Top captain on the front line to protect Lake Erie’s riches

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  • OAK HARBOR — Dave Spangler can find fish, catch fish, and clean fish. He can also provide his clients with an enjoyable day of fishing on Lake Erie, and that makes him a good charter captain.

    But Captain Dave can also deftly navigate his way through the sea of acronyms that surrounds the lake and all of its pressing issues, and that is a major reason he was recently named the Charter Captain of the Year.

    Spangler has gone to great lengths to educate himself on the nuances of our prized waterway, so he can speak on GLMRIS (The Great Lakes and Mississippi River Interbasin Study), GLATOS (the Great Lakes Acoustic Telemetry Observation System), and address the USACE (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) proposals for controlling ANS (aquatic nuisance species) in the CAWS (Chicago Area Waterway System).

    “He is much, much more than just a charter captain,” said Paul Pacholski, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, which presents the prestigious award along with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Ohio Sea Grant.

    “If you give Dave a topic related to the lake, he will give you everything you need to know, and more. There is nobody around who is more qualified.”

    Spangler, who was in Washington this past week lobbying on behalf of the Great Lakes, is in his third decade as a charter captain on Lake Erie. The native of Holgate grew up fishing with his dad on the Maumee River between Defiance and Napoleon, catching catfish, bullheads, and carp.

    Then, in the late 1970s, he discovered Lake Erie. Once a friend invited him to go walleye fishing — that was it. He was hooked.

    Dave Spangler of Oak Harbor was recently named Charter Captain of the Year. This is his 22nd year working as a charter captain on Lake Erie.
    Dave Spangler of Oak Harbor was recently named Charter Captain of the Year. This is his 22nd year working as a charter captain on Lake Erie.

    Spangler used long weekends to start running charters while he was wrapping up a 37-year career at Johns Manville. When he retired a decade ago, Spangler had more time to charter, and to get a sobering introduction into what was ailing the lake.

    “As I became aware of all of the serious issues with Lake Erie, it led me to want to know more about it,” Spangler said. “I started to see the ugly green water out there, and I knew it didn’t look good and it didn’t smell good, but not much was known about it.”

    Spangler saw an ad in The Blade for a meeting of the Lake Erie Waterkeeper — a watchdog organization that makes stewardship of the lake its mission. “I went there just to listen, but then I got involved once they found out I was a charter captain who was out on the water a lot.”

    Involved? Spangler is now president of the Waterkeeper group and active in many other efforts to care for the lake and protect that precious resource.

    “Every meeting I go to, I see him there,” said Pacholski. “He is that dedicated and that willing to go out of his comfort zone to do what needs to be done.”

    Those algae blooms, especially the monster bloom in 2011, gave Spangler a graphic example of how problems with the lake can have a devastating environmental, and economic, impact.

    “After that massive algae bloom in 2011, I had clients tell me they will never come back to Lake Erie in August, September, or October because of how bad the algae was,” Spangler said. “People always used to call and ask how the fishing is, but now, if they call from August to October, they’re asking about the algae. That’s a big red flag that we need to stay on top of this.”

    During the worst of that record algae bloom, in October of 2011, Spangler went out to survey the extent of the green goo that was fouling Erie, threatening the drinking water of millions of people, and choking the life out of the lake.

    “I ran 25 miles out one day, and I still couldn’t find clean water. The algae was so thick it slowed my boat,” Spangler said. “Then the national media ran pictures of it, and the issue resonated around the world. We knew then that we were facing a very desperate situation, and we still are.”

    Spangler has attended hundreds of meetings on lake issues, given testimony in Columbus, D.C., and at other hearings and forums. He speaks softly, rather grandfatherly, but comes to the table with plenty of ammo.

    “Dave Spangler has a love and a passion for this lake and everything it means to this part of the country,” Pacholski said. “There’s not enough of those kinds of people around.”

    Spangler runs his 30-foot Grady White out of Wild Wings Marina north of here for the spring and the summer, and then moves to Huron for the fall fishery. He takes the pulse of the lake on each outing.

    “We have a license and we can navigate and we can fish, but this goes way beyond fishing,” he said. “Protecting the water, the resources, and the fishery needs to be a big part of what we do. With the algae issues, Asian carp, sediment dumping, and everything else threatening the lake, fishermen are much more conscious of how fragile Lake Erie is.”

    With his leadership role in the charter boat association, his duties with Waterkeeper, and the myriad other committees and panels he serves on, Spangler still finds time to run 40-50 fishing trips a year. He said he’s not trying to make a living at it, but does it because he enjoys being out on the water.

    “And I still get a kick out of seeing someone catch that first fish. That’s why I stay in it,” he said. “It’s a lot of work, but when you love the lake and love fishing, you don’t mind that at all.”

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