OAK HARBOR — On weekend nights during the past month or so, just after dark, a parade of all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles chattered across Lake Erie, their lights bouncing off the ice and creating an artificial aurora borealis as they headed for the parking lot at Crane Creek State Park, about 10 miles north of here.
“It looked like I-75 out there,” said veteran ice fishing guide and lake watcher John Hageman.
There were hundreds of anglers stationed on the lake’s prodigious ice shelf most days this winter, taking advantage of one of the few gifts this harsh and unrelenting season brought our way. That stout platform of frozen Erie gave fishermen extended access to winter fishing hot spots they had been able to reach only intermittently in at least a decade.
But like all enjoyable rides, this one has an end, and according to those who spend their lives monitoring fishing activity on and around the lake, it’s likely a couple of minutes until midnight for most of the ice fishing on Lake Erie.
By Thursday afternoon, a large crack had opened up just offshore at Crane Creek, and the parking lot that was flush with trucks and trailers every day for the past month or so was eerily empty.
“We’ve had 50-degree temperatures, and with a south wind, things are on the decline now,” Reid Van Cleve, the Ottawa County wildlife officer for the Division of Wildlife, accurately predicted late Wednesday. “I wouldn’t recommend anyone going out there now.”
Conditions change very rapidly once the warmer weather starts to work on the open lake ice, and the wind chews away at it. Sections of open water off in the distance can send wind-driven waves under seemingly stable ice, resulting in cracks that can separate large sections and send them adrift, sometimes with dozens of fishermen and their gear unknowingly along for the ride.
That was the case in February of 2009 when 134 fishermen were stranded on an ice floe after cracks developed and the wind separated them from shore. That incident took place very close to Crane Creek.
Van Cleve said that what appeared to be “safe” ice one day can quickly deteriorate into very dangerous ice.
“The main thing is those cracks,” he said. “When you get cracks and wind, things can change in a hurry. I can’t imagine there being many more people venturing out there. I certainly would recommend against it.”
While ice fishing remains a viable option around the Lake Erie Islands, where the configuration offers the ice some protection from the wind, for most of the rest of the lake, it was a great season while it lasted.
“It was a huge year, with many fishermen and many fish,” Van Cleve said. “There were a lot of females — some mighty big fish. The parking lots were full, and there were a lot of out-of-state license plates.”
One person who took full advantage of the walleye ice fishing bonanza was Rory Wineka of North Canton, who had a “bucket list” kind of experience while fishing about a mile south of West Sister Island on the last day in February.
Fishing in 32 feet of water, Wineka caught 18 walleyes in three hours, and 17 of them were more than five pounds. His biggest fish went just over 12 pounds, and his top six weighed in at 59 pounds. Wineka released six fish that went between six and nine pounds each.
His fishing buddy caught 17 fish that day, and most of them were more than five pounds. The 12 fish they kept wowed everyone, including the wildlife officer who checked them on shore, Wineka said. That dozen, taken on the final day of the six-fish limit, weighed 99 pounds.
“I’m still pinching myself, asking if this really happened,” Wineka said Thursday. “It’s still stunning to even think about.”
Wineka and his fishing partner got up at 3 a.m., left for the lake at 4, arrived at Crane Creek about 6:30, and found a near-full parking lot.
There were about 300 shanties already set up east of West Sister and another 90 to the west, so they chose a spot away from the crowds. It was zero degrees, so they quickly drilled two holes, set up the shanty, and started fishing.
“In 10 minutes we were catching fish, and for three hours it was nearly nonstop,” Wineka said. “Big walleyes, plus white bass, sheepshead, catfish — everything was moving. I still can’t believe that many big fish came through that one hole.”
The walleye gods did more than smile on Wineka and his partner that day, but two weeks earlier he had fished Lake Erie for 11 hours without bringing a single fish through the ice. The next trip, he was releasing five-pounders, six-pounders, seven-pounders, and eight-pounders.
“And it was a privilege to put those big fish back,” he said. “How often do you get a chance to do something like that.”
NETCRAFT CRANKBAIT CLINIC: Scott Stecher, the owner of Reef Runner Fishing Lures, will be in the showroom at Jann’s Netcraft on Saturday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. to talk about the science of crankbait design and show off some of the new Reef Runner SkinnyStick lures. Netcraft is located at 3350 Briarfield Blvd. in Maumee, off Salisbury Road.
Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: email@example.com or 419-724-6068.