By Nick Simonson
It was by far the biggest walleye my ten-year-old eyes had ever seen. Back in those days at the lake cabin, when septic fields slowly filtered their way into the water, and weeds grew thick this time of year from the warm, fertile shallows out into the depths, walleyes were a bit rarer than they are now. The lush vegetation and algae-stained water were better suited to the herds of hammer-handle pike that dominated the food chain at the time, and walleyes were those rarities my uncle would pick off occasionally as we panfished the hump that rose out in front of our shoreline. So, seeing one – even a dead one washed up on the sand in the first light of morning – was a cause for investigation.
The one on the shore that day was huge, and its size alone provided plenty of mystery, as it arched with the stiffness of rigor mortis. But the cause of its death, however, was an easy solve. In its mouth, spines still wedged against the triangular beak of the beast, was a large sunfish in about the same condition. The panfish, in one last instinctive attempt to escape predation and somehow avoid becoming the walleye’s lunch, executed that all-too-familiar tense up for anyone who’s held them and took the pin prick to the palm of the hand, as it used what it had to its advantage. As a result, it instead became the fish’s last meal, even if it went undigested, and ended up on the shore immortalized in my memory before moving on down to nature’s decomposition crew as the day started to warm up and the first flies buzzed in for a look.
The lake has changed a lot in the last thirty years. Those drain fields have disappeared as septic lines connected to city sewer and water systems, and the number of dead fish washing up on shore from summer kills has dropped dramatically. With the clearing of the water that resulted, the weed lines have also moved deeper and walleyes, including some bigger ones, have become more prevalent, or we’ve gotten better at catching them, or maybe both. While there’s still a good number of smaller pike, their average size is better, with populations kept in check by the muskies which were introduced at the turn of the century. Panfish still abound and provide consistent action and a handful of tiny red dots when their dorsal spines leave their mark in that flurry of unhooking, rebaiting, and getting young anglers set for the next dip of the slip float cast from the dock. As all those changes have taken hold on the water, I see the same memory come to life – or death as it were – from time to time.
Sometimes it’s one of those smaller pike, once it was a mid-30-inch muskie, and even a couple more walleyes have washed ashore with that fatal last attempt at a summer snack wedged in their mouths, but the rare occasion of predator-and-prey put on pause always seems to happen this time of year. It stands to reason though. Midsummer brings with it burgeoning populations of bait, including the hand-sized selection of bluegills which form the middle of the food web on the lake. Predators are active and looking to sustain their body weight headed into the leaner months of the year, and perhaps preferred forage like shiners, suckers and those softer fish that don’t put up quite a fight in their final throes, aren’t as readily available as they were in the cooler waters of spring, or the chilly ones of the autumn to come.
These rare occasions serve as confirmation (or at least a confirmation bias from my previous experiences) of the theory that for these presumed reasons and more, big fish get bigger eyes when it comes to their appetite in summer and in turn provide a cue for anglers as well. Bigger baits up and down the spectrum are effective in triggering that natural response of these fish to perhaps bite off a bit more than they can chew. Larger jigs, bigger twister tails, stockier crankbaits, longer stickbaits, and even chunkier plastics help match the fattening hatch and reverse the roles on the water, preying on those predators’ increased appetites and willingness to take a bite out of something a bit bulkier, even if they might not be able to take it down in one gulp.
While the dead fish from a summer thirty years ago lingers in memory, and a few other confirmatory hints are interspersed on the shores of time in between, the reactions from bass, pike, muskies and yes, those same hungry walleyes this time of year to bigger baits further cement the idea. Like an unfortunate fish with eyes too large for its stomach, the arrival of midsummer signals a time to increase the size of angling offerings, and cash in on the hunger of those predators on the lookout for something a bit bigger…in our outdoors.
Featured Photo: Bigger summer fish have bigger appetites. Consider upping the size of offerings to trigger their predatory instincts to binge this time of year. Simonson Photo.