Sweet Lorraine - Mike Gnatkowski

Sweet Lorraine - Mike Gnatkowski

Anglers flock to ports like Huron and Vermillion, but many choose Lorain because of the amenities, facilities and quick access to the deeper waters of the Central Basin.  


The allure of Central Basin ports like Lorain, Ohio is to catch steelhead and walleyes on the same trip.


If you’re an old-time rocker like me you remember Uriah Heap and their hit “Stealin’.” Another one of their classic tunes was a song called “Sweet Lorraine.” I’m sure they weren’t singing about Lorain, Ohio, but if you’re a diehard steelhead and walleye angler you’re surely singing the port’s praises. The bulk of Lake Erie’s estimated 90 to 100 millions walleye spawn on the reefs in the Western Basin. Some travel up the Maumee, Sandusky and Detroit rivers to spawn.

The bulk of the spawning takes place from mid-March to early April on the reefs. Once the spawn is completed the walleyes mill around to recuperate and feed adjacent to the reefs and in the area around the islands found in the Western Basin. Some of the walleye spend the entire summer in the Western Basin, but the bulk of the bigger ‘eyes head east.

Lake Erie’s Central Basin attracts the bigger walleye because it offers deeper, cooler water as the season progresses and abundant forage. The Central Basin technically begins east of a line from Point Pelee, Ontario to Huron, Ohio all the way to Pennsylvania.





“The majority of Lake Erie’s walleye spawn in the Western Basin,” claimed Ohio Department Of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Travis Hartman. “Temperature determines how quickly the fish leave the Western Basin. Many just mill around the islands the entire summer, but it seems like the bigger walleyes gradually make their way to the Central Basin. Fishing there can start as early as mid-April and generally starts to peak by late May. You can troll right out of the harbor at places like Lorain then.”

Anglers flock to ports like Huron and Vermillion, but many choose Lorain because of the amenities, facilities and quick access to the deeper waters of the Central Basin.


Lorain, Ohio is the gateway to the great fishing found in Lake Erie’s Central Basin. Image by Lorain, Ohio Port and Finance Authority. 


A bonus of fishing the Central Basin off ports like Lorain beginning in June is the chance to score on walleyes and steelhead on the same trip. “The majority of steelhead in Lake Erie are planted by Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York,” shared Travis Hartman. “Pennsylvania consistently stocks the most followed by Ohio and New York. Ontario and Michigan stock steelhead, but less than 100,000 fish each and they occasionally miss a year.”

In 2021 Pennsylvania planted 1,091,197 yearling steelheads in Lake Erie. Ohio contributed another 498,972. The 2021 the estimated steelhead harvest from the summer open-water boat angler fishery totaled 22,231 fish across all US agencies, a huge increase compared to 2020 and the highest harvest of steelhead since 2007.

It doesn’t take walleyes long to make the short trip from the Western Basin to the more congenial waters of Central Basin and savvy anglers are in hot pursuit. “Last year the Western Basin was poor for a period of time and Lorain really baled me out,” said Lake Erie charter captain Dan Woodward of Blue Line Charters (thebluelinecharters.com; 734-968-1222.) “It’s a four hour drive one-way from my place to Lorain, but it was well worth it. I think you tend to get a better class of fish there. In the Western Basin the fish will average 2 pounds, but in the Central Basin 4 to 5 pounds is closer to the average. It’s good from mid-April though July. I think the bigger walleyes are more stressed by heat and the warmer water so they head east, plus you have smelt and other forage that are a big draw in the Central Basin.”





Because you’re targeting deeper water in the Central Basin walleye anglers need to modify their tactics to be successful. “We pretty much use the same lures, but we use more divers to get lures deeper. We run a lot more spoons behind the divers and lures like Hit Sticks, Bombers and Bay Rats behind the divers as well,” said Woodward. Many anglers turn to Jet Divers to get their lures down and others resort to lead core and copper wire to interest the biggest walleyes. These same tactics will interest the steelhead found there with a little increase in trolling speed and paying attention to where the thermocline is. The walleyes hang above and the steelheads will be found at or just below the thermocline in the cooler water. Devices, like a Fish Hawk, that give to temperature and speed at depth can be a great help in pinpointing the most productive depths.

Because the Central Basin is deeper than the Western basin a thermocline develops around 25 feet in June and gradually moves deeper and deeper as summer progresses. By July, there’s a distinct temperature change around 50 feet.


Central Basin steelheads chewed the paint off mixed veggie-colored Yeck Zippers.


About the time walleye show up in numbers in the Central Basin steelhead make an appearance. The steelheads come from the north and east. “The steelheads usually show up in June and July,” said Travis Hartman. “The peak time can be a relatively small window. The steelheads arrive to gorge on smelt, shad, shiners and surprisingly the spinney water fleas that are found there in the summer.”

Jim Balzer and I have fished a lot together over the years. Jim was one of my first drift boat clients and we became good friends over the years. We’re both retired charter boat captains so there’s no shortage of knowledge when we get together to fish, but it’s maddening how many times it seems like we’re snake bit. Quite often we struggle even though they might have filled the boat the day before. It’s almost like the fish get together and announce “Hey! They’re coming!” and proceed to go on a hunger strike. Usually we persevere, but not without some angst.





Jim invited me to join him and Ron Andre for a trip to the Central Basin in mid-August, but we warned me ahead of time we were living on borrowed time. “The steelheads usually leave in July, but we were over there last week and killed
‘em! I just hope they’re still there. We haven’t had any severe weather so I’m bettering they are.”

Jim decided to launch at Avon Lake, which is just to the east of Lorain. Avon Lake has a beautiful launch facility with plenty of room for parking. Personal keep a watchful eye on the activity there. Avon Lake sits on the end of a point that puts you a little closer to the steelhead fishery.

As we readied the boat Jim made a couple of call to friends who we already out fishing. They said the fish were still there and we were anxious to hit the water. Once we were clear of the launch site Jim pointed the Triton to the northeast, punched in some numbers his buds had given him and we hunkered down for the 15-mile run.


Jim Balzer with a silvery Central Basin steelhead.


As soon as we stopped the graph lit up. Big hooks were stacked from 50 or

55 feet to the bottom in 76 feet of water. There was no doubt what the marks were. We could see the odd mark higher in the water column, but those weren’t the fish we wanted or were interested in today.

I got out of the way and let Jim and Ron set a spread of a half dozen downriggers and divers. The rods got a dose of regular-sized, thin Warrior spoons in purple and blue hues that had been good for the steelheads in weeks past.





Jim got calls with regularity from his friends announcing doubles and triples and we could see the activity at the back of their boats in the distance. We angled our troll towards them and got ready. And we trolled; and trolled. An hour went by without a bite. Jim changed lures, speed and depths. Another hour went by. It was obvious we were being confronted with our typical bugaboo.

I try to keep my opinions to myself when I’m on someone else’s boat, especially when I haven’t fished the port before and my mates have been pounding on the fish all summer long. I’ll admit, it’s hard for me. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer. No disrespect to the captain.


 A three-man limit of Central Basin steelheads. 


“You know those marks are just about where a full core would be riding,” I declared. “You have any lead core?” Jim said he did and opened the rod storage locker to fish for a rod. He pulled out a long diver rod mated to a reel loaded with 100 yards of lead core. I put the rod together and pulled out some line. The rig had about a 10-foot leader of 30-pound test line.

“You want to change this leader?” I asked.

“Naw it’s fine,” Jim said.

“Got any Yeck Zippers,” I queried.

“Ya I think I do,” responded Jim.

I picked out a candy corn-colored Yeck Zipper, affixed it to the swivel and preceded to let the entire lead core out and a generous amount of backing before attaching it to a Church board.

I’d just got the rod in a holder when I saw the planer board jump sideways. I grabbed the rig and reeled quickly and instantly felt weight on the other end. The 7-pound steelie put up a spirited battle and we high fived to celebrate the fact we’d gotten the skunk out of the box. The jinx was broken.






I went through the process of resetting the rod and it was less than a minute before the board moved again. This time it was a walleye. The next fish was another steelhead. I offered the rod to Ron and Jim, but they declined saying they didn’t want to reel all that line in. Shortly thereafter I caught another walleye and a steelhead on the rig and I just put the rod in a holder.

“Aren’t you going to let the lead core back out?” question Ron.

“Not if you guys aren’t going to help reel it back in!” I grinned.

We changed the regular-sized spoons on the ‘riggers and divers to smaller Yeck Zippers and the fish approved. The color didn’t matter too much, but the steelheads chewed the paint off a mixed-veggie and anything else that featured green, gold and orange. It seemed the ‘bows wanted a snack instead of a meal.


 The author with a very respectable Central Basin steelhead. 


Before long we’d redeemed ourselves and had a three-man limit of steelheads and a dozen bonus walleyes we caught by accident. The trout averaged from 2 to 9 pounds. Not as big as their Lake Michigan counterparts, but beautiful rainbows nonetheless.

The Lorain area loraincountyohio.gov/330/Convention-Visitors-Bureau welcomes anglers and their families with open arms. The city has a small-town atmosphere. Lorain hosts many major fishing tournaments and knows how to treat anglers.

Lorain County has a history of involvement in the civil rights movement and visitors can take the Underground Railroad Tour that makes stops at historic homes, churches and sites critical in US and human rights history.






The family can take in museums, flea markets, and specialty shops, concerts and 20 miles of Lake Erie shore while you’re on the water. There are restaurants that offer everything from casual dining to gourmet extravaganzas. Lodging facilities abound. Events, like the Avon Heritage Duct Tape Festival, Rockin’ On The River, FireFish Art Festival, draw thousands of visitors every summer.

For bait, tackle and fishing reports near Lorain contact Erie Outfitters at 440-949-8934; www.hookandbullet.com erie-outfitters-bait-shop.

If you relish the chance to catch trophy walleyes and recalcitrant rainbows on a single trip you owe it to yourself to visit Sweet Lorain.




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