Birders and duck hunters alike can enjoy the birds flying through the area thanks to both the Atlantic and Mississippi migratory flyways passing through the region.
The oldest private duck club in North America, Winous Point Shooting Club at the intersection of Muddy Creek and the Sandusky River, was established in 1856 and many other clubs followed.
These marshes, saved from drainage by the old duck clubs and supported with hunting licenses and ducks stamps, have become magnets for birders. Recognized as a North American top-10 birding destination, more than 330 species are documented from the Western Lake Erie marsh region. Springtime brings an outstanding spring warbler migration. You’ll also find the state’s highest concentration of Bald Eagle nests and an impressive array of wading and shore birds.
Details of the Magee Marsh, the most popular site featuring birding trails and more, can be found online at www.dnr.state.oh.us.
Lake Erie is the most productive of the five Great Lakes, home to the world’s largest freshwater fishery. It produces more fish for human consumption than the other four lakes combined.
In Ottawa County more than 74,500 fishing licenses are sold to resident and non-resident anglers annually. In 2010, the Ohio DNR reported that anglers harvested 5.3 million pounds of walleye, perch and other species.
If your boat isn’t set up for fishing, charter captains in the area abound. For a list, check out www.fishlakeerie.com, or inquire at the Great Lakes Angler website, www.GLAngler.com.
- Lake Erie Shores and Islands Visitor Center shoresandislands.com
Setting the Bar for Boater Friendly
What do giant crystal apples and 16-foot fiberglass fish have in common? Both drop on popular tourism areas at the stroke of midnight, New Year’s Eve. The apple, of course, settles in New York City’s Times Square to the cheers of raucous crowds. The fish, appropriately a walleye, descends in Port Clinton, Ohio, the self-proclaimed “Walleye Capital of the World.”
Watched by a smaller, if no less enthusiastic crowd, it marks the first of many events that the Lake Erie port hosts each year.
Up the shoreline, the communities of Marblehead, Catawba Island and Lakeside schedule their own events, also to attract tourists, which are the lifeblood of these vacationland towns. An estimated 3,000 jobs here depend on out-of-towners having a good time.
As communities powered by the marine industry and linked to the big lake, they welcome cruisers and trailer boaters with open arms.
First Nations and Resources
Native Americans of the Ottawa and Wyandot tribes stocked up on the bountiful fish, fur and waterfowl in the region, which is now a scene of seemingly endless marinas. The region lies in what was the 600,000-acre Great Black Swamp, where settlers talked of not being able to see the sun through the tree canopy. Pioneers cleared the virgin forest, and much of the land still is used to grow crops.
Limestone is at the soil’s surface throughout the county and has been quarried for generations. Processed lime from here is still used for everything from soil conditioning to antacid and toothpaste.
Out in the lake, sedimentary rock stratum creates more than two-dozen “cuesto” islands — cliffs sharply emerging from Lake Erie’s surface. Boaters must be alert for these and many prop-wrecking reefs and bars that lurk underwater.
With abundant lumber and great fishing, boatbuilding in Ottawa County began early. Lyman Boats was founded by cabinetmaker Bernard Lyman in 1875, and Matthews Boats came to Port Clinton in 1906, building yachts up to 110 feet. Lymans, wooden lapstrake masterpieces, were built in nearby Sandusky until 1980, and you can still see many of the highly collectible boats cruising around. Links to the marine industry remain; the county has 146 licensed marinas with more than 15,000 wet slips and lots of dry rack storage, creating Lake Erie’s highest concentration of boats.
Hundreds of boats wait in many showrooms. Lake and Bay Yacht Sales (yachtworld.com/lakeandbay) sells boats from Davis, Topaz and Egg Harbor and offers a long list of pre-owned yachts. MarineMax of Ohio (marinemax.com) is widely known as the Sea Ray Boats authority and part of the “world’s largest boat retailer” corporation. Harborside Boat Sales (harborsideboatsales.net) delivers excellent service at both Midway Marina in West Harbor, Catawba Island and Bass Haven Marina in East Harbor, Marblehead. To check out other big yachts, head to Jefferson Beach Yacht Sales (jbys.com) on Catawba Island, where Sunseeker, Viking, Princess and Regal yachts are sold.
