Monday, June 16, 2014

Close to shore is close to Lake Erie angler's heart

The rocks are real and the paper is no longer being used, what with GPS now being electronic and all.

As for the scissors, well, those are those new-fangled titanium floating needle-nose pliers with the razor-sharp blades that sear their way through the toughest braided fishing line.

All were used – still used, in fact – whenever Paul Liikala of Cuyahoga Falls decides to take his “Miss Yellow” for an outing on Lake Erie.

Lately his and her joint trips on the big lake have not involved an all-day adventure, either. That’s true even though Paul is on the other side of Medicare eligibility while Miss Yellow is doing a good job of hiding he age.

At 14 feet with an engine of only 15 horsepower, Miss Yellow is hardly suitable for high-speed runs to Lake Erie’s fabled walleye-fishing ground hanging close to the International Line.

No matter, for near shore duty has long proven a staple in Liikala’s repertoire of how to catch fish in places scorned or passed up by other anglers.

The is the daily home waters to walleye, yellow perch, smallmouth bass and even those fishes shunned by anglers who also believe one needs a big boat, a massive array of line-counting reels and matching fishing poles along with good credit at the local marina fuel dock.

Then again, Liikala has enjoyed fishing the lake’s littoral zone from the closing days of the blue pike era in the early 1950s clear through the hey-day of the walleye and now into the better mixed bag footing.

He learned much of it from his late father, Archie, who fished the lake’s near-shore waters off North Perry Village, east to the Lake County-Ashtabula County line and west to the mouth of the Grand River.

Like father, like son, as neither man ever complained about catching “only” a partial legal daily limit of walleye. For them, fishing was – IS for Paul – more about the job of figuring out the fish than it is about reeling in a legal limit horde for the freezer.

“It’s something of a lost art,” Liikaka said as we plied the near-shore waters somewhere to the east of the Grand River.

Exactly where is a secret known to Liikala (and me). Thing is, this near-shore zone and its bountiful supply of rock piles is hardly virgin fishing water. Just largely forgotten and by-passed, says Liikala.

“Anymore,” also said Liikala as he prepared his four rigs for a few hours of slow trolling within easy sight of land, “I look for an opportunity to fish a ‘window’ on Lake Erie.”

That so-called window means that even before Liikala powers up Miss Yellow and stared at the screen of his Humminbird electronic GPS/fish finder he had explored the latest marine weather forecast. His desire is that a few hours of relatively tame winds would provide an equally agreeable few hours of angling.

Once Liikala has a general idea of a general place to start he begins to become more specific. That’s when he plumbs the depths of his massive Bass Pro Shops’ soft-sided tackle satchel, looking for just the right lure or lure combination.

For this particular fishing excursion Liikala attached his own home-made worm harnesses to a pair of a quartet of rigs. Each of them had line counter reels bound with super-braid lines and along with rods of unknown age, though Liikala is partial to pedigree, that being Berkley.

“Graphite rods are way too stiff for this kind of fishing, which is why I much prefer to use rods made from fiberglass,” Liikala said. “You really need to have that flex.”

The first of the two worm harnesses had pale pink plastic beads and brass-finished willow-leaf blades. When those worm harnesses failed to entice much in the way of fish Liikala looked at the small things.

Thus be believed he would find better success with worm harnesses that while still fitted with pale pink beads were best fitted with same-size willow-leaf blades that featured gold tinting.

Yep, small things do matter when fishing near-shore waters, Liikala believes.

“Subtlieties,” he said.

Yes, including employing a three-way rig that featured a worm-harness on top and a diving crankbait on the bottom leader. Where once just about every Lake Erie troller worth his Erie Dearie fished at least one three-way rig now practicallyno one does, excluding Liikala, of course.

To the other two poles and their appointments Liikala chose either a Storm Junior Thunderstik or else a Reef Runner. Their coloration leaned toward the garish; maybe a pink head with a purple body and chrome belly on one and a fire tiger pattern on another.

“We’ll be going through a lot of lures today,” Liikala said. “It’s the best way to find what the walleye and smallmouth want the most.”

At this point we cannot overlook another important element that Liikala swears by: Incorporating in-line plainer boards rather than burdening his Miss Yellow with some monstrosity of a mast pole and spider-webbed planer board lines.

“These Offshore in-line plainers do a lot better in rougher water where the lines are constantly being released from their clips,” Liikala said.

If memory serves correctly – and I believe it does – Liikala assigned the plainer lines/worm harnesses to the inside duty while the outside job was reserved for the plainer lines/crankbaits.

Most importantly of all in tackling in-shore trolling, Liikala believes, is the fish finder. This device is crucial for success and Liikala’s eyes seldom strayed from the electronic’s screen.

The reason being was that Liikala was hunting more for the region’s unseen rock piles; those humps of natural or man-made structures consisting of stones heaved one on top the other and fanning out to create a feel-good home for the fishes.

These rock piles, by the way, are common elements running from the mouth of the Grand River and east to off at least Madison Township and beyond to off the Geneva State Park harbor and marina.

Head west and an angler can find similar structure as far as the Chagrin River’s outlet with some decent bundles of heavy-duty rocks anchored off the Mentor Lagoons.

These packages of fish-attracting geology are secured as often as not in shallow water, the so-called littoral zone.

Paul hunts for these rock piles – which may be no larger than a coffee table or a living room at most – in water generally of 10 to 30 feet deep; seldom more and only occasionally, less.

“My dad would always fish this zone and seldom did it fail him,” Liikala said.

Nor did the rock piles Liikala homed in on both from experience and GPS/fish finder use decided to lay an egg.

Concentrating first on the 10 to 20 foot depth range and then extending it to the 20 to 30 foot depth range, we were able to secure in the cooler four delightfully plump walleye. The fish each measured between 22 and 24 inches, not super big but certainly supper-ready.

Again if memory serves two of the walleyes came on minnow-imitating crankbaits with the other two walleye succumbed to the worm harnesses.
“Last week when I was here with another friend we caught one walleye that was 30 inches,” Liikala said.

Along with the four walleye the rigs scored on one Fish Ohio-qualifying 13¼-inch yellow perch, a two-pound smallmouth bass, several over-size white perch and an equal number of respectable-size white bass. Oh, and a handful or two of freshwater drum up to 21 inches.

Okay, so maybe four walleye for four hours of fishing is not an impressive catch for the big-boat crowd.

Yet considering that we could watch a pair of immature eagles swoop and soar along the close-at-hand shoreline and view an osprey hunt the same, you didn’t see either Liikala let alone me complain any.

“More and more I truly enjoy this kind of fishing the most ,” Liikala said. “I bet we’ll only burn a couple gallons of gas, too.”

For once Liikala was incorrect. His Miss Yellow and her Evinrude outboard consumed a whole three gallons of gasoline.

Just remember that the next time you leave port and head out to 70 feet of water in a not-always dependable search for the elusive Lake Erie walleye.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn

Jeff is the retired News-Herald reporter who  covered the earth sciences, the area's three county park systems and the outdoors for the newspaper. During his 30 years with The News-Herald Jeff was the recipient of more than 100 state, regional and national journalism awards. He also is a columnist and features writer for the Ohio Outdoor News, which is published every other week and details the outdoors happenings in the state.

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