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Kansas City-area reservoir has walleyes, but they're tough to catch

Moments after wading into the darkness last weekend, Tim Wilson discovered why walleye fishermen are so excited about Hillsdale Lake these days.

When he launched a cast to a stretch of water along the dam where he had heard the spawning walleyes roll, he felt something hit the Rat-L-Trap he was using. Then he felt the solid pull of a big fish.

By the time he got the walleye to the net, he shined his flashlight on his catch and began to celebrate. He had one of the trophy fish everybody is talking about - an 8¼-pound female swollen with eggs.

"This is my first time here," said Wilson, 58, who lives in Omaha, Neb. "My friends and I found this place when we did a search on the Internet for walleye lakes in the region and it was listed right at the top on one of the sites.

"We decided to drive over here and try it. Boy, are we glad we did.

"I can't believe the size of the walleyes here."

Wilson and his friends caught five other keeper fish in a two-week period, including one other that measured 25 inches. And that was enough to persuade Wilson to extend his stay.

"As long as the walleyes are in here spawning, this is where I want to be," he said. "It's not easy fishing. You really have to work at it.

"But the big fish are there. You can hear them rolling all over the place when you're fishing."

Indeed, the big fish are out there. If you don't believe Wilson, take a look at the type of fish the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks nets when it starts its egg-collecting operation each spring.

Workers set nets along the dam to capture both female and male walleyes, then collect eggs, immediately fertilize them and ship them to the Milford Hatchery, where the hatch rate in a controlled setting is much higher than it would be in the wild.

Millions of fry are stocked in reservoirs across the state, including Hillsdale, helping boost Kansas' reputation as a walleye state.

And biologists get a good look at the impressive results when they remove huge walleyes from the nets.

"This one will go close to 10 pounds," Dave Spalsbury, the biologist who manages Hillsdale, said as he hoisted an egg-laden female. "That's a trophy fish anywhere.

"There are a lot of fishermen who would love to get a hold of a fish like this."

But that fish wasn't in a class by itself Tuesday as workers collected eggs. They were treated to a parade of trophy fish, many of them in the 5- to 8-pound range.

"We don't even get surprised to see big walleyes in the nets out here any more," Spalsbury said. "The research indicates that the shallow, turbid, more fertile reservoirs are the best for walleyes, and I think that's the case at Hillsdale.

"It's become one of the best, if not the best, walleye reservoirs in Kansas."

Recent surveys certainly back that up. In the 2007 Kansas Fishing Forecast, Hillsdale ranked at the top in the state in all categories when it came to walleyes.

And at no time of the year are those fish more concentrated than they are right now, when they move to the rocky face of the dam to spawn.

That's the good news. The bad news? They are hard to catch.

For every success story like the one Wilson can tell, there are 50 other fishermen who talk of casting for night after night without catching so much as a small fish.

"They're not in there to feed," Spalsbury said. "They're in there to spawn.

"They'll hit if a lure is dragged right in front of them. But it's tough fishing."

Still, the spawn attracts crowds of nocturnal fishermen, even on weeknights. Each dreams of being the lucky one who will hook into one of those 10-pounders that Spalsbury finds in his nets.

Fishermen often use suspending stickbaits, shallow-running crankbaits or grubs and fish them in shallow, rocky areas.

The spawn often starts in mid- to late-March and continues into early April. April 1 is the benchmark date, at least according to historical data gathered during past netting operations.

Several days either side of that date is when Wildlife and Parks fisheries biologists see the peak of spawning activity. The peak of fishing success? That comes much later, in late May and early June when the walleyes recover from the spawn and go on the feed.

That's when fish will school on points and flats and are caught on everything from live bait to crankbaits.

But the big ones that are seen in surveys each March and April? Well, they have proved mysteriously elusive.

"What we see in our surveys doesn't necessarily translate to great fishing," Spalsbury said. "Hillsdale can be tough to fish for walleyes.

"I think sometimes those bigger walleyes get in the timber, where they're more protected. And then, sometimes I think they're shallower than most people fish for them.

"They're out there. And there are people who catch them. But they're pretty tight-lipped about it."

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