Boating anglers getting time on Lake Erie this mild winter

Sandusky, Ohio – The year 2012 will go down in history as one of the first times boat fishermen will have been able to catch walleyes through all 12 months in Lake Erie.

There was an unusually late fall/winter troll bite that extended into January from Vermillion to Cleveland, beyond the usual November end dates. Finally, around mid-January the cold temperatures that are expected in a "normal" winter came and the hard-core ‘eye chasers finally winterized their boats, then organized their ice fishing tackle and waited for the lake to freeze.

But even as the ice fishermen got ready, Mother Nature wasn't willing to cooperate and instead reversed course, thanks to a La Nina-influenced jet stream. By the end of the month, temperatures reached the 50s again and reports of guys jigging and trolling from the islands and reef area have been pouring in ever since.

In the South Passage, a favorite mainlander ice fishing spot near Starve Island, yielded a limit of 18 nice walleyes to a group of three guys in about three hours on Feb. 3, while some of the island ice guides got theirs using a boat in front of the yellow house on Rattlesnake Island. The next day, a pair of Marblehead anglers caught nine walleyes west of the South Bass Island Lighthouse.

Each of these groups were primarily using blue/chrome Swedish Pimples and Jigging Rapala's, Erie's two most popular clear water ice fishing lures and a flasher-style fish finder to work specific fish to the baits.

The latter group described the fish they caught as ferocious, seen on the flasher charging the baits from several feet away and inhaling the baited lures so deep that each one had to be unhooked with needle nosed pliers. This was despite the water temperature hovering at 33 degrees and the fish later found to contain undigested young of year white perch and shiners in their bellies.

Meanwhile, several groups of trollers had their way with fish up to almost 13 pounds around the edge of Cone, Crib, and Pickerel Reefs and the northern string of Camp Perry's firing range markers. They were primarily using stick baits such as the tight wobbling No. 14 Rapala Husky Jerks and Series 700 and 800 Reef Runners in too many colors to specifically mention.

For a few days, a band of stained water running about two degrees warmer than the rest was discovered around D Can, with many more fish favorably responding to trolled lures.

For those too young to remember, before 1991 it was "common knowledge" by the majority of the fishing public that walleyes couldn't be caught by trolling in Lake Erie until after the water temperatures warmed up in the summer, when Hot'N Tots would then work.

A few cutting edge locals like the Stedke Brothers from Lima and Dave Frey from Avon dominated the annual Memorial Day Lake Erie Charter Boat Association Tournament by trolling, but were largely ignored by the other captains, who were convinced that weight forward lures were the only way to fish in cool water.

Then, in 1991 many of the professional walleye anglers who placed in the first Cabela's/In-Fisherman Walleye Tournament at Put-in-Bay won by trolling Storm Thundersticks, Smithwick Rogues and Wally Divers. The huge publicity generated by these successful pros led to a new trolling revolution in Lake Erie that is still growing in popularity.

Precision trolling techniques were perfected by these touring professional anglers who taught the rest of us how to use in-line planer boards and line-counting reels to consistently place a spread of lures in front of suspended walleyes being marked on the fish finder.

Most of the walleye boats that are so popular now hadn't been widely available until the pros bought them to town and worked out the bugs with them, like making them tough enough to withstand Erie's pounding waves. And they all had kicker motors on them able to achieve the 1-2 mph speeds necessary to make walleyes able to catch crankbaits in 40- to 50-degree water.

Until the tournaments began and showed the value of slow trolling, Lake Erie's 27-30 foot charter boats usually didn't have "kicker" motors on them. In retrospect, the reason that they couldn't catch walleyes trolling before Memorial Day was few big boats could go slow enough without stalling.

With climate change causing shorter and more open-water winters on Lake Erie, the knowledge that walleyes can be caught trolling 12 months a year will lead to fewer people winterizing their boats in order to able to get out on every available nice day.

Veteran walleye tournament champion and featured seminar speaker Jim Stedke posted on a popular fishing message board that Feb. 3 was the first time that he ever caught a walleye by trolling in February.

This is a game changer for the U.S. Coast Guard, law enforcement officials, and emergency tow boat operators, but also a time when it is wise to keep an eye on each other to be able to lend assistance when necessary.

It is even more important this time of year for boaters to keep safety equipment current and have reliable communication devices to be able to summon help in the event of a mechanical failure or other emergency.

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