the best smallmouth fishing is in this broad area, which is bounded to the east by Buffalo’s northern suburb of Tonawanda.

The rocky humps above Strawberry Island and the breakwall that extends downriver from Unity Island are prime spots.

There’s also a lot of great shore access on the Upper Niagara River, including the Riverwalk, a paved hike-and-bike trail that follows the riverbank and connects to several local parks.

Ned rigs and drop shots are good tools for catching smallmouths in the Upper Niagara’s rocky habitat. Any current break has the potential to hold fish, and many anglers like to target specific spots with spinnerbaits and crankbaits. 

Fishing in the Upper Niagara is often excellent throughout the summer months. However, it may be at its best in fall when the water cools and smallmouths go on a hunting spree in 6- to 12-foot depths. This is a great time of year to target those big 6-pound monsters the river is known for.

Below Niagara Falls, the Lower Niagara River immediately narrows, and is funneled between steep, rocky walls through a series of tumultuous rapids.

This area is accessible through two state parks: the ominously named Devil’s Hole State Park and Whirlpool State Park

Both parks offer some truly fantastic shore fishing access to the river, but in both cases, reaching the water requires a steep hike into a rugged gorge. Hiking back out with your catch in tow can be arduous, but the rewards are hard to turn up one’s nose at.

As it approaches Lake Ontario, the Niagara River opens back up, and the lowermost few miles of the river are navigable by boats of all kinds.

Boaters should remain aware that the river marks an international boundary, and take care to keep on the correct side of the line.

More: Complete Guide to Niagara River Fishing

Honorable Mentions

Smallmouth bass are some of the most widespread gamefish in New York State, so it’s safe to say that your fishing options are by no means restricted to the waters listed above. Don’t ignore these other great smallmouth spots!

Lake Champlain

Scoured into the earth 18,000 years ago by the same glaciers that carved out the Great Lakes, Lake Champlain encompasses 314,000 acres of water, making it one of the largest natural lakes in North America.

Mostly straddling the border between New York and Vermont (a small portion of it also extends into Quebec), Lake Champlain is an excellent smallmouth bass fishery. This lake is known for kicking out chunky football-shaped bronzebacks in the 5-pound class. 

Champlain is a long, meandering lake, which can be broken down into three main sections: lower, middle, and upper.

The upper portion of Lake Champlain, with its numerous islands, bays and steep, rocky points, offers a lot of the best smallmouth water in New York as well as arguably Vermont’s best bass fishing.

There’s great fishing around Cumberland Head, and in the Vermont portion of the lake known as the Inland Sea (anglers can fish all U.S. parts of the lake with a fishing license from either state).

Farther north, the Horseshoe Shoal area is another great smallmouth spot.

The city of Plattsburgh, on the New York side, is situated roughly at the dividing line between the middle and upper lake, and is a great place to start. There are numerous marinas and public access sites in and around the city.

One of the best times to fish Lake Champlain is September when the aquatic vegetation starts to die off, and smallmouths follow schools of baitfish into the shallows.

Try a topwater lure like a Zara Spook over the receding weed beds in 6 to 12 feet of water, first thing in the morning.

More: Complete Guide to Lake Champlain Fishing

Oswegatchie River

Originating in the Adirondack Mountains, the Oswegatchie River twists and turns across 137 miles of Northern New York before eventually draining into the St. Lawrence River. Its rich, tannin-stained waters support a diverse multi-species fishery.

The upper Oswegatchie River is mostly known as a trout stream, but the lower portion of the river is smallmouth territory. The river supports excellent numbers of 12- to 16-inch smallies, along with some much bigger fish. 

Of course, even modest-sized smallmouths that have grown up in this kind of current are incredible fighters.

Oswegatchie smallmouths are like bronze bullets, known for going fully airborne when hooked and snapping lines with their head-shaking acrobatics.

Most of the lower Oswegatchie River is broad and meandering, making it perfect for exploring by canoe or kayak. It also has a lot of shallow portions that are great for wading in summer. Eel Weir State Park is an excellent access point. 

Most classic river tactics work here, including drifting with live shiners and nightcrawlers through riffles and pools. Floating Rapalas, curlytail grubs and tube jigs are effective lures, and fly fishermen often find success with streamers. 

There are some big walleye in the Oswegatchie River’s deeper pools too. This river also feeds Black Lake, a solid bass lake that offers a mix of both smallmouths and largemouths. 

Lake George

A tree leans out over the rocky shoreline of Lake George, New York.
Photo by Richard Corrigan

Encompassing 28,451 acres and stretching over 30 miles end-to-end, Lake George is one of the best fishing lakes in the Adirondacks. It’s a deep, cold lake that supports cold water species like lake trout and landlocked salmon as well as warm water fish like bass and walleye.

Smallmouths are slightly more abundant than largemouths in Lake George, but mixed bags are common for anglers. The key structures tend to be rocky points and drop-offs with some weed growth in the lower half of the lake. 

Largemouths and smallmouths often inhabit similar areas, but smallmouths favor somewhat deeper water. In summer, it’s common to catch them close to the bottom in 30 to 40 feet of water. 

At times, smallmouths will go pelagic and chase schools of baitfish in open water, but more often than not, they’ll be near some kind of structure. Two- to 3-pounders are common, and some of the best spots include Canoe Island, Hogback Reef, Diamond Island and Point Comfort. 

