Walleye Fishing With Ahab on Lake Erie

by Harry R. Noden

Author with proof.

Call him Ahab. He was the kind of guy who would take a canoe out on Lake Erie in a typhoon if he felt the walleye were biting. Although he had never gone in search of the White Whale, Ahab pursued walleye, perch, bass, and even bluegill with an obsession that would have made the fictional captain proud of his namesake. It never seemed to matter whether the sun cooked the lakes with 95 degree temperatures or storms blackened the sky with gale force winds and peppered the water with hailstones the size of duck eggs. To Ahab, the weather -- whatever it was --meant good fishing.

"The cold weather makes the fish hungry," he used to say. "They have to eat a lot to survive the winter when there are no bugs around. Cold weather means great fishing."

"That makes sense," I'd reply.

"Of course, in warm weather," Ahab would add, " the fish become active looking for food. That's when all the bugs are out. They're attracted by the bugs. Warm weather means great fishing."

"Warm weather and cold weather are great times to fish," I echoed, trying to pretend I understood. "Just that stormy weather you have to avoid."

"Storms? No. Storms are excellent for fishing. Seems to shake them up and get them moving."

"Oh," I nodded. "I can understand that."

"Then again," said Ahab, "I've caught some monsters in calm weather too. That's when it's easy for them to see the slightest disturbance on the water. That's when those top water buzz baits really kill 'em."

Weather conditions to Ahab were like brands of whiskey to an alcoholic. Each possessed some irresistible quality that couldn't and shouldn't be passed up. So I should have thought twice the day Ahab invited me to go fishing on Lake Erie during a predicted storm. The fact that the weatherman had announced small craft warnings, Ahab explained, was just proof that the conditions were ideal for landing those lunker walleye.

Having never been out on Erie, I trusted Ahab's judgment. Besides, the tales I'd heard of Erie walleye the size of muskie seemed to diminish the seriousness of the weather forecasts, and after all, Ahab was an old timer. Rumor was he had fished the lake with spears and clubs back in some prehistoric age when the most exciting game fish in Lake Erie was the sheephead. How could I argue with experience like that?

Consequently, one foggy June morning about six o'clock - cans clanking, waves slapping the dock - Ahab and I put in at Catawba Bay on Lake Erie. The water looked ominous. White-capped waves cresting at about three to four feet rolled in under a wall of thick gray fog.

"Looks kinda rough," I said to Ahab.

"That's what makes the fishing good, " he replied. "Just be sure to take a little Dramamine for sea sickness."

"Strange that there aren't any other boats launching this morning," I observed.

"That's the trouble with fishermen today," explained Ahab. "They hear a storm's on its way and they stay home. That's why most guys never catch the big ones."

"That makes sense," I said.

It only took us a few minutes to launch Ahab's boat, a small eighteen footer which was easy to handle on land, but not so easy in the water. Ahab's tiny 35 horsepower motor just didn't seem to make much progress against the waves, and the rubber band he had used to repair the throttle kept slipping off and periodically stalling the engine, sending up billows of smoke and leaving us to bounce helplessly for a time on the waves.

These little delays, however, delighted rather than depressed Ahab. He prided himself as a craftsman and loved the opportunity to show that he could master anything mechanical.

"See that steering rig," he said. "I built that myself."

I had sensed something different about the steering system. But it wasn't until Ahab said he built it himself that I noticed that his home-made rig was an old Chevy steering wheel connected with some badly rusted chicken wire to parts from some kid's discarded peddle car.

"You know, I only have 4 bucks in this steering rig," boasted Ahab. "Picked most of the parts up at garage sales. In fact, I've only got $400 in this whole boat. Found a damaged shell, an old motor, some used life jackets. And I'll tell you something: I'd match this rig against any of those big, expensive yachts any day. You don't need all those frills."

To be brutally honest there were a few frills that would have been nice: little things like a compass, or an extra gas tank, or a life jacket that was neither waterlogged nor leaked kapok, or even some kind of shield to keep the water spray from soaking us whenever we tried to go faster than canoe speed. But to criticize the condition of a man's boat is a worse offense than questioning the size of the fish he says got away. So I just let it slide.

For an hour we chugged blindly into the dense fog, ducking the chilling spray of waves that showered us regularly at each crest. With visibility at about three feet, I was a little concerned that we were going to collide with an island or another boat. Yet I did take some comfort in knowing that at the speed we were traveling, we probably wouldn't do much damage. Finally, Ahab looked skyward, cut the engine, and raised his hand as if to command some imaginary crew to a halt. "This is the spot!" he announced. I looked around. I could barely see Ahab - let alone the spot.

"This is the spot?" I asked. "I can't see a thing? How do you know this is the spot?"

"I just know," explained Ahab. "When you've fished as long as I have, you just know. Throw in."

Now the guys down at Big Ed's Bar had told stories of Ahab's uncanny radar mind. They'd shared tales of river trips where Ahab had spotted an inlet or a fallen tree and announced, "This is the spot!" And after four or five fishless hours, they told of him saying, "That's odd. This sure looked like the spot." But it's not kind to question the judgment of your ship's captain. So I hooked a night-crawler on the end of my Erie Dearie and cast out.

No sooner did my line hit the water than I began to feel a gentle, little tug. I whipped my rod back to set the hook - just in case it was a fish. My rod bent almost full circle.

