PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio - For more than a decade, Joe Kostura spent winters guiding ice fishermen around the Lake Erie islands.
But this winter, the charter captain says he's finished with the potentially lucrative business.
The decision, he said, was simple.
“Lack of ice,” he said yesterday. “There's been about four or five bad seasons in a row now. You can't do business if you don't have ice.”
Warmer-than-usual winters have cut down on business for Lake Erie ice guides like Mr. Kostura.
“It hasn't been real reliable,” acknowledges Pat Chrysler, who has led ice fishermen around the islands for nearly 40 years. “I remember when I was a kid we'd be disappointed if we couldn't drive across from Middle Bass to Put-in-Bay for the New Year's Eve dance. But times have changed.”
Unlike Mr. Kostura, Mr. Chrysler said he wouldn't think of getting out of the business.
“In the last four years, we've had only one year of ice, so there's not much return on your money. I guess I don't know any better,” he said, chuckling. “I'm an outside kind of person.”
Mr. Chrysler and other ice experts say it's too soon to tell what kind of fishing season the area will have this winter. Little if any ice has formed around Put-in-Bay and other Lake Erie islands. The southern shore of the lake, another popular spot for wintertime anglers, is ice-free.
Some small inland lakes are frozen, but with poor-quality ice that anglers should avoid, said Larry Goedde, supervisor of fish management for the Ohio Division of Wildlife's District 2 office in Findlay.
The state supervises limited ice fishing on Lake LaSuAn in Williams County. Mr. Goedde said officials planned to check the lake's ice today to see whether to allow fishing next week. To do so, there must be at least four or five inches “of good solid ice,” he added.
“If we have decent ice, we'll be taking reservations Monday for Thursday and the following Sunday,” he said.
The ideal conditions for ice formation are temperatures in the teens and calm winds. Mark Adams, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Cleveland, said intermittent snow and temperatures from the mid 20s to the low 30s are forecast for the next week.
“You're going to have slow, slow ice growth for the next week,” Mr. Adams said.
Mr. Goedde said the several inches of snow that fell in the area yesterday would hurt ice already-formed by acting as insulation. But Mr. Chrysler said the snow could speed ice formation in Lake Erie and other open waters.
“That snow is like putting ice cubes in your Gatorade,” he said. “It gets that water temperature down.”
In the meantime, Mr. Chrysler is busy getting his equipment ready for the season. Normally, he takes seven double shanties with him, accommodating up to 14 fishermen at $90 a head.
He's cautiously optimistic about this season and is booking reservations for later this month. “I've got people sending checks,” he said. “Of course, you don't want to cash any checks until you see the color of the ice.”
A good ice-fishing season provides off-season income for shops and restaurants on South Bass Island, as well as air carriers like Griffing Flying Service.
“This place is like a graveyard if there's no ice in the wintertime,” said Bill Massie, a Put-in-Bay councilman. “It affects the grocery store, the bars, the restaurants.”
Ice or no ice, Mr. Kostura, plans to focus on a ferry service he runs between Put-in-Bay and Catawba Island Township. Using two air boats, he hauls cargo and up to six passengers per craft, at $20 per person one-way.
It's a steady winter business - unlike ice-fishing, he said.
“It's expensive to get into it, to set it up, to do all your advertising, to do all that stuff and get pumped up for it, and wait for the ice, and all of a sudden, there's no ice,” Mr. Kostura said. “You've just spent all that money. ... I don't know if I'd ever do it again.”