Last of the True Watermen

Capt. Jack Tibbels

By W.H. "Chip" Gross

The Great Lakes -- known as the Five Sisters -- are all beautiful, yet all can be deadly. Captain Jack Tibbels found that out early in life. While just six years old, he watched his beloved uncle drown in Lake Erie.

"My uncle Guy was the first of the family to begin our marina business, and he was also a federal game warden,” Tibbels said.

In recounting the story of his uncle’s tragic death more than six decades ago, Captain Jack still speaks of the tragedy with emotion in his voice. Tibbels said that he, his uncle, and a 15-year-old boy were on his uncle’s anchored boat one summer day, near shore, when a young girl staying at a nearby fishing cottage went swimming and got caught in an undertow current.

“My uncle Guy saw what was happening, quickly stripped to his underwear, jumped in, swam to the girl and saved her,” Tibbels said. “But upon making his way back to our boat he went under, and we never saw him alive again. We believe he died of a heart attack.”

Young Jack knew how to start the boat, so when his uncle didn’t resurface he and the older boy quickly drove back to the marina to summon help. Searchers dragged for Guy Tibbels for three days. It wasn’t until several days later that the dead man’s body resurfaced on its own.

“The death of my uncle was a very sad time for our entire family,” Tibbels said. “As I said, he was a federal game warden, and I can remember men and women coming from far and wide to attend his funeral. It’s just one of those things you never quite get over.”

Many years later, Jack and his wife, Kay, named their firstborn son Guy in honor of Jack’s lost uncle.

Now 73, Capt. Jack Tibbels is of a certain breed, gradually fading into extinction; true watermen. These rugged outdoorsmen, born and raised on the Great Lakes, have spent their lives wresting a living from America’s inland seas. From hunting for family meals to discovering a unique way to find fish, Capt. Jack holds a no-nonsense, get-it-done attitude rarely seen today.

Photo of the sign for Tibbels Marina and Fishing Charters

Jack and Kay Tibbels, married nearly 50 years, and their three adult children -- Guy, Jackie, John and their spouses -- own and operate Tibbels Marina & Charter Service, located on Lake Erie’s famed Western Basin.

Dubbed the “Walleye Capital of the World,” this section of the lake is worthy of its moniker, producing hundreds of thousands of walleyes for Ohio sport anglers and visitors annually. The many islands and shallow, rocky reefs dotting the western end of the lake are not only perfect walleye habitat, they were Tibbels’ playground growing up.

Tibbels remembers tough times as a boy, trapping muskrats not only to sell their pelts for spending money, but also producing meat for family meals. In addition, the family shot and ate coots, water birds known as mud hens.

“I remember coots being around in the fall of the year by the thousands,” Tibbels said.

As a teenager, Tibbels raised his waterfowling standards a bit, shooting mainly canvasbacks, redheads, and scaup.

“I could go out on winter mornings before school, sit on the end of our dock in an old oil shed, and easily shoot enough ducks for our supper that night,” he said.

After high school, Tibbels attended college at Miami of Ohio. Graduating with a teaching degree, he taught high school industrial arts and coached football for several years, but the call of the lake was too great. His father passed away at age 53, and Jack returned home to take over operation of the family marina.

At the time, Tibbel’s father was running nine charter boats, but as the walleye population in the lake began to falter in the 1960s, Tibbels Marina operated fewer and fewer boats as anglers became disinterested in fishing for the scarce walleye.

About that time, however, Tibbels began a new hobby -- scuba diving -- which would prove helpful to the family business. Because the lake water was relatively cloudy in those days, he dove mainly in shallow water and on shallow wrecks. During his time underwater over the next few years, he began seeing the number of walleyes increasing.

“I knew the walleyes were there, and could put fishermen on them,” he said. “I would drop over the side of our boat with my scuba gear, scout out the location of the fish, and then tell fishermen exactly where to cast.”

Photo of anglers with a big catch of walleye after a Tibbels fishing charter

As a result, Tibbels began building a reputation for putting walleyes in the boat when few other Lake Erie charter captains could.

Walleye populations continued building through the 1970s until they peaked in the 1980s at more than 70 million fish. Today, less than 20 million walleyes swim Lake Erie and, though that’s still a lot of fish, anglers are becoming increasingly concerned with the lower numbers, Tibbels among them. His crusade in recent years has been to urge the Ohio Department of Natural Resources to close walleye fishing during the spring spawning season.

“I would like to see a total closure of the walleye fishery from March 20 to May 15 each year,” he said. “In my opinion, every species needs to be protected during its breeding season, and walleyes are no exception. Without protecting walleyes during the spawn, we can only expect declining fish populations in the future.”

During his lifetime, Capt. Tibbels has seen walleye fishing on Lake Erie go from boom to bust more than once. Anglers experienced off-the-charts fishing in the early Twentieth Century, then practically no walleyes during mid-century. The schools of fish became super abundant again during the 1980s -- “A six-pack charter of ours could catch 100 walleyes or more during a day’s fishing,” Tibbels said -- but now the fish are more scarce.

Tibbels is also concerned about the threat of Asian carp and what effects populations of those exotic fish might have on the fishery should they populate the Great Lakes. So far, the carp ascending the Mississippi River have been kept out of the lakes by an electric barrier placed in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Another issue concerning Tibbels and other charter-boat captains on Lake Erie is the return of blue-green algae blooms to the lake in late summer. The blooms were common in the 1970s due to phosphate overloading in the lake, but the algae disappeared for some 30 years. The blooms are now back, and Tibbels believes they might somehow be related to zebra mussels, round gobies, or other exotic species that have shown up in the lake and exploded in population. These exotics came to the Great Lakes inadvertently in the ballast water of ocean-going ships.

Photo of Tibbels Marina

In spite of these environmental issues, new members of the Tibbels family are coming on, learning the secrets of the lake from their parents and grandparents. Will this new generation of watermen one day take over the helm of Tibbels Marina and its charter-fishing fleet?

Likely so, as the grandkids, though still young, seem just as passionate about the outdoors as their grandfather. And after all, they have a legacy to uphold, 2011 marks the 90th year of Tibbels Marina, a family fishing tradition.

Contact Information
Tibbels Marina & Charter Service (www.tibbelsfishing.com; 419-734-1143) is located on Ohio’s Marblehead Peninsula, a few miles east of the small fishing town of Port Clinton on the south shore of Lake Erie’s Western Basin. Available for anglers are four, large walk-on charter boats and two smaller sport-fishing boats. For overnight stays, 40 trailer lots, ten RV lots, and five motel rooms are for rent, mid-April through October.