MARSEILLES, Ill.–Unmistakable Led Zeppelin riffs sounded from the back of the boat.
Aptly enough, Dan McNeil’s phone tone would be “Misty Mountain Hop.’’
On Wednesday, I finally fished with him. After his new morning drive radio show with Pete McMurray on “The Drive,’’ McNeil met me and guide Pete Riedesel at LaSalle Lake, the cooling lake south of Seneca.
McNeil was anxious for his first outing of the year. I was anxious to probe the storied sports talker of Chicago radio. (Who else shares lineage to both Chuck Swirsky and Chet Coppock; and was the only intern Lorna Gladstone considered firing?) McNeil’s history swirls, including his latest radio move, like a good eddy.
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I feared McNeil would show duded out. But he came in boat shoes, jeans and a jacket perfect for spring weather. And we had spring weather: cold fog to white-capping east winds to sunshine and warmth.
When he pulled out rods, he had the right stuff tied on–spinner bait, Rat-L-Trap, crankbait–for largemouth bass, smallmouth bass and hybrid striped bass at LaSalle.
Years ago, Mike Lynch, one of the best on LaSalle, offered to take us. But Lynch’s fuel pump blew Tuesday. For plan B, I called Riedesel, a retired teacher who started Fishin Friend Guide Service.
He started us at a favored spot. With our second fish, McNeil boated best of the day, a 6-pound hybrid (right), on a half-ounce chrome and white Rat-L-Trap. McNeil knows outdoors media enough to say, “Picture fish.’’
Sometimes, that’s the hardest part.
With the big one photographed and released, we focused on fishing. We bopped around the hot water (80s), but found better fishing on the cool side (60s).
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McNeil said he began fishing at “5 or 6.’’
“My dad used to take us to Willow Slough to drown some minnows and worms there,’’ he said.
They would rent a boat at the Fish and Wildlife Area, an hour south of Chicago near on the Indiana side of the line.
He found bass fishing in his late teens.
“My best bass, I was shiner fishing in Florida, was probably 10 pounds,’’ McNeil said. “But it was shiner fishing, that is not really fishing.’’
There’s his fishing ethics or preferences. Same applies to sucker fishing for muskie or trolling.
“I hate sucker fishing, I want to throw baits,’’ McNeil said.
McNeil came to muskie fishing a few years ago on a trip to Eagle Lake in Canada.
“I caught one while fishing for smallmouth,’’ he said. “I saw him chasing a white Rat-L-Trap. So, I put on the biggest Rat-L-Trap in the box. Twenty minutes later I got him to go.’’
It was a solid 40-inch muskie.
“Now I don’t even take pictures of 40-inchers,’’ he said. “That sounds like I caught a —-load, but I haven’t.’’
But he has caught a 49-incher and also boated a 50 1/2-inch muskie, which is much debated because it hit a walleye being reeled in. He does not count it.
“I love topwaters for muskies,’’ he said. “The last 15 minutes before sundown and casting a Pacemaker and I am in heaven.’’
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We caught 14 hybrids, two freshwater drum, two smallmouth, two channel catfish and two blue catfish on Rat-L-Traps or bladebaits and a few on small shallow-running crankbaits, such as Bombers.
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As we drifted the east bank, I was tempted to ask McNeil if he enjoys his life, which many envy.
Sometimes there is a spark, other times his embers seem to flicker.
To regular listeners, at the end of his run as midday cohost with Matt Spiegel on “The Score,’’ the embers sounded like they were going out. McNeil sounded bored or disinterested. Football and hockey, he could talk about with enthusiasm. Basketball and baseball were another matter.
“I wanted to do something different,’’ McNeil admitted. “When opportunity presented itself in October, it was a two-foot putt.’’
In March, he started with McMurray on “The Drive,’’ talking life, sports, news and guy stuff.
Golfing is what McNeil does when not fishing in good weather.
With his fused back and bum knees, McNeil explained to Riedesel that he needed “less swing’’ when playing golf.
On cue, I said, “Les Swing? I played baseball in high school with him.’’
That brought a spark to McNeil. He has a running bit of play on “less/Les, “general/General’’ and such. He said on trips to fish in Canada he and his sons would come up with names for hosts of fishing shows (something I would not rule out for him). “Rod Bender’’ is the favorite.
He said the name game originated with Terry Boers, another “Score’’ original.
The sparks show too when McNeil talks about his sons. Two of them fish, one handles the boat stuff, a Tracker from the Bass Pro in Portage, Ind. His autistic son does not fish, but loves recreational boating.
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In many ways, Coppock, the mercurial pioneer of Chicago sports talk, was the mentor of McNeil, who was his producer at WLUP before leaving to help start “The Score.’’
Coppock set a tone to Chicago sports talk that has taken decades to overcome. McNeil has an on-and-off relationship with Coppock. Currently, it is off. Partly because McNeil doesn’t understand how you can burn bridges in a business that is a relatively small world.
“It is not like you can jump shop to shop,’’ he said.
The words are barely out of his mouth before even he has to smile. He realizes how that sounds from a guy who jumped to and from the two sports talkers in Chicago–WSCR (twice) and WMVP–and now to “The Drive.’’
The evolution of McNeil rolls on.
It was time.
We revisited the best spot and caught the day’s only double: a blue and a hybrid.