To borrow from an old saying, if the early bird catches the worm, the early angler catches the walleye.
That, at least, has been the tale on a couple of recent pre-dawn ventures onto western Lake Erie with Toledo skipper Dan Tucker and Toledo angler Jim Kaiser. The aim has been to catch night-roaming walleye in an aggressive feeding mode in the shallows, such that they will slash at cast crankbaits.
Action can be like lightning, though one morning lightning itself drove us off the lake. "If it gets weird, we're out of here," Tucker had said. Static electricity causing cast lines to float upward and brilliant bolts of forked trouble on the horizon ended one trip almost as quickly as it had begun. But on Wednesday the weather was ideal.
You leave the dock at 4 a.m., so this is no game for late sleepers. The veteran Tucker maneuvered his Erie Sport out of Turtle Creek channel and pointed it northeast toward the vast reef complex that is home and spawning grounds for so many fish.
"We couldn't be doing this without the GPS," Tucker said, patting an electronic "know-it-all screen" on the boat's dash. Like a much improved "little black book" of old, the GPS unit contained the precise coordinates of reefs that Tucker has fished and favored over the years.
His experience also tells him how to use whatever the day's wind to maximum advantage to keep the boat slowly and precisely drifting over the humps and shallows, some just six to seven feet deep. Kaiser tossed out a drift-bag to slow the boat's passage on this slightly breezy morning.
Overall, the goal is to tiptoe quietly onto these shallows, where walleye hold court in the dark. Roaring in on a motor would blow the fish right off the reeftop and wreck any chances at stealth-fishing.
By 5 a.m., we were clipping on Wiggle Warts, Wally Divers, Bagleys, and other baits under the reduced light of headlamps. And casting and catching walleyes. Some mornings the smallmouth bass also get into the act with a vengeance and so do white bass and others.
We fished through sunrise and beyond over a couple of choice reeftops - Tucker's not telling, of course - and by 8 a.m. had filled more than two of three limits.
We kept at it till about 9 a.m., when the sun was strong on the water and it became clear that the morning's crank-bite was done. The walleye had drifted off to deeper water.
So we moved to some 25-foot water off the reefs and finished out with mayfly rigs and weight-forward dressed with nightcrawlers. But some mornings - nights - the action is fast enough to fill out just on cranks.
"It's like little-lake fishing, only on big water," Tucker summed, referring to the finesse in knowing and using underwater structure and knowledge of walleye habits to maximum advantage. This is very different from trolling or drifting the featureless deepwater "flats" for roaming schools of walleye that are following schools of shiners and other baitfish.
In any case, fishing in the dark or near-dark is not for beginners. It is for veterans at the helm who know the waters they ply, and for fishermen who can use their equipment virtually blindfolded - and who won't endanger their boatmates with wildly flying treble hooks.
However, if you can pass muster on the foregoing requirements, all you have to do is force yourself to get up at 3 a.m. and go night-cranking for walleyes. It is a most agreeable task.
Another muskie - In other western Lake Erie news, Dan Baker of Butch and Denny's Bait in Jerusalem Township, reports the landing of a muskellunge, a none-too-common but highly prized gamefish.
This one was 35 1/4 inches long and weighed just 7.1 pounds, landed by Tammy Russell of Perrysburg. She was fishing aboard charter skipper Tom Pheil's Rusty Hook with her son, Dan of Des Moines, Iowa, and his girfriend, Kelly Schenkelberg also of Des Moines.
They were fishing about 12 miles out from Anchor Point, northwest of West Sister Island when Russell hooked the muskie while walleye fishing with a half-ounce gold Parrish Pea, one of the old favorite weight-forward spinners.
"It was long and skinny," said Baker of the fish, adding that the foursome also landed 14 walleyes weighing 40 pounds.
Muskies are being caught with increasing frequency in western Lake Erie, principally in near-shore areas around weed beds in the northwest corner below the mouth of the Detroit River and around the Bass Islands. But it is unusual to find them in deep, open water, where Russell took her fish and where another muskie, a 26 1/2-pounder, was taken last summer.
Lake St. Clair above Detroit on the St. Lawrence Seaway, has a renowned muskie population.
From the wouldn't-you-know-it department - Last Friday's column detailed the catch from Maumee Bay of a four-pound pacu, a vegetarian cousin of the fierce carnivorous piranha of the Amazon.
Now comes Stephen LaCourse of Toledo who last week caught a nine-inch red-bellied piranha - the real meat-eating deal - while fishing in the Maumee River at Napoleon.
"We were at Overhouse Park at Napoleon, fishing on the bottom with worms" LaCourse said, explaining that he was on an angling outing with two nieces, Holly and Brandon Mehlow, 11 and 13, both of Liberty Center, and Jessie Perez, 12, of Napoleon.
"I thought I had a catfish at first, the way it was fighting," LaCourse said. "Then I saw the teeth and thought, 'I better break out the pliers.'"
He kept the fish alive in a home aquarium, which likely is where it, like the pacu of last week, originated. And just like last week, it says here that dumping unwanted fish or domestic pets of any type is as irresponsible as it gets.
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