Options for docking are countless. Full service Gem Beach Marina (gembeach.com) on Catawba Island in West Harbor has 350 boat docks accommodating up to 45-foot boats. Last year, Gem Beach opened its brand new pool and splash pad. The marina’s waterfront restaurant offers live entertainment throughout the summer season. It’s affiliated with Beach Towne (beachtowne.net), a unique waterfront community close by.
If you want to spend time off your boat in a quiet setting that has a ThermoSpa and Jacuzzi, Our Sunset Place is a top bed and breakfast that delivers a stunning view of the lake, sunsets and stars (oursunsetplace.com).
Portside Marina out on Kelleys Island (portsidemarinaki.com) is a cruising destination unto itself, recently rebuilt and renovated with 115 slips and accommodations for up to 80-foot vessels. Here you can eat and drink at Dockers Waterfront Restaurant and Bar.
Ottawa County welcomes trailer boaters, too. Four public boat ramps maintained by Ohio State Parks are in Marblehead, as is one operated by the county. The state-owned Portage River Access is in Port Clinton. You can launch at any of them for free.
Rescue Marine, the TowBoatU.S. responder for the entire area, is based out of Shrock’s Marina in Marblehead. With their fleet of fine boats, they are ready to respond at a moment’s notice.
City of Port ClintonPort Clinton, located on the south shore of Lake Erie, is a diverse small resort town that offers everything from wine tasting to island hopping, sandy beaches and all kinds of recreational opportunities. Explore the historic, old-fashioned downtown area, with its quaint shops, art galleries and variety of restaurants.
If you are looking for a gift of fine jewelry, don’t miss By Laurie. They also can create a custom designed piece or do repairs while you wait.
The New Year’s Walleye drops in Waterworks Park, also the site of an annual Walleye Festival over Memorial Weekend, which this year takes place May 24-28. The fest features carnival rides, youth fishing derbies, art contests and live entertainment.
Virtually every restaurant in town serves walleye and/or yellow perch. Fried filets at Jolly Roger on Perry Street, the town’s main drag, are so good it’s sometimes hard to find parking — not an issue if you’re afoot or arriving via cab from your boat. If you had a successful fishing trip, they’ll cook your catch and serve it up with Cole slaw, fries and hand-cut onion rings.
Hunger satisfied, boaters can find new and used boats as well as parts and service at Coastal Marine II and Lakefront Marina, both located on the lower Portage River. Coastal Marine II is not only the place to go for inboard and outboard motor repairs and fiberglass work, but also offers a lineup of new Angler Boats, built for fishing. Also located on site at the marina is Coastal Floating Homes (coastalfloatinghomes.info), which are small homes designed to float in a dock with enough room for your boat, too.
The Jet Express operates adjacent to the drawbridge, taking passengers to South Bass and Kelleys Island in large, speedy, catamaran-style boats.
Other unique stops here include the Great Lakes Popcorn Factory, which offers more than 20 flavors, the Ottawa County Historical Museum and the New Wave Dive Shop for scuba info and supplies.
Catawba Island Township
A township of about 3,100 residents, early inhabitants of Catawba Island grew vineyards, peach, apple and pear orchards, where the lake’s moderating climate averts frost and extends the fall growing season. The island got its name from the Catawba grape, which was one of many varieties grown here during the 20th century. Today, several produce stands and orchards remain on Catawba; but as prime real estate, year-round residences and vacation homes have replaced many fields of fruit.
If you like the area enough to stay, Nor’easter Cove (noreastercove.com) has waterfront townhouses with docks. Catawba Bay (catawbabay.info) is a new community with a wide range of lifestyle options — everything from cottages to villas — that will feature three marinas as part of the development.
Within the protected embayment of West Harbor, many marinas line the eastern edge of Catawba Island. Catawba Island Marina is a first-rate full-service marina located in a quiet cove. They can accommodate vessels up to 70 feet and are one of the only marinas along Lake Erie with a 70-ton lift.
