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Saturday, December 20, 2014
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Published: Monday, 1/27/2014

OUTDOORS

Bitter cold, thick ice, big fish — there’s a connection

BY MATT MARKEY
BLADE OUTDOORS EDITOR

OBJECTSANDUSKY — Along with the misery that this extended dose of serious winter weather has brought us is a blessing many fishermen are utilizing.

Sal Oates with a 30-inch, 11-pound walleye she caught through the ice near South Bass Island. Walleye add weight in the winter. Sal Oates with a 30-inch, 11-pound walleye she caught through the ice near South Bass Island. Walleye add weight in the winter.
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The bitter cold has established a pretty sound fishing platform on Lake Erie, and that bed of ice has provided access to walleyes and perch that normally would be out of the reach for anyone but the tiny minority of extreme, hardcore, all-weather boat anglers.

With little or no fishable ice the past couple of years, and very short periods of safe ice in several other recent winters, the cold weather fisherman is being treated to a rare opportunity.

“This is certainly the most extensive ice cover we’ve had in quite a while,” said Jeff Tyson, the Lake Erie Program Administrator in the Division of Wildlife office here. “With good ice cover, anglers can get out to where these fish are located.”

And despite the cold and the wind and the snow, the fishermen are using that ice to work some of the prime areas where walleyes will stage before their spring spawning period, including the area around the Lake Erie islands. Tyson said that despite this being the heart of the winter doldrums, Lake Erie’s walleyes are not just taking it easy and waiting on spring.

“As these fish winter, they continue to put on weight before the spawn. Their metabolism is slower this time of year, but they are still actively feeding,” Tyson said.

“They are not feeding like they do in the summer, but because their metabolism is slower, they’re not burning as much energy, either. These fish are actively foraging.”

Tyson said the occasional 10, 11, or 12-pounders that are being pulled up through those holes augured in the ice are most likely a product of that prolific 2003 hatch that continues to pay dividends for Lake Erie anglers.

“These big fish we are seeing, this is just another aspect of that 2003 class. There are still a large number of these fish out there,” Tyson said.

“That ’03 group continues to lead the way. We had a huge hatch in ’03, and the more of those fish you can move to an older class, then the more you will see of these trophy fish. They are really growing into that trophy window now, and it’s not unreasonable at all to think they are growing into state record type fish.”

The current Ohio walleye record was established in Lake Erie in 1999 by Thomas Haberman of Brunswick, while fishing off Cleveland. That fish weighed 16.19 pounds and measured 33 inches, but since it was caught in late November, it likely was not at its peak weight.

Tyson said the big walleye under the Erie ice are pushing toward that maximum weight of the year.

“They will reach their peak weight right before the spawn, probably two months from now,” he said. “And with Lake Erie walleye, we think they achieve their largest size at about 12 to 14 years of age, so that ’03 class is getting right there.”

John Hageman, who has retired after many years in the ice guiding business but still regularly occupies an active shanty off the west end of South Bass Island, said there are big fish to be caught, but they come as a small part of a very mixed bag.

“By no means are trophy fish the only ones being caught out here,” Hageman said from South Bass on Sunday. “We are seeing a real wide range, from first-year fish up through all of the classes, and including a few of those trophy 10 and 11-pounders.”

Hageman added that despite the recent surge in ice fishing that follows some very lean or nonexistent seasons, the impact of the ice anglers on the fish population will be insignificant.

“We’re catching fish, but there’s no great drain on the system going on here,” Hageman said. “When compared to the average July Saturday, the number of fish being caught through the ice are not even a drop in the bucket.”

As the cold spell persists, and intensifies for long stretches, Erie’s bed of ice should continue to thicken and tighten its grip around the islands, leaving us with the possibility of an extended season. That could put Lake Erie’s ice anglers in top of the trophies at their peak size.

“Some of the biggest fish I see each year come at the end of the ice season,” Hageman said. “On that late ice, if it stretches into March, we see those fish with their eggs really filled out.”

BOATING SAFETY: The Toledo Sail & Power Squadron will offer a basic boating class at Mercy St. Charles Hospital on Navarre Avenue in Oregon from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. for five Wednesdays, starting February 12th. The comprehensive course is taught by certified instructors and covers PFDs, anchoring, the use of fire extinguishers, distress signals, navigation lights, and interpretation of navigational aids such as channel markers. It also covers the basic rules for navigating waterways, safety tips, and the proper display of tags and numbers. ODNR Division of Watercraft personnel will cover Ohio operating laws in the class. Ohio law requires boaters born after Jan. 1, 1982, who operate a boat with greater than 10 HP, to have a boater education certificate. The class costs $40, and $20 for any additional family member sharing the text material. For information, contact Christopher Hoover at 419-343-0251 or via email at the cshoover@yahoo.com address.

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



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