FRASER / BLADE Enlarge
Maybe we have forgotten how good we've got it when it comes to sport fishing on Lake Erie.
That is about how Junior sees it. Jim Fofrich Jr. that is.
He virtually grew up on the lake and sat at the feet of one of the best, his dad, the late Jim Fofrich Sr. An accomplished fisherman in his own right, an experienced guide, the 45-year-old Jim Jr. has had a ringside seat to the rise of Lake Erie as an internationally known fishing mecca.
He has lived through the bad times, good times, great times, and controversies, something he hardly could have avoided, being the son of his outspoken, passionate, fiery father. The legendary Jim Sr. died last summer.
And so, Junior remembers:
“When my dad started taking me out - it was 1963, 1964 - there just were no fish out there,” he said. This was when pollution and commercial fishing were king. “We'd go out in that 18-foot Starcraft and get two-three fish ... and that was it.”
One day in 1969, he, his brother, Steve, and their dad fished off Junkyard Point, on the southwest corner of North Bass Island. They caught 18 walleyes on Lake Erie Hellions, an early weight-forward spinner designed by Jim Sr. and his cousin, George Fofrich.
“We were the talk of the south shore.”
Outdoors writers from Cleveland and Toledo, including the late Lou Klewer, came out to interview the fishermen and photograph the fish. Catching 18 walleye in one day at North Bass was that big of a story back then. “It was the catch of the year.”
Forward to 1971. Only a handful of guides are in business. Junior, still a preteen in seventh grade but already a mate for his dad, recalls many of the other early guides: Dick Dunlap, Ralph Nash, Dick McCune, Bart Blaha, Jim Frankowski, and a few years later, Jerry Meyers Sr.
“We fished for walleyes. But you just didn't have fish.
“We left the dock when it was dark, we'd get back when it was dark. You'd have six, eight fish in the cooler - for eight guys pitching all day.
“There was more than one day when it was three o'clock in the afternoon and you'd have two or three dried up walleyes in the cooler, and you'd just pray for a school of white bass to come up. Many a day was saved by half a cooler of white bass. You didn't have the luxury of a cooler mentality.
“You had to be diverse. You had to be versatile. You sold a day on the lake and catching was secondary.”
All throughout the heydays of the walleye boom in the 80s, into the 90s, and until the summer he was dying and had to sell his beloved Single Spin business, Jim Sr. maintained that a fishing trip was a “day on the lake.” Period.
His son copied on the lesson, embraced it, chiseled it in stone.
Junior freely admits that the current complaints over proposed Lake Erie walleye restrictions for 2004, to conserve and even build up stocks long-term, has him upset. This, given where he came from as a fisherman.
His dad was so wildly opposed to commercial gillnetting of walleyes in the 60s and 70s that he earned some enemies. Junior remembers threatening phone calls at home, how his dad used to carry a shotgun in his truck to and from work, just in case. Junior also remembers his dad being asked to leave the marina where he docked because of threats to the owner that the marina would be torched if Fofrich stayed.
Luckily another marina owner took in Fofrich and a handful of other early guides, and a sport fishing industry was born.
The walleye turnaround, Junior remembers, occurred in the 1970s. The “mercury scare,” related to fish contamination, eventually was politically leveraged into a commercial fishing ban on walleyes in Ohio waters, beginning in 1984. At the same time ideal spawning weather during several springs in the mid to late 70s produced fine hatches, and the cleanup benefits of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972 were starting to have an impact.
“Lots of people started chartering in 1978. Fishing was easy, and what was born at this time was the cooler mentality,” Junior asserts. “If you didn't go out and get a limit of fish, that was a bad time.
“A lot of good things came about in that period, but one thing that was lost was the concept of a day on the lake.”
Junior recalls, too, how the walleye fishing season has expanded. “Once upon a time we never thought the walleye hit 'til the Fourth of July.”
The early king of walleye fishing tournaments, the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association's Pro-Am, traditionally kicked off the summer fishing season - on Memorial Day weekend.
Trollers started getting into the act, to the point that tournaments sometimes were divided into trolling and casting divisions, or were promoted for casting only because of the competitive advantage of the more efficient trolling.
And, Junior recalls, in 1980 a Minnesotan named Gary Roach came down to the lake in the spring. “He said, `What do you mean you guys don't fish with jigs and minnows?'”
Roach a premier walleye fisherman and now-legendary tournament champion, proceeded to show how 75 to 100 fish could be handled in a day.
“And buddy, we weren't laughing anymore,” Junior said.
Professional walleye anglers from around the country brought sophistication to trolling techniques, from plastic crankbaits and special worm-harnesses to lead line, drop-weight systems, and side-planer boards, all in addition to vertical jigging. The race to catch more and bigger was on. Walleye sportfishing went commercial in its own way.
Walleye now are pursued practically year-round. It no longer is Memorial Day to Labor Day. From ice-out in spring until freezeup in late fall, walleye are fair game. They are fair game through the ice of winter, too, if and when there is ice.
Which fast-forwards Junior to the present day, when walleye fishing is not what it once was. It is a whole lot better, or it is worse, depending on what and how you want to remember.
Fofrich trusts the judgment of the current generation of fisheries biologists and the increasingly better tools they have to work with.
He thinks Ohio's proposed Lake Erie restrictions on walleye, and a closed possession season on smallmouth bass during spawning, are well thought out.
They would remain the most liberal regulations on the lake in any case.
“Remember the past,” he says.
Which translates in Fofrichese as “remember what it means to have a day on the lake.” He ends his meanders thusly:
“What about the next generation?”