Belly boats put the fisherman with the fish

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    Corneilus Harris of Zanesville uses belly boats on remote lakes in the southeast part of the state, which are also some of Ohio’s best bass waters.

    Chip Gross

  • RENROCK, Ohio — So you think you’ve been bass fishing, and pretty much done all that your parcel of the Midwest has to offer.

    You have sat in a small boat and shredded the surface with top-water baits in the heavily-pressured bass lakes of the Irish Hills. You’ve stood on the stable platform offered by a $30,000 bass boat and cast plastic worms into countless weed beds in Sandusky Bay.

    You’ve dodged the wind and worked the Lake Erie Islands for trophies, and even donned waders and explored the pockets of area rivers that seem to consistently hold largemouth with a lot of fight.

    You have been bass fishing, but you certainly have not experienced it all — not until you have gone bass fishing with Corneilus Harris. He essentially swims with the fishes, using a float tube or belly boat, and he fishes places that most anglers can’t even find on a map.

    The former college football player and Zanesville native has spent much of the last three decades unlocking the secrets of the bass that dwell in some of Ohio’s most remote and difficult to reach lakes. The AEP ReCreation Lands — thousands of acres of rugged, reclaimed strip-mined landscape in southeastern Ohio— are now the home field for Harris, the fisherman.

    “I started fishing here with my dad when I was about 10 years old, but when I caught my first 4-pounder at about 15 or 16 — then I was hooked,” Harris said. “But it’s a vast area, and the terrain is tough with so few places you can fish from shore. The belly boat opens everything up. If you can get to the lake, then you can fish the whole lake, in every lake.”

    Harris had tried dragging a small, hard plastic boat back to some of the 350 lakes and ponds that seem to fill every crevice in this region, but there were some obvious drawbacks due to the topography, the distance from the road to the lake, and the noise inherent with such craft.

    “Then I saw the belly boats about three years ago, and I was amazed,” Harris said. “I thought that this would be the ideal place to use those.”

    Belly boats — an inflatable apparatus that allows an angler in waders to fish from a steady, seated position and quietly propel the tube with flippers — have been popular with fly fishermen in the American west for some time, but Harris has been on the cusp of bringing them to bass fishing in the AEP lands.

    “As a bass fisherman, it’s important to be able to get to places that aren’t easy to get to, those that have the least pressure, since that raises the opportunity to catch nicer bass, and catch fish in numbers,” he said. “Since going to the belly boat, I’m catching larger bass, and catching more bass. These are very safe and secure, and you can move so easily, and reach any fish in the lake.”

    Harris, 43, often parks his truck along one of the curly threads of secondary roadway that wind across this area like discarded yarn, and easily carries his deflated belly boat, hand pump, fishing rod and tackle back to a crystal-clear lake that rarely sees other fishermen. There‘s no cell phone service in many of the places he fishes.

    “I found a lot of my best bass lakes the hard way — before Google Maps,” said Harris, who has fished about 125 different AEP lakes. “I knew there were ponds and lakes all over the place, so I’d park and start hiking. Just about anywhere there’s a depression, there’s a pond or a lake.”

    Harris moved from accomplished niche fisherman to full-service guide recently when he met Jim Stratton, an eco-entrepreneur whose Hocking Hills Adventure Trek has been opening up the wonders of this region to school children, corporate groups, and families with on-demand nature programs and guided treks led by experts on the forest trails, geology, biology, wildlife, rock climbing, and Native American history of the area.

    “I had seen the pictures of the huge fish he’d caught, but when I met Corneilus and went fishing with him, then I recognized immediately that he was a natural at this,” Stratton said. “Not only was he an outstanding fisherman whose attention to detail is meticulous, but he had the patience and the calm approach to show other people how to enjoy this type of fishing too.”

    Harris can take parties of up to a half dozen for belly boat fishing, and although most of the lakes he fishes have lunker bass, they are also loaded with big bluegills and crappies. And while many of these lakes and ponds are located a short hike away, some of them are also very close to the road. Harris also guides anglers outside of the AEP lands, on other top bass waters where there is very easy access.

    “I’ve been a solitary fisherman most of the time, but I’m excited about the opportunity to bring other people out to these remote lakes and let them experience this very unique approach to fishing,” he said.

    “You couldn’t really fish many of these lakes without the belly boat, but I’m in my comfort zone out there now. In 15 minutes, you can feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, on a beautiful lake, catching bass. And the landscape almost looks like you are in another state.”

    The belly boat fishing outings with Harris are arranged through Hocking Hills Adventure Trek, at 740-777-2579 or at hockinghillsadventuretrek.com.

    “Fishing this way, I’ve caught bass just shy of nine pounds, but I’ve seen some in the 10-plus pounds range,” Harris said. “I think there’s now a possibility a state record could come out of these lakes.”

    POWER BOATING BASICS: The ODNR is offering this course on June 4-5 from 4-8 p.m. at the Cullen Park boat ramp at 4526 Summit St. The course provides novice and untrained boaters basic skills to properly operate a power boat safely. The cost is $25, or $15 ages 12-17. For information contact Maumee Bay Watercraft Office at 419-836-6003.

    BOATING SAFETY COURSE: The two-session course covers pertinent topics such as navigation rules, boating and personal safety equipment, Ohio boating laws, etc. The course runs from 5-9 p.m. June 16-17 at Maumee Bay State Park Nature Center. For information contact Maumee Bay Watercraft Office at 419-836-6003.

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