TOLEDO BEACH — Since 1995, Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Joe Robison has been putting together an annual walleye fishing expedition for some of his colleagues on Lake Erie.
Robison lines up Ray Underwood, who keeps a 39-foot Sea Ray at the marina here, to captain the adventure. Robison invited me along many years ago — back when I was still a full-time outdoor writer — and I figured it gave me a chance to kill two birds with one stone; I'd known and fished with Underwood — who is the former director of the Michigan Boating Industries Association — for many years already, but this gave me a chance to pick some wildlife brains in a relaxed setting while I was at it.
I've been going ever since.
This year, the day Robison scheduled coincided with the hottest (thus far) day of the year. And with scant wind, it was beastly.
But the fishing was pretty good.
Robison and I were setting lines — we had 11 rods for the day (as one of Underwood's rigs had expired the day before) — but before we could get them all in the water we had four fish in the boat. One was a keeper 'eye. Two were shorts. And the fourth was a white bass, one of about a billion we'd catch before the day was out.
Then things took a turn. One of the other captains called on the cell phone directing us to head his way, pronto, as he was on a big pod of fish. Underwood piloted the boat in his direction and we trolled out of our fish almost immediately.
We picked up one here and there — mostly silver bass — en route to the hot spot, but when we got there, you know what happened? Not much. The fish the other captains had been picking at either closed their mouths or moved. We went nearly an hour without a take.
Underwood changed course, heading toward some waypoints where he'd scored recently. We started picking up walleyes again, though they were running at least two-to-one, maybe three-to-one throwbacks.
Interesting note here; while Lake Erie poobahs from both the U.S. and Canada have been downplaying recent year-classes, we caught walleyes that were easily from four different year-classes, maybe more, ranging from about eight inches to nearly 20.
We were slowly trolling small spoons in about 15 feet of water behind Jet Divers, a technique Underwood adopted a couple of years ago. He used to troll crankbaits, then spoons behind min-disks (and sometimes both on opposite sides of the boat) but made the move to Jet Divers (which look like F-15s going backwards through the water) when one of the other captains started scoring with them. Underwood said he has no explanation for why the Jet Divers out-produced mini-disks, they just did.
"That's why fishermen spend millions of dollars a year," said Underwood. "The fishery changes and whatever catches fish we'll use. If somebody came down here with blue-tailed whistledorfs and started catching walleyes, we'd all be using blue-tailed whistledorfs."
It's not the first time Underwood's changed. When he started walleye fishing back in the '70s, he fished Lake St. Clair. Then in the 1980s, then state rep (and eventually Natural Resources Commissioner) Jerry Bartnik pestered Underwood into bringing his boat down to Erie for a weekend.
"We caught 'em," Underwood said. "Lots of 'em."
So he immediately got a slip on Erie and has been there ever since. "And I plan on being here for awhile, yet," the 80-year-old skipper added.
"The fishing was awesome," Underwood said. "The limit was 10 at that time and we'd come out here and take 50 or 60 in a couple of hours."
It's not like that now (for one thing, the limit's six) but Lake Erie still ranks among the world's best walleye fisheries.
What's most interesting this year is that despite the hot weather, there are still plenty of fish in Michigan waters. By this time of year, most of the captains are heading to Ohio.
"We fished in Ohio for a couple of days, then we discovered these fish over here and everyone started fishing over here," Underwood said. "A couple of guys went to Ohio the other day and they didn't do any better than we did in Michigan water."
Our fishing slowed again, we moved around a little, then Underwood said, heck with it, let's go back to where we started. We did. And we immediately started catching them again. For awhile it was non-stop, though there were plenty of whites and a couple of big channel cats mixed in with the 'eyes.
We were still catching them when our predetermined quitting time arrived. We wound up with 17 keepers and more whites than anyone really wanted to clean.
Underwood has been going to Erieau, Ont., for August for the last few years, where the water is deeper and there are always a few steelhead mixed into the catch. But this year, with the price of fuel high as a giraffe, he plans to stay at Toledo Beach and fish here, he said.
"Michigan water has been very productive this year," Underwood said. "But an overnight wind can change it from clean, clear water to unfishable just like that."
And if that happens? Well, the run to Ohio — and deeper — water isn't all that tough a task.