Caution is word of the day when fishing early spring on big lake

My buddy Steve – another Steve, not my own shadow – and I made our initial walleye fishing trip on western Lake Erie the other day in his little 14-foot aluminum boat. Yes.

It was jig-and-minnow season on the nearshore reefs off the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station west of Port Clinton. The lake this morning was unusually calm, zero to one-footers, which was why and how we even thought of going out even a short ways in his little “Stinky” boat. We wore life jackets the whole time.

We caught a few fish, smaller but legal males, nowhere near the four-each limit, but enough for dinner, all within a mile or two of shore and safe harbor. Lots of boats around, few nets flying.  We didn’t care. We were out to enjoy a day on the lake – well, about three hours, anyway — and one another’s company. It was a success as far as we were concerned.
(We’ll set aside for now the issue of the fleet of big-boat troller-boys heading well offshore and mining the outer reefs of 8- and 10-pound, egg-laden females. These were not catch-and-release anglers; you could see that from the big  piles of hog walleye being sliced and diced at the commercial fish-cleaning station near the launch-ramp.)

We quit when the wind swung to the northeast and started to freshen. Still ones and twos for waves but we knew better. You never trust the weather and that old lake, especially in a small boat. By nightfall a smallcraft warning was up for four-to-sixes. ‘Nuff said. Good choice.

It was a sobering moment, though, when amid our fishing fun and games we watched a fast gray boat heading in to port. A state watercraft search-party. It no doubt had been out searching for two men missing from an overdue fishing boat, a 21-footer. It was found sunk the day after it was reported missing, off Toussaint Reef, this a couple of days previous to our fishing trip.

The missing operator was an experienced boater and fisherman. So was his buddy. But it is suspected that they were not wearing life jackets. Their bodies could not be found. Yet.  My buddy Steve, a retired watercraft officer, said that they likely sank to the bottom, for a while, not far down-current from the boat.

There were two women on board as well. They both wore life jackets. But they died by drowning, not hypothermia, in the 40-something-degree water, according to the Ottawa County coroner’s office. They were found, floating. Why to all of it is a mystery, though maybe no other boats were around to help at a late-in-the-day 6 p.m. when the party was reportedly heading in from a day’s fishing. The investigation, as lawman types like to say, is ongoing.

It seems to me that I have written this story multiple times in the last 40-plus years. Yes, any water-borne activity is a risk. Yes, sometimes even veterans make mistakes. Just like operators of motor vehicles, whose daily deaths, let alone the much greater highway risks, we seem to be take for granted with hardly a twitch.

Maybe that’s it, like the traffic fatality thing:  Familiarity breeds contempt.   Just like you should never take the highway for granted, nor should you take the fishing grounds.

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