Don’t judge lake by its cover

What a difference a little time can make.

Two years is an insignificant fraction of time in a world where it may take 100,000 years for a stream to move its bed a few feet. But in the two years since I’d visited Chautauqua Lake, the lakescape and the fishing were dramatically changed from the way I remember them.

Chautauqua is an easy tow from Youngstown, Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, so it gets a fair amount of attention from vacationing anglers who like to combine walleye and muskie fishing. The bass fishing is excellent, too, and that is what pulled me back to the 17,000-acre natural lake in western New York last weekend.

Just as the sun peeked over the eastern hills, I jumped off Interstate 86, hustled into the country general store to buy a fishing license and ice, and eagerly launched the Bass Cat for a day of fun with the largemouth and smallmouth bass that thrive in the great spreads of aquatic plants for which Chautauqua is famous.

Perhaps too famous, it turns out.

I zoomed to my first stop on my pre-determined checklist of locations. It looked a lot different that I remembered. The weeds were different. The water color was different. And the nearby row of boat docks was different.

The fishing was different, too. As a matter of fact, it was not good at all at that particular location. An hour into my trip, I had nothing to show for my efforts.

No matter, I figured, I’m scouting this day for tomorrow’s all-out attack. So I jerked up the Motorguide and zoomed to stop No. 2.

It was different. Pretty much different in the same ways as my first spot. And pretty much the same result with the fish, save for the smallie too silly to know it wasn’t supposed to be in the crannie where I pitched my lure.

On to stop three, but by this time with my head thinking that adjustment was required. It was the hottest prospect on my list, and my hopes were sky high as I drove down off plane after a 15-minute boat ride to Chautauqua’s far north end.


The lake looked like a lawn. Lush grass grew from the bank 200 yards and more out into the lake. At first I was thrilled, but then I realized the greenery was too thick — yes, it’s possible — and the bottom was too close to the surface. Despite the rainy spring and the fact Chautauqua is a natural lake, the water level was at least one foot lower than normal.

What a difference compared to the lake I last fished two Augusts ago.

When all of the changes finally penetrated my thick skull, I was able to put together a pattern that worked for the balance of the weekend. I didn’t set any catch records, but I enjoyed decent action with Chautauqua’s smallies and largemouths.

I’d found weeds where I’d never seen them before. Familiar grass beds were gone. The water was a foot lower. And docks that in years past were in perfect depths and loaded with bass were as barren of life as the North Pole.

It all goes to prove you can’t judge a lake by its cover (or your recollection thereof), because Mother Nature will throw curve balls when you least expect them.

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