The white blanket of snow and ice stretches for miles in almost every direction.
It's 17 degrees, and wind gusts of 30 mph sweep across Lake Erie, battering the green and blue shanties that dot this frigid, monochromatic landscape.
Inside those shanties, fishermen, bundled in the warmest wools and most resistant Gore-Tex, hunch over small holes in the ice.
Their fishing rods bob slowly up and down, waiting for a bluegill or walleye to bite. For two hours, nothing's even nibbled for Steve Sedlock.
"Sure beats working, though," says Sedlock, 52.
On this day, Sedlock and Wally Merrow, 51, cram into their forest-green Clam 2000, a top-of-the-line shanty.
The wind whips against the shanty's nylon exterior, making it difficult to hear each other speak.
Behind the shanty, a pile of six bluegill sit atop the snow, the duo's treasure from their early-morning success.
The turquoise edging on the fishes' fins sparkles in the low winter sunlight. In a few hours, Sedlock and Merrow will pan-fry their conquests and eat them for dinner.
"They're tasty critters," says Sedlock, a husky, bearded man with a big laugh. He slightly resembles country music singer Toby Keith, except a little heavier and with gray in his beard. He speaks with a rural twang. An Army fatigue baseball cap covers his shaggy brown hair.
"Once you have a bluegill sandwich," Sedlock says with a grin, "you'll never go back to McDonald's."
A favorite pastime
For more than a decade, Sedlock and Merrow worked at Ohio Ceiling and Partition, a Toledo-based construction company.
But the economic recession came, development stopped, and in April, the company laid off Sedlock. Four months later, Merrow suffered a similar fate.
With no job offers and a two-week-long cold snap solidifying Lake Erie, Sedlock and Merrow have spent much of their time ice fishing.
"I love it," says Merrow. He's skinnier than Sedlock, but with a similar beard. He wears a heavy camouflage coat and a navy-blue knit cap. "It's relaxing, it's fun and I love catching the fish, I love eating the fish and I just love being out here."
Unlike the summertime, when fishing can be as simple as casting a worm-baited hook, ice fishing takes significant preparation.
On this morning, Sedlock and Merrow load their equipment onto their shanty, which folds flat, and march it 700 yards offshore to their location. When folded, the shanty acts as a makeshift sled, with ropes to tug it along the slick ice.
Once at their preferred location, the fishermen must drill. They use augers -- 3-foot-tall corkscrews -- to carve 10- to 12-inch-diameter holes into the ice.
In their first two hours, Sedlock and Merrow enjoy success. But with no fish biting and daylight waning, Merrow contemplates quitting for the afternoon.
"We've caught a few, but it's been kinda slow here lately," Merrow says. "We'll probably head out soon unless we get a bite."
Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton estimated tens of thousands of fishermen from across the country venture onto Lake Erie ice to fish each winter.
But neither the Lake Erie Shores and Islands Visitor's Center, nor the Ohio Division of Wildlife, keep statistics on ice fishing, or the money the sport generates.
The fishermen, however, will tell you it's "big business."
Earlier this week, Roger Magrum, 51, of Lambertville, Mich., trekked across state lines to East Harbor State Park to catch bluegill.
Unlike many fishermen, Magrum doesn't use a shanty. On a chilly afternoon, he sits on a water-filled bucket, facing away from the wind, fully exposed to the elements.
"If you're prepared, it's not that bad," he says. "I'm wearing Gore-Tex and a bunch of layers, and that way, it's not too cold."
As he speaks, a bluegill nibbles on his lure. He yanks his rod up, swipes the fish from the hook and tosses it into his bucket.
The bucket is full to the brim with wriggling fish, maybe 25 or 30. Magrum says he's caught 80 others this morning, but threw the small ones back.
"I have a pond at home," he says. "I need to fill it with these guys so the kids have something to catch when they come over."
Magrum says Canada has the best ice fishing, but Lake Erie's "a pretty good" alternative.
"They have all kinds of fish up in Canada," Magrum says. "Of course the Canadians can't catch any of 'em. I go up there and they say, 'How come you Yankees catch all our fish?' That's what they call us up there: Yankees."
At the northern tip of Catawba Island, Sean Joseph, 38, prepares to load his airboat onto the water.
Joseph, a Nebraska native, keeps a vacation home on Lake Erie, where he spends time in summer and winter.
After calculating his taxes and living expenses, he estimates he spends nearly $25,000 in Ottawa County every year.
"If they didn't have fishing around here, I don't know what people would do," Joseph says. "Fishing, especially ice fishing, is big business here."
Dangerous 'February fiesta'
When February comes, Lake Erie ice fishing peaks.
The walleye spawn in early April and, in anticipation of that event, the walleye come from all across the Great Lakes. So do fishermen.
"From now until then, all the fish are swimming in from everywhere," says Brad Leyda, who runs an airboat ice fishing company in Marblehead. "And we just beat 'em hard."
Jos Rodriguez, 32, calls the walleye migration the "February Fiesta."
He says during that month, Lake Erie more closely resembles Mardi Gras.
It's a cacophony of sights and sounds. Four-wheelers rumble across the ice. Airboats glide between the shanties, their engines whirring through the drifting snow.
But as more people crowd onto the ice for their filet of fish, the danger escalates.
Last February, one man died and at least 140 ice fishermen were stranded when an 8-mile-wide slab of ice floated 1,000 yards offshore near Oak Harbor.
Southwest winds and warm temperatures caused the ice to crack and shift.
Ottawa County Sheriff Bob Bratton said experienced fishermen recognize dangerous conditions, but for novices, ice fishing can prove fatal.
"Anytime you go on the ice, it's dangerous," he said. "But that day, it was even more dangerous than others, and some didn't recognized that and should have."
Leyda said no matter how cautious you are, ice fishing is dangerous.
"Anytime you step on the ice, you could die," he said.
But the danger and frigid cold aren't enough to scare fishermen away.
Rodriguez, who stays close to the shore as a precaution, spends two to three winter weekends per month fishing.
He and his wife, Alicia, 30, huddle together in their shanty as they fish.
"It's nice to get out of the city," Alicia says. "It's quiet in the winter at nighttime. It's just you, the stars, the lake, the fish and nature. It's romantic and it's relaxing. There's nothing better."
"We'd rather do this than pretty much anything," Rodriguez adds. "Some people hear about ice fishing and say, 'You're crazy for doing that.' I say, 'Just try it and you'll be hooked.'"