As we pulled into the boat ramp at Vermillion, I looked around at an armada of boats worth everything from a couple thousand dollars to what I could tell- was worth several times the amount I paid for my middle-class suburban home. I couldn’t venture to guess which of these rigs was owned by the captain we’d booked our half-day Lake Erie Walleye trip through.
From one of the smaller, but fancier boats—a guy in his twenties, wearing a cotton hoody, sweatpants, and rubber deck boots, gave us a friendly wave. I later learned this style of boat/trip is what was called a “Tournament Style” charter as opposed to a “Six Pack” or a “HeadBoat” charter.
“We must look the part” I said to my buddy –who was only slightly less of a rookie than I was.
The day prior, we’d just about completed the 15-mile drive to the ramp from our Air BnB when we got a call from our original Guide- giving us the bad news that the wind was too much on the lake to safely get out and fish.
Now with our hopes reignited after spending the previous day visiting tackle shops, chatting with locals, and swapping tales with other (random) anglers while getting our fill of Lake Erie Perch at several local restaurants- we were ready.
Or at least we thought we were ready.
I had a lot of questions rolling through my mind. It was a calm and sunny April morning with a high in the 60’s, and I was carrying a grocery sack full of enough clothes to keep me warm while shoveling snow off my Midwest driveway. I was expecting a long boat ride with plenty of wind and water. Wondering if –
I’d be too hot or too cold, wet or dry.
Was our plastic Walmart tote filled with ice big enough for all our fish or were we being presumptuous?
Did I pack enough drinks and snacks?
All of these questions rolled through my mind as we clumsily made our way aboard.
Fortunately, our Guide sensed this- and showed me where I could put all of my clothes and complimented me on the foresight of packing a rain jacket.
“The forecast doesn’t call for rain, and the wind won’t kick up too much water- but weather can change pretty quick out here on lake Erie.” cautioned our Guide.
At the time, I didn’t know if that was his way of making me feel better about over-packing or if it was some sage wisdom from a guy that had spent 300+ days on lake Erie for the better part of his 20 something years. Nonetheless- I had the appropriate amount of clothes on now and stowed the rest in the small bag I’d brought.
We took our seats, meandering away from the docks, through the channel, and out to the big lake. When we got past the orange buoys- we were off to the races as our Guide drove around, one eye navigating courteously around other anglers and one eye on the depth finder…. Finding fish. Which didn’t take long, and 15 minutes later, we were at trolling speed (maybe 2 mph?)
Being a novice angler, I watched with half amusement and half confusion as the Guide began casually flipping out line after line out the back of the boat. Pausing only to attach a small yellow piece of plastic to each line before putting the rod in its holder. I later learned these yellow plastic pieces were called planer boards, and they were designed to pull the line out to the side of the boat so that we could create a flying “V” of lures behind us that wouldn’t get tangled.
We settled in once we had half a dozen poles out and our flying “V” of planer boards were in formation.
The conversation shifted to strange talking points, like “dive charts”, “water columns” and “shiny arcs on the fish finder”. But…. It wasn’t long before one of the planer boards was out of formation and swinging directly behind the boat.
The Guide grinned, handed me a pole, and told me to…. “Start reeling at a nice steady pace, and don’t stop till that planer board is at the boat”.
I was half delighted, half-stunned at how easy it seemed to reel the line in- I was expecting a fishing TV show fight all the way to the boat. I was delighted because I could already see myself bringing my young daughter out, knowing that she could perform as well as I was. My thoughts temporarily wandered to wishing I’d brought out my family, or maybe 1 or 2 more of our buddies- we easily had the space to accommodate them comfortably on this 23 foot boat.
I paused my reeling briefly to allow our Guide to remove the planer board from the line and then resumed reeling in the remaining 70 or so feet of line that stood between me and my first Lake Erie walleye.
As the “struggle” culminated, I could now see a “carp-sized” walleye off the back of the boat, right as the Guide dipped his net in and brought the fish aboard, much less awkwardly than he’d brought me aboard.
As soon as I’d gotten the lure out of its mouth- it was my buddy’s turn to begin reeling, and I barely had time to get “her” into the live well before the net was back in the water. I immediately had a small panic attack- and exclaimed that I’d forgotten to measure the fish.
After knowing glances and a hearty laugh, both the Guide and my buddy explained that it was easily 8-10 inches over the 15-inch size restriction- and that I am now officially a spoiled rotten walleye angler.
“And one other thing” proclaimed our Guide, “Most other fisheries, you wanna throw those big females back- but Lake Erie is one of the only walleye fisheries where it’s socially and scientifically encouraged to keep the big spawning females.”
We had a fast and furious 15 minutes, quickly (but not too quickly) and steadily reeling in fish after fish, before the action slowed down. You might think that would be dismaying, but actually… I kind of welcomed the break.
We trolled around for a bit longer, chatting, eating some snacks, taking pictures with some of our fish, and enjoying a beer. Most guides don’t like folks bringing the “hard stuff” out on their boat— as they want you to focus on the fishing and the experience and not have so much that you can’t fish.
Then, just as quickly as it had turned off, we were back on them again…prefaced only by some exclamatory pointing and hollering at the fish finder. After about 30 minutes of reeling in big fat walleyes (at a more sustainable pace this time), we had our limit and a “Nice Box of Walleye” which is the vernacular for a full live well of great sized fish.
With a handshake and a “make sure you tell your friends about us” we parted ways with our Guide and were headed to the fish processor to get 60 pounds of fish cleaned before a mid-afternoon dinner. As we sat down and ate dinner, my buddy and I chatted about how much information we had gleaned in such a short amount of time.
“I’m ready to buy a boat—quit my job—and become a full-time Walleye Bum…Right now” this rookie exclaimed.