The governor, on the lake this past Monday to participate in the 30th annual Fish Ohio Day, was bombarded with statistics showing economic success - most of it owing to a certain species of hard-fighting, good-eating fish called the walleye.
Anglers, according to information supplied by the American Sportfishing Association, spend $300 million a year in the Lake Erie Shores & Islands region on fishing related expenditures.
This money supports local jobs and wages, along with hotels and cottages, marinas, charter boat services, restaurants, grocery stores, and bait and tackle shops, spurring a $1.1 billion sport fishing industry along Lake Erie and creating more than 20,000 jobs.
More than 72,000 fishing licenses were sold in the area in 2007. There are 800 licensed charter boat captains offering fishing trips onto the lake. Anglers fill their coolers with 1 to 2 million walleye each season. The daily creel limit is six per angler per day with a minimum size limit of 15 inches. The walleye population is estimated at 22 million fish of catchable size (two years old or older).
"From what I've seen and from what I'm hearing, the walleye ranks as King around these parts," Gov. Strickland said at 6:30 a.m. at the Lake Erie Islands Regional Welcome Center on Catawba Island.
It was another Ohio governor, James A. Rhodes, who, at the Fish Ohio Day 1980, coined the term "Walleye Capital of the World" to describe the quality of Lake Erie's fishery.
Strickland's audience was made up of outdoor writers, charter boat owners, and officials from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife and the Ottawa County Visitors Bureau, along with some representatives of outdoor-related businesses.
"But enough of statistics," Strickland said. "Let's go fishing!"
FIVE HOURS OUT
There were 18 charter boat captains who volunteered their boats to take the approximately 75 participants out fishing from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. I fished with Capt. Mel Fenger of Windrift Charters on his 30-foot Baha Cruiser. He supplied the gear and bait.
My fishing companions were Dick Martin, who writes an outdoors column for 10 Ohio newspapers, and Matthew MacLaren, executive vice president of the Ohio Hotel & Lodging Association in Columbus.
We were also accompanied by Randy Miller, assistant chief of the Ohio Division of Wildlife, who seems to enjoy watching others catch fish more that he does catching them himself.
The water was as calm as you'll ever see Lake Erie. Nevertheless, we drift-fished the in-line spinners baited with a live nightcrawler, keeping our rod tips close to the water and retrieving the lures slowly just off the bottom.
I landed a walleye measuring 21 inches and then quickly added another that was 24 inches long.
These fish, Cap'n Fenger said, were of the "2002 class," a year featuring one of the best spawns the lake has known.
The day before, with six people fishing, he had brought in a limit of 36 walleye, all about the size of the biggest one I caught. The lake surface that day "lay like a mirror" and he fished the same waters and techniques as we were. In fact, his customers had returned with a limit of walleye the past six days running.
To book a trip with Fenger, or for more information, visit his Web site at www.windriftcharters.com.
Fenger took the "island tour," as we circled South, Middle and North Bass islands. We fished water from 35 feet deep to just 10 feet deep off the reefs.
The action was slow. MacLaren caught and released one smallmouth. Everybody caught and released a few sheepshead.
Nobody, it seems, throws back a walleye. They're such nice fish, too. I don't know what people have against them. They don't beat their wives, and they're good to their kids. But all those that come aboard are iced down in coolers and taken home for dinner.
Back at the welcome center, after lunch, Strickland confessed that he had not caught a walleye.
"My wife, Frances, was here last year, and, as many of you know, caught two big walleye," he said. "So when I get back home, I'm going to have to lie. And I expect you all to back me up."
FISHING WITH PHIL
Soc Clay and his wife, Wanda, and I spent Sunday and Monday nights at Beach Cliff Lodge, owned and operated by Phil Whitt and located on the northern tip of Catawba Island, just a block from where the ferry boats debark for South Bass Island/Put-in-Bay.
Beach Cliff is one of the last remaining true fish camps in the Port Clinton area, offering neat, well-kept cabins and a central cleaning station for filleting your walleye for the cooler.
Whitt ran a charter service for about 15 years, but no longer guides. However, he can book his lodge customers with a number of excellent charter boat captains.
For information and rates, call him at Beach Cliff at (419) 797-4553, or visit www.beach-cliff.com.
"I don't own a boat now," Whitt said. "But I highly recommend to my clients, those that trailer their own boats up, that they hire a charter boat for at least the first day of their stay. You gain valuable how-to and where-to information."
Phil, one of the friendliest and most accommodating men you'll ever meet, borrowed a friend's boat to take the three of us out on Tuesday.
We left Anchors Away Marina at Marblehead at 6:30 a.m., headed in a straight line for West Island on the Canada border; a big orange ball of fire rising out of the mists just off to our right; and a crisp, adventure-smelling freshwater breeze threatening to blow our hats off.
The surface out there, out of sight of the Ohio shoreline, offered quite a contrast to Monday's. The wind was knocking the tops off the waves, and swells rocked the big custom-made, diesel-powered boat about, forcing us to do a little shuffle dance between the rail and the consul/seats in the middle.
As soon as Wanda got her lure to the bottom, she immediately caught the first walleye of the day. After that, though, she became woozy and lost interest in bouncing off the rail.
I'm sure this old U.S. Navy sailor would have become seasick if not for my natural talent to belch - BURP-P-, BURP-P-P.
We headed back for the dock at 9:30 a.m. I'm sure we could have tripled our catch had we chose to stay longer. We had five nice keeper walleye in the cooler. I use the term "we" loosely. Most of my action came in fighting large sheepshead, or freshwater drum.
It's comforting to know that Lake Erie and her walleye and smallmouth are there, just about four and one-half hours from the Ashland/Portsmouth area.
G. SAM PIATT can be reached at (606) 932-3619 or Gsamwriter@aol.com.