Landing Fish on Lake Erie

What do you know about ice fishing?

Perhaps more than I did before last February. Up till then, it was something other people did. Burly people out in Minnesota or Wisconsin. People who own snowmobiles and wardrobes of camo. I mean really, how does one go ice fishing for the first time? It just seems like it can go so badly. And even if you don’t wind up on the bottom of some lake, it’s cold, right?

It all began to change for me a couple winters back as Edible Cleveland photographer Karin McKenna was telling me about some early morning noises she was hearing around her new place on Catawba Island. The sleep-depriving racket, as it turned out, came from snowmobiles, four wheelers, and airboats shuttling people along a Christmas tree-marked trail to the “good ice,” where they’d fish in pop-up villages spaced out between Catawba Island State Park and Put-in-Bay.

As the ice was cracking up that spring, Karin and I agreed that the next time the lake froze enough we’d try fishing with them. Based on historic averages, that should have been sometime around 2019. But by last February, the lake had been frozen for over a month and the peninsula was overrun with burly men from Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, filling up the Catawba Island State Park’s parking lot and a makeshift overflow lot created on the frozen lake itself. We knew this was the time. The ice wouldn’t hold through March. And there’s no telling when the lake might freeze again.


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Needs Assessment

As first-timers, it was clear we’d need a guide: someone with experience and a level of patience and tolerance seemingly incongruent with a person who spends his days on the lunar-like surface of a frozen lake. And according to our YouTube research, there was definitely a need for some pretty specific gear, like a gas-powered auger to penetrate the thick ice and a shanty, which might be anything from a small, dark tent to a well-equipped cabin complete with wood-burning stove and television. Sure, you could “bucket fish,” or drill a hole in the ice and fish from it unprotected from the elements while sitting on an upside down five-gallon bucket, but for that we’d need a lot of camo and a level of facial hair none of us could muster. So, a shanty it would be, and that meant a heater to keep us comfortable, mini fishing rods so we’d have room to maneuver, and an ample supply of bait. We’d also require transport to and from the shanty. The other necessities—a thermos of hot toddy and lunch—we’d be able to handle.

In the search for our Virgil, one name kept coming up—Captain Bud Gehring out of Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island. Everyone said that if anyone could, Bud would put us on the fish. For about $100 per person, Bud would supply everything we needed and transportation onto the ice from South Bass Island. But for one thing, this sounded perfect. As opposed to Catawba Island, South Bass Island’s name is true—it is located about three miles north of Catawba in the lake. Surrounded by water, which was now frozen.

Getting There

While there are a number of ways to get from the mainland to South Bass Island in the dead of winter, for about $100 per person round trip, Griffing Flying Services will take you on the approximately seven-minute flight from the Erie Ottawa International Airport in Port Clinton to South Bass Island. This is not a “book a ticket online and arrive one hour early to go through security” type situation. More quaint than a Greyhound station, the airport in Port Clinton is a place where one simply shows up, gets a ticket for the next available flight and waits until a plane has an open seat. Number of passengers per flight: three. Co-pilot? Whoever in your group wants to sit shotgun. The view alone—a frozen Lake Erie dotted with fishing camps—was well worth the price of admission. Just make sure you make that last flight back or you’ll be seeking lodging on the island.

On landing at the airport on South Bass Island, we’re told to find the purple van that will take us to meet up with Bud. Odd instructions for sure, but they were true enough, and shortly after climbing out of the tiny plane we were greeted by a party-island-themed van, seemingly happy to shuttle optimistic sportsmen around the island. In what was likely a warning geared more to Put-in-Bay’s summer crowds, signs in the van listed the penalty for puking within its confines.

After a short trip in the purple van, we met the local legend, Captain Bud. Perhaps a man of few words, or maybe because it was literally freezing, Bud quickly got us organized and set up for our nearly mile-long trip on the ice to his fishing village. For this leg of the journey we sat on a trailer being hauled by a four-wheeler, complete with tire chains. This style of travel referenced the Iditarod, but with the added smell of exhaust fumes. Once on the sled, it wasn’t long before we’d see our accommodations for the day.

Line in the Water

Bud’s a pro. And he’s full service. After disembarking our sleds we found a group of somewhat mobile shanties set up where he thought we’d have the best chance of landing fish. In each shanty, a heater created an almost balmy environment, and four holes were drilled under trap doors in the floor, providing access to the frigid abyss below. Bud had us set up on about 32 inches of ice. For reference, we were told that at around 12 inches you can safely traverse the ice in a tractor trailer. By my math, we’d be fine. From there you pick your shanty, bait your line, drop it though the hole in the floor, and wait. And wait. And wait.

No one in our village was catching anything. Not our group, not the burly dudes who came all the way from northern Michigan to show us Ohio folk how to fish the ice, and not even really Bud, sitting in his own shanty, chain smoking with his vintage fish finder and pulling up the occasional perch. This wasn’t Bud’s fault. The walleye just weren’t biting.

The lake was notoriously stingy with its walleye during the winter of 2015. They say for the fish to bite, you should keep it down—not be hooting and hollering or tromping around in the shanty. Just sit tight, jig your bait in an effort to make them mad, and wait for a bite. Well, it turned out that wasn’t our group’s strength. Yet, despite our lack of decorum, all of a sudden my soon-to-be wife started reeling while her mini rod bent in half. We all watched and cheered, and in no time a prehistoric-looking mouth emerged from the icy blue hole. A hole which, by the way, was ominously increasing in diameter throughout the day as a result of the comfortable climate created by a propane heater and four adults. Right there, in the freezing cold of late-February, in our shanty and by someone who was fishing the lake for the first time in her life, a walleye was landed. When the fish was in full view we screamed like a group of Beliebers who just got backstage passes.

When that first big walleye of the day appeared in the water, so large that we were worried that the hole wasn’t big enough to allow for its passage, we all went nuts. I clumsily gaffed the fish, creating a bloody mess as we pulled it out of the icy water. Our friend Trevor raced to shut all the trap doors to make sure the fish didn’t escape our novice grasp. Then we piled out of the shanty with our prize and danced around in the bright winter light. In that moment, winter was ours. We won, with the lake relinquishing one of its prized creatures to us, a group too stupid to stay in inside during the worst winter in recent history.

After our celebration, grimacing burly men made their way out of nearby shanties, reluctantly coming by to eye our prize. The same scene was repeated several times. There’d be a half-hearted “Nice fish,” followed by a respectful “What are you using,” asked with a practiced cool and trace of “How the hell did this girl just catch that fish?” Everyone was nice. There was just a bit of disbelief that this loud and inexperienced group had a monster walleye resting on the snow ice right outside of their shanty.

As for what we were using, none of us knew what to say. We were using minnows like everyone else, but we didn’t know what we were doing. Sure, the line was in the water, but other than that we were just eating, and drinking, and telling stories. At some point in there, a fish bit. Really we were just having a good time in a hut out on frozen Lake Erie in February, and we just happened to catch a fish, too.

All in all, I don’t imagine there’s a better way to deal with winter in Cleveland. Get some buddies, give Bud a call, and get out there. Based on the last few years, it’s not like the winters are getting any warmer. And the joy of snagging a winter walleye beats the crap out of any happy lamp.

Want to plan your own day on the ice? You can set up a trip with Bud at FishingChartersLakeErie.com or search for guides at Wildlife.OhioDNR.gov/fishing/ice-fishing/ohio-ice-fishing-guides.