Jan. 25—PUT-IN-BAY, Ohio — The ice fishing endeavor on Lake Erie is a bit like many of those games of chance at the casino.
Sometimes you make the right play, while other times the odds are stacked against you. On many occasions, you are forced to fold, while in a few rare instances you hit the jackpot.
The stakes are high, with the cold and the finicky nature of ice presenting serious safety concerns. The possibility of a huge payoff in fresh Lake Erie walleye comes with every trip out on the ice. And in the winter, the house usually wins as snow, current, wind, sun, and temperature fluctuations seem to hold the best cards.
Two years ago, the fickle weather gods provided few sustained cold spells in the usual ice-growing period of late December and January. That meant there was hardly any fishable ice on the lake for February, which is historically the best ice fishing month.
Last year, the ice formed about two inches thick initially, but 70 miles per hour winds followed, throwing huge ice sheets in a mad array of steep, angled shoves. When the lake re-froze after this wind event, the jungle of ice spikes locked in bizarre vertical directions made the lake's surface in the prime ice fishing locales impassable in many places.
"The way the wind broke up the ice, it left the surface of the lake a mess. It would tear your equipment up just trying to get around out there," said Rob Laplante, who has been ice fishing near the Lake Erie Islands for the past 30 years.
The winter of 2021-22 has shown considerably more promise than the previous two ice fishing seasons. John Hageman, a retired ice fishing guide, knows this frosty adversary quite well after serving as co-manager of the Stone Lab research facility on South Bass Island for 24 years.
Hageman hedged his bets in late December, taking one of the last runs of the Miller Ferry to get his ATV and ice fishing gear out to the island in the event the lake would welcome ice fishermen once again.
"I wanted to be here before New Years since you never really know when the ice will form," he said, adding that the ferry made its final run on New Years Day. "It was open water then, but by about two weeks later there was visible ice as far as the eye could see in every direction."
But the deck can get reshuffled every day as Hageman noted that while the first wave of ice fishermen are finding good ice west of South Bass Island, there is no sound ice in the passage between the island and the mainland at Catawba. "In a number of places there is open water, and there's open water just off the ferry dock," he said.
The only way to and from the islands currently is by air, and Laplante said his clients have been flying in to take advantage of the current ice fishing window. Laplante has six shanties stationed off of the west end of South Bass Island and has been ferrying fishermen from Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, and one from St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands out on the ice for the past week.
"The fishing has been steady," the Oregon native and Cardinal Stritch grad said, adding that the anglers are working off of a platform of about eight inches of ice and taking six-fish limits of walleye on a regular basis.
"We're working in about 34 feet of water and I would say the conditions are very good, with great ice and few shoves to deal with," he said. Laplante hopes to see the island area provide ice fishing opportunities for an extended period this year due to the lengthy run of the current deep freeze. Laplante can be reached at 419-341-8859.
Elsewhere in the region, ice fishermen are flocking to the protected waters of East Harbor and most days there will be an encampment of dozens of pop-up portable ice fishing shelters sprinkled across this vast Lake Erie backwater located off the south side of East Harbor State Park. This wide, shallow bay is serving up bluegills, crappie, yellow perch, white perch, and the occasional largemouth bass.
To the north, ice fishing has been underway on the lakes of southeast Michigan's Irish Hills region for several weeks, with bluegills and crappie the primary targeted species. Anglers have reported steady action on Round Lake and Wamplers Lake, which is slated to host the Midwest Open Ice Fishing Tournament on Feb. 6.
First Published January 25, 2022, 1:13pm