FAIRPORT HARBOR, Ohio - If you are staring August in the face and still have a yen for big walleye and some drag-burning, acrobatic steelhead trout for good measure, then trolling offshore from the Grand River here in central Lake Erie is where you want to be.
Down west this time of summer it becomes harder and harder to fill a ticket of walleye, partly because of the warm water but especially because of the abundance of baitfish, especially gizzard shad.
But here, a couple of hours' drive from Toledo in the deeper waters east of Cleveland, trolling spoons off Dipsy Divers and planer boards can keep you busy winding in fish. Actually, the same can be said from Huron on east in the central basin.
A pair of Michigan Stinger spoons, multicolor on one side and copper on the other, used for both steelies and walleye trolling.
A crew of usual suspects - outdoors writers - fished with guide Ron Johnson aboard his Thumper on Tuesday and produced a cooler of fish that included both Fish Ohio-size walleye and steelhead, plus a nice mess of white bass, of which Bob Ulas, Lake County visitors' ambassador, is fond.
We fished in an area Johnson has not even touched this summer, beginning one long pull at 11 miles out in 72 to 73 feet of water and ending up, six hours later, about 15 miles out.
Johnson said that walleye have been plentiful within five miles of the Grand River mouth in 58 to 62 feet, trolling spoons in the 50 to 55-foot range. Local guides moved a bit deeper at midweek, into the mid 60s depths, as the fish apparently sought a little cooler climes. But the near-shore has been a blessing given the price of fuel - "This boat costs me $7 a mile," Johnson said of the fuel bill for his twin-engine Tiara 31.
The fish, however, have helped pay bills with plenty of trips. Since late April Johnson only has taken off the Fourth of July and a few windy days.
"The walleye have been phenomenal this year," he explained. The guide begins in spring around the Bass Islands and moves east for the summer. In late September he will move to Vermilion for fall offshore trolling into November.
Jeff Frischkorn, outdoors writer for the Lake County News Herald and ringleader of this day's expedition, is a steelhead fan, however. "It's the only fish I'll cancel a hunting trip for," he vowed. So he talked Johnson into making a longer run in hopes of upping the chances for steelies in cooler, deeper water.
The fish were there. Both kinds. Johnson said that tons of fish can be found throughout the area - witness the ease with which he "found" fish Tuesday by just shutting down to trolling speed, setting up the Dipsies and spoons.
His buddy, Marv DeGreen, took his party to a limit of walleye back inshore as well. But DeGreen's Evil Eye did not run into any steelhead. DeGreen said later at dockside the steelhead have been in and out and all about this summer. But then again, steelhead often are that way.
Jeff Frischkorn, Mentor-on-the Lake, hefts a Fish Ohio-size walleye, left, and steelhead caught in Lake Erie near Fairport Harbor.
Johnson uses Michigan Stingers and the smaller versions, Scorpions, in such patterns as "huckleberry," a gaudy blue-green-white-orange concoction with black spots. He thinks that copper-plated backs on the spoons are important as well.
He runs small Dipsies off big double-ski planer boards, and large Dipsies off outrigger rods. He fished his spoons 200 feet back off the boards and 110 to 135 feet off the outriggers. It works. Strangely, two downrigger outfits he ran did not produce a fish.
But that is why you go with arrays of rigging. You never know what will work well on any given day - which presentation will click in the given currents, light conditions, temperature, wind, bait schools, or even the mood of the fish, to name a few of the endless variables that always make it fishing but not always catching.
Back at the dock, local taxidermist Don Schonauer was looking over the cooler full of fish, which included a nice catch of steelies. He started talking about a quick way to smoke trout and salmon on a gas grill, and his recipe sounded so simple-good that it is repeated here:
Brine the fillets overnight in a solution that includes a cup of brown sugar, a cup of canning salt [non-iodized], and a gallon of water. Pat the brined fillets dry, and rub them with more brown sugar. Removing as much excess moisture as possible speeds the smoking process, Schonauer explained.
Soak some apple or cherry wood chips in water - just till the chips are good and damp. "Apple and cherry make the best smoke," the taxidermist said.
Dump the dampened chips in a disposable aluminum pie tin and place it right on the grill, under the cooking rack. Place the brined, sugared fillets on the cooking rack and fire up the grill, dialing the heat down as low as it will go.
How long? "Two hours. It might take three. Smoke it until it's dry like ham."
Schonauer notes that you can use a conventional gas-fired or an electric smoker as well. An electric smoker may take about 11 hours, he said. "After you smoke it, you can freeze it," he added. If you don't eat it all right away, that is.
Not at a loss for recipes, Schonauer said you can go a step further and also make a pate with the smoked trout or salmon. Mix it with cream cheese, mayonnaise, and chopped, fresh chives. "The chives have got to be fresh. Cut them into as small pieces as you can."
Young anglers can fish free on western Lake Erie Aug. 13 through Aug. 17 in an annual program sponsored by the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association.
During Kids Fish Free Week, adults booking a charter by Aug. 7 through the LECBA hotline, 1-800-287-1020, can bring a youth age 17 or under for each paying adult. Thus three adults and three youths pay half the normal charter fee.
Trips will be conducted from the Port Clinton area. The program was founded in 2002 to honor a late founding member, Jim Fofrich Sr., who was well-known for promoting the lake, its fishing, and family involvement.
Trevor Wolfe, of Point Place, was misidentified in this space last Friday in a story about Lake Ontario king salmon fishing. Wolfe is an ECHL defenseman, a prospective fishing guide, and working mate on a salmon boat, but he is not a member of the Ford family. Where the outdoors editor got that one is anyone's guess.