Lake Erie: Walleyes and Perch are a Sure Bet

Although a good thick layer of ice would give John Hageman a chance to use his ice fishing gear, he knows where the winter walleyes and perch can be found on Lake Erie and who can help put you on them.

With Lake Erie’s catchable walleye population currently at a 40-year high of 151 million fish, and solid yellow perch numbers present in the Western Basin, the only thing that will prevent anglers from catching lots of fish through the ice is another winter without usable ice.

There was no fishable ice last winter, and only a brief window the year before. At press time, NOAA is giving the region a 50 to 55 percent chance of being colder than normal due to a weak La Nina, which is only slightly different odds than a coin toss. The Farmer’s Almanac says this winter will be “cold, very flaky” while the Old Farmer’s Almanac calls for it to be “more wet than white.”

Rest assured, anglers will be on the lake all year long with or without ice, as they have done in past “open” winters. Slow trolling for walleyes all winter in the absence of ice works very well, with many of us having pictures to prove it.

When there is an “old-fashioned winter,” functional ice can be found from Maumee Bay to Kelleys Island. Anglers launch from the western Michigan shoreline at Sterling State Park near Monroe and in Ohio using Crane Creek Wildlife Area, Catawba Island State Park, Mazurik Access Area and a limited number of private beaches to fish the mainland ice.

When there is an ice bridge across the South Passage, snowmobiles, ATVs and airboat anglers commonly fish around Mouse, Starve, Green and Kelleys islands; the edges of the reef complex; or between South Bass and/or Green and/or Rattlesnake islands.

However, when this seasonal shipping lane remains as open water, Kelleys and the Bass islands are accessed by small commercial aircraft operating from Port Clinton by Griffing Flying Service (419/734-5400). They provide round-trip flights for $95 daily (weather permitting) under visual flying rules.

In these milder winters, fishable ice may be restricted to ice floes that become wedged, then thicken, in between Green, South Bass, Rattlesnake and Middle Bass islands and in the North Bay of Kelleys Island.

Currents over shallow underwater structure limit fishing over Erie’s famous reefs to airboats in all but the coldest winters because of currents eroding the ice from below, so most fishing occurs over deep-water flats adjacent to the first contour lines.

Walleyes are the primary target species for most resident and virtually all non-resident anglers fishing Lake Erie during the winter, but yellow perch are welcome additions to the creel. Schools of white bass come at unexpected intervals and provide flurries of action and opportunity for some variety on the dinner table. White bass are best used fresh, and I keep just enough to use for dinner in the next few days.

As in summer, plagues of bait-stealing white perch can often become pests. But, with some reaching 11 inches long, they could provide substantive fillets for those who have learned to use this over-abundant invasive species.

Other occasionally-caught species include steelhead trout, lake whitefish, rainbow smelt and an increasing number of channel catfish. Because smallmouth bass are so structure-oriented, they are infrequently encountered in the main lake due to anglers staying away from the chronically thinner ice covering the shoals.

Despite their abundance, I have only seen two freshwater drum ever taken through the ice. Other oddball “one-of” winter catches that I have seen caught over my 40-plus years of Lake Erie ice fishing include a sauger, muskie, burbot, lake trout, carp, quillback, silver chub and lake sturgeon.

The two favorite walleye lures overwhelmingly used locally include swim baits like Jigging Rapalas and Bay de Noc’s Swedish Pimple spoons. I predominately use the Swedish pimple (sometimes with a stinger hook) due to the wide range of available sizes, colors and textures, and higher rates of hook-ups compared to heavy jigging baits.

Blade baits and jigs play a relatively minor role through the ice here, but shine during the spring open-water fishing season.

Another swim bait that is making headway into many anglers’ tackle boxes is Moonshine’s Shiver Minnow. The Nils Master’s Baby Shad was once my favorite, but became difficult to procure several years ago.

Other popular spoons include Lure Jensen’s Krocodile and Crippled Herring, and Acme Tackle’s Lit’l Cleo and Kastmaster lures. For all of the aforementioned baits, we add two or more whole emerald shiners to the lure’s treble hook(s) and often add another one to the nose and tail hooks of the swim baits.

A hot-tempered walleye that gets unhooked while being played toward the hole will most often be able to be hooked again. Whenever a walleye chases the lure a few times but does not re-bite, it is almost always due to the lure being stripped clean of all of the minnows.

Yellow perch, especially the larger or more aggressive ones, are regularly drawn to the jigging activity designed to attract and catch walleyes. They are often taken with these same lures, especially when multiple fish are present, compelling them to compete for the bait.

While freelancing can yield excellent results, dozens of guides who regularly fish the ice know the locations of working pressure cracks and thin ice and can save anglers from an expensive or dangerous polar bear plunge.

The ODNR, Division of Wildlife maintains a list of currently licensed Lake Erie ice guides on their website at https://ohiodnr.gov/wps/portal/gov/odnr/discover-and-learn/land-water/lake-erie-watershed/ice-fishing-guides.

The Lake Erie Shores and Islands can also help with locating guides, lodging, seasonally open restaurants and other local attractions at shoresandislands.com.

 

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