BIRD’S EYE – Newborn babies can weigh 8 pounds.
A gallon of water weighs 8 pounds.
So did the fat boy hybrid skimmer I caught early on a scorching hot day at Lake Patoka.
The fish moved and splashed more, fighting survival instinct against a hook lodged in its mouth and the strength of my shoulder, arm and hand dragged it towards the boat. He felt heavier. And maybe that was because a second of the white bass-striper gender got tangled up in the wrestling match, this one weighing 5 pounds or so.
It was a double, two fish in, two fish fighting, two fish rolled up. Wiper Sniper Charters guide Kevin Hill provided instructions for pulling the rod up and spooling down on the 20-pound test line while he stood with a net. .
“They are stronger than any other fish in this lake,” Hill said.
When you wake up groggy before dawn to go fishing, you hope the fish have set their alarms too. On this recent day, with few others boating on southern Indiana’s 8,800-acre lake, they had. The fish actively participated in the angling to make the four-hour run the highlight of a three-day getaway visit to the state Department of Natural Resources property, just 110 miles away from Seymour.
Patoka Lake has 161 miles of shoreline and is famous for its fishing opportunities. But its 25,800 acres, making it the largest IDNR property, includes a plethora of nature and outdoor activities that also appeal to fishing families.
Too popular to be classified as a hidden gem, Patoka Lake, in fiscal year 2020, drew 657,000 visitors, according to an estimate by the US Corps of Engineers. Estimates of the number of cars that entered the park in the past They have reached 1 million.
Patoka has various attractions. There are 455 Class A campsites with electric service, in addition to 82 sites in a fisherman’s camp and seven sites outside the country, which are more rustic. As many places as there are, it’s still a challenge to book a place for a summer weekend. Some rent cabins instead.
There is a beach that makes swimming easy. There are hiking trails galore. Dedicated birders are looking for fresh species. Park authorities have identified at least 15 active eagle nests and 26 active osprey nests. There can also be accidental encounters with wildlife in the forest.
Patoka Lake is actually a reservoir created by the Corps of Engineers in 1980 by damming 118 miles of the Patoka River. It was established as a source of safe drinking water and to protect against flooding downstream. Patoka spans parts of three counties, Dubois, Crawford, and Orange, and is the second largest reservoir in Indiana behind Lake Monroe.
“In 2012, Patoka Lake was voted one of the 50 best places (in the country) to see wildlife,” said interpretive naturalist Dana Reckelhoff.
Reckelhoff made a list of wild animals from memory, neither in order of abundance nor alphabetically: turkeys, bobcats, box turtles, white-tailed deer, coyotes, skunks (you can smell them first), opossums, raccoons, mink, squirrels, foxes gray and red and rabbits
Reckelhoff pulled out a booklet of fishing rules and marked the types of fish that swim in Patoka, including largemouth bass, smallmouth bass, hybrid rays, blue catfish, perch, black crappie, white crappie, bluegill and red ear.
It would be more than a grand slam to catch everything in one day.
Hill knows that Lake Patoka has a wide variety of fish. He is simply a fan of hybrid strippers, a specialist. He is a bruiser type, and hybrids are fish bruisers.
Even at 6:30 am, the humidity was as thick as maple syrup. The day was on its way to 97 degrees. Even though the sun blazed up, briefly, raindrops fell from sheer moisture. A saving element was the cloudiness.
Hill drives a 22 foot pontoon boat. Guiding since 2015 after 30 years in law enforcement, he knows the contours of Patoka and the habits of the fish. He brought optimism to the water.
“Let’s smoke them,” he told me.
I’ve heard that before, but I never count my stripers before they hatch.
We trocha with six rods, very resistant sticks, to fight against the stripers on a level playing field, four with downriggers and two “umbrellas”. They were fancy lures, multiple yellow lures that also somewhat resembled lampshades.
The boat left a few miles from Painter Creek.
“They are the most aggressive fish,” Hill said of the stripers. “They are powerful. It’s the closest we get to a fish in the ocean.”
Large pools of bubbles appeared on the surface, representing schools of tarpon. Tarpon were delicious snacks for the stripers, so our goal was to sail to the center of the school and fool the fish. Sure enough, the ploy worked.
Two rapid-fire shooters took to the line. Hustle and technique was required to reel the fish into the boat. The first was a 5lb.
“They’re going to be bigger than that,” Hill said. “You have to be super fast.”
I was more steady than fast, but rarely slow enough to allow a determined striper to cast a hook.
Fishing in 17-foot water level, the stripers kept biting. I was fast enough to land two, and Hill brought one.
