Learning something new for Lake Erie walleyes
Long time charter captain Jim Hanley of Angola is a local legend of sorts. He’s been a licensed U.S. Coast Guard skipper for 43 years on the local waters of Western New York. He recognized early on that he was in a very special place when it came to freshwater fishing.
“The waters of Lake Erie, the Niagara River, and Lake Ontario are some of the best freshwater fishing spots in the country,” insists Hanley, former Erie County Sports Fishing Coordinator from 1995 to 2005. “Within 30 miles of Buffalo, we have it all as far as warm and cold-water fish species.”
Through the years, Hanley has learned to change and adapt with the fisheries available to him, as well as learning what his many customers want and how they want to fish. He knows that one of the few constants in life is change and that he is always looking for something a bit different to keep people, and himself, happy on the water. He invited me on Lake Erie one morning earlier this summer to give me an example of some new on the big blue.
The first full moon of summer – the Strawberry Moon – served as my guiding light to Lake Erie. I was Hanley at 4:45 a.m. on a reconnaissance mission of sorts. He wanted to check one of his spots out to see if his technique and location was ready for customers. To be there on time I had to leave a 3:45 a.m. As we launched his boat at Sturgeon Point (yes, they finally dredged the problem areas there) the moon was setting, and the sun was getting ready to greet us in the eastern skies.
“My target area is 10 to 14 feet of water, but it has to be near deep drop offs of 20 to 25 feet or more,” says Hanley. “The locations, combined with the technique, make for a dynamic one-two combination. However, because of the clear water and the shallow depths, these light-sensitive fish will not take too much pressure or too much light. We will be finished before 9 a.m. unless it is overcast.”
“The industry has changed a lot since I started,” says Hanley, host of Northeast Outdoors TV show from 1989 to 2005. “Back in the early days I was the area’s only bass and musky guide as both brought results by casting artificial lures. As a tournament bass fisherman, using live bait was not allowed.”
“It wasn’t until I ran into Capt. Jeff Tedesco of Lewiston out of Sturgeon Point one day after a cold front that I realized the importance of using live bait to keep customers happy. I had struggled to catch 8 fish while Tedesco’s customers reeled in over 50 smallmouths. He pulled me aside to tell me that, so my customers did not hear how good they did. And he told me ‘live bait – never leave home without it.’ It made a significant difference through the years.”
We were going to be using live bait on this morning, worm harnesses with fat, juicy crawlers. He prefers two different kinds of harnesses – one with an orange willow leaf blade and one with a perch-colored Colorado blade. He will run a couple of each until the fish determine what they want.
“Make sure the worm is as straight as possible in the harness,” says Hanley. “Believe it or not, it really does make a difference on certain days.”
The approach was simple. Let the worm harness back 40 to 50 feet behind the boat. Attach one of the Off Shore Tackle mini-boards (OR38) that is often used for crappie fishing. Let it out off to the side of the boat far enough that you can send a second line/board out. Duplicate this process on the opposite side of the boat. Before we had 4 rods out, we had a hit. In fact, it took us 45 minutes before we finally were able to get all 4 rods in place to show what it was supposed to look like. However, our .333 hook-up/landing percentage needed to be improved upon.
“If you have a hit on an inside board, reel the fish in and put the harness and board right back out again,” says Hanley. “If it is the outside board, I will reel in the inside set-up to avoid tangles. As soon as the outside board is behind the boat, I’ll put the inside rod back out and it will become the outside.”
This is a great way to fish with light tackle. Hanley uses all spinning outfits, and he believes the reels are more important than the rods. “I use all Shimano reels with either 8-pound test Seaguar fluorocarbon or 10-pound test Power Pro braid on the reels. I’m still not sure what works better for this type of finesse fishing because it is a work in progress.”
As the morning goes on, he will extend the lead behind the boards to as much as 100 feet as the sun moves higher in the sky. His speed is a constant 1.2 to 1.4 miles per hour, but things will vary with his turns as he works relatively small areas of water real estate.
“In order to be successful in today’s guide business, you must be able to catch a variety of species under a wide variety of conditions,” insists Hanley. “You need a reliable and safe boat that can handle some difficult seas, with good tackle and equipment that won’t break down, and a network of fellow anglers that you can rely upon should the fishing turn tough. Most importantly, you must have plenty of good stories to tell because when the fishing slows and the fish will not bite, you must keep your customers entertained.”
Hanley does not lack for stories, and it is worth the trip just to hear many of them through the years. From his first BASS pro tournament in the 1000 Islands back in 1978 when he was paired on the first day with fishing legend Bill Dance to guiding in Florida with several of the Boston Red Sox players (including Wade Boggs), Hanley has an arsenal of tales that can pique your interest … if the fishing slows.
On this day, there was no pressure. The fishing was better than we expected, and we had plenty of laughs along the way. This was a successful mission all the way around as he prepared for some weekend charters. He wished they were all this easy.
Hanley does fish in style, with a Lund 2075 and a big 300 Mercury Verado Pro outboard on the back to push him to places safely and quickly. His Smooth Moves seats are the most comfortable that I have ever had the pleasure to experience. This day was not a challenge weather-wise, but it was easy to see this craft is made for all occasions when he is on the water.
If you would like to find out more information on Hanley, check out northeastoutdoors.com.