In 1969 the Cuyahoga River, which runs through Cleveland and into Lake Erie, caught on fire. The river was so polluted with combustible chemicals that a fire started and raged on the water’s surface.
“And that was the second fire on the Cuyahoga River. The first was documented 100 years earlier in the 1800s,” says the always upbeat D’Arcy Egan, a native of Cleveland and arguably the most knowledgeable person on Lake Erie’s remarkable walleye factory.
For decades Egan has chronicled Erie’s fishing and its resurgence from the times of fire on the water, to what the lake has now become—the most extraordinary and consistently good walleye fishery on the planet.
“I covered Lake Erie fishing for 50 years for the Cleveland Plain Dealer,” says the 77-year-old lifelong area angler. “I watched the lake grow into what surely is the most incredible walleye fishing ever known.”
Egan says the last five years of walleye fishing on Erie have been phenomenal because the lake has had such high water, and high water makes for good walleye spawning conditions and improves water quality benefiting fish.
“We’ve had five great walleye spawns on Erie the last five years,” says Egan, who now is editor of The Beacon newspaper in his hometown of Port Clinton, on the south shore of Erie between Cleveland and Toledo. “In years past the walleyes would migrate from the eastern end of the 10,000-square mile lake to the western basin. But a few years ago, we noticed they didn’t migrate, and started spawning in deeper water. That has been a huge boon to the walleye population, and the fish are huge, too.”
The Game Changer
Egan says the great walleye fishing in Erie began when gill nets were finally outlawed in the Ohio portion of the lake in 1983.
“Gill nets destroyed Erie’s walleye fishing, starting back in the 1950s,” says Egan. “Gill nets were legal then, and the commercial netters hammered fish everywhere, including spawning areas. This is what also caused the blue pike to go extinct.”
Egan wrote dozens of stories about why nets should be banned in Erie during the late 70s and early 80s, and his life was threatened many times by commercial fishermen who didn’t like his reporting. But in 1983 nets were finally outlawed in the Ohio portion of Erie. Pennsylvania banned nets in their part of Erie in 1995, though the Canadian north side of Erie still allows netting.
“We had several good walleye spawns in the early 80s about the time the gill nets left, and the fish just exploded in number,” Egan recalls. “The fishing was so good, and so new to area anglers, that there were over 1,000 walleye charter boats working the lake in the 1980s. Fishing was so outstanding that I even started chartering anglers for walleyes.”
Egan doesn’t charter for walleyes today, but nearly 1,000 guide boats still target walleyes along the Ohio border of the lake.
“It’s the best walleye fishing in the world,” he says. “Most walleyes caught are 2 to 4-pounders, but there are plenty of fish weighing 5 to 8 pounds, and I know of a 16-pounder caught from the lake.”
Another reason walleye action is so incredible in Erie today is that the lake harbors more than 100 million walleyes.
“Fishermen are better today, too, much more efficient than 20 years ago,” Egan adds. “Today’s successful Erie walleye anglers troll, and very effectively due to precision electronics that offer accurate trolling speeds that can be important in tempting fish. Also, sonar and GPS have allowed anglers to be much more efficient in their targeting of small structures where walleyes hold.”
Anglers have learned about modern lures and how their color and action can tempt walleye strikes like never before. Using spinner rigs, spoons, crankbaits, side-planers, and fluorocarbon line in clear water have all had a part in anglers making limit catches of six walleyes per day, per angler (18-inch minimum size).
While most successful Erie anglers troll, shore-based fishermen do well, too. In November, anglers after dark can cast out into the lake from piers and break walls and catch limits of walleyes, according to Egan. Hot shore fishing can be found from Marblehead to Cleveland, in Sandusky Bay and around Port Clinton. Walleyes move tight to shore after dark feeding on baitfish such as gizzard shad.
Another important element in Erie’s astounding walleye catches, says Egan, is access to boat ramps and state areas dotted along the entire lake’s south shoreline. It’s made to order for small boats owned by families to get out on one of the most popular Great Lakes and enjoy it to the fullest.
The state has done an outstanding job creating boat ramps, parks, and beautiful areas for visitors to enjoy on Erie’s long, winding south shore, says the fishing sage of Erie.
“The minute the wind lays and it’s good for boating, fishermen and their families are out in force after Erie walleyes,” says Egan. “Trolling is great family-style fishing, and everyone in the clan can catch walleyes on Erie this way.”
The limit on walleyes is six, so if a family takes their boat out on the lake for a day of trolling, they can expect to catch plenty of tasty fish for dinner, Egan says. The whole south shore of the lake is loaded with superb visitor facilities, marinas, bed-and-breakfasts, motels, Airbnbs, and there are large and famed amusement parks like Cedar Point right on the lakeshore.
The Erie area has become a major playground for millions of people who come for vacations and a chance to get away with their families for time outdoors and fun in the sun, he explains.
“Lake Erie’s superb fishing and what it has done for the area is truly remarkable,” he says. “It’s perhaps the greatest fishing story ever told on the Great Lakes, at least on a par with the salmon introduction 50 years ago to Lake Michigan.”