SOUTH BASS ISLAND, Ohio — Bud Gehring cursed the snow that blanketed the area a few days ago, but for a different reason than most.
He was not as steamed over the drifts that kept consuming sections of the roadways, both here and on the mainland, and made driving a loosey-goosey luge ride. He also was not as miffed about the constant shoveling.
Besides being cold and slippery and sometimes very stubborn to move, snow is also a surprisingly good source of insulation, and that is what annoyed Gehring about this dose of the white stuff.
While the Lake Erie ice fishing guide applauded the cold snap and its ice-making ability, he was gritting his teeth over the snow that accompanied the big chill.
“We didn’t need that snow. It acts like an insulation blanket and actually shields the ice underneath from being exposed to the cold air,” Gehring said. “The snow cover slows down the process of making ice significantly. Instead of making an inch-and-a-half of new ice a night, we’ll get maybe a half-inch under this snow.”
And making ice is what Gehring and a legion of ice fishermen chasing big walleyes have had on their minds for about six weeks, ever since this winter started hinting at acting like the real winters we all remember. Ice anglers have already sampled the action on more protected inland waters, and after last week’s bitter cold punch and the near-record chill expected to cripple the region during the next few days, the fishermen targeting Lake Erie are licking their frost-covered chops.
“Last winter and the winter before, we had virtually no ice-fishing season to speak of,” said Gehring, a veteran charter captain who steers a 30-foot Sportcraft most of the year, but operates up to 18 shanties on the hard water when conditions permit safe ice fishing.
Gehring reported late in the week that there was about four inches of solid ice in most areas around the Lake Erie islands, but open water was still visible between Green and Rattlesnake islands. He would like to see about eight inches of ice “locked in” around the islands before he starts placing shanties and shuttling fishermen out on the ice.
“If somebody is taking fishermen out there now, they are absolutely crazy,” Gehring said Thursday. “People see the cold weather and they get real anxious, but walking around out there before the conditions are right — that is just the blind leading the blind.”
WTVG Channel 13 meteorologist Ross Ellet said the lake has not been this cold this soon since 2008, and that the development of ice on Lake Erie started two or three weeks earlier than it did last winter. Ellet said early Friday that the ice concentration on the lake was increasing rapidly as the cold weather persisted, and he expected about 50 percent of the lake to be ice-covered by today. The upcoming sub-zero temps will accelerate that trend.
“The extreme cold this week is going to have a major impact on the lake,” Ellet said. “Not only will temperatures be below freezing for at least another week over the lake, they will be substantially below freezing. Our end of the lake is already ice-covered, but it is about to gain thickness.”
Ellet said the computer models that forecast ice conditions are less reliable more than a week in advance, but for the short term it appears that Lake Erie will soon be about 80 percent ice-covered, with the only ice-free area that around Erie, Pa. Ellet said the brutal cold we’ll see this week could produce 16 inches of ice in some sections in the western half of the lake.
“That is something that hasn’t happened at all in years, let alone this early in the season,” he said. “In a normal year, ice concentration and thickness doesn’t peak until late January and early February.”
John Hageman was based here as a regular in the ice fishing guide business for more than 20 years before recently retiring and exiting the game. He kept a detailed log of the conditions since 2000, and it clearly shows how fickle the lake and its ice-making sirens can be.
There was no ice fishing season around the islands in 2002, but that was followed by a banner season in 2003, with safe ice for a full two months, beginning in mid-January. Locals claim that was the first time in 50 years that the entire lake was ice-covered, and coincidentally, 2003 produced the best walleye hatch in recent history.
There were decent ice fishing seasons in 2004 and 2005, but very little in 2006. Hageman recalls that in 2007 the ice came late — mid-February — but it hung around for a month, and the fishing was spectacular. He got just one weekend of ice fishing for his clients in 2008, in late February.
In 2009, ice formed along the mainland fishing areas by mid-January, but the islands were cursed with a large snowfall that wrapped up a thin layer of ice and slowed things considerably. Strong winds broke a large section of ice loose along Crane Creek, and about 150 fishermen and their equipment were stranded and needed rescued, and one man lost his life.
In both 2010 and 2011 there was enough ice around the islands to permit fishing traffic by the end of December. The very lean ice fishing opportunities of the last two winters have not dampened the interest or enthusiasm of the anglers, Hageman said.
“There is still a strong interest in ice fishing and, if anything, it has really increased over the last few years due to technology,” he said. “High-tech fish finders, underwater cameras and improvements in shanties have all been major game-changers. And Lake Erie still gets the cream of the crop of ice fishermen. They know their best chance at a trophy walleye comes here.”
Decades on the lake have made Hageman very cautious about throwing out any predictions on what kind of ice fishing season might be ahead, but he said the bitter cold is certainly adding ice that will just be “insurance” for later.
Gehring said he expects to start putting anglers in shanties out on the lake very soon.
“I’m always extra cautious, but I would say that there is the possibility we could have a very good season ahead of us,” he said. “The snow didn’t help, but these real cold temperatures will make some ice.
“If we get a lot of wind, things can change in a hurry, but for right now it looks promising.”
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6068.