The midsection of Lake George is an area known as the Narrows, which is scattered with islands and offers some truly outstanding smallmouth fishing. Many of the Lake George Islands in this area feature state-owned boat-in campsites.

More: Complete Guide to Lake George Fishing

Skaneateles Lake

One can catch bass in pretty much all of New York’s eleven Finger Lakes, but Skaneateles Lake is a standout when it comes to smallmouths.

This lake’s deep, clear waters are used by local communities as drinking water, and smallmouth bass are right at home.

Skaneateles is mostly a numbers lake. Catching 50 barely-a-keeper 12-inch smallmouths in a day isn’t out of the ordinary. But there are big bass here too. Don’t be too shocked if your rod doubles over under the weight of a 3- or 4-pounder. 

At 8,960 acres and 16 miles long, Skaneateles is intermediate in size among the Finger lakes. But like all the lakes in this chain, it’s long and narrow, with steep drop-offs along each side, and broad, shallow areas at the north and south ends. 

Those steep drop-offs, with their abundance of submerged rocky rubble, are great places to catch bass.

Work the bottom with a jig or drop-shot rig midday, or try a topwater that mimics an alewife right around sunup and sundown. Smallmouth action is usually great from spring right through fall. 

There are some surprising fly-fishing opportunities here too.

The lake supports massive hex hatches in June and July, and fly fishermen often catch a mixed bag of smallmouths, yellow perch, rock bass and rainbow trout, all of which gobble up the mayflies as they emerge.

In fact, trout fishing here earned an honorable mention nod in our list of best trout fishing lakes in New York.

Mohawk River

The Mohawk River flows eastward through 149 miles of Central New York, ultimately emptying into the Hudson River near Albany. It’s mostly a broad, slow-moving, and moderately stained river that is easily navigable by small craft. 

The smallmouth bass fishing in the Mohawk River is always good, and occasionally great. Some of the best smallmouth water is from Lock 16 in St. Johnsville down to Lock 8 west of Schenectady.

Numerous rock piles and creek mouths harbor smallmouth in this section. Tailwater areas below each of the locks—remnants of a time when the Mohawk River was part of the Barge Canal system—are also great places to target bass. 

Numerous riverside parks, hiking trails, and DEC fishing sites make the Mohawk River incredibly easy to access for anglers (the river is also paralleled along much of its course by I-90). Crescent Dam in Cohoes is another great spot. 

Expect to catch mostly 12- to 15-inch smallmouths with the occasional 18-inch kicker. Crankbaits and spinners are some of the most effective lures.

The Mohawk is definitely a multi-species fishery, so you never know when your lure might end up in the toothy mouth of a pike or walleye.

Cayuga Lake

Stretching 38 miles from north to south, Cayuga is the longest of the Finger Lakes, and second in overall surface area behind neighboring Seneca Lake.

Cayuga Lake has a longstanding reputation as a solid bass fishery for both smallmouths and largemouths. 

Largemouth bass seem to be more consistent in Cayuga, whereas smallmouth populations seem to be somewhat more cyclical. But smallies have clearly been on an upswing in recent years. 

A new state record smallmouth was hauled out of Cayuga Lake in 2022, and on the opening day of bass season, no less. The 8-pound, 6-ounce bruiser gobbled up a PowerBait minnow on a drop-shot rig in about 10 feet of water. 

Cayuga is typical of the finger lakes in that it has a fairly narrow band of shallow water around much of its shoreline, with drop-offs to exceptional depths (the lake bottoms out at 435 feet).

Focusing on the ledge structure around the drop-offs tends to be key to finding reliable smallmouth action. 

Smallmouths might key in on shad, alewives, smelt or crawfish on any given day.

Look for rocky areas at the upper edge of the drop-offs in spring and fall, or work your way down to the 20-foot range in the summertime.

There are also shallow, grassy flats at either end of the lake, with occasional rocky areas that attract smallmouths.

Frontenac Park in Union Springs is a popular starting point, with a public launch on the northern part of the lake’s eastern shore. There are also multiple state parks up and down the lake.

More: Complete Guide to Cayuga Lake Fishing

Chautauqua Lake

Western New York’s Chautauqua Lake is a 13,156-acre glacial lake that is essentially two lakes in one. Bemus Point divides the lake at its midpoint into a shallow, weedy southern basin and a deep, rocky northern basin. 

Both basins harbor smallmouths.

Overall, largemouth bass are the more abundant black bass species in Chautauqua Lake, but some truly massive smallmouths have been caught here too. You have a real shot at going toe-to-toe with a 6-pound smallie in Chautauqua Lake. 

The bottleneck that separates the two basins is actually a great area to fish, and the southern basin can be best in spring before too many weeds take over. This section of the lake has several productive points and a few rocky shoals that often hold smallmouths. 

In summer, big bass are caught along steep drop-offs in the northern basin, but the fishing can be tough this time of year. A thermocline usually forms at around 30 feet most summers.

Chautauqua Lake gets a lot of fishing pressure in the summer, and some of the best fishing is in fall, after the tourist traffic settles down, and smallmouths return to shallow rocky areas to hunt unbothered.

Long Point State Park offers boat ramps and shore access.

More: Complete Guide to Chautauqua Lake Fishing

Catch More Bass in New York

Now that you know the very best places to catch smallmouth bass, we though you’d also be interested in finding the very best largemouth bass fishing lakes in New York.

We also have a simple guide to the best fishing techniques and tips for catching smallmouths, largemouths and other black bass species.