Trophy Walleye Magic
No other walleye fishery even comes close to producing as many 10-plus pounders as the Western Basin during early spring. I’m talking about walleyes that stretch the tape past 30-inches, the kind of fish that are in a class all by themselves. Even though I’ve had the opportunity to fish most of the noted trophy walleye hot spots all over North America, none compare to Erie’s spring spectacular. Last year on my Charter boat, my clients managed to catch over 30 walleyes that topped 10-pounds, the biggest being a massive 35-incher that sagged the scale to the 14-pound mark. We also boated over 100 walleyes that weighed more than seven pounds. The best news is that Erie’s early spring fishery is largely under utilized. As good as the fishing is, catching ten-pound lunkers is still far from easy. Harsh fishing conditions combined with finicky fish make refined, precise presentations absolutely necessary for consistent success. Savvy anglers with walleye wisdom and plenty of patients will often be rewarded with awesome catches.
To catch those big walleyes on a consistent basis one needs to understand their early spring habits. During the pre-spawn period walleyes tend to school with fish of a similar age class. Quite simply, trophy walleyes won’t be hanging out with puny, little, one and two pounders. Anglers seeking big fish sometimes must steer clear of the tempting schools of eaters while searching out older age class fish.
Western Basin walleyes historically spawn around April 15 every year. Consequently, the best trophy walleye fishing occurs during late March and early April while the fish are staging in preparation for the rigors of spawning. During this period, the adult walleyes really put on the feed bag and are very vulnerable to sport fishermen. The big females seem to get a case of lockjaw during and just after spawning. The trophy action really dries up during mid-April.
Last year around the first of April, I experienced the kind of fishing trip that dreams are made of. It had been a rough day on Erie. The water was pitching and yawing with a vengeance. I knew that strong, onshore winds sometimes cause walleyes to stack up along the shoreline shallows. Our strategy consisted of trolling near the shore with a spread of Storm Jr. Thundersticks running 40' behind my Mr. Walleye boards. We’d been fishing for five hours without a bite, when all of the sudden, somewhere between Toledo Beach, MI and Bolles Harbor, one of my boards suddenly bucked and dropped back sharply. At first, I thought we’d snagged bottom in the shallow water, but much to our delight, the "snag" delivered some powerful head-shakes indicating a big fish. After a vigorous battle, I slipped the net under a pot-bellied walleye that weighed a biceps pumping 12-pounds. Just seconds after tossing that trophy back, I noticed another rod bowed over in its holder. That fish turned out to be a chunky, nine-pound walleye. Strong on-shore, east winds had turned the water into the consistency of pea soup. We had stumbled into a tightly schooled bunch of giant walleyes actively feeding in the shallow, sloppy water. And with no other boats in sight, they were all ours!
Every trolling pass yielded multiple hook-ups. In short order, we had trolled up over twenty adult walleyes. After we had gotten our fill of trolling, we started making drifting passes through the school. The water was only 4-5 feet deep and the walleyes were in such a feeding frenzy that they gobbled up everything we threw at them. There were so many fish in that spot that you could see them porpoising and at times they even thumped into the hull of my boat. A Mepps in-line spinner tipped with a chunk of night crawler was especially deadly. All of those walleyes weighed over five pounds with several sagging the scale past the coveted 10-pound mark! The most amazing thing about that outing was that I’ve experienced similar trophy walleye action every year on Erie, but only during early spring.
When the water is all riled up and waves are pounding against the shoreline, spring walleyes will oftentimes respond by moving into the shallows. Bait fish and other walleye snacks are pushed up against the shore and they become disorientated in the chop. Walleyes will congregate in these areas taking advantage of the easy pickens as they gorge themselves on the bounty of baitfish. This phenomenon is especially prevalent during early spring along the Michigan and Ohio shores of the Western Basin where adult walleyes are staging just prior to the spawning period. When the winds blow in the same direction for at least two days in a row, the wave-pounded shorelines are often teaming with submarine sized walleyes. Make sure you check these spots out.
If no concentrations of big fish are located close to shore, big walleyes can often be found in somewhat deeper water. In my experiece they will rarely school up more than a couple miles from shore. During early spring, I seldom find numbers of trophy walleyes in water more than eighteen feet deep. To locate fish I like to parallel to the shoreline back and forth in a grid pattern. I keep my speed close to twenty-five MPH while constantly monitoring my Lowrance X85 and GlobalMap 1600 GPS receiver. I set the GPS on its plotter mode and monitor the screen to thoroughly cover the water. When numbers of big fish are marked, I save the coordinates as waypoints. After locating a school of lunkers and determining their holding depth(s) and logistics, a trolling technique using in-line planer boards is hard to beat to test the waters for active feeders.
Precision depth control is necessary to put the baits in front of the fish. There are a variety lures that can be used in this situation, but three consistent ingredients are needed for accurate presentations: The boat speed must be accurate, the line size should be consistent and the setback has to be known. Most professional walleye anglers use ten-pound test monofilament for big water walleye trolling. An important ingredient for precision running depth control is knowing exactly how far the bait is running behind the boat (or planer board). This is referred to as the setback. Line counter reels are ideal for precise setback control and not surprisingly are the choice of most walleye pros.
Early spring walleyes, especially the adult fish, can be extremely finicky customers. The key to a successful presentation is the water temperature. When the temperature is below 47 degrees, I primarily troll with subtle action, shallow running, body-baits often referred to as stick-baits. Over the past two years, Storm Jr. Thundersticks have been my favorite. They can be presented at specific depths using either rubber-core sinkers or Snap Weights. Last year golden patterns seemed to produce the best. Most of the walleyes that I cleaned had gobies in their stomachs and I suspect the gold baits successfully imitated the walleyes’ forage.
Once the water warms past the 47 degree mark, for some reason unknown to me, Erie’s walleyes change their preferences from stickbaits to faster action crankbaits. Storm Deep Jr. ThunderSticks, Normark Shadraps and Reef Runner Lil’ Rippers are my favorites. These baits can all be trolled effectively at varying speeds and by altering both the setback and trolling speed a wide Variety of differing depths can be covered.
Crankbait color is a hotly debated subject but the generally accepted rule of: low visibility