May 2006 Issue
Angling for Some Fun
Walleye, smallmouth, yellow perch -- they're waiting to take the bait in the waters surrounding the Lake Erie Islands.
There isn't much that can wipe the look of sullen disdain off the face of a teen-age boy, especially one who has been dragged out of bed before dawn and packed into a car for a two-hour trip to a boat dock. But if anything can turn an adolescent scowl into a grin, it's the unmistakable pull of a fish on the line. We watched it happen, my brother and I, to our two teen boys a couple of years ago on an early-summer walleye excursion to the waters surrounding the islands of western Lake Erie.
It was a measure of Captain Frank Drudi's wisdom that, rather than push the boys overboard for having an attitude, he found them fish instead. We boarded Miss Chelsea, a 30-foot Sportcraft, at a dock in a marina just west of Port Clinton - the self-proclaimed "Walleye Capital of Ohio." The docks were crowded with charter boats, all bristling with loaded rods and carrying coolers filled with ice to keep the day's catch fresh .
The day was overcast with a slight breeze, enough to provide a comfortable break from the day's heat but not enough to whip up the waves. While "Captain Dru" piloted the boat past a large village of lakeshore condominiums and into open water, first mate Mike Sabo explained the basics of trolling for walleye. Teaching the boys how to use the downriggers to set a series of lines in the water proved to be a successful strategy for keeping them engaged in the process long before the fish started to strike. They learned to use the counter reel to set the line at the right depth, and how to set the hook once they spied the rod tip bending toward the water.
Before long, we had the opportunity to put these lessons into practice. We started picking up dark shapes on the fish finder just beyond Green Island, but the action picked up when we reached the reefs off North Bass Island. Soon the captain's shouts of "fish on!" were coming as fast as we could land the walleye and toss them in the fish hold.
As the cheerful competition for most fish and biggest fish began, the boys began to smile. And while it wasn't a day when everyone caught his limit, the trip was declared a success even before the fish were breaded, fried and on our plates back in Columbus.
Lots of Lake Erie fishers will be smiling this summer if the biologists' predictions turn out to be true. Exceptional hatches of young walleye between the years 2000 and 2003 have grown into an abundance of large fish. "It's an exciting time to be fishing in Lake Erie," said John Hageman, manager of Ohio State University's Stone Laboratory on Gibraltar Island. "This summer is predicted to be the best fishing in 15 years."
Walleye is the most popular fish caught around the islands, with yellow perch a close second and smallmouth bass third. All three species are abundant in the relatively shallow waters surrounding the Lake Erie islands. In fact, the rocky limestone reefs and islands of the western basin are among the most productive fishing grounds in all of the Great Lakes, and the opportunities to fish are almost endless. For the cost of a license and your own bait and tackle, you can fish from the shore from dozens of docks, piers and breakwaters, or gather a group of friends and pay more to hire an executive charter that often includes your lunch and your beverages.
Most seasons of the year, anglers seeking walleye need to do it from a boat. There are more than 800 licensed charter captains on Lake Erie. Their services can be divided into two types:
"Walk-on" charters, which often are known as "head boats" because they charge by the individual angler. They range in price from $25 to $30 per head for a trip that generally lasts six hours. Many require that the clients bring their own bait and tackle. Despite the name, reservations are recommended for walk-on charters, especially on weekends or if you're coming from a distance to fish.
Charters such as the Miss Chelsea, which hold six or fewer clients (sometimes called six-pack charters) usually charge by the boat, so the cost-per-client varies depending on how many friends you can get to go fishing. The charter captains we talked with ranged in price from $375 to $525 for an eight-hour walleye charter, which generally includes ice, bait and tackle, but not the fish cleaning, which is extra. Some services also include "executive charters" for another $100 to $200 that can include everything from lunch and beer to photographs of fishermen with their catches.
Hiring a charter is helpful for several reasons. For those who get up to the lake only occasionally, it makes more sense to let a charter captain invest in the boat, the tackle and specialty equipment, such as fish finders and GPS units. But it's not just a question of gear, says Hageman. Knowledge of Lake Erie, its fish and their feeding habits is a good guide's most valuable asset. "The spots where the fish are biting change daily, depending on wind direction, recent storm activity and other conditions. [The charter captain] knows the water temperature and the water clarity, and what it means for the fish. And the charter captains are always talking to each other over the radios, telling each other where the fishing has been successful."
The Ohio Sea Grant Extension Program publishes a pamphlet, "Booking a Lake Erie charter fishing trip," filled with ideas about finding a guide for a safe and exciting fishing trip. From the pamphlet and interviews with guides and other experts, we compiled a list of questions to ask when selecting a fishing charter:
What method will we use to fish, for which species? Trolling or drift-and-cast? Walleye or smallmouth? If the walleye aren't biting, is the boat equipped to switch to another species? Different boats are geared to different styles of fishing. Make sure the captain and the members of your party are on the same page.
What are the charter details? Make sure everything is understood before the boat leaves the dock, or before a contract is signed, says Luther A. Norman, captain of Four Queens Charter in Cleveland. "You need to know things like how long you're going to be on the water, and how long it takes to get to the place where the fish are likely to be that time of year," he adds. Make sure to ask what is provided - rods and reels, bait, lures, ice? Will the captain be willing to add extra time to the charter if the fishing is slow? If so, how much will that cost?
