HURON, Ohio (AP) -- Fishermen along Lake Erie's shoreline are in the fast food business much like the hamburger chains. Anglers have figured out that if you find a procession of hungry customers and put food where the traffic is, the action can be nonstop.
Each fall, from Vermilion west to Sandusky, fishermen crowd piers, breakwalls, docks and jetties along the lake trying to attract the attention of passing customers -- in this case, walleye by the hundreds of thousands. A migrational phenomenon brings to the shoreline amazing schools of big fish, which are normally found miles from shore in the lake's vast expanse of open water.
As these fish move from Lake Erie's deeper, cooler central basin to the shallow waters of the western basin where they will spawn in the coming spring, they feed voraciously on clouds of shad and minnows found crowded against the shore.
This is where the fishermen step in. By casting large lures and crankbaits that look just like the fish the walleye are eating from the piers, they can intercept some of these marauding travelers and take advantage of their frenzied feeding.
''These fish have been scattered about the lake all summer, and now they are staging, grouping up in areas where there is feed,'' said Roger Knight, fisheries supervisor for the Division of Wildlife at its Sandusky Research Station. ''They'll come back to the Western Basin in waves, and these schools of baitfish are right in their path. If the fishermen can intervene, this has all the makings of one of the premier trophy fishing opportunities in all of the Great Lakes.''
The current state record walleye, a 16-pound plus fish, was taken in November of 1999 just east of this fall hot spot, and was likely following this familiar migration highway when it was hooked. Fish caught from the piers this time of year are significantly larger than the average summer catch out on the lake and tend to be primarily big females. Fish in the 10-pound class are not unusual.
''It is not uncommon to see fish up to 14 pounds,'' Knight said. ''When the fish are socked in against the shore and feeding actively, it is not out of the ordinary to catch six fish in six casts and have them average eight pounds. I've seen big fish and lots of them in 3 feet of water, feeding like crazy with their fins sticking out of the water like sharks.''
While this fishing is sometimes fabulous, it is not for the faint of heart. Anglers face some of the worst of what Lake Erie has to offer in terms of wind, rain, sleet and snow. And there is one other minor, miserable detail: the best fishing is always at night.
''It seems like the nastier, the better as far as the weather goes,'' said Junior Wiley, a lifelong resident of Huron who has been fishing the piers in the fall for many of his 60 years. It often requires dress suited for an Arctic exploration to fight off the elements so one can stay out and fight the fish.
''If it's snowing and blowing and the temperature is in the thirties, if the fish are there, you'll get them,'' Wiley said. ''But this isn't for everybody. A lot of people have never experienced cold like you can see on that pier in the middle of the night in late November.''
Wiley prefers to fish the mile-long municipal pier in Huron, which gives anglers a smooth, concrete surface about 15 feet wide as their base of operation. Some of the other piers and breakwalls are narrower, or are basically rock piles that offer less-sound footing.
''The Huron pier is the best because it gets you well out in the lake and gives you the most access to the fish,'' Wiley said. ''It can be a pretty popular place if the fish are biting. You'll see 300 to 400 people out there on some cold and miserable nights, but you've got to tough it out to get the big walleye. I usually go out at dark, and if you're serious about this, you stay all night. You want to make sure and be there when the fish turn on.''
Jerry Modic manages Huron Bait & Supply on Main Street, and is the unofficial record-keeper for the fall fishing bonanza.
''You can guess, but you never know for sure when they'll start hitting,'' Modic said. ''But usually sometime around late October and early November when the perch move out the walleye move in, and it can get crazy in a hurry. These are not small fish, so people are patient and keep working the piers until the walleye start to hit. It only takes one good night to get it rolling. If we start catching big walleye, then everybody and their brother will know about it and there will be 400 cars out there the next night. It is really something.''
The spectacular fishing from the piers can last more than a month, or just a few days. It can be great one week, then slack off the next week. It can fluctuate up and down several times a night.
''There are likely a lot of factors involved weather, water temperature, available feed, to name a few, but we can't really pinpoint the triggering mechanism,'' Knight said. ''But one thing is for certain this fall fishery is outstanding if you catch it just right.''
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