"Fish on," yelled Ahab.

"Yes! I've got a big one."

"I don't mean you," Ahab grumbled. "I mean me. I got a fish on."

For the next hour we landed one lunker walleye after the next: six pounders, seven pounders, and one that Ahab eyeballed at nine and a half pounds - although it looked a good twelve to me.

Then it began. Under us the lake seemed to come alive like some monstrous, angry beast slowly being awakened. Rolling white caps lifted us up and dropped us with a punch in the bottom of six foot watery craters. Ahab's face began to turn a pale shade of green. Still holding his fishing rod taut, he slumped over the side of the boat and began heaving his guts out.

"Old buddy," I said. "You look like a piece of fish bait. Let's head into shore."

Ahab raised his head from the side of the boat, weaved a bit to get me in focus, and said, "Are you kidding? The fishin' is great. I'll be damned if I'm going in. This is just startin' to be fun."

"Fun?" I asked as I watched Ahab roll back to the side of the boat and heave again.

It's useless to argue with a man who's obsessed - especially a fisherman. After all, what other breed of human invests fifty dollars in a rod, thirty dollars in a reel, another hundred in tackle, thirty dollars in gas and thousands in a boat - all in order to catch an amount of fish that he could pick up in a market for less than twenty dollars.

Ahab was obsessed all right. Eyes glazed, he cracked a demonic smile and cast out in search of the lunker walleye. He'd catch two or three, and then hang over the side of the boat like a sailor on a three week drunk. Every now and then he'd mumble, "This is great!"

Near noon, the sun broke through and the fog began to lift. Having caught our legal limit several hours earlier, we were now throwing back the smallest of the catch and keeping the largest. Off on the horizon I could see twenty to thirty crowded charter boats, looking like porcupines with rods projecting in all directions. Above them across the entire horizon was a rumbling, black army of clouds.

"Ahab," I said. "Those clouds don't look good."

"Ah, it's nothing - a few rain clouds," he mumbled, as he slumped back over the side of the boat again.

Suddenly, in what seemed like an instant, the twin-engine charter boats vanished from the horizon.

"Ahab," I said. "Those charters sure seemed to leave in a hurry. Wonder if they heard something on their weather radios?"

Ahab glanced up at the sky, examining the black clouds which now loomed overhead. Streaks of lightning ripped the blackness in the distance and a light drizzle began.

"You might be right," said Ahab. "We better head in. But I still feel a little sick. How about you taking the wheel."

Carefully trying not to rock the boat, I switched places with Ahab and sat at the steering wheel. The storm exploded into a torrent, wind lashing about our heads, waves thrusting us almost to the point of capsizing. Ahab hung over the side, dry heaving into the water.

My experience with motor boats was nil. I'd always been a canoe man. Farm ponds, where the waves crest at about three inches, was my kind of lake. But I positioned myself behind the wheel, took inventory of the controls, and hit the throttle. That's when it happened: the Chevy steering wheel fell off into my lap.

Out of control, the boat began traveling in circles. Then, above the roaring din of the wind, I heard a loud chug. Behind Ahab a large puff of gray smoke mushroomed into the air.

"Ahab! The rubber band on the motor! Can you fix it?"

"I can fix anything, " he boasted as he lifted his woozy head to search for the motor.

"Good. When you're done with the rubber band, see what you can do with this steering wheel."

Even in his groggy condition, Ahab was a master craftsman. In fifteen minutes he had his garage sale hybrid running full power back toward shore. The only problem was that now we were forced to aim the boat slightly toward the middle of the lake to prevent being swamped.

Our boat - frame moaning and motor coughing - seemed to slide like a ruptured sea cow down one wave and up the next. Through the black sky the thunder cracked, flashbulbing the whitecaps that lapped into the boat every five minutes or so. I thought we were going to die.

Ahab, however, seemed unconcerned. He rolled his eyes, hummed an old Beatles tune, smiled, and paused to proclaim, "This is the life. An ice chest full of walleye, real walleye - not those minnow size you see some guys bring in. Yeah, it just took a little storm to stir 'em up."

He seemed so content and confident that I began to think that perhaps the water sloshing around my ankles had made me unnecessarily fearful. Surely this storm wasn't as bad as I thought. This must be typical for a big lake. So, trying to appear the old pro, I casually asked,

"Have you been out in many storms like this?"

"Are you wacko?" Ahab replied. "I wouldn't go out in weather like this. You'd have to be crazy to go out in weather like this. Storm smaller than this one sunk the Edmund Fitzgerald a few years back."

I gripped a little more tightly to the gunnels and prayed silently. Then it occurred to me that it was Sunday. I had skipped church to go fishing. Visions of newspaper obituaries flashed in my mind: LOCAL MAN SKIPS CHURCH TO GO FISHING AND DROWNS IN STORM. REVEREND REFUSES TO PERFORM SERVICES.

An hour and a half later our small boat hacked and wheezed into the dock. Like the early morning, no other fishermen were around.

"Looks like we're the last ones in," Ahab said.

"I'm sure we are," I replied, clutching tightly to the pier.

"Yeah, that's why we caught those lunker walleye," explained Ahab. "Fishermen today just don't know when the fishin' is good. Little storm scares them off."