Anglers prepare for banner season of walleye
Written by The Plain Dealer   
Saturday, 06 May 2006 01:13

Slowly guiding his boat along the Lake Erie shoreline through a dense fog, fishing guide Jerry Abele was eager to talk walleye. It is his favorite topic and has been for the 30 years Abele has been guiding walleye fishermen from Channel Grove Marina, a short walk from his Marblehead cottage.

This year, he is looking forward to a return of the good old days when walleye were plentiful and the fishing business was vibrant, filling motels, marinas, restaurants - and especially charter boats - with happy anglers.

The 2006 walleye forecast is to Abele's liking.

"We should have plenty of walleye to catch this year," he said Wednesday morning as the Miller Ferry sounded its horn on approaching the Lime Kiln dock on the south end of South Bass Island. "Times have changed. We'll never see the 1980s again, when everyone was bringing in limit catches. The walleye population is finally up and we'll have a great summer of fishing."

Abele believes casting a lure, feeling the spinner turn on the retrieve and detecting the light bite of a walleye is the way to have fishing fun. It's not as easy to catch walleye this way as it was when the lake waters were dingy and the schools of fish were huge.

Anglers and fishing guides now resort to trolling techniques to round up their catch. Invasive filter-feeding zebra and quagga mussels have turned the waters crystal clear, and walleye seldom collect in large schools. Trolling continually swims lures at a specific depth and covers large swaths of water to target scattered pods of fish.

"We had northeast winds [Tuesday] night," he said. "I want to drift the area where the fish most likely have set up to feed. Sometimes, with the wind and current, it takes a couple of tries to get the drift just right."

Abele's fishing tactics are old-fashioned, but not his equipment. A new engine is nestled under the deck of his well-seasoned boat, and sonar and GPS mapping systems are on the dash. His GPS unit displays the reefs, and sonar shows him a picture of the lake bottom. Some say Abele knows every reef and rock pile around Western Lake Erie. That is hard to dispute.

"There's a little hump just north of this reef that has always been good to me," he said. "It's hard to find, which is why it usually holds a few walleye."
We started the day by casting purple hair jigs, an early-season lure when walleye are up on the reefs. As the water warms, it's time for the summertime system of casting small harnesses with a spinner and hook or a weight-forward spinner, the lure that once dominated the Lake Erie walleye fishing.

The jigs were connecting, but with a collection of big, chunky sheepshead. We wanted walleye, so I tied on a spinner harness and Abele tried his favorite weight-forward lure, a gold Tiny Teaser. We wanted the lures to swim a foot, or two, off the bottom so small bottom-dwelling round gobies - another invasive - wouldn't peck at the lure and steal nightcrawlers from the hook.

It worked. I brought a nice 2-pound walleye to Abele's waiting net. A feisty smallmouth bass was released, and Abele followed with a dandy 4-pound walleye. It was just about the same way Abele and I started the season together more than 25 years ago.

Most of the walleye caught this year will be from the outstanding 2003 class, fish that are 14 to 18 inches long. That class was the best in a couple of decades, a reason Abele is optimistic.

"Last year's long, hot summer made walleye fishing seem like work," he said. "This year, I'm looking forward to having a lot more fun."

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