Correction: An earlier version of this story misnamed the organization that sets the annual total allowable catch limits for Lake Erie.
Gary and Roseann Sauvey have been operating Kaspar’s Lake Breeze Cottages in one capacity or another for 65 years.
The Sauveys’ waterfront home sits on a couple acres, sporting a side yard with five 20×20 cottages that haven’t changed much over the decades. From beautiful, quaint wood interiors to a small fishing pier and breathtaking sunrises, it’s a site stuck in time. In the summer, guests are treated to Cedar Point fireworks every night.
Anglers and their families have been a staple of the Sauvey economy since the beginning.
“They come from out of state and stay for a week, generally,” said Gary. “They bring their boats and most of them do trolling for walleye, especially in May. That’s a big month for them.”
Sauvey, who’s been managing Kaspar’s with his wife for 30 years, describes guests as family, saying it’s all repeat business from long-time customers whom he knows by first name. He said they’re mostly sold out all season long.
“They usually book the next year ahead and we turn a lot of people away,” he said. “We start May 1 and go to the middle of October and have lots of fishermen and their families. We love them all.”
Bruce Allen travels from the Columbus area and has been a long-time Kaspar’s customer.
“I’ve been coming here 61 years. You might find something cheaper, but you won’t find anything with as good a view,” he said, a stiff wind blowing off the lake and a light drizzle obscuring Cedar Point’s roller coasters a couple miles across the lake. “My parents came up here and they went a couple places, and somebody said ‘Try Kaspar’s,’ and they did. We come up a couple times a year.”
Like most who stay at Kaspar’s, Allen books his next stay a year out.
“My grandkids are fourth-generation guests here,” Allen said.
Fresh interest in “yellow gold”
While Lake Erie contains just 2% of the water in the Great Lakes, it’s home to about 50% of the fish, according to fisheries managers. Ohio State University’s Stone Lab studies cite it as the most valuable freshwater commercial fishery in the world and home to the nation’s largest charter fleet. In Ottawa County alone there are more than 10,000 boat slips and in Ohio, just over 800 licensed charter captains.
Each year the Great Lakes Fishery Commission sets a total allowable catch, or TAC, for walleye in Lake Erie. Ontario, Ohio, Michigan, New York and Pennsylvania then decide how to allocate their quota of fish.
In 2019, Ontario’s allotment of walleye was 3.67 million fish, which jumped 20% to 4.4 million in 2020, then another 20% to 5.29 million fish this year, according to the LEC. Most of those walleye in Canadian waters will be taken by commercial fishing operators, with much of it sold in the U.S. for about $15 per pound.
On the U.S. side, recreational anglers have been mining Lake Erie for “yellow gold” for decades, and the current trend of skyrocketing fish populations has only helped to firm up the economic benefits that support thousands of households around the lake.
The walleye economy doesn’t have a singular source, but rather is multi-faceted industry that includes lodging, commercial fishing, restaurants, charter services, bait and tackle shops, gas stations and retail stores, among others.
“We most certainly are in the walleye capital of the world,” said Port Clinton Mayor Mike Snider, standing on a low bluff overlooking one of the city’s beaches. “More walleye are caught here than any place else in the world.”
Snider said pinning down exact angler numbers is next to impossible but that seeing it with your own eyes is easy.
While moonlighting as mayor and a long-time city council member before that, Snider’s day job is operating a vacation rental company in the area. He said business is good and only getting better.
“It’s tremendous really,” Snider said. “The fishing is huge and it’s one of the main reasons people come to the area, but just based on conversations I’ve had with residents, the number of boats out on the water has been much higher in the past couple years.”
Sales and lodging taxes a staple of the region’s economy
While the mostly rural Ottawa County has a census population of just over 40,000, that number swells exponentially during the summer season. County officials have estimated the number of people in the county during Memorial Day, Independence and Labor Day weekends to approach or even exceed 200,000.
While many of those stay at friends and families’ homes, cottages and trailers, many stay at hotels, bed and breakfasts and Airbnbs. And anglers comprise a significant portion of the region’s visitors.
According to the Ottawa County Auditor’s Office, lodging taxes collected for 2021 totaled $852,853 through October. That number reflects taxes collected from at least 242 individual operators in the county who pay a 3% tax on all lodging fees collected for transient visits, considered stays less than 30 days.
A cursory internet search of rentals in Ottawa County alone tops 900 places available. Funds from rentals and sales tax distributions from the state accounted for about 44% of the county’s annual $22 million budget last year.
Larry Fletcher, executive director of Lake Erie Shores and Islands, the region’s visitors bureau, said he wishes his office had the ability to track tourism numbers by specific activities, though a telling might come in the numbers when it comes to Lake Erie fishing.
“Last year, total lodging taxes collected in Ottawa County were down 20%,” he said, citing COVID-19. “But our neighbors in Erie County were down about 50% and the larger markets in Ohio, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus, they were down even more than that.”
During the height of the pandemic in 2020, anglers from Ohio and elsewhere flocked to Lake Erie to fish. That led the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to suspend non-resident license sales in early April. The temporary restriction was halted about a month later and sales resumed. During that time and in subsequent months, Lake Erie charters received permission to operate with COVID-19 safety precautions in place.
“So it was really Lake Erie, the fishing and the boating and other outdoor recreation that saved the year in the area as far as lodging tax and sales tax goes,” Fletcher said.
The 2021 second quarter lodging taxes came in 77% higher than 2020, he said, 11% higher than even the pre-COVID numbers from 2019.
Charter captains: concierge of the lakes
Paul Pacholski, president of the Lake Erie Charter Boat Association, said most people who book a charter fishing trip and drive more than an hour or two stay overnight.
“A lot of people, especially those coming from the west like Chicago and even further west, are going to come for three or four nights,” he said. “In addition to going fishing they’re also taking a vacation.
Charter captains often serve as travel counselors, advising people what’s available and offering sound advice on where to eat, drink and be merry.
“Basically they’re asking us ‘Where can we share the wealth? What choices do we have for accommodations and where should we go to eat?’” Pacholski explained. “’Where do we go to buy this and where do we go to buy that?’ and we want to make sure every part of their trip is as good as it can be.”
Current prices for a six-person charter runs about $600 and up. Pacholski said as a general rule, most anglers spend more on the peripherals of the trip than the cost of the actual charter.
Marblehead-based entrepreneur Mark Kahlik has been in the charter business since 1983. And just like the walleye population, his business has expanded. Mark I Sportfishing has morphed from a one-boat operation into a multi-level business offering a fleet of boats in various sizes. And more.
Kahlik capitalizes on the earliest spring walleye by hosting anglers from across the nation at his Bay’s Edge townhouses, which are located directly across from his Bay’s Edge Bait and Tackle, which is next to his Bay’s Edge Fish Cleaning.
In the early spring, Kahlik said, professional walleye angler Dan Stier heads east from the Dakotas to hang out at Bay’s Edge at ice-out, which is considered the first point in the season when anglers can get boats into the water as winter’s ice melts. From his home base at the townhouses, Stier’s on the lake every day helping anglers get onto the early fish.
So even before most charter captains launch their bigger boats, the walleye economy on Lake Erie is already heating up with out-of-state anglers from Iowa, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and points west.
When it comes to fishing trips, incidental spending is significant.
Everyone going fishing needs ice. In the Great Lakes region, they need $34 million of it, according to the American Sportfishing Association. Add to that rain gear and nifty fishing clothing, $21 million worth. Then stringers, creels and landing nets adds another $3 million. And the list goes on: fuel, boat repairs, beer, taxi cabs for nightly outings, ferry tickets, tackle, sunscreen, insect repellent, beer, sunglasses, beer, etc.
Walleye tournaments add dollars to the Lake Erie economy too. More than a dozen tournaments each year on the lake draw more than 10,000 anglers with more than half traveling from out-of-town and out-of-state. While enjoying Lake Erie they need places to stay, more fishing line and the hottest lures and places to eat.
Central Basin Bait and Tackle owner Joe Nixon, a 17-year veteran of the business, said anglers buy bait and tackle at a constant rate. He summed up a seasoned view of the walleye business by saying his sales are steady and that nothing affects angler spending, ever, outside a boost during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Sure, once in a blue moon you’ll get somebody that comes in and buys beaucoup stuff for the Fall Brawl but other than that it’s always the same,” he said. “No matter what. Same anglers, same sales, year in and year out. It just never ends.”
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Featured image: Love for Lake Erie walleye runs deep. (Photo Credit: James Proffitt)