By John Hageman
Lake Erie gets most of its good outdoor press for its outstanding population of walleyes. However, it is also the best place in the state to catch many other species of fish, including yellow perch, smallmouth bass, freshwater drum, white bass, and white perch.
If the bays, harbors, and tributaries are included, lots of other species can be added at least seasonally, including steelhead, black and white crappies, largemouth bass, rock bass, white bass, carp, bullheads, and last, but not least, channel catfish.
Of the species on the latter list, bullheads are probably the most widespread. In my youth, I would fish all night for catfish with friends or family members at a couple of favorite locations. However, channel catfish would be the prize catches on these evenings when a mix of bullheads, carp, white suckers, and other species were landed.
For channel catfish, the Maumee River from the grain elevators in East Toledo to the Rossford marina was good, but I had better spots to fish on private stretches of the Toussaint and Portage rivers. The best spot was one that a high school classmate took me to on the Sandusky Bay near Bay Point.
As we tended a little campfire and kept the Coleman lanterns shining brightly, our row of white fiberglass rods propped up into a “Y-shaped” branch would twitch all night, signaling that another catfish was biting our nightcrawler baits.
If our timing was correct, we would set the hook and use the trusty Zebco 202 combo to reel in another nice sized channel catfish, which was normally in the 15- to 20-inch range. In those days, we collected them on a stringer and brought them home to clean and eat.
After our taste preferences shifted to other species, we got out of the habit of fishing for catfish. For a while, the white bass that we caught in the rivers during their annual May spawning runs provided a more favored source of fish fry and smoking specimens. Then, the purchase of Lake Erie seaworthy boats have since shifted most of our attention to walleyes and yellow perch.
Though I have ignored it for some time, Sandusky Bay has continued to serve as a premier location to catch channel catfish and has gotten even better in recent years. Various catfish club members love to fish in tournaments here due to the high catches and trophy-size fish that are present. Fish pushing 20 pounds are entered in almost every contest, with winning six-fish stringers exceeding 70 pounds.
Travis Hartman, program administrator for the ODNR Division of Wildlife’s Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit, attributes cleaner water leading to better survival rates and longer lives as the reason for the increased population of larger channel catfish. The practice of catch and release fishing for the species in light of all of the other choices of fish available for the table is another factor.
According to the 2020 Lake Erie Status Report, commercial catches of channel catfish have averaged 419,000 pounds over the last 10 years.
We started seeing more coming through the ice at Put-in-Bay, with some giants that were a chore to get up through the hole successfully. More are also being caught as bycatch while fishing in the summer on the lake while seeking walleyes.
There are three guides who specialize in taking out groups of up to six anglers to their proven Sandusky Bay honey holes. They are Scott Heston, Paul Schill, and Jeff Tipple.
I was able to head out on brief trips with Heston and Schill to sample what the bay had to offer in early June and observe how the “pros” do it. Heston, the veteran catfish guru of the trio, has landed a half-dozen catfish over 20 pounds so far this season, with his all-time heaviest weighing 27¾ pounds.
In just the two short outings with the guides totaling about three hours, I landed about 20 channel catfish ranging from 2 to 9 pounds on each trip.
While on Schill’s comfortable pontoon boat, we had a quadruple catch of large channel catfish, which would have been a quintuple if mine had not been a freshwater drum, the only other species encountered with the rigs and bait that we used.
Speaking of bait, a surprise to me was that nightcrawlers are avoided by the guides because they tend to attract too many other non-target, smaller nibbling species, such as white perch, gobies, and others while trying to target big channel catfish.
Some tournament anglers on Sandusky Bay often use raw shrimp, fresh shad, Ohio River skipjack (herring), or other fish species. But a single, raw 68- to 80-count shrimp threaded onto the hook was the unanimous bait of choice for each of the guides.
They use a 6- to 7-foot medium weight rod with a spinning reel spooled with about 30-pound line. While Heston prefers a weighted spreader with two short leaders equipped with a 4/0 Kayle hook, Schill and Tipple use a Carolina rig with an egg sinker and 3/0 circle hook.
The fishing technique for each is to simply toss the rig away from the boat, reel in the slack line, and wait for a bite. Even though Ohio fishing regulations now allow the use of up to three rods per angler, one kept us plenty busy, with none of us ever making it to five minutes without a bite.
During my outings, I noticed that when smaller catfish nibbled on the bait, proper timing was required to successfully set the hook. However, big fish just took off with the raw shrimp bait like a runaway freight train.
In fact, while netting a fish for someone else on the boat, Schill almost lost his fishing pole as it bent, then teetered over the rail of his pontoon boat with the handle of the rod suspended two feet off the deck when an 8-pounder, his biggest fish of the afternoon, claimed his shrimp.
Anyone with the right equipment can enjoy a successful outing by doing it themselves too as the fish remain gathered in this warm, shallow water to spawn along nearshore structure.
In fact, from the vantage points of the boats, several shore anglers fishing from the old Sandusky Bay Bridge Yetter Road fishing access from the north and the Bayshore fishing pier from the south were seen adding catfish to their stringers.
According to the guides, the strong catfish bite remains until mid-August, then tapers off. So, if you are looking for some fast fishing action with great chances of handling some heavy fish, now is a great time to give Sandusky Bay a try for channel catfish.
Although I assumed that catfishing was still an evening activity, the guides and tournament contestants have proven that they can be caught all day long, too. Heston explained that due to the turbidity of the bay, anything below the first several feet below the surface is dark all of the time. I fished in about 15 feet of water with both of the catfish guides.
Most of the anglers who charter with the guides practice catch and release.