It was nothing but open water off Catawba State Park this week after a combination of recent rain, wind, and warmer temperatures wiped out any ice that had formed on the lake. THE BLADE/MATT MARKEY
CATAWBA ISLAND, Ohio — About 11 a.m. on Wednesday, the deep baritone of the Miller ferry horn sent a single tone rolling across this rocky thumb that punctures western Lake Erie’s Ohio shoreline, signaling the heavy ship was about to swing away from the dock and cut through the chop toward South Bass Island.
No big deal in mid-June, but this is mid-January and that blast from the ferry also served as a reminder there was no ice present to hinder the movement of the craft.
Erie’s surface was a roily, muddy stir that resembled late fall, not midwinter.
“This is unusual, to say the least,” said Billy Market, one of the owners of the Miller Boat Line.
“The ice has come in and then gone out, so this is the third time we’ve started running trips back and forth across the lake.”
Market said there was ice “as far as you could see” for a short stretch in the latter portion of December, but then things warmed up again. Another cold snap around the first of the year brought back the ice, and a few brave souls parked their fishing shanties on 3 to 5 inches of ice just west of South Bass Island.
Then another warm-up, accompanied by rain and wind, cleared out all of that ice, and it was nothing but open water in every direction when the ferry left the dock here, loaded with a few construction vehicles and a couple natives headed for home on the island.
“There is just a little shore ice here and there, and some small ice floes floating around in the bay, but that’s about it,” Market said. “If there is no ice and no ice fishing, we might as well be running the ferry, but we look forward to our winters over on the island, so this isn’t necessarily a good thing.”
Market said a winter without an ice fishing season is tough on the island economy, since the fishing guides, bed-and-breakfast operations, the island merchants, and the air service that shuttles anglers from the mainland all rely on that winter income.
“A few people are taking advantage of the opportunity, with the ferry running a couple of trips each morning and a couple each afternoon, but other than moving construction materials and trips to the doctor or grocery shopping, this lack of ice make things more difficult for some,” he said. “It’s hard to plan when the weather is up and down like this, so we’d like to see it go one way or the other and just stay there.”
At this point on the calendar three years ago, thousands of anglers were spread out across the lake and pulling big walleye through the ice, which was 2 feet thick in places. That winter bonanza followed a couple of years when we had no ice fishing season to speak of, according to Bud Gehring, a veteran charter captain who operated more than a dozen shanties on the hard water when conditions permitted safe ice fishing.
“I see the water temperature creeping back up a bit after all of that rain, so I have a lot of doubts right now about us getting any kind of favorable ice fishing conditions this winter,” Gehring said. “We need that sustained period of real cold temperatures with not much wind, and I just don’t see that happening.”
The next week looks too warm and rainy to consider any ice forming, with only a couple of nighttime lows dipping below freezing. The forecast for the end of the month shows a number of nights with temperatures in the teens, but Gehring fears that might be too little, too late to make good ice.
“I think we might have to have single digits for a week or so to recover from all of this rain and warmer weather, so this just might be one of those years when we don’t get out,” he said. “These things run in cycles, but this doesn’t look encouraging right now.”
John Hageman, a retired ice fishing guide who worked on South Bass Island for many years and still fishes the waters around the island, said he took all of his ice fishing gear over on the ferry, including some shiner minnows that are suspended in the lake and ready for use, and even rented a house on the island. Now, he waits for the ice.
“There’s still time if we can get some cold weather to hold, but I don’t see anything in the forecast for the next five days or so that tells me we will be making ice, day or night,” Hageman said. “Typically, January has been an ice-making month and February has been an ice-holding month.”
Hageman has kept meticulous records on the ice formation around the islands, which usually is the first place on the big lake to get fishable ice, and the last place to surrender the ice.
“There were times we couldn’t start until February, so we can’t write it off yet, but it doesn’t look promising right now,” he said. “The nature of the pattern is — you never know what to expect.”
On the inland lakes in northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan, the ice situation is suspect, at best, and extreme caution is advised where any ice remains. The rain has deteriorated the ice in even the protected waters that did not get broken up by the wind.
The Midwest Open Ice Fishing Tournament is scheduled for Jan. 29 on Devils Lake, and tournament officials will be watching the weather closely in the run up to that event, which took place on Wamplers Lake last year.
The Michigan DNR reports a few anglers went through the ice and had to be rescued on Lake St. Clair, while the ice on Saginaw Bay has been deteriorating rapidly as rivers and creeks dumped a surge of rain water into the bay.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068.