An exhilarating walleye hunt

When the weather was worst, the fishing was best

EAGLE LAKE, ONTARIO — I didn't gain much fishing knowledge from my father, Roy McNeil, who used to wake up his chubby son before sunrise to drown minnows and insects.

My dad never owned a boat and he didn't have the resources to travel far in search of trophy bass. I forever will be grateful, however, that the transplanted Arkansan put the fishing bug in my young brain.

And the old boy imparted some wisdom by which I always have lived: The only way to catch fish is to put a bait in the water. It was my responsibility to share that axiom with my sons, who received it and also regard it as the only undeniable truth in the great outdoors.

While Chicago was experiencing record heat over Memorial Day weekend, we were triple-layered in heavy, weatherproof clothing, battling rain, wind and temperatures in the low 40s. Because of the mild winter, I assumed fishing patterns would be well ahead of schedule so we bumped up our annual pilgrimage to Eagle Lake in Northwest Ontario.

Wrong. While winter wasn't as typically bitter-cold here, water temperatures remain in the mid-to-upper 50s. That's well below the range for the fast-action program my 21-year-old son, Van, and I prefer.

To us, ripping buzzbaits and fan casting Rat-L-Traps is heaven. Jack, 17, favors the soft touch of slowly popping 1/4-ounce jigs, tipped with minnows. The youngster got his wish.

With winds howling out of the east, under a steady drip and chilly air, we hammered the spring walleye. Sunday, when the weather was the worst, the fishing was the best.

We settled the boat on the west side of a small island in fertile Spring Bay. Casting pink jigs into spots where calm water met the rough stuff, we experienced a two-hour stretch of frenzied activity.

I've been a part of some amazing walleye slaughters before. Invariably, they arrive before or during inclement weather. Walleye is an extremely light-sensitive species, so charcoal-bitten skies always are preferred. High winds, conversely, are a nemesis for most types of angling.

This walleye hunt was one of the most exhilarating fresh-water harvests I have experienced. After questioning our judgment for most of the morning, we quickly filled our livewell with chunky walleye and released more than two dozen slot walleye (18 to 24 inches).

There were several "doubles." Quickly, cold toes and fingers were replaced by happy feet and hands reaching for the minnow bucket.

Though we weren't keeping score (it's a team game), Jack boated the most slot walleye, while Van's 24 1/2-incher was the biggest and qualified for the big fish board back at camp. It was my good fortune to boat the biggest smallmouth bass I have hooked, a 19-incher, a little more than 5 pounds.

So how was the rest of the week? Probably best described as "the one that got away." We never did without shore lunch, but the action never was a fraction as furious as it was in adverse conditions on day one.

When water temperatures reached the low to mid-60s by the week's conclusion, the bigger fish stopped biting. All the more reason to return in August when the muskies are moving on fast-action baits.

Special contributor Dan McNeil hosts "The McNeil and Spiegel Show" weekdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. on WSCR-AM 670.
CHICAGO

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