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by Jerry Dennis | Jun 11, 2020 | FISHING, FRESHWATER, Slider
The Erie Jinx

Even on the best damned walleye lake in America, sometimes you have to lower your standards a bit and catch what you can.
The guy I’ll call X-Factor kept calling and leaving messages on my phone. Somebody told him that I planned to fish Lake Erie in September, and he wanted to offer his services. More specifically, he wanted me to know that Erie is not just the best damned walleye lake in America, it’s the best damned smallmouth pond in the world, and I’d be a bonehead if I fished it with anyone but him, the best smallmouth guide on the lake.

“Look,” he said, “to fish Erie you need the right boat, the right gear, and you need to know where to go. But you also need me. I’m the x-factor.”

I made some calls and learned he has a reputation for delivering the goods. He’s a big dog in local bass tournaments and his clients usually go home happy. He fishes hard. He fishes with focus. He likes to cap a long day on the water with a long night on the water.

My kind of guy.

So that’s why I was sitting at the bar of a pretty nice hotel in a busy lakeshore town not far from Sandusky, Ohio, drinking my third beer and eating pretzels from a bag while waiting for X-Factor to show up. The bar was lit with candles because the power had failed. Nobody seemed to know why it had failed, nor to be much concerned about it.

I couldn’t get into my room because the electric locks were frozen. The kitchen was closed until the power returned, which explained my selection of victuals. And the drawbridge over the river next to the hotel was stuck in the open position and the only other bridge was jammed up with traffic. Which no doubt explained why X-Factor was late. I didn’t mind. It gave me time to catch my breath.

I’d just spent a week driving the perimeter of Erie, fishing long days in rough water, and I was buzzed on big waves, bad food and little sleep. The pleasant bar-lady asked how I’d done fishing so far, and I admitted I’d been skunked on the best fishing lake in America. She gave me a careful look that might have been commiseration or might have been disdain. She tried to cover it by showing me her wedding picture from 1954. She was a babe. She looked like a young Lauren Bacall. Turns out her late husband was a fisherman.

She said he always figured it was a bad day when he came home with less than a limit of walleyes, which for a long time was six and then was ten. Often he would top the day off with a bucket of perch and all the white bass and smallmouth bass they could eat. They got married the same week in 1954 that I was born, which in my addled condition seemed like more than a mere coincidence, so I ordered another beer and offered a toast to a good year.

She looked at me with maternal concern and said, “Son, if you can’t catch fish in Lake Erie, you can’t catch ’em anywhere.”

Of course, I had an explanation for my poor performance. The day I crossed from Michigan into Ontario, the first autumn storm of the season swept down from the north, driving the barometer into the desolation zone. I didn’t know how serious it was until I reached Long Point Bay on Erie’s northeast coast. A friend had alerted me that the bay offers terrific fishing for smallmouths and northern pike and that lately muskie had been creating havoc.

One guy he knew caught a 20-pound muskie while flipping a spinnerbait for bass in knee-deep water. Another caught two that were larger than that, one right after the other, and as he fought them to the boat, three other fish followed, hunting scraps. And if the muskies weren’t hitting, the money fish at Long Point has always been the smallmouth, which stars in its own tournament every June, and is as dependable as any fish can be.

But even smallmouths will shut down under a cold front. While I was there, nobody caught anything. I rented a boat and spent two days exploring reedy channels in the bay and casting into the void. All the bass, pike and muskies had apparently departed, though they were expected to return any day for the autumn feed.

The weather gave no indication of changing, so I drove to the end of the lake and crossed back into the States downstream from Niagara Falls. At the waterfront in Buffalo, I stopped to get my bearings.

The big lake sweeps in from the west here and funnels into the Niagara River. The scale is massive and strange. Seeing the lake sucked into the Niagara is like watching a football field get sucked down a drain. I had hoped to book a charter trip to fish the lake for steelhead and salmon. And there was supposed to be great fishing in what all the locals call the Head of the River. But the wind kept everyone off the water.

I drove on, following the coastal highway across New York and Pennsylvania to the Ohio shore, walleye headquarters of the world, where every town has launch ramps wide enough to accommodate an invasion force and every pier is lined with anglers hauling in spectacular catches of walleyes and perch. Weather permitting, of course. Now every pier was battered by six-foot waves and nobody was fishing.

Before dawn one morning I stood on a dock in Lorain drinking coffee with a charter fisherman named Doc. Doc’s a tall, lanky man who is not a doctor of the medical or academic kind but claims to have earned an honorary theological doctorate of sorts by fishing Erie religiously for 50 years.

Though a touch morose by nature, Doc was upbeat about the fishery. He made a decent living off Erie’s walleyes, largely because of their endearing habit of suspending in schools in open water, which makes it possible for anglers to troll with multiple lines and not get constantly hung up on the bottom.

Doc backed his boat out of the marina slip, and we motored through a canal into the Black River, which was fouled with stirred-up sediment and lined with industrial wreckage along its banks. But once we passed beyond the mouth, the water turned clear and smelled clean. There’s a growing dead spot in the middle of Erie, and its tributaries still flush agricultural and municipal waste into the lake, but a lot of progress has been made since the environmental devastations of the 1960s.

Soon we encountered steep waves rolling in from the open lake. The wind, which bored down from the northwest at 15 knots, continued to increase. Overhead were low, scudding clouds the precise color of pessimism.

“Perfect walleye weather,” shouted Doc.

Nice try, but I knew we were doomed. We started by drifting and casting blade-baits over a shoal where walleyes had schooled the previous week. Now they were gone. In deeper water, we marked a few solitary fish on sonar and tried trolling into the wind, the hull rising steeply on every wave, then crashing into the trough and knocking wings of spray aside. Nothing doing.

The radio crackled with bad news from other charters. No walleyes at Vermillion. None at Huron. By the time we decided to quit, Doc was apologizing. He’d never had such a day, he said. But it wasn’t necessary to apologize. We’d had a bad day, nothing more. I was used to it.

Besides, I still had X-Factor, my ace in the hole, the best damned smallmouth guide in the universe. I’d buy him dinner, and we’d fish all evening for trophy smallies. Then we’d meet in the morning and fish all day for more trophy smallies.
Which was why I was sitting in semi-darkness in that bar near Sandusky, drinking beer and eating pretzels and having a nice chat with the bar-lady. Suddenly the lights came on and the ceiling fan started spinning. A cheer went up in the bar. Outside, the drawbridge lowered with a clanging of bells, and the line of trapped cars began to move. Surely X-Factor was among them.

I called and left another message, then ordered a sandwich for dinner. Finally, I returned to my room, where I watched television and waited for the phone to ring.

But it didn’t ring. My ace in the hole, the hot-shot tournament champ, the best smallmouth angler on the lake—stood me up.
old man fishing on dock

As I started for home the next morning, the sun peeked out near Port Clinton. On impulse I pulled into town to see the monument to the Erie Dearie, a weight-forward spinner invented in the early years of the walleye bonanza. The claim is that more Lake Erie walleye have been caught on Dearies than all other baits combined. As far as I know, it’s the only civic shrine in America devoted to a fishing lure.

I walked out on the breakwall, where a few old men were sitting on five-gallon buckets in the sun, fishing for perch. The wind was down at last and wavelets sparkled in the sunlight. I took one look and ran back to my car for my spinning rod and tackle bag and a bucket to sit on. I settled down next to the old guys, begged some bait from them, and went at it.
And I couldn’t keep ’em off my line. They were jumping right into my bucket. One of them was nearly ten inches long. Not quite a jumbo, but a nice perch. A very nice perch.
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