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Published: Friday, 5/25/2012

Lake trout makes rare western basin appearance

John Deem of Canton shows off the lake trout he reeled in while on an outing in western Lake Erie. The laker usually shuns shallow water. John Deem of Canton shows off the lake trout he reeled in while on an outing in western Lake Erie. The laker usually shuns shallow water.

CURTICE, Ohio -- In about a half century of fishing, running charter boats and operating one of the iconic bait shops serving the western end of Lake Erie, Rick Ferguson had witnessed the full photo album.

He had seen many huge walleyes, coolers stuffed with jumbo perch, trophy smallmouth bass, tackle-stressing steelhead, and even a few of the prehistoric-looking sturgeon.

Then this one came along.

Canton angler John Deem had been out with Capt. Kenny Burress recently aboard the 34-foot Baha catamaran "Room For More." Deem's expectations mirrored those from about a dozen previous trips with Burress -- a limit of nice walleyes for the freezer, with a few perch mixed in as a bonus.

But after Deem hooked up with something big and feisty, he thought he might have one to hang on the wall.

"We were thinking it was a 10 or 12-pound walleye, and that's what it felt like," Deem said. "Captain Kenny knew it was something big, and he got on me, telling me to be sure and not lose it."

READ MORE from Matt at the Blade Outdoors blog.

When the fish came out of the water a bit, Deem changed course and was thinking steelhead, but this was not one of the full-form, acrobatic leaps that steelies use as their calling card. Once the fish was in the boat, Deem and his four fishing buddies froze for a moment, as did the veteran captain.

"We thought we had caught everything the lake had to offer that day, except a muskie," Burress said. "I wasn't even sure what this was, at first."

Some hurried calls and cell phone photos confirmed -- lake trout -- leaving Burress puzzled and amused.

"I grew up here, and I'm 60 years old now, and this is the first lake trout I've heard of," he said.

Lake trout are comfortable in deep, cold waters, and the western end of Erie offers neither. Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Lake Ontario -- yes -- but Lake Erie's bathtub-warm, wading pool western basin?

"That fish was lost," Burress said about the laker, estimated at about eight pounds and just under 30 inches.

Ferguson was equally baffled by the wayward lake trout, which hit a diving lure while the Deem group was trolling near the area fishermen refer to as the "gravel pit."

"I've been fishing here for 50 years, and I've never seen a lake trout. There's guys who have been doing it longer than me, and they've never seen one, either," Ferguson said.

Historically, lake trout were a highly valued commercial fish in the upper Great Lakes, but the population was devastated by overfishing and the sea lamprey, an exotic eel-like fish native to the Atlantic Ocean that attaches its mouth to the side of a trout, then sucks the body fluids out, usually killing the fish.

A significant drop in fishing pressure, plus enhanced control of the lamprey have allowed lake trout to wage a comeback in the deeper, colder Great Lakes. In extreme eastern Lake Erie, charters were recently taking a few lakers in 55 feet of water.

"The water temperatures in the western basin are not conducive to lake trout being present, but we have, from time to time, seen a lake trout in our fall [netting] surveys," said biologist Chris Vandergoot of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources' Sandusky Fisheries Research Station.

"They used to spawn in the Detroit River, before it was channelized, so I suppose there could be some resident population ... but nobody really knows."

Deem considers his rendezvous with the laker an event that will make this May day on Lake Erie one to remember.

"When it hit, I knew it was big. Whenever I reeled, he was taking the line back out. I probably worked it for 10 minutes," Deem said. "I thought it was a monster walleye, until we saw it. I was going to put it back, but we decided to keep it since nobody was quite sure what it was. It was a rare catch, for sure."

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.

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