The minute I climbed on board the Island Air Taxi in Port Clinton and took the six-minute flight over frozen Lake Erie, I knew this ice fishing trip was not going to be like any other. The small four-passenger aircraft gives me an intimate vantage point to the vastness of Lake Erie and the exact moment where water turns to ice.
My pilot, Dustin Shaffer, takes me on the scenic route before landing on South Bass Island to see the collection of fishing shanties that have congregated on a section of ice after the most recent cold snap. The shanties of varies sizes and colors look like a spilled bag of skittles on the stark white/gray ice canvas below.
“Flying is our main mode of transportation in the winter and we get to do it all the time. For our guests, it is unique and adds to the overall experience of island life in the winter,” said Shawn Dages of Put-in-Bay Ice Guide.
Want to take a ride on Island Air Taxi over frozen Lake Erie? Click below.
I set up base at the Black Squirrel Bed and Breakfast where owners Maria Pope and Rob Hard wait with a warm welcome and cozy accommodations that they know I will need after a long day on the ice. The B&B caters to anglers in the winter which makes for great comradery among the guests who start and end the day with fish stories ranging from near-record walleye catches to a man who knocked out his heater in the shanty trying to keep a fish from getting away. One angler tells me that the walleye are biting great this week with a photo of his recent catch to prove it. The stillness on Put-in-Bay in the winter is such a contrast to the bustling tourist season in the summer but the tranquility and slower pace is inviting. This time of the year, it is pretty much just locals and ice anglers on the island.
After a good night’s sleep, I head out at 7:30 a.m. although some anglers hit the ice earlier for the morning bite. The air is bitter as I climb on board the four-wheeler for the half mile trip to the shanty with my guides Shawn Dages and Jeff Bast of Put-in-Bay Ice Guide (614-312-7649). After Shawn gives me a tutorial on the equipment and the techniques to use, it was game-on to go after the prized perch and walleye of Lake Erie.
Admittedly, the idea of spending 11 hours on 10 inches of ice on Lake Erie in a small shanty with nothing but water, snacks and howling wind outside on what looks like the surface of the moon sounds daunting. The reality is that this is the best way to experience what Ohio’s Lake Erie Shores & Islands has to offer for the ultimate ice fishing experience. I am up for the challenge. While I am near South Bass Island, Kelleys Island is another a popular ice fishing destination on Lake Erie.
I drop my line and jig my minnow just above the bottom (approximately 32-feet) where the fish sluggishly wait for slow moving food in the winter. My fish finder machine flickers like a video game with lines of red, green and yellow showing the depth of my bait and any movement towards it. Within minutes I see activity. When I see the two lines connect on the electronic device it is a good bet the tip of my rod will bend. Sure enough, I’ve got a fish.
While reeling in a fish in the winter is not all that different than any other time of year, there is a new excitement being able to see it emerge through a hole in the ice from the depths of the frozen lake. This is the first large perch of eight that I would catch during the day. I did catch one small walleye that was too small to keep. The perch I will have filleted and take home to enjoy a fish fry.
“The biggest surprise for guests seems to be that it’s more comfortable to ice fish than they thought it would be. Although the shanties are small, they provide the necessary shelter from the elements, are heated, and set up with everything in just the right spot to make it easy to fish,” said Jeff Bast of Put-in-Bay Ice Guide.
A similar trip to this will cost you approximately $40 each way for air taxi, reduced weekday rates at the B&B (approximately $100/night) and the guide’s day rate (approximately $100).
Want to take a peek out of my shanty door at the conditions on the ice? Take a look below but get a coat for this one!
If you are not quite up to the fully monty of Lake Erie ice fishing like I did, there are less extreme ways to do it. You can easily stay on the mainland and depart from Catawba Island State Park (Port Clinton/Catawba) or East Harbor State Park (Marblehead) with a local guide.
It is imperative with ice fishing on Lake Erie to hire a reputable guide who is in tune with local ice conditions and puts safety first. Be sure to ask your guide about bag limits for fish and what size to keep or throw back. You can find guide and lodging recommendations through Ohio’s Lake Erie Shores & Islands office and you can obtain a fishing license and review fishing regulations at the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife.
You will discover that turning an ice fishing outing into an ice fishing adventure is not just about catching the fish. It is about the whole experience – the people you meet along the way and the memories you make filing your senses with a new kind of adventure: laughing with like-minded strangers and locals; watching the bitter wind on the lake whip across the ice while you are tucked away in the shanty; being one with nature as the occasional chill of the ice reminds you that it is winter, and of course the signature taste of Lake Erie of perch and walleye as you end your day at Tipper’s Restaurant that serves it up fresh allowing you to take home your catch to enjoy later.
For more outdoor adventures, Find It Here at Ohio.org.