Growing up, I had a map of the Great Lakes in my room, and I’d stare at it wondering what it would be like to spend time on each one. I enjoyed stories of the fur trade and large canoes plying these massive waters pursuing international trade. But it wasn’t until my 10-year-old son asked my father-in-law that I’d get the chance to venture to all five lakes pursuing fish.
As a teacher I try to get my students out of the classroom as much as possible because I believe travel and experiences are the best ways to learn. Even in the classroom, I work to transform the space and bring in as much of the world as possible. Fishing each Great Lake with my two children, nephew, father-in-law, and brother-in-law was loads of fun and a tremendous learning experience.
Here are a few things I’ve learned and even more points that I’m still pondering:
- Boat captains are all very different in their personalities, angling approaches, and boat preferences, but they are alike in their desire to catch fish. We had boat captains with warm personalities and those who were much more stoic, but they all had our success at the forefront of their priorities during our trips. Yes, that’s their job, but it’s called fishing rather than catching. It takes a special individual to head out into the sunrise each morning relying on a fish’s feeding habits. These individuals are strong competitors who have to believe they can outwit and outsmart the natural instincts of creatures who have been on the planet longer than dinosaurs. Boat captains also possess a great love of the fishery and the lake on which they earn a living.
- There are many different ways to fish the Great Lakes including handlining with bobsticks and heavy jigs, trolling crawler harnesses with side planers, downrigging with big weights and spoons, casting spinner rigs with crawlers, and longlining crankbaits … just to name a few. All boat captains will talk through their techniques and teach you a ton. A few might even allow you to assist them, but most just prefer you let them work.
- The Great Lakes are massive, impressive, powerful bodies of water that are so fragile it’s lucky we can still enjoy them. That’s somewhat of a paradox, I realize, but we are talking about a hard-to-contextualize six quadrillion gallons between all five lakes. Seems that people could do anything they wanted with so much water and nothing would really happen to it. Plenty has happened to the lakes over the years, yet we still grapple with how to care for them. When we stayed in Oak Harbor, Ohio, along the shores of Lake Erie, all of us found it rather daunting to be sleeping in the shadow of the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Station On both Lake Erie and Lake Ontario, we could see several reactors from the shoreline at any given time. It was also apparent, but much more hidden, that many millions of gallons of oil are refined, piped and shipped across these lakes daily. While we need energy sources, we have been playing roulette with these waters for many years. So far, we’ve escaped serious issues. I wonder how much longer we should push lady luck, and am thankful for conservation leaders who have fought hard, and continue to fight, for protection of these valuable waters.
- We, the people of the United States, share one-fifth of the freshwater surface of the planet with only one other nation. That alone seems reason enough to stay very good friends with Canada and work hard to continue the tremendous conservation partnership that exists between the two nations, including the states and provinces of the Great Lakes states. That means strengthening and financing long-term management plans over short-sighted gains. The cost of clean-up exceeds the cost of prevention that usually takes a generation-plus to complete.
- Right now is an awesome time to fish any of the Great Lakes. Bring along a few other anglers to share the costs and enjoy a worthwhile investment together.
- Officials on Lake Erie say this is now the “good ol’ days” with the incredible walleye boom they are experiencing thanks to strong year-classes in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015 and 2016. Our group of three adults and three kids age 10 and under caught six limits of walleye over 16 inches in just a few hours, and we had a slower bite than the other boats our captain was chatting with on the radio. The fish cleaning station in Oak Harbor, known as Shatto’s, had an impressive operation and their fillet knives were flying fast. We had to wait almost as long for our fish to process through fish cleaning as we did to catch them. The woman running the shop said they easily clean 2,000 fish each day in the summer.
- Chinook salmon on Lake Ontario are feisty and in plentiful supply at quality size right now. We caught three on our outing, and boat captain Matt Yablonsky said all of them were wild spawning Chinook, rather than recently stocked fish. After cleaning each of the fish, he gave the heads to Bill Hilts Jr. of Destination Niagara USA, who would deliver them to researchers studying the species. My 8-year-old daughter reeled in the two of them, and they gave her quite a fight.
- Lake Huron is in the midst of a management plan that biologists hope will bring them to a similar condition as Lake Erie currently is experiencing, said boat captain Scott Devuyst of Open Air Maverick Charters. He was optimistic that within a few years Lake Huron will have an exceptional fishery. Of all five Great Lakes, we caught the widest variety of species (walleye, yellow perch, northern pike, catfish, freshwater drum, white perch) on Huron, and our five biggest walleye all came from Huron’s famous Saginaw Bay.
- I’m proud of my two kids and nephew who showed impressive attitude and endurance in fishing three Great Lakes in five days. You could sense hesitation in each boat captain at the onset of each trip, but the kids proved themselves to be accomplished anglers willing to listen, learn, work, and invest the time with a positive attitude. Each boat captain praised the kids for their performance, which delivered life lessons they'll long remember.
- Fishing as a family brings people closer together. There’s just something about it that one must experience to appreciate, so get out and go fishing.