LA SALLE — Lake Erie wasn’t exactly angry — you don’t want to be anywhere around her when she is — but she had at least a little bit of attitude. We were taking waves over the bow of Ray Underwood’s boat as we headed out of Toledo Beach and, seeing as it’s a 39-footer, well . . .
But we had more than enough boat to handle the seas and we’d come to fish, so, what are a few waves among friends?
We started out in 19-20 feet of water, which is about as deep as Lake Erie is anywhere in Michigan. It was deeper than we’d ever gotten last year when we made this same trip. But the fish are a little behind where they were last year, Underwood said.
“Generally they’re already shallow by now,” said Underwood, 81-years-young and about as experienced as anyone with Lake Erie’s Western Basin walleye. “When they really move in good we’ll be fishing in 10 or 12 feet of water.”
Because we weren’t, we were running spoons behind Jet Divers, an adaptation many of the charter boat skippers have adopted.
“If the fish move into 14 foot or shallower water, we’ll switch over the Hot’N Tots or Wiggle Warts or other diving baits,” Underwood said. “Every once in a while we’ll put a Wiggle Wart behind these Jet Divers. I don’t see any reason you couldn’t mix it up, but nobody seems to. We all follow each other and if someone does well on spoons, we all fish spoons.”
The spoons — Mini Streaks -— were doing their job, though they didn’t get the memo that we were walleye fishing. We caught a few ‘eyes, right off the bat, but the white bass wouldn’t leave the baits alone. We were loading the boat with them (and caught white perch, drum and a yellow perch, to boot). But eventually we ran into a passel of walleyes and they started hitting with regularity.
Underwood, a lobbyist for the Michigan Boating Industry Association, began taking people walleye fishing in Lake St. Clair back in the ‘70s, but made the move to Lake Erie a couple of years later.
“Representative Bartnik (that would be Jerry, who went to serve on the Natural Resources Commission) convinced me I should come to Lake Erie and he was right. In those days, the limit was 10 and you could go out with six people have 60 fish in a couple of hours.
“It’s not quite like that anymore.”
Though it’s still good; this was Underwood’s third excursion of the year — he was tardy coming back from his winter haunt in Mexico this spring — and he’d tallied 23 and 16 ‘eyes on his first two trips.
“I would have thought we’d have gone to all 20s by now,” he said, an obvious poke at Joe Robison, who was serving as mate and was the ramrod of this adventure. “Speed and lead – that’s it: The right lead at the right speed.”
For almost two decades. Robison, a wildlife biologist, has been booking Underwood to take some Wildlife Division employees on an annual outing.
In early afternoon, as we called it a day, we started clearing the lines. One of the rods — the most outside rod on the port side, nearest the planer board — had a fish on that we’d been towing for who knows how long. It measured about 10 inches and was one of only two — the other was about 14 ½ inches — that wouldn’t meet the requisite size limit.
“That’s not a good sign,” Underwood said.
Indeed, fisheries biologists have been warning for years that the upcoming year-classes are not nearly as strong as they were during Lake Erie’s glory days (hence today’s five-fish daily creel limit compared to yesteryear’s 10). But even in its down days, Lake Erie still offers the kind of walleye fish that anglers most places can only dream about. We wound up with 27 keepers; not too shabby for five hours of fishing, eh?