Fishermen hit Maumee River for best walleyeWritten by Bo Ljungholm | | BLjungholm@toledofreepress.com
Techniques for fishing the spring walleye run in the Maumee River haven’t changed that much during the past 10 years, or for that matter, for the past 2,000 years.
After the great glaciers receded from what is now Ohio, most people who traveled on or along this great river probably knew that fish swarmed upstream as the days grew longer and warmer. According to historians, these ancient people brought in large catches of fish using spears, traps and hooks whittled from animal bone. Assuming that human nature also hasn’t changed much over the millennia, it’s likely that at least one ancient angler stretched apart his arms as well as the truth to show his fishing buddies the incredible size of “the one that got away.”
The river and the walleye still run strong, and so do their stories. Colorful accounts of the Maumee’s great fish populations appear in Louis A. Simonis’ book, “Maumee River 1835.”
“So numerous are they at the Rapids of the Miami [Maumee River] that a gig may be thrown into the water at random, and it will rarely miss killing one! Some hundreds have been taken in the river at Fort Meigs in this way during the last spring. The writer saw, last summer, nearly half a barrel of them killed in less than an hour on the rapids with clubs and stones by three and four persons.”
Another excerpt from the book offers more testimony to the great fishing near the fort: “The quantity of fish taken at this place is most surprising. Some days there are not less than 1,000 or 1,500 taken with the hook, within three hundred yards of the fort, of the most excellent kind.”
Fort Meigs in Perrysburg is now a reconstruction of the original, but the walleye fishing here continues to attract thousands of anglers. The ubiquitous spirit of this fish has spread to Toledo’s semiprofessional hockey team, the Toledo Walleye, and local libraries carry volumes of books about this popular member of the perch family.
As the walleye crowd the rapids, customers clad in chest waders and rubber boots line up before sunrise at bait and tackle shops and wait for the doors to unlock so they can scour the aisles for the right lure to tempt an unwitting walleye onto the dinner plate. These mom-and-pop shops share fish tales and scuttlebutt like appetizers at a dinner party. According to many of the patrons, the best baits for walleye are floating jigs tipped with white, yellow, or fluorescent-colored twister tails.
Gary Lowry, owner of Maumee Tackle, is thankful for the annual walleye run and spring fishing that accounts for more than half of his annual sales. If his work is a labor of love, then the romance continues, and Lowry has fond memories of his first fishing jaunts on Bluegrass Island, decades ago.
“We used to ride our bikes down to the river,” he said, “then wade over to the island. My first fishing experiences there were just bringing home a bunch of fish, but I didn’t know what kind. Later, I found out I had caught walleyes.”
The walleye run on the Maumee didn’t become a fishing frenzy until the mid-1970s, Lowry explained, when sportswriters began touting the Maumee as a premier fishing destination. During the six or seven weeks of the season, SUVs and pickup trucks dominate the popular fishing locations such as Side Cut Metropark and Orleans Park, and finding a parking space becomes as challenging as landing a lunker walleye.
The annual pilgrimage is a boon for many area businesses that cater to the 50,000 or more anglers who converge in Northwest Ohio. A day on the river might require buying pliers, sunscreen, fishing tackle, ice, and stopping at the grocery store to pick up lunch supplies, and local bricks-and-mortar stores enjoy an advantage over online stores for these daily purchases. Hotels and restaurants also benefit from the seasonal business boost.
The Econo Lodge on Fremont Pike in Perrysburg offers special hotel rates during the spring fishing season. Hotel Office Manager Art Balderas stays abreast of daily fishing reports to “give guests accurate fishing reports,” he said. As an added attraction, the hotel provides a fish cleaning station and ample parking for boat trailers.
If catching and cleaning fish doesn’t appeal to one’s sensibilities, The Andersons offers fresh Canadian walleye fillet for $15.99 per pound. Walleye is widely considered one of the best-tasting freshwater fish in the world, and its price-per-pound approaches that of saltwater favorites such as grouper and snapper. If one prefers upscale ambiance and the convenience of ordering from a menu, then perhaps Stella’s on Louisiana Avenue in Perrysburg will satisfy. Their fresh fillet of walleye, topped with herb butter, roasted on a seasoned cedar plank and served with wrapped lemon, mashed potatoes and vegetable du jour, costs $22.95 and has been a favorite since the restaurant opened more than 10 years ago, according to chef John Kerstetter.
The walleye season peaks in late March and early May when water temperatures reach 50 degrees and spring rains raise the water level in the river. The best fishing spots are in or near the rapids, from the Conant Street bridge upstream to the end of Jerome Road in Lucas County, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resource’s website.
Optimum conditions for the 2013 walleye season may fall around the middle of April, according to John Windau, wildlife communication specialist with District 2 Ohio Department of Natural Resources in Northwest Ohio. “Conditions in the Maumee are pretty good, the Sandusky River is really, really good right now. The Maumee water level is low, but recent rains should help. In the meantime,” he said “the deeper holes in the Maumee River, near Fort Meigs, are providing good catches.”
Holes and drop-offs provide likely hangouts for walleye, but they also pose a hazard for anglers who are often clad in cumbersome, rubber-soled boots that can fill with water in just seconds. Twenty pounds of waterlogged boots and a current strong enough to uproot trees can be a deathtrap. Anyone wading the river is advised to wear a life jacket, and wearing a belt cinched tightly across the waist will help keep water out of hip and chest-waders.
The Maumee River is still quite cold during the walleye run, and a person immersed in its chilly water can quickly become hypothermic and die in one to three hours. For boaters, tying the anchor off from the bow, not from
the stern, is essential. A boat anchored from the stern, which usually has less freeboard than the bow, is subject to waves and water entering and possibly capsizing the boat.
Walleye fishing methods vary, but a common technique is to cast out directly in front — in the 12 o’clock position — then slowly reel in while keeping the line tight in the current.
There is an unspoken etiquette among fisherman here, and most anglers will stay at least a rod’s length from the next person. When the fishing action is good, hundreds of anglers will stretch out along the river in single-file lines.
An evolution in walleye fishing tackle is helping protect the environment while increasing fish catch. The Carolina rig, with its floating jig head, is less likely to snag in the rocky stream bed than is a lead-head jig, which sinks to the bottom. The floating jig also offers a more enticing presentation to a hungry walleye by floating off the bottom of the streambed. Hence, more fish are caught, less lead is ingested, and less line is left to snag fish and birds that may have the misfortune of getting snared in the discarded line.
Law enforcement officials keep a high profile and a keen eye on fish limits and boating activities. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources sets annual and seasonal limits on walleye catches. The current daily limit is four walleye with a minimum length of 15 inches each. Regulations also limit fishing to sunrise to sunset. Fines for keeping a snagged fish — hooked anywhere other than by the mouth — varies depending on court jurisdiction. In Maumee, the fine and court costs total $145. The fine and court cost for one fish over the limit totals $145, plus $25 for each additional fish over the limit. Fishing without a license incurs a total penalty of $145.
As the buckeye and cottonwood trees begin to bud, the numbers of walleye and their human predators will diminish and finally fade into the memory of another season on the Maumee. The old men of the river will add a few new tales to their catalog, and the newcomers, christened with a first catch, will tell their buddies about that exciting day and about the “big one that got away.”