By Matt Stansberry
Illustrations by David Wilson

On a sunny summer afternoon, the City of Cleveland buzzes with a frenetic energy you can only observe from the waterfront, where the Cuyahoga meets the Great Lake.

Small planes circle above Burke Lakefront Airport, speed boats and jet skis buzz through the harbor, rusting railroad bridges move up and down, cranes and heavy equipment chug along. A million things are pulling in different directions, over land, sea and air.

And what goes on below the surface? Almost anything could be lurking – dozens of fish species call the Cleveland area home. The list is long  – bluegill, crappie, white bass, rock bass, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, white perch, yellow perch, walleye, carp, channel catfish, sheepshead, northern pike, steelhead trout – and those are just the more common species.

[blocktext align=”right”]That mystery of what might be happening under the water has haunted me since boyhood.[/blocktext]That mystery of what might be happening under the water has haunted me since boyhood.

What kind of fish are they? How big? How many? What are they eating? What do they look like? What do they taste like?

The psychological tension is enough to drive a man to poor life decisions. Which would explain why my cousin and I are sitting in folding lawn chairs in the shadow of the abandoned Coast Guard station, drinking Milwaukee’s Best Ice, smoking Backwoods cigars and soaking worms.

There is a pleasant breeze coming off the lake. Watching the sailboarders bouncing over the waves, it almost feels like we’re in some kind of vacation spot. In fact I’d almost forgotten we were here to fish, when something started pulling my rod into the lake.

It fights hard, but can’t get away. I pull it up out of the water, big-eyes and thick whiskers, scaleless gray skin mottled with black spots like moles, rippling with muscle, its dorsal and pectoral fins standing out like a shark, spines erect. This two-pound channel catfish is a beautiful and purpose-built creature, but an 11-year old kid just last week had caught a 15-pounder of this very spot.

LE fish

For most of my life I’ve been an elitist fly fisherman, you know – trout daintily sipping hooks decorated with wispy feathers. But there is something decadent, luxuriously inevitable about fishing with bait – life wants life. And out there cruising in the depths are unthinkable animals the size and shape of a fifth-grader, ready to consume the living offering. The nightcrawler pierced, writhing and bleeding on the bottom, waits for some whiskered giant to whisk it away  – a half-eel half-shark with a pale belly like a drowned corpse.

Prehistoric-looking, 40-lb flathead catfish have recently been discovered colonizing the Lower Cuyahoga. The elusive apex predator the muskellunge, once so abundant that there was a commercial seine netting fishery for them in Maumee Bay, was nearly extirpated from Lake Erie soon after European settlement. But recovering populations on both the far western and eastern corners of the lake might expand into the Cleveland area in the coming decade. Last summer, a fisherman caught a 4-foot, endangered lake sturgeon off Fairport Harbor. Lakewood’s legendary baitshop purveyor Frank Kasberger said a reliable source once witnessed someone catch an alligator gar in the Cleveland Harbor.

This is not sport. This is probing discovery. What beasts lurk below the surface of things, just off the rock wall separating our city from a vast and mysterious inland ocean?

I intended to find out, and cast again.

The usual suspects

Shore anglers embody a strange combination of hope and despair.

One evening at Gordon Park, I watched a line of men casting out as far as they could, trying to reach a huge school of white bass, gorging on emerald shiners maybe 200 yards offshore. The gulls diving, fish pushing bait to the surface, a feeding frenzy just out of reach. The men cast out poppers, foam noisemakers anglers use to try to get the fish’s attention. But to no avail. The school stayed tantalizingly visible. The men kept casting, hurling their baits toward the horizon as if their lives depended on it, as if driven mad. It felt like watching a parable.

[blocktext align=”left”]The men kept casting, hurling their baits toward the horizon as if their lives depended on it, as if driven mad.[/blocktext]

Today there is an old man sitting alone, blindly staring out at the lake and sorting through a box of hooks and rigs, stoically pondering the mysteries of the universe, the vagaries of fate. I’ve seen these men in every city waterfront, from New York to Seattle, men who are considered “salao”, the worst form of unluckiness, as Hemmingway writes in the Old Man and the Sea. Maybe he’s lost everything to fishing addiction – his wife, his job, the love of his children. Or maybe he lost the biggest fish he’s ever seen, and can’t recover.

Fishing alone is a good way to go crazy. Two is the right number for a fishing party. I listen to a pair of fishing buddies talk about their frustrations with their suburban lives in way that seems uncharacteristically honest, unguarded. It’s as if the sound of the gulls wheeling overhead, the waves lapping the shore, the whir of the battery operated minnow aerator provides ambient noise cover for these men to be direct with each other, to be honest with themselves.

