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Technology opens ice to the angling masses

03/08/2015, 12:00am EST
By By MATT MARKEY BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

Decades ago, ice fishing on Lake Erie was very different from today, with none of the high tech electronics used to locate fish. Fishermen around the Toledo water intake in 1981 also didn’t have conveniences like pop-up shanties or a variety of power auge

CATAWBA ISLAND, Ohio — There is only one way to describe what has taken place on the heavy ice of Lake Erie over the past six or eight weekends, when thousands of anglers have descended on the western basin like an army of Thinsulate-wrapped invaders.

It is a phenomenon.

“It is a real sight to see. It is just awe-inspiring to look out across the lake early on a Sunday morning and see fishermen everywhere,” said Bob Barnhart, a willing participant in the event.

“Let’s put it this way — on those days, I think a lot of the church pews were empty.”

About 96 percent of Lake Erie is sealed in ice, and in many places in the walleye-rich western end of the lake, that platform is two-feet thick. With few exceptions, anglers have had their run of the place, and they are taking advantage of the opportunity.

A long, cold winter, and one devoid of the usual temperature fluctuations combined with potent winds that can weaken and destroy ice in midseason, has provided ice fishermen with exceptional access. They have had the luxury of many more ice fishing days, and much more lake to support those endeavors, but we hesitate to call it unprecedented, since last winter was much the same.

The lake has had a tumultuous relationship with its ice fishermen. Recently retired ice guide John Hageman, who went to work at Put-in-Bay in 1987, said the old-timers of the islands told him at the time that they could not recall a winter in the 35 years before that when the lake had not presented fishable ice, but that was the case in 2002 as the water stayed open throughout the heart of winter.

In 2003, the flip side occurred, with thick ice throughout the region. Hageman said that securing good ice and an ice fishing season of decent duration has been “intermittent” since then, with 2013 and 2013 presenting little or no ice, followed by the substantial ice cover of last winter and the current season.

“The nature of the pattern is — you don’t know what to expect,” he said. “After last winter’s significant amount of ice, you would not have expected another good year for ice fishermen, but that’s exactly what has happened.”

Barnhart, the owner of the Maumee’s fishing tackle giant Netcraft, said recent weekend days have lured upward of 10,000 fishermen out on the ice in the area west and north of here. Many have used Catawba Island State Park as their jumping off point, while others have crowded the access areas at Camp Perry and Magee Marsh.

“There have been so many fishermen out there, I’m amazed that there is a walleye that could swim through that,” Barnhart joked.

Hageman said the traffic on the lake has been so heavy on winter weekends this year and last, that at dark the parade of snowmobiles and ATVs coming off the ice rivals the traffic on the highway.

“You look out that direction from shore, and you know it’s the lake out there, but all of these headlights and hundreds of vehicles are coming at you and it looks like I-75,” he said.

“You see something like that and it defies logic — it is hard to process.”

Hageman said that before this winter he had never heard of the parking lots at Magee Marsh and Catawba being so full by just after dawn that they had to turn people away. He believes that advances in ice fishing equipment, along with the highly contagious and incurable walleye fever, have brought on a new era of the Lake Erie ice fishing phenomenon.

“The sport of ice fishing in itself has never been more popular, because the equipment is better, the ease of getting started in the sport and having some success has improved, and the fantastic success from last year — it all adds up to give us what we are experiencing out on the lake this winter,” he said.

The use of snowmobiles, ATVs, airboats, hovercraft, and an assortment of other hybrid utility vehicles have provided anglers with myriad ways to reach the fishing grounds. Power augers have made punching multiple holes in the ice a simple exercise, and electronic flashers have made finding fish much easier.

“The technology allows you to take the guessing game out of the equation,” Hageman said.

“And once you are on fish, those flashers allow you to tell the fish’s mood, and how aggressive they are, and where the big ones are.”

Pop-up shanties have given anglers dramatically increased mobility, because they can set up at one site in minutes, and quickly move on if that area is not productive.

“With all of those advances on the equipment side, plus the numerous reports of the fantastic success from last year when we had thick ice cover and numbers of trophy walleyes caught through the ice — that created the high anticipation and expectations for this year,” Hageman said. “And it gives us the very high popularity we see in ice fishing right now.”

Barnhart added that ice fishing on Lake Erie also provides access to the big lake that non-boat owners do not have throughout the rest of the year, plus the access to the prized walleyes that they would not have without ice fishing. Hageman said Erie’s bounty of walleyes, and its reputation as the top producer of trophy walleyes in the world, is also a wintertime magnet.

“You not only see the locals taking advantage of this, but also guys from states around the Midwest that have plenty of ice fishing,” he said. “Wisconsin doesn’t have a shortage of ice, but they don’t have the trophy walleyes that we do. The out-of-staters come here specifically for the chance to catch trophy walleyes through the ice.”

The phenomenon will likely continue, even as the weather moderates a bit, because the ice should hold for at least another week or two. Last year’s significant ice and belligerent winter extended the ice fishing season late into March, but when wind, rain, and air temperature work in concert, the ice can deteriorate rapidly.

“For as long as we have that ice cover out there, people will get all in a frenzy to go ice fishing,” Barnhart said. “It’s a complete phenomenon, and one that is impossible to predict. The weekends bring out just droves of fishermen, no matter how cold it has been. You scan across the lake and there are so many shanties out there, it looks like villages.”

PHEASANTS FOREVER BANQUET: The Erie-Ottawa-Sandusky Chapter of Pheasants Forever will hold its 24th annual banquet on Saturday at the Camp Perry Clubhouse. There will be a prime rib and roasted chicken dinner with beer and soft drinks provided, and a cash bar, live and silent auctions, and 30 gun raffles. The doors open at 5 p.m. with dinner at 6:45. Tickets include a PH membership and are $60, with $25 for a spouse or youth. No ticket sales at the door. For tickets call 419-898-1595.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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