Dale Hines was plying the depths of Wilson Reservoir.
He steered his boat to the middle of the 9,040-acre lake in central Kansas, then looked at the electronic depth finder.
It etched a picture of a bottom that steadily dropped until it reached rock bottom — in the middle of the old river channel.
Once he got to the bow of the boat to run the trolling motor, he illustrated a point of how quickly the bottom had dropped.
Turning to his fishing partner at the back of the boat, he asked his fishing partner, Phil Taunton, what the rear depth finder was showing.
“About 45 feet,” he said.
Hines smiled and said, “It’s 60 feet deep up here. In one boat length, it dropped that much. Those are the areas I’m looking for.
“The stripers and walleyes love to hang on those sharp drops at this time of the year.”
Returning his attention to the screen of his depth finder, he saw more reason for encouragement.
“See those marks down on the bottom?” he asked, pointing at the screen. “There are fish here.”
With that, Hines dropped a Sassy Shad on a half-ounce jig head until it hit bottom. Then he began lifting the bait and letting it fall. It only took a few minutes to attract the attention of a hungry striper.
The fish hit hard, Hines set the hook and the rod bent sharply. The striper fought vigorously as it struggled to stay in its deep-water lair. But in a matter of minutes, Hines had the 6-pound fish in the boat and was admiring another late-season catch at Wilson.
“You always worry about the fish getting the bends when you catch them this deep,” said Hines, 52, who runs a guide service on the lake. “But these stripers we’re catching have been swimming off hard when we release them. They don’t seem to be that affected.”
Moments later, Taunton also caught a fish, the type that Hines believes drives the deep-water fishing at Wilson. It was a white perch, the invasive species that has had a population boom at Wilson.
“I never used to catch fish this deep at Wilson until the white perch got in here,” Hines said. “The white perch stay deep at this time of the year. That’s why the stripers and walleyes are down there. They’re going where the food is.”
It’s hard to argue with Hines, based on his recent success. He has spent several weeks turning in impressive catches. He recently caught a limit of big walleyes, including one that weighed 8 pounds.
Two days later, he found a school of stripers in the same place, and they were just as eager to hit. As he and a guest jigged four-inch Sassy Shad off the bottom in 50 to 60 feet of water, they had steady action.
By the time the action had slacked, they had caught and released nine stripers and two walleyes. Many other fish were on for a few seconds before they got off.
“Fishing at this depth, it’s hard to get a good hookset in these fish,” Hines said. I fish with mono (monofilament), but I should probably use braid. Braid has less stretch to it.”
Whatever the case, Hines is hooked on the late-fall fishing at Wilson, a beautiful, clear-water reservoir surrounded by rugged hills. He often follows a routine. He hunts for ducks in the morning, then turns to fish in the afternoon.
That’s a pattern Hines has followed for years.
“This type of fishing is generally good when everybody else is out pheasant hunting,” Hines said. “We live out here on the water from the first of pheasant season to Thanksgiving.
“A lot of times, we’ll practically have the lake to ourselves. But with the pheasant hunting being so bad this year, there are a lot more boats on the water.”
Even then, though, Hines has some of the choice spots almost to himself. Most fishermen can’t imagine catching fish at the depths that Hines does.
“The biggest mistake a lot of people make is that they fish too shallow,” he said. “They don’t realize these fish are out here on this river channel.”
While Wilson can produce some trophy walleyes, the average size of the stripers Hines catches range from 5 to 8 pounds. That’s enough to put a good tug on the 10-pound test line Hines uses, but hardly a trophy size.
But Hines and his family have caught some of those trophies in the past at Wilson.
His son Travis landed a 39-pound fish in 1996. And his wife Sandy landed a 32-pound striper, he caught one 28 pounds and his daughter caught an 18-pounder, all in fall or early winter.
“We don’t catch them like that anymore,” he said. “But there’s a good number of fish in the five- to 10-pound range. And I’ll still hear of bigger ones being caught.”
Hines has been fishing Wilson since 1985 and fell in love with the reservoir.
“The white bass fishing was just awesome at the time,” he said.
He and his wife eventually bought a place on the lake in 1993 and they’ve been there ever since.
“There isn’t anywhere I’d rather be,” he said.