ERIE, Pa. -- At a sidewalk vantage point near the Perry Monument on Presque Isle, about 10 yards of muck and a few dead weeds separate tourists from the waters of Misery Bay. At the beaches, rocky breakwaters that are normally a brisk swim from shore are connected to the peninsula by strips of sand.
Lake Erie, the eleventh largest lake in the world by surface area, is temporarily shrinking as a Midwest drought starves the lake of 13 inches of water and counting.
Closer to home in Southwest Pennsylvania, water levels are down in most impoundments, some boat launch ramps are closed and many creeks have been reduced to dark pools separated by trickles. And while dams on the Allegheny, Beaver and Monongahela rivers release water to maintain downstream navigation channels, boaters are learning to navigate around once-submerged obstructions in familiar waters.
Beneath the surface, however, macroinvertabrates still commingle, little fish still find food and bigger fish continue to feed and locate sufficiently oxygenated water. Despite low water levels throughout the region, the state Fish and Boat Commission reports no substantial fish kills related to the drought.
Aquatic life adapts to low water. To catch fish, anglers must adapt, too. Low, clear and warm water makes fishing more difficult, but it doesn't necessarily put the kibosh on catching fish. Keith Edwards, northwest region education coordinator for Fish and Boat, said anglers need to understand what's happening under water and change tactics to fit the conditions.
"I'd recommend common sense," he said. "If you fish in a familiar area and retrieve your plug and it's full of weeds, that's no fun. It makes sense to change your routine -- find deeper water where there aren't so many weeds."
When the water drops, the locations of some prime aquatic habitats change. Low water often warms, releasing some of its oxygen. To locate game fish in drought conditions, discover places where forage fish find cover near oxygen-rich water.
Lake Erie fishing is slow for many anglers returning to specific GPS coordinates. But perch and walleye guides are putting their clients on fish by tracking the depths at which fish are schooling. Smallmouth anglers still plugging familiar shorelines are running aground, while those concentrating on still-submerged near-shore structure are cleaning up, particularly out of North East.
With little water flowing in from the tributaries, most regional impoundments are down. In clear lakes, anglers targeted deep creek channels and road beds near incoming water or submerged springs.
Cross Creek Lake in Washington County is down nearly 3 feet, but Mike Milvet of Cross Creek Bait Shop said the launching ramp is in good shape and last week smart anglers were finding fish.
"Bluegills were suspended in 12 to 16 feet and guys were pounding them with jigs and maggots," he said. "Walleyes 23 and 24 inches were caught trolling silver Hot 'n Tots in 18 feet, and a couple of guys caught largemouths 16 and 19 inches using 4-inch rubber worms."
To maintain navigation levels, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has been releasing water from its regional reservoirs: six on the Allegheny River, four on the Beaver River (feeding into the Ohio) and three on the Monongahela River. As a result, all of those lakes are below summer pool levels -- Youghiogheny Reservoir, with its dam on the Fayette and Somerset county line, is down 20 feet.
"We didn't get that much snow and this was a very dry summer, plus because of the drought we've had to release water," said Corps spokesman Dan Jones. "Some of our reservoirs are down 10 feet or more. So as far as recreational boaters go, some hazards that during a normal summer might be 10 feet below the surface -- sandbars, tree stumps -- are now only 2 feet away. Below the dams, however, those water releases help with the quality of water for fishing and for other wildlife."
In fact, some of the best trout fishing in the region, said Bob Phillips of International Angler fly shop in Robinson, has been in the tailwaters of Youghiogheny Dam.
The bottom-release dam gives the river a welcome injection of richly oxygenated water that's always a crisp 40 to 47 degrees -- perfect for temperature-sensitive trout.
East Branch Clarion River dam is also bottom release.
Elsewhere in the region, said Phillips, anglers on water-deprived creeks should stick to deep, dark pools and anywhere the water gets a jolt of fresh oxygen. In general, think smaller.
"Low, clear water means you really have to streamline your terminal tackle. Smaller flies and lighter tippets generally work better, especially on slower moving pools," he said.
In low water more than ever, keep quiet.
"Guys don't think about this, but when you make movement in the water, the fish can sense that," he said. "When it's low, particularly, you don't want to be wading real heavily, or you'll put them down."