Off the Hook

A record-level walleye population in Lake Erie is luring seasoned anglers and a new generation of fishing enthusiasts. Don’t know how to get started? Charter boats offer the fun of fishing without the fuss.

It’s an incredible time to be bobbing on the surface of Lake Erie with a fishing line in the water. Not only is the walleye population exploding, but fishing is a great way to reduce stress, connect with nature and legitimately maintain a proper social distance from other people.

No boat? No problem. Hundreds of fishing charters helmed by experienced captains are ready to help inspire an appreciation for Lake Erie.

This summer, social-distancing requirements mean not quite as many people are allowed on each boat, but otherwise everything is the same. Just book your outing and show up with a one-day fishing license, some snacks and beverages, plus a cooler to transport your fresh catch. The captains supply the rods and reels, bait, lures, ice and — most importantly — their knowledge of fish behavior and the lake’s ever-changing weather patterns.

A vast blue sky mingles with fluffy cotton clouds when we step aboard the Dr. Bugs, a 30-foot Grady-White dual-engine owned by Captain Dave Spangler (, who typically operates out of the Wild Wings Marina in Oak Harbor, Ohio. But, today, he’s tied up a bit farther east. “We go where the fish go,” he explains.

And on this warm morning, schools of walleye are deep in the lake to escape the heat. He expects we’ll have some luck east of Kelleys Island. It’s not just a hunch, though. “We have a big network,” says Spangler, the vice president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, which has about 800 members. “In this area alone we have 120 boats, so someone is out there every day.” 

Before we shove off, we’re joined by Cary Ferguson, owner of Ferguson Gallery in Marblehead, Ohio, and his friend, Brian Vulpitta, from Avon Lake, Ohio. Both relish the idea of relaxing on the lake and maybe bagging some dinner. Spangler’s clientele ranges from experienced anglers, many of them from out of state, to families that have never been on the lake.

Spangler especially enjoys the chance to spend time on the water with those in a position to affect its health — namely, politicians and farmers. While they certainly know how detrimental algae blooms are, they may not have seen the damage up-close like he has. “There haven’t been a lot of positive changes to make things better for the algae bloom,” he says. “We had a couple of years of good funding. Now, that money has been reallocated to other things. I think they will do it eventually, but not this year.”

After motoring for 30 minutes, Spangler’s electronic fish detector shows promising activity, and he slows to a crawl. He starts to prepare six fishing rods, including one with a Dr. Bugs lure, a design he created with a blood-red nose. He quickly calculates the proper depths for each line so they don’t entangle, while simultaneously accounting for the angle of the baited line based on the speed at which the boat will be trolling — a term for moving slowly while trailing the lines behind the boat. 

“I have owned a boat since I was 25, but I don’t usually troll,” says Ferguson. “So I am really impressed with his knowledge. He knows everything as far as where to go and putting out multiple lines at different depths.”

Sometimes, it’s the newbies who have the best luck. Spangler recalls the time a 15-year-old boy caught a big one during his family’s first-ever excursion on Lake Erie. “The rod was tipping all the way into the water,” says Spangler. “He was yelling and I was telling him to keep the pressure on. I thought it might have been a sheepshead, but then I saw what was coming.”
That whopping 32-inch-long walleye was destined for the taxidermist rather than the dinner plate. “He will probably never catch one that size for the rest of his life,” Spangler adds. “It really made my day.”

Not everyone is guaranteed a prize-winning walleye, but Spangler works hard to make sure no one goes home with an empty ice chest. That’s easier than ever thanks to the favorable conditions for fish spawns over the last six years.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife estimates Lake Erie has 116 million walleye over the age of 2. By midsummer, many of those 2-year-olds are expected to reach the 15-inch minimum requirement necessary to include in the daily catch limit of six. Walleye anglers will likely bag 3-,5- and 6-year-old fish with an average length between 20 to 26 inches and a weight of 6 to 7.5 pounds.

Indeed, everyone on our boat starts to reel in the walleye, returning to shore with a cooler full of respectably sized fish. 

Spangler hopes more people get out on the lake this year to experience the amazing fishing. “It’s a great time to be a fisherman. I love this job and want to continue to do what I love to do.”

The Captain’s Walleye Dinner
While you can bake or even microwave walleye, Capt. Dave Spangler prefers preparing the fish in his trusty Fry Daddy deep fryer in four easy steps.
• Cut washed walleye into 1-inch thick fillets.
• Heat corn oil to 350 degrees.
• Roll damp pieces of walleye in Young’s Fish Fry Breading (any flavor).
• Drop in oil and fry 5 to 7 minutes or until golden brown.