This Ohio island has a problem: There’s no ice
PUT-IN-BAY, OHIO — The trouble with the island right now is that it is surrounded by water.
In the summer, the water is the selling point. The village of Put-in-bay supplies all the daiquiri-serving bars of a Key West getaway but lies a mere 20-minute ferry ride from a port on Lake Erie, about halfway between Toledo and Cleveland. Tens of thousands of vacationers pour in for a party that goes on for months.
But when the cold sets in and the ferries stop running, the few hundred people who live here year round watch intently for signs that the blue all around them is turning white. This, they insist, is the real high season: ice fishing time.
When it begins, usually at some point in January or February, dozens of ice shanties sprout on the glorious pavement of a frozen Lake Erie.
There are bonfires and cookouts, banquets and impromptu parties; people sail ice boats, go ice skating and drive snowmobiles across the ice to visit friends on neighboring islands.
The groups of ice fishermen who fly in to South Bass Island, where Put-in-bay sits, bring a nice jolt of offseason cash, but that is just a side benefit. For most who live on the island year round and put up with the tourist season as an economic necessity, ice fishing makes it all worth it.
It always has been, said Mary Ann Mccann, 87, who was sitting at her dining room table with her granddaughter, counting the number of generations of her family that lived on South Bass. “Your dad would be the second generation,” she said. “Then me, that’s three. My dad is four, as a fisherman. My grandmother’s five. Her mother’s six.”
Mccann did some further calculations. “Seven generations,” she concluded. “And everybody was fishing.”
Typically in late February, everyone would be out on the ice. The Black Squirrel, one of the few inns open year round, would be packed with ice fishermen eating an early breakfast in the dining room, then taking their four-wheelers out for a long, cold day of catching walleye.
But while the fishermen showed up this year, the ice didn’t.
Starting on my eight-minute flight from Port Clinton, Ohio, in a six-seater aircraft — in winter, the only way to get to the island — there was one question I was asked most often: Why are you here now? Without ice, there is no ice fishing. And without ice fishing, islanders repeatedly told me, there is not much point.
“We’re all cooped up,” said Dustin Shaffer, the pilot who flew me over, who later that night was drinking with other year-rounders at Topsy Turvey’s, the one bar that stays open all year.
“The men are going crazy,” said Linda Parker, who was at a community soup dinner with friends at the local yacht club.
The ice teased here and there in December and January, little shelves appearing in the harbors during shortlived frigid spells. But the temperature always crept back up. Ice coverage of Lake Erie this year has hit record lows.
In the old days, the ice usually got so solid that people in Put-in-bay could drive the 5 or so miles to the mainland in a truck, and often they did. “The older islanders, they remember when you could drive all the way from here to Toledo,” said Aaron Schroeder, a carpenter and ice fishing guide known to his fellow year-rounders as Vern.
But it has been years since the ice was that kind of thick.
The shutting down of most bars and restaurants in fall has always marked the start of the social season for those who live on the island. They hardly see one another in the tourist season, when they work around the clock, trying to make enough money in one half of the year to get them through the other half.
For many longtime islanders, the season still revolves around the ice, but there are more things to do in the winter these days. There is volleyball on Mondays and pickleball and yoga three days a week. Darts night is now twice weekly at Topsy’s. The yacht club, which was once closed all winter, hosted the soup dinner where Parker was communing with friends.
Parker and her fellow diners remarked that more younger people seemed to be staying on the island through the offseason. The new year-rounders would not have any memory of winters when the ice was 2 feet thick. Some of them had not even been ice fishing.
“It don’t freeze like it used to,” Parker said.
Still, among the longtime ice fishermen, hope dies hard.
“Maybe it’s the usual cycle,” George Stoiber, 81, said of the last few disappointing winters. Sitting at the Squirrel and trading tales of past winters with Schroeder, he said there had always been bad ice years among the good ones.
Still, Stoiber acknowledged a grim possibility: “Maybe it’s climate change.”
It would be hard to figure it was anything else, said John Hageman, who for years managed the Ohio State University Stone Lab, a research facility on South Bass Island. Hageman, 63, also worked for years as an ice fishing guide on the island. Like the two men at the Squirrel, he is quick to tell stories of past winters, including a tale about a group of old men trying to drive across the ice in a Lincoln Continental. But Hageman could see what was happening.
“You can’t deny that the Earth is getting warmer unless every thermometer on Earth is broken,” he said. “Back of the envelope, we probably got ice only eight out of the last 12 years.”
Or a recent Friday morning, as a light snow fell, a group of anglers from the mainland showed up at the Black Squirrel for breakfast. They had long planned to come that weekend for the annual ice fishing tournament. It had been postponed for obvious reasons, but the group had come over anyway.
After breakfast, they considered going fishing on the open lake, but it was too choppy. They tried casting from the dock, but nothing was biting, so they called it a day.
By Sunday, the temperature was in the 50s.