In the mid-1980s, Lake Erie’s declared title of Walleye Capital of the World was already well established and undisputable. Those were times when the accepted method of walleye fishing was drift fishing and casting to the fish. The waters of Erie’s shallow western basin, a body of water stretching from Toledo to the islands, contained masses of fish attracting reefs and other structure, green tinted water, and literally millions of hungry walleyes.
The West Sister Swing was the talk of the town and every angler counted his or her bait down to a selected depth then began a slow retrieve. Crawlers adorned weight forward spinner baits, and limits of fish were expected every time out. It was a heyday of catching like never seen before.
But there is more to Lake Erie than the western basin, a huge expanse of deeper water stretching from the islands to Buffalo, New York. Ohio’s piece ends at Conneaut. At that time, walleye fishing in the central and eastern basins of Lake Erie was hardly mentioned, seldom attempted, and certainly not popular. But it was rumored.
In fact, it was a sport in itself for the very few who felt the urge to search for walleyes in the deep, seemingly unending waters of the these untapped basins. A exact time is debatable but it is known that a small handful of Ohio salmon fishermen, who were already skilled at fishing deep water after discovering the thrill of trolling for kings and cohos in Michigan and New York, decided to try off-shore trolling north of places like Fairport and Chagrin.
They called it something to do, a reason to be on the water, listing to the hum of downrigger cables, and practicing the use of emerging electronics like paper graphs and LoranC navigational equipment.
And they discovered that indeed, walleyes held court miles of shore. In just a couple of years others ventured out there and they too, learned the tricks of catching deep water walleyes.
Planer boards become the method of choice, spreading lures far to the sides of the boat and allowing the use of multiple rods. By the late 1980s chartering was a significant segment of the fishing industry on the central and eastern basins, and still is. Of course Lake Erie’s legendary walleye fishing isn’t what it was but it is still ranked as something special.
I quickly changed my tactics from western basin casting to central basin trolling and continue that productive method. Just recently while purging my office space of clutter an old log book came to the surface. How vividly the memories illustrate each page.
On the third of June in 1987, we fished the near shore water near Mentor and Perry. After all, we all knew by then that the deeper, off shore fishing would come as summer developed. That’s a rule that still holds value. That day followed a big storm and according to the journal entry, debris was everywhere. We pulled spinners and worms on planer board lines and took seven walleyes ranging to 26 ½ inches.
Another page nearly brought tears to my eyes. My dad was on board on Aug. 27, 1989. By then my buddies and I had the trolling thing dialed in and we seldom failed to box a load of fish. Dad, Larry Hutchinson, and I set lines north of Ashtabula at 8:30 a.m. We used two downriggers and two Dipsy Divers and enjoyed fast action all morning. According to the notes, we were 12 miles and fished a course that took us from 69 to 73 feet of water.
The last entry in that book described a lousy July day in 1991 when two friends and I tried to set lines as dark clouds closed in around us. The rods and radio antenna started buzzing and sparking as static electricity built ahead of an approaching storm. The journal entry for that day said it all: “headed in as fast as possible.”