Lake Erie Walleye Capital?
By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson
 

In the three decades since Jim Fofrich began guiding on Lake Erie, he's seen the big water go though changes that have forced anglers to adjust their tactics in order remain successful. Jim is the owner/operator of the Single Spin Guide Service and developer of the Lindy Flip'N Harness. He tells story after story of what Lake Erie was like in the old days, what happened to bring about the walleye rebound and how the accidental introduction of zebra mussels forced fishermen to rethink the way they did things.  

But, the need to put away the old ways and embrace the new doesn't seem to bother a man who started fishing at a time when the standard depth-finder was a rope marked in foot-long sections tied to a piece of lead with wax smeared on its bottom. Counting marks told you how deep the water was. Checking to see what was embedded in the wax - sand or rocks or clam shells - revealed what lurked below. "Talk about primitive," said Fofrich, 63. "But, it worked." 

He recalls his first favorite spinning rod. It was 100-percent fiberglass, and its weight was measured in pounds, not ounces. "Setting the hook was a hernia-provoking experience," he laughed. "Your eyes crossed, not the fish's." 

Fofrich disputes the common portrayal of Erie as a "dead lake" in the 1960s. True, commercial nets took tons of fish away. Pollution flowed freely into it, raising nutrients and creating algae blooms that depleted oxygen levels, especially in summer. But even then, reputable magazines listed Erie at the top of any list of the best smallmouth lakes in North America. The lake also held smelt, yellow perch, catfish and white bass.  

It was the walleye numbers, though, that suffered the most during that period. But, anglers could still catch them in the shallows. The water was turbid. Walleyes could go as high in the water column as they pleased. Weight-forward spinners like the Arbogast Tackle Co.'s Bunyon 66 dressed with nightcrawlers were the favored technique. The legendary Erie Dearie hit the market in the early 70s. Casting them to the tops of reefs or fan-casting them while drifting provided an effective tool to efficiently cover the water column from top to bottom, side to side with flash, vibration and live bait.  

Walleye prospects improved dramatically with the passage of the Clean Water Act in the 1970s. Commercial fishing was curbed in the Canadian portion of Erie and banned in the part that laid within the United States. "We started seeing improvements almost immediately," Fofrich said.  

The walleye rebound was well underway by later that decade. Frofrich recalls a day when he took Gary Roach fishing. Together they caught more than 60 walleyes in an hour, the smallest was 23 inches. He remembers another day when he guided a party to 80 walleyes in one drifting pass.  

Still, there was much to learn. Impressed with what he had seen at Erie, Roach returned one April to discover the guides had not started fishing yet. The locals all thought the fish only spawned in feeder rivers. The banks were lined with shore fishermen, and guides didn't want to take part in the mayhem. They chose to wait until later when walleyes began showing up at known haunts on the main lake. But Roach convinced Fofrich to venture out into the western basin. He cast a Fuzz-E-Grub dressed with a minnow to the top of a reef and wham, a walleye. Springtime on Lake Erie has never been the same.  

Lake Erie remained a shallow fishery for years. The algae-stained water allowed game fish to inhabit the upper regions of the lake on structure from 6 to 18 feet deep. Anglers didn't have the knowledge of fish behavior or the equipment, such as advanced sonars, to explore the depths. Indeed, there was little need most days. "We were extremely effective in the shallows - extremely, extremely effective," Fofrich said. 

Enter zebra mussels. Once introduced from the ballast of merchant ships, the invaders from across the Atlantic Ocean multiplied by the millions, each one filtering algae from a liter of water each day. Erie's fishery evolved from shallow to deep much of the time. Walleyes could still be found on the reefs during spawn. But, it soon became clear to the fishermen that new tactics had to be found in order to reach fish that often inhabited depths of 25 to 40feet. 

Anglers exchanged the one-quarter, three-eighths and one-half ounce weight-forward spinners they had used for five-eighths, three-quarters, 1 ounce and an ounce-and-a-half. But even then, walleyes that once crunched the standard weight-forward spinners seemed to have become finicky biters. They merely nibbled at the 'crawlers. When Fofrich felt a tap, he would tip the rod toward a fish to feed the lure to it. But more than half the time, the fish was not there when he set the hook. 

It was about that time the Professional Walleye Trail came to Lake Erie to host its season opener. For several years in a row, the PWT headquartered their operations at South Bass Island. Locals learned from the pros, especially about trolling tactics like planer boards which moved baits away from boat noise to avoid spooking fish. They saw innovations like bottom bouncers that resembled hand-lining "trolling-sinker" set-ups (3 ounce weights on three-way rigs). The old timers had hand-lined as far back as when Elvis was king.  

Fofrich experimented with new tackle ideas and presentations himself. He reasoned the weight-forward design would still work but that it needed refinements to catch spooky fish. He came up with the notion to put a double-hook nightcrawler harness on an 18-inch leader on the rear of a weight-forward head. The weight-forward's spinner blade, which would make the rig ride upward if left on the head, was moved back to the harness. "We started smoking them immediately" he said. 

Versatility was the Flip'N Harness' strong point. The model that weighed five-eighths of an ounce can be cast like weight-forward spinners. The one-and-a-half-ounce Flip'N Harness can be drifted and dragged on the bottom with a dead stick. Fofrich likes to use light-action rods. He drops the Flip'N Harness down to the bottom before letting out enough line to let the line drift back to keep a 45-degree angle with the surface. He puts clients on the bow and stern casting Flip'N Harnesses as they watch the dead sticks for strikes. "It's a super way to fish," he said. "My boat looks like a porcupine." The Flip'N Harness can also be trolled behind planer boards. He lets out different lengths of line to cover a wide range of depth. Average speed is about 2 mph.  

So, how is Lake Erie today? "Even when Erie is tough, it's still the Walleye Capital of the world," Fofrich said.  Call him at 419-729-2181 if you have any doubts.