“Three hits,” he said.
Hill has occasionally seen frenetic action with multiple lures catching fish simultaneously.
“I’m fine with two at once,” he said. “When you get three, four and five, he goes crazy.”
We should be so lucky.
Hill said we should head to the “school bus,” an apparent reference to a school for strippers.
“We’ll see if they’re playing hooky,” he said. Or he would play with a hook.
No. But soon after, a fish stood out as a very feisty guy. I dragged it into the boat, and it was an 18-inch walleye. As his cousin, the strippers, we released that fish.
As the temperature rose on the hottest day of the year, we headed to the coast, a pretty satisfying return with nine hybrids and a walleye for me.
My wife, Debra, a very rare fisherman, and my dog, Boston, joined me at a rental cabin close enough to the official Patoka entrance, we could have thrown a baseball at him.
While there were plenty of nearby private summer homes and hotels a dozen miles away in French Lick, we discovered a pet-friendly cabin in the woods with a covered porch and BBQ grill. Cozy, but spacious enough with everything you need to cook and rest.
Owner Kevin Jenkins and his wife reside in the cabin during the cooler half of the year and live on a 65-foot houseboat in Patoka during the warmer months.
We were close enough to visit French Lick Resort, though we skipped the fancy restaurant with its $27 burger. There aren’t a huge number of restaurants near Patoka, and if a visitor were to bring their own food, with the exception of the Schwartz Family Restaurant in Eckerty, they wouldn’t be missing much.
If it wasn’t for the humid air like Louisiana, we could have hiked. There are 1,000 acres of trails with a hike as short as a quarter mile. Patoka also has a paved bike path (baby strollers are welcome) and a fitness trail where you can get in a workout along the way.
The Corps of Engineers Dam at Patoka also has hiking trails. Reckelhoff said there are “beautiful views of the water and a view of the dam inlet structure, the dam itself, the wastewater and the spillway,” reminders, he noted, of what makes Patoka a reservoir.
On this particular day, few people were on the beach, though Patoka added 1,200 feet of new sand last year to combat erosion.
“Hopefully one day we’ll add even more sand,” Reckelhoff said.
Patoka offers weekly archery, an 18-hole disc golf course, and hunting in season. It’s hard to complain about a $7 car entry fee for Indiana residents. If you’re bored in Patoka, it’s your own fault.
Tom Todd, owner of Tom’s Guide Service, offers a different kind of fishing experience on Lake Patoka. Using light tackle, 10-pound test, waving grubs and spinners from his 18-foot aluminum boat, Todd goes after black and white crappie and yellow bass.
It may have been melt weather, but a breeze kept Tom, Deb and I breathing in Patoka as we lowered the lines to 20 feet or so, Deb for three hours, me for seven.
A long-time diesel fuel truck driver, Todd has been a guide since 2008. He gave up competitive bass fishing in favor of taking a dozen grandchildren fishing, and later took up guiding. Once he was over 300 pounds, the 6-foot-6 Todd was down to 200, to the point that old friends of his don’t recognize him.
At first, the fish gravitated toward Todd’s line. He pulled three out of the water quickly. Deb hit a yellow bass and brought it in easily. He added two more fish before leaving the heat, but only after snagging my jeans. Tom hooked one of my shoelaces. And he hitched my backpack. I’ve never been mistaken for a yellow bass before.
Between casts, Todd and I made leisurely commutes to different fishing spots, distracted by nesting eagles and ospreys. An impressive osprey flew overhead.
Patoka isn’t just for Indiana residents. Initially surprised, Todd said he has guided many foreigners, including especially happy fishermen from the Netherlands.
Reckelhoff said visitors to Patoka “come from everywhere.” The visitor center registration book shows signers from many countries. Reckelhoff’s favorite foreign story dates to around 2018. A husband and wife from Germany sent an RV across the Atlantic Ocean and camped out in the United States, camping at Lake Patoka.
Tom, who saw a deer that morning while preparing his boat, guided us to a beaver dam. The structure was impressive, but the beaver did not appear. When we headed out at 3pm, the fish caught and released numbered 20, 12 for Tom, five for me, three for Deb.
Todd raved about a 1¼ pound white crappie I caught.
“That’s a rare type of fish for this lake,” Todd said. “I guarantee you there are people who fish this lake almost every day who have never caught one this big.”
Todd would know. Those old friends of yours from the trucking world are a little jealous that you’re spending so much time at splendid Lake Patoka.
They say, “‘Boy, you’ve got it made,'” of Todd fishing every day. Tom Todd smiled and said, “Which I do.”