My cousin and I are reflecting on the nature of fishing and our own relationships when his rod goes off with a jerk. A smallish sheepshead comes over the side, and we look it over before he offers it up to our brethren. It’s an unspoken pier courtesy to offer anyone eating off the water your catch if you don’t want it.

The pair happily accepts, taking the sheepshead and hanging it off a nylon rope stringer dangling into the lake.

“You’re not going to eat that are you?”

I can’t help it. I’ve built up years of bias against the freshwater drum, or sheepshead. They are the bane of the walleye angler, a wormy-looking lunk of gray flesh with a downturned mouth that looks designed to suck up whatever it might find on the mucky lake bottom. Invariably while fishing for walleye, sheepshead will eat all your bait, bust up all of your carefully tied rigs, and then somehow start shitting out shockingly large turds when you pull the out of them water, as if they’d been holding back giant globs of half-digested zebra mussels their whole lives for just this encounter.

I ask how the hell he plans to cook it. “After I scale it, I fillet it, and then take the skin off with pliers. You dust it in cornmeal and deep fry it. Tastes great. But don’t leave the skin on. The skin tastes terrible.”

From Lake to Table: Eating Erie

According to the Ohio State Extension publication, Guide to Utilizing the Fresh Water Drum:

In 1979 breaded drum fillets were served to 328 adults at various locations on the Ohio State University Campus. Survey results indicated that, compared to other breaded fish fillets, 84% of the study participants rated the flavor of the drum as average to very good …

Proper handling of the fish is essential for two reasons: body fat content and poor survivability. Once caught and placed on a stringer or in a live basket, freshwater drum die quickly. The body fat will then oxidize rapidly, especially in warm weather, giving the flesh a strong ‘fishy’ flavor. To maintain quality, place the fish on ice after it is caught.

I eat enough walleye and perch throughout the summer that I feel that this isn’t a line I need to cross.

[blocktext align=”right”] More fish are caught on Lake Erie for human consumption than the other four Great Lakes combined.[/blocktext] More fish are caught on Lake Erie for human consumption than the other four Great Lakes combined. According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Lake Erie Fishery Report, sport fishermen harvested 6.5 million pounds of fish in 2013 and commercial fishermen harvested 4.3 million pounds – and that’s just from Ohio’s waters.

The Ohio sportfish consumption health advisory, set by the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, recommends eating two meals per week of perch or sunfish, or one meal per week of most other species. The really big predators (large flathead catfish, northern pike and steelhead) tend to accumulate and concentrate toxins by eating lots of other fish over long periods of time – and generally don’t taste great – you want to avoid eating more than once a month. But even out of the Lower Cuyahoga, you can eat two fish meals per month.

“You can go by Ohio EPA’s recommendations – this isn’t voodoo,” said Mike Durkalec, Aquatic Biologist for Cleveland Metroparks. “Those guidelines are based on fish tissue samples, and the recommendations have become less restrictive over the years. They’re finding fewer toxins in the fish.

“You can eat almost any fish you want, once a week, every week of the year. The recommendations are conservative, geared toward protecting childbearing women, senior citizens and people with compromised health. The average healthy person could likely eat all the fish they want to, in most cases.”

Fishing and eating fish builds a connection between us and the lake. We touch the water, put the fish’s flesh in our mouths. Their protein fuels our lives. Combined with the Cleveland Metroparks recent major lakefront acquisitions, the act of fishing could literally transform the waterfront, subverting the history of treating the lake and river like dump.

“I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but people have to have a reason to care about something,” Durkalec said. “Fishing is a very real, tangible way to get people thinking about waterways. Our river and beach cleanups are populated by anglers and their kids. Fishing gives people reasons to join watershed groups, to support community and political initiatives. People that care about the water and the fish in it, will take wise care of that resource.”

And the lake needs a lot of care.

A crash course in Lake Erie ecology

David Beach writes in the Greater Cleveland Environment Book, “The Lake Erie Basin has more urban area, more heavy industry, higher population densities and more row crop agriculture. It receives larger loads of many pollutants than any other Great Lake.”

The lake faces urban runoff from city streets and yards, construction sites and roads, the incompletely treated sewer effluent from Akron and other municipalities, a million threats at once.

One of the biggest environmental challenges is invasive species. Durkalec said the total number of nonnatives in the Great Lakes is approaching almost 200 species since European settlement. “It’s hard to predict the kinds of impact any one of these could have on the Lake on an ecosystem level. When it comes to invasives, an ounce of prevention is worth 5,000 pounds of cure.”

Lake Erie is especially vulnerable to invasive species, more so than any of the other lakes. “It’s a really dynamic ecosystem, by far the most biologically productive of the Great Lakes,” said Harvey Webster, Director of Wildlife Resources at Cleveland Museum of Natural History. “It’s got a higher metabolic rate. It’s like a hummingbird sea.”

In less prosaic language: The lake is so warm, shallow and fertile that invasive species populations explode.

In recent decades, the two most visible invasive species for anglers have been zebra mussels and round gobies.

Zebra mussels and a similar Eastern European invader, quagga mussels, have dramatically cleaned up the turbid lake over the last twenty years, allowing more sunlight to penetrate and promoting aquatic submerged vegetation that largemouth bass, sunfish and pike tend to favor. The downside is that the mussels reduce the productivity of the water, competing for food with larval fish.

From the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association: The mussel is low in fat and its shell has no nutritional value causing fish to expend lots of energy crushing and digesting the mussel. The zebra and quagga mussels displace other more energy-rich food sources and leave fish and other aquatic species with fewer food options. As a result, fish stocks and conditions have declined in many of the Great Lakes.

gobyRound gobies are another recent Eurasian import with a complex life history and complicated relationship to our fisheries. Smallmouth bass (and a whole host of other fish) eat gobies. Gobies eat invasive mussels. But they also eat smallmouth bass eggs and compete with juvenile fish. According to the Ohio Department of Fish and Wildlife, since they became established in Lake Erie, round gobies have eliminated nearly every small bottom dwelling fish, such as darters and sculpins.

Despite these challenges, and the most recent national-media focus on toxins produced by explosions of photosynthetic bacteria (not algae) in Toledo’s drinking water, environmental conditions in Lake Erie and the Cleveland waterfront are improving.

“So many things have happened that have improved the Lakefront, from cleaning up Edgewater Park, cleaning up the beach, to giving people unfettered shoreline access,” Webster said. “The park service is building areas for fishery production on the Lower Cuyahoga, places where fish can get out of the traffic of debris from the river, something that favors aquatic life.”

The Cleveland waterfront is host to one of the most magnificent gatherings in the region – the gathering of gulls in the winter. As the lakes start freezing up, the gulls gather at the discharges of the power plants.

“If you have tens of thousands of gulls, you find the rare ones. The diehard birders find an incredible diversity,” Webster said. “If the diversity and abundance of birds are a reflection of the biomass of the ecosystem, it’s a strong sign of the robust quality of the lake.”

Four season fishing

In theory, you could fish the Cleveland lakefront all year long. Fishing success is largely contingent on weather and water conditions, and how close the bait like emerald shiners and gizzard shad are to shore.

Each season has its unique species and fishing situations. The spring fishery just after ice out in March can be excellent in protected bays and inlets for hungry pre-spawn smallmouth and largemouth bass, crappies and even toothy northern pike.

The spring-like conditions lasted late into the summer this year, with the unseasonably cool weather. But as the end of summer rolls through, we are entering a period where the fishing will slow down.

At the end of our day on the jetty, my cousin and I had caught about a dozen fish, five species in a few short hours. We packed up our gear and headed home, vowing to return soon to proffer our offerings for the diverse cast of predatory creatures cruising the shoreline. It’s addictive.

Some of the best fishing of the year takes place in the late fall, right before the lake starts to freeze up. Anglers head out into the break walls in the dark, casting huge plastic lures for the biggest walleye of the year. Ohio’s premiere sport fish species puts on the feedbag before winter, roaming the shallows.

[blocktext align=”left”]“If you’re serious about fishing, it’s who you are.”[/blocktext]

And it doesn’t have to stop. For the truly deranged, ice fishing the Cleveland lakefront can be very productive in protected near shore spots like the Cleveland Metroparks’ East 55th Street Marina.

It takes a certain kind of madness, to be out there on a cold night casting into the dark, or God-forbid, dropping bait through a hole in the ice. But you can bet there will be dozens of people out there any given night, as long as the fish are biting.

Cleveland Metroparks’ Durkalec is an avid, lifelong fisherman. One of the first things he said when we met stuck in my mind as some kind of explanation.

“If you’re serious about fishing, it’s who you are.”

Matt Stansberry was born in Akron, OH. He spent the last six years in Oregon writing about fly fishing and environmental issues, and moved back to the Cuyahoga Bio-Region as part of the Bigfoot Witness Protection Program. He blogs at Ohio Outdoors and Wildlife.

More of David Wilson’s illustration work can be found at

Matt and David’s monthly column, “North Coast Biodiversity,” is collected here. Preorder copies of the first edition of Redhorse — a print collection of the first six “North Coast Biodiversity” columns — here, and signed prints of David Wilson’s original art for the column here

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