When most folks talk about heading out amongst the islands they are talking about the three and a half miles between the Marblehead and Kellys or the big trip of six miles up to Put-in-Bay. We have traveled almost three times that far by dawn’s early light today, approaching the international border west of Isle St. George. There’s a steady breeze and we’re watching the chop on the water toss a seventeen foot Penn Yan about like a toy. We chuckle at this fisherman’s passion to get out and take such a bruising in the process, but we can’t say too much because we’re going the same place, just in a much bigger, much more comfortable boat.
The Watanna II is a 60 foot head boat operated by Shore-Nuf out of Port Clinton. After a scurry to make last minute preparations and move our gear aboard, we sit down for an hour’s ride from the drawbridge to a preferred walleye spot. You never see Captain Jamie’s eyes behind his sunglasses but you can feel his stare upon the surface of the lake, looking up only occasionally to check position on the GPS or what’s beneath the surface on the sonar. The engine groans as the boat slows and we hear the staccato “wop wop wop” of the prop as we slowly come about.
At the rail Tom and I have struck up a conversation with an excited fellow from Louisiana who has never been out here before. He’s impressed that we’re from Les Miles’s home town and laughs at Tom’s tale of how he was once the LSU coach’s babysitter. One thing I’ve learned hanging out with Tom Mahl is that he knows almost everyone in Elyria. The Captain announces our depth and the bottom condition, the depth of the fish and at once twenty night crawlers descend bottomward, amid the nervous chatter of giddy anglers. Then it goes quiet as a library, and it stays quiet. In murmurs you hear the doubt and dissention on deck as no bites are felt. The first mate walks among us offering tiny pointers about how much weight we should have on the line to keep us off the keel, but everyone has the same rig; a metallic worm harness with a half-ounce sinker. The faded rope and anchor tattoo on his forearm tells me this is far from the Mate’s first trip on the water, and in his retirement now it’s the perfect place for an old salt.
The radio chatter from the wheelhouse wafts aft to us as we hear we aren’t the only boat that hasn’t yet found the fish. “Blue Monday, Blue Monday, Blue Monday” amongst the calls of a salvage boat going to give a tow, and the rifle range at Camp Perry giving warning to those who think the impact area might be a good place to fish. Jamie walks back among us and almost apologetically asks everyone to reel in as we’re going to make a “slight adjustment” and move the boat.
So we sit down on the benches, holding our rods between our feet and swaying with the waves as the Watanna II lumbers back to life and we move to another un-named spot in the water. Like spectators Tom and I pick out the landmarks on the horizon; Davis Besse, Perry’s Monument, Point Pelee and so on. As a historian I’ve looked over many battlefield and tried to recreate the battle scene before me, but seldom do I actually think about Commodore Perry and the running ship melee that took place right here 200 years ago this summer.
The motor cuts and again the Captain calls back the depth and that we are approaching a rocky edge where he sees fish on the sonar. We drift gently south on momentum as the deck is hushed to silence. “FISH ON!” comes a shout from the stern as one rod bends down hard. The mate runs back with a dip net to assist but he hasn’t taken two steps before he hears behind him “FISH ON!” and then another, as the Captain grabs a net and joins in trying to bring the walleye all aboard.
We’ve certainly found them now, on this rocky shelf. Excited cheers and congratulations are offered as each big fish is measured for length, bragging rights, and maybe a small pool for which somebody has passed the bucket. The weather is turning on us quickly and the perch fishing has really lit up too, but don’t count the walleye out just yet. Head boats offer a convenient way you can get on the water with only a few hours’ notice and lot less cost than a charter. The fish are biting, so grab your pole and GET OUTDOORS!