Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Matt Markey


Ferry traffic ends winter’s grip on Lake Erie islands

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    The Miller Boat Line uses four ferries to service South Bass and Middle Bass islands, carrying food, fuel, freight, and mail from the mainland depot on Catawba Island. The Miller Line also transports passengers and their vehicles.

    Jetta Fraser

CATAWBA ISLAND, Ohio — That first robin poking around for worms in a leaf pile, a crocus pushing its way up through the damp mulch to absorb the sun’s life-giving rays, or anglers shoulder-to-shoulder in the Maumee and Sandusky rivers — are all signs of spring to most of us. 

But for the residents of the Lake Erie islands, it’s not really spring until they hear the deep bellow of the ferry horn, signaling that the lifeline between this rocky archipelago and the mainland is once again connected and flowing. 

On Sunday, the Miller Boat Line made the first runs between its depot on the northern tip of the Catawba peninsula and the Lime Kiln Dock on the southern edge of South Bass Island. The Kelleys Island Ferry Boat Line began service on Monday from its dock on the southwest side of the island to the mainland dock at Marblehead. Miller will add ferry service to Middle Bass Island on Thursday, weather permitting. 

“It’s most definitely a sure sign of spring to have the ferries back in operation,” said Captain Matt Miller, who skippered some of the early runs to and from South Bass Island. “Especially after the kind of winter we’ve had. We’re usually running a month earlier than this, but we had the most ice we’ve seen in eight or nine years and that really delayed things.” 

Miller said the ferry line made its last run to South Bass Island on Dec. 14, so the 400-500 full-time residents of the 1,600-acre island have had to rely on air transport for supplies, an option that adds significant freight costs to everything. The Kelleys Island ferry shut down just before Christmas, so the 350-some year-round residents there were equally dependent on small planes to bring in any needed material. 

“As soon as word got around that we were up and running, a lot of islanders took advantage of the opportunity to go to the mainland and restock,” Miller said about the South Bass populace. “There’s no doubt that the ferry is a lifeline for the residents of the islands. There’s a lot of goods and supplies coming back across the lake, now that we’re running again.” 

The 54-year-old Miller, a resident of the Lake Erie islands since the 1970s and a ferry captain for 25 years, said the gas station in the community of Put-in-Bay on South Bass Island was rationing gasoline as the winter lingered, and that there was a shortage of propane on Middle Bass, so he expects there will be a lot of fuel being transported on the initial ferry runs. 

Miller, who is not related to William M. and Mary Miller, previous owners of the ferry line, said the company’s fleet of four vessels is not pulled from the water during the winter. The workhorse ferries, which are 90-96 feet in length and all powered by twin diesel engines that produce up to 1,300 horsepower, are frozen in place in the protected harbor of Put-in-Bay until the ice comes off. 

“It takes a little bit to get them to turn over after a harsh winter like we had,” he said. “You can tell they have been shut down for quite a while.” 

Miller said that on the early runs across the open water he is especially vigilant about encountering any remaining chunks of ice, or debris that has been flushed out of area rivers by the spring thaw. 

“You are wary of what’s out there, especially after the high water we’ve had in the rivers. As they go higher, they pick up stuff like downed trees and stumps, and eventually it all ends up out here in the lake,” he said. 

“And when the wind is blowing the right way, the water level rises and picks up stuff that has been washed up on the beaches. Most of the ice has been blown to the east end of the lake, but we have to be on the lookout for everything else.” 

Both ferry lines expect to run a regular schedule of service to and from the islands for at least the next eight months, unless severe weather intervenes. 

RIVER REPORT: The Maumee River remained high and fast on Monday, making fishing extremely difficult for anglers attempting to fish the walleye spawning run. The river had pushed up to the edge of the parking lot at Buttonwood Park on the Perrysburg side, and the high water was up near the pavement by the Jerome Road intersection with West River Road on the Maumee side. John Hageman, who conducts creel angler surveys along the rivers for the Ohio Division of Wildlife, said the rain-swollen Maumee was “a mess”, with large trees and stumps drifting down the river, very poor water clarity, and dangerous conditions. 

The Sandusky River in Fremont is in better shape, with the water level receding on Monday to the point where anglers could again reach the fish. Hageman said he saw a modest catch there on Sunday that was 50-50, males to females. “The Sandusky River would be the better choice, at least for the next couple of days,” Hageman said Monday.

Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: or 419-724-6068.

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