EL DORADO LAKE — While laughing, Shane Eustice fought the fish loudly from the time the hook was set until in the net.
You'd have thought it a fish worthy of a trip to the taxidermist or a Master Angler award.
Nope. It was just an average-sized wiper of about 17 inches.
Anytime such a so-so fish gets an experienced angler excited, you know the fishing's been tough.
"Most of this year's been a real struggle," said Eustice, one of the top anglers on El Dorado Lake. "One trip you're on fish and the next few times it's like there's not a fish in the lake."
Craig Johnson, Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologist for the lake, said he's heard few glowing reports this summer.
That's a far cry from last year.
"Last year was fantastic. It was probably the best summertime bite I've ever had," said Eustice, who's fished El Dorado an average of three times a week for 16 years. "The (Kansas Walleye Association) tournament last year was one of the best they've ever had. This year it was such a bust people were asking me where the fish had gone."
Johnson and Eustice are confident El Dorado still holds plenty of fish. They had great pre-spawn catches of crappie. They caught limits of walleye during the spawn.
But that was then.
"I really think it's had a lot to do with all the rain, all the inflows and outflows," Eustice said. "The gates were open for about three months straight. I think all the water going up and down made it impossible to get a pattern on the fish."
At least misery loves company.
Johnson said most biologists are reporting slower than normal fishing at central Kansas lakes.
"They've been catching wipers at Milford but Cheney, Marion and El Dorado have all been too much up and down," he said. "You always need stable water for the fish to get into a pattern."
Such is often the case during the dog days of summer. Most years Eustice does well even when water temperatures are about 90 degrees.
This time last year the weather was similar, but the fishing was not.
Night after night, Eustice and Johnson enjoyed great action on white bass and wipers where many wouldn't have expected to find them.
"We caught fish in water from five to a half-foot deep all summer," Eustice said. "We could go out some nights and catch 50 to 70 fish. I think we got skunked one time."
In the past few weeks, the anglers have had a few fair outings. Sometimes it was much worse.
Twice within the past two weeks, Eustice spent tough evenings casting along a submerged old roadbed in shallow water.
The first evening produced one small channel catfish. Three anglers caught two small white bass and the much-appreciated wiper on the second try.
If there is a silver lining, its that the fish Eustice is catching are plump, not the rail-thin wipers and white bass El Dorado was known for over the past few years.
Johnson said he's pleased with the size and numbers of shad he's seeing.
Both anglers are still working hard to salvage this year's remaining trips. After the rods were stowed Monday evening, Eustice and Johnson sat and talked as the boat drifted across the dark lake.
Eustice stopped mid-sentence when he noticed his fish locator was showing the marks of fish near the bottom in about 20 feet of water.
He made plans to try trolling crankbaits over such deep spots soon and vertically fishing slab spoons if he finds concentrations of fish.
"Maybe they're just deeper this year," Eustice said. "You have to just keep going fishing. You never know when you're going to have that trip when you catch 60."