For a simple alternative to boat ownership without the stress of maintenance, check out Freedom Boat Club of Catawba Island located at the Catawba Island Marina (freedomboatclub.com).
Want to sip local and exotic vintages in elegant surroundings? Mon Ami Winery/Restaurant is a fine dining establishment, with more than 50 wines to choose from and an impressive menu.
At the tip of Catawba Island is the Miller Boat Line’s mainland dock, where the company’s ferryboats load passengers and autos for trips to South Bass, where you can enjoy the bacchanalia of South Bass Island’s Put-In-Bay or the reserved solitude of Middle Bass. Visit millerferry.com for island coupons and events.
A must-stop if you’re on Catawba Island is Marine Max’s new multi-million-dollar waterfront yacht center. Peruse more than 50 boats on display in the company’s showroom. They make purchasing a boat hassle-free and pleasurable by offering everything from finance, insurance, warranties and free classes to help boat owners live the boating lifestyle to its fullest.
Village of Marblehead
Boaters still avoid running aground at night with help from Marblehead Lighthouse, the oldest continuously operating beacon on the Great Lakes. This historic landmark is one reason around a million visitors come to this tiny town of 1,000 residents each year; about 25,000 of them climb the 77 steps to the top of the tower. East Harbor State Park features Ohio’s largest campground, with 570 campsites, a 1,500-foot sand beach and 9.5 miles of hiking trails.
Main Street is lined with restaurants, art galleries, antiques, quilt and crafts shops. Galleries in Marblehead include original oils at the Dziak Gallery, whimsical prints by children’s book illustrator Jodie McCallum at her gallery, and glass blowing demonstrations, cutting and jewelry at Ferguson’s Gallery and Studio.
The Kelleys Island Ferry operates its route to Ohio’s largest island from here.
Also well protected from wind and storms, East Harbor forms the western border of this town and is host to many marinas. Tibbels Marina runs head boats for anglers and operates a full service RV park and bait shop. Bay Point Marina, with 750 slips, is the area’s largest.
SkipperBud’s, at the former Marina del Isle, provides sales, service and storage with new yachts from Tiara and Cruisers (skipperbuds.com). Cleats Grille here claims to have the world’s best chicken wings. Mel’s Crow’s Nest offers fine dining indoors or out in a casual, relaxed atmosphere. Netty’s Famous Chili Dogs are legendary, and if you want breakfast between the hours of 5 a.m. and 2 p.m. weekdays, grab a seat at Port N Starboard Restaurant (it’s open until 2 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays).
Johnson Island, connected to Marblehead via a toll bridge, once had a prisoner of war camp for Confederate officers captured in the Civil War. Its cemetery is the main historical attraction that remains.
Lakeside was founded on the Marblehead Peninsula in 1873 as a “Chautauqua” community with a resort atmosphere that encouraged the exchange of ideas to foster personal growth. Now a gated community, it features a busy line-up of educational and religious activities and events (lakesideohio.com).
National acts, tribute bands and a symphony orchestra and chorale perform inside Hoover Auditorium. Art festivals, farm markets, and fitness and spiritual activities fill the calendar from May through August.
A gate pass can be purchased on site to enjoy the scheduled entertainment, seminars, swimming, picnic grounds, playground, walking trails, shops and more.
Odds and Ends
Unhitch the boat trailer, leave it at the hotel or campground and treat your family to the drive-through African Lion Safari. Follow a path and interact with animals accustomed to being fed snacks from guests from their car windows. You can see some other unusual animals here, such as a white alligator, and hold pythons and watch pig races.
Island Adventures features a Go-Cart track, gem and fossil mining, miniature golf and an arcade. Fort Firelands RV Park, in addition to camping, also has shops and weekly flea markets. Train-O-Rama claims the largest display of model trains in Ohio.
At the Ottawa-Erie Regional Airport, the Liberty Aviation Museum is slated to open this summer, featuring a restored Ford Tri-Motor aircraft, a lifeline to the islands from 1936 to 1985.
This area of Ottawa County, rife with the boating lifestyle, offers so much more. Whether it’s an annual stop on your Great Lakes cruising agenda or a first-time destination, you’ll always feel welcome and discover more to see and do.