How much is the deposit and under what circumstances will it be refunded? Ask specifics about the deposit, says Chris Sutton, of A-Lure Charters. "You need to find out if they are going to return your deposit on a blow day (when the weather is too bad to fish safely), or if they keep it. Some of the captains won't refund your deposit but they'll promise you another booking. But some are so busy, you won't be able to find a date that works for you for the rest of the year."
Does the charter end when you catch your limit? If you want to spend eight hours on the water, regardless of the fishing, let the captain know. Some head for the dock if everyone has caught the legal limit of walleye, even though it might be possible to switch to another type of fish.
How much instruction or assistance will the captain provide? If your party includes children or other inexperienced anglers, the charter captain should be willing to help teach the proper techniques.
If the guide is knowledgeable, professional and helpful, a tip is appropriate even if everyone doesn't catch his or her limit. Charter captains can do everything possible to catch fish, but as every angler knows, sometimes the fish just won't bite. About $10 a client is a typical tip, or somewhere around $50 for the boat.
Of course, not everyone fishes from boats, and the western basin's many miles of shoreline are also a very popular place from which to wet a line. While walleye aren't likely to be caught from shore, smallmouth bass can be found among the submerged rocks and pilings, and yellow perch often can be found in shallow waters, although always near the lake's bottom. Catfish and panfish can be found near shore as well.
Fishing from the shore is available on the islands and nearby areas from the following locations:
South Bass Island: South Bass Island State Park (on the southwest corner of the island), the breakwall at Perry's Monument, and the dock at the Aquatic Visitors Center (the former state fish hatchery, west of downtown Put-In-Bay).
Kelleys Island, from the breakwall at Kelleys Island State Park, on the northern tip of the island.
On the Marblehead Peninsula/Catawba Island: from the pier at Catawba State Park; or the Mazurik launch ramp (on Northshore Boulevard, 8.5 miles east of Port Clinton off St. Rte. 163).
There are many more shoreline locations for fishing. Find a list of them, along with some recommendations for bait and equipment, in the Lake Erie Fishing Guide published by the ODNR Division of Wildlife.
Shoreline fishing is an excellent way to introduce children to fishing, as it isn't as expensive as commissioning a charter boat and it's easier to accommodate short attention spans. Nothing ruins a child's appreciation for fishing more than hours of unsuccessful angling.
Whatever the method or the type of fish sought, fishing is an excellent family activity and the Lake Erie islands offer the best in Ohio.
Don't forget the paperwork: Anglers 16 years or older must have an Ohio fishing license - $19 and available at more than 1,300 outlets throughout the state. Discounts are available for seniors and others.
Know the rules: Fishing regulations, including minimum size restrictions and catch limits, are subject to change each year and vary from one location to another. The daily catch limit for yellow perch on Lake Erie, for example, has increased to 40 fish this year. On the other hand, it's illegal to possess bass caught from Lake Erie between May 1 and June 23 (an effort to combat the effects of predation by an invasive species, the round goby).
To find a license outlet near you, to obtain a pamphlet detailing Ohio sport fishing regulations or a copy of the Division of Wildlife's "Lake Erie Fishing Guide" call 800/WILDLIFE (945-3543).To buy a license online, visit www.ohiodnr.com/wildlife.
For a copy of the brochure "Booking a Lake Erie Charter Fishing Trip," contact Ohio Sea Grant: 1314 Kinnear Rd., Columbus, OH 43212, or call 614/292-4364. You can find more specific information about charter boat captains at North Coast Charter Boat Association, www.northcoastcharter.com/ports.html, or West Sister Charter Boat Association, www.wscba.com.
For additional information about lodging and dining in the islands region, contact the Ottawa County Visitors Bureau at 800/441-1271 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The bureau also operates the Lake Erie Islands Regional Welcome Center at 770 S.E. Catawba Rd. in Port Clinton. Read more online at www.lake-erie.com.
The Division of Wildlife operates a toll-free, recorded line for up-to-date Lake Erie fishing information: 888/HOOKFISH.
Cooking Your Catch
When asked for their favorite recipes for preparing fish, Lake Erie charter captains tend toward the rudimentary, as if too much preparation will mar the delicate flesh of their hard-earned catch. Or, perhaps more likely, fancy cooking requires too much time, and steals precious hours from time spent on the water. Whatever the reason, the recipes the fishermen offered were quick and easy, emphasizing a bare minimum of ingredients. For more elaborate fish recipes, try the Ohio Division of Wildlife's web site at http://ohiodnr.com/wildlife/Fishing/recipes/frecipe.htm
â€¢ Jerry Abele (Headhunter Fishing Adventures) - Marinate fillets in Italian dressing, wrap them in aluminum foil and cook on an outdoor grill. â€¢ Chris Sutton (A-Lure Charters) - Dip fillets into flour and then egg wash, coat them with panko bread crumbs. Fry in hot oil
.â€¢ Luther Norman (Four Queens Charter Fishing) - Crush saltine crackers but leave some big pieces. Dip perch fillets into milk and egg mixture, then roll them in the cracker crumbs. Fry them in hot oil. "Then look out. You'll be sticking them in your mouth so fast, you'll be slapping yourself in the face."
â€¢ Fred Snyder (OSU Extension and Sea Grant) - Take a large serving size and put it on a glass plate. Cover it with something you like â€“ Italian dressing, or butter and garlic powder, or sprinkle on Cajun seasoning â€“ and put it in the microwave for 2 to 2 1/2 minutes. Eat it right off the plate.
â€¢ John Hageman (Stone Lab) â€“ "I put Frying Magic on wet fillets and deep fry them. It's as simple as that."