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.”

Spoons are the go-to bait when walleyes are deep at Lake Erie.
Spoons are the go-to bait when walleyes are deep at Lake Erie.

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.”

It’s still good, though; 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.

We were running the spoons 110 feet back behind his No. 20 Jet Divers, 75 feet behind his No. 40s. The port side of the boat–with the longer lines–was out-fishing the starboard about three to one.

“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.”

DNR wildlife biologist Mark Sargent shows off a Lake Erie walleye.
Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Mark Sargent shows off a Lake Erie walleye.

For almost two decades. Robison, a wildlife biologist, has been booking Underwood to take some Wildlife Division employees on an annual outing. I go back further with Underwood than that, but for the last decade or so I’ve been elbowing my way on to this trip and it’s always a good time.

The wind subsided a bit–there was still a nice chop on the lake but it was no longer rocking and rolling. The fishing was fairly typical: we’d catch a few, go through a slack period, then Underwood would double back over the productive waypoints and we’d start catching them again. And we never did run out of the white bass–they kept hammering spoons all morning.

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 14-1/2 inches) that wouldn’t meet the requisite size limit.

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?

Underwood said he was making no promises about next year’s trip. Of course, he said that last year. And, if I remember correctly, the year before, as well.

If I were a gambling man, I’d give you odds that we’ll be back out there with the captain aboard the Cachanilla II next year, too.

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Images by Bob Gwizdz

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