Ice fishing Lake Erie walleye
Bob Hanko of Wakeman catches a large Lake Erie walleye through a hole in the ice earlier this week on a last gasp ice fishing adventure. (D'Arcy Egan / The Plain Dealer)
OAK HARBOR, Ohio – Old Man Winter has been exceptionally kind to Lake Erie's ice anglers, but the party's just about over.
Anglers can blame a warm front pushing through northern Ohio this weekend. In reality, it is the ice-eating wind and lake current that should convince fishermen to be extremely cautious on fast-eroding ice or to stay home and get fishing tackle ready for the spring fishing season.
It's a disappointment, after a bitterly cold Arctic vortex or two provided so many days of wonderful ice fishing.
It has been decades since anglers have enjoyed such thick Lake Erie ice for so many weeks, and not just local fishermen. The images of trophy fish flooding social media sites had lured fishermen from around the country to Western Lake Erie.
Bob Hanko, a Wakeman farmer who owns Cranberry Creek Marina in Huron, invited me for a last gasp walleye trip earlier this week. Hanko knows ice fishing, and how to be safe while trying to round up Lake Erie walleye and yellow perch through a hole in the ice.
Hanko decided to head to Camp Perry and run his all-terrain vehicle, or ATV, about three miles offshore to an area where he'd caught a limit of walleye the day before.
We tugged on our float suits and carried cellular telephones. There were chains on the rear tires of the ATV for traction. Two sonar fish-finders with fully charged batteries did double duty as GPS units, making sure we knew exactly where we were, where we were going and how to get back.
Hanko towed a collapsible ice shanty carrying an ice auger, fishing gear and a propane heater. Hypothermia is a real danger on the ice. A fisherman riding an ATV reportedly went through the ice near the Lake Erie Islands on Thursday. After 20 minutes in the water, he needed to be airlifted to a mainland hospital for treatment.
The ice below us was a sturdy two feet thick, and sometimes more. Hanko still tested each crack in the ice we needed to cross with a long, steel spud bar with a chisel-shaped tip. If that ice was thin or punky, Hanko searched for a more solid crossing point.
Western Lake Erie fishermen have enjoyed one of the finest ice fishing seasons in decades, catching big walleye and yellow perch. D'Arcy Egan / The Plain Dealer
We weren't alone. All around us, the sound of dozens of ATVs and snowmobiles echoed across the ice. An airboat noisily raced past a couple of times, coming close enough for Hanko to confirm it was one he'd built.
Lucky enough to enjoy thick, solid Lake Erie ice and one last chance to round up a few big walleye, we also caught a surprising number of chunky yellow perch and a couple of white perch. The fish weren't gobbling the emerald shiner minnows we'd bought at Rickard's Bait and Tackle on Catawba Island. But the small Swedish Pimple jigging spoons tipped with minnows were attractive enough to consistently entice fish to gently nibble what we were offering.
We couldn't be sure if it would be our last Lake Erie ice fishing adventure of the winter season, but we always keep an eye on the weather forecast and knew ice conditions would soon change. With the danger factor increasing over the last day, or two, it seemed prudent to store the cold weather gear and get ready for spring fishing.