You have to be crazy to leave the dock at 4 a.m. to go walleye fishing - crazy like a fox.
A hazy orange, nearly-full moon hangs low in the southwest, its face turned smoky by the humidity still hanging after last night's thunderstorms. To the left of the moon is the planet Jupiter, glowing bright and yellow like a distant beacon.
It is warm and sultry, as if this were the Florida coast, not western Lake Erie.
In the spotlight of the boat, as it idles out the channel from Turtle Creek Marina, a flurry of fluffy cottonwood seeds drift down as soft and swirling as a fall of big white December snowflakes.
And close to the open lake itself - bullfrogs. Dozens of them, big ones, swimming in open water and leaping back and forth. Must have been a major insect-hatch under way and these eat-anything-that-won't-eat-them-first predators gleefully are filling their bellies.
"I've never seen anything like that," said veteran Toledo angler Tom Frisch, one of the old foxes on board. If Tom, with a lifetime of fishing and outdoors and the lake under his belt, hasn't seen it, you can take it to the bank that the frog-fest was a special sight.
Dan Tucker, who was piloting his 27-foot soft-top Sportcraft, Erie Sport, had cooked up this wee-hours fishing venture with a seasoned crew. You need to know piloting, navigation, equipment handling - including fishing tackle - blindfolded, to safely enjoy a gig like this.
The idea was not to plow out to the big open waters where limits of 18-inchers are coming in two hours these days, but rather to pick the near-shore rockpiles with crankbaits. There the big walleyes, acting like freshwater sharks, move into the shallows and prowl for prey until the sun starts to climb.
Jim Kaiser, of Toledo, fishing the bow, nailed a walleye on the first cast. It was a task, untangling it and the crankbait's treble hooks from the net by headlamp. Sandy Wasmuth, of Northville, Mich., and hottest hand of the day, was not far behind with a hook-up.
Fat Free Shads, Wiggle Warts, Reef Runner Rip Sticks, Mann's Pigs, Storm Junior Thundersticks - pick out a fave and crank it. At one point, as we drifted across a seven-foot reeftop, we had four fine walleyes on at once. We ran out of nets.
As the morning brightened and the sun started toward vertical, the fish got cranky about the cranks and drifted to deeper water, 12 to 14 feet, just off the rocky tops. Hybrid mayfly rigs - Weapons - and weight-forward spinners with nightcrawlers kept the action going.
I landed a fine blue-phase walleye, one which stood in sharp contrast to the standard-issue olive-and-yellow and which may have shared a few remnant color-genes with the long-lost and fabled blue pike.
As the motors roared on the western horizon to the big fishing grounds by the Toledo Ship Channel, we sat all alone, fishing the rockpiles. Chunky white bass, lots of them; freshwater drum or sheepshead to 15 pounds; channel catfish to 8 pounds, and, eventually, a limit of walleye. About 175 fish in all - each of them fun to catch, if not keep.
"It was reminiscent of the '80s," summed the 70-something Frisch. Added Tucker, so rightly: "People have forgotten about this kind of fishing [quiet, patient rock-picking]. They've been fishing the [open-water] flats so much."
Indeed, it wasn't so much about rushing to get a limit as it was enjoying fishing for fishing's sake, a day on the lake, time and old stories with good old friends.
Walleye have remained active and eager in open-water areas of the western basin, including three to five miles offshore from the Toledo Water Intake to the Toledo Harbor Light, along the Toledo Ship Channel, chart area marked Gravel Pit, and toward West Sister Island.
Many anglers are casting traditional weight-forward spinners with good results, according to Dan Baker at Butch and Denny's Bait on Corduroy Road. He adds, though, that Weapons and worm harnesses on bottom bouncers also are working. "Use what you're confident with." As for colors, he said, "Pick one. You talk to five guys and you get five colors."
Some fish are starting to feed on mayflies, said Rick Ferguson at Al Szuch Live Bait on Corduroy. His remark is based on fish the shop is cleaning. No massive hatches and rafts of spent carcasses have been seen on the lake yet.
Farther east, walleye activity seems concentrated between South Bass and Kelleys Island, according to Rickard's Bait at Catawba Island.
Yellow perch are being taken in good numbers around several of the islands, according to John Hageman, Ohio Sea Grant agent at Put-in-Bay. His best luck has been along break-lines where depth changes from 32 to 36 feet of water. He recently has taken 30-perch limits in an hour or less near Ballast, South Bass, and Green islands.
Hageman also recently landed a small sturgeon, a 30-incher, while perching near Ballast. "He had some gill net wrapped around his midsection, which I was able to cut away with scissors that I was using to cut up my minnows into pieces."
The agent released the young fish, which is a protected species in Ohio waters of the lake. Sturgeon reports can be phoned into the state's Lake Erie Research Station at Sandusky, 419-625-8062.
Inland fishing - Action has been good for walleye, channel catfish, and white bass at several northwest Ohio upground reservoirs, according to Larry Goedde, fish management supervisor for Ohio Wildlife District 2.
"Anglers are slaying big channel catfish off the old Sandusky Bay Bridge Fishing Access [the former State Rt. 269 bridge]. Many of the fish being caught are in the 30 to 35-inch range. The best bait seems to be big live shiners. Frank Kapler of my staff witnessed two being caught this morning over 30 inches."
Elsewhere, Pleasant Hill Reservoir near Mansfield has been producing saugeye in late afternoon and evening, and bluegill have been on the beds at the Lake La Su An lakes in Williams County and Oxbow Lake in Defiance County. Summertime reservations for fishing at Lake La Su An lakes in Williams County can be made Monday and Friday mornings by calling 419-636-6189. For other details on the lakes call Wildlife District 2 headquarters at 419-424-5000.
In other news, Goedde announced final confirmation on fish that almost were state records.
"The two fish that we recently looked at for possible new state records, white perch and white bass caught out of the Maumee River this spring, were both confirmed as being hybrids. The white perch/white bass hybrid was caught by Brian Simpson, of Weston, on May 10. I initially identified the fish as a hybrid and it was confirmed a hybrid by Dr. Ted Cavender of OSU [Ohio State University] yesterday.
"The white bass-striper hybrid was caught by Tim Spurgeon from Napoleon. It was initially identified as a hybrid by Mike Wilkerson of my staff, confirmed by me and Dr. Cavender."
The launch ramp at Sterling State Park on western Lake Erie at Monroe, Mich., is to remain closed through June 15 to allow dredging to continue in the bay and Sandy Creek. Boaters are advised to use Bolles Harbor, three miles south of Sterling State Park. For details call Jamie Allen, park supervisor, 734-289-2715.33.8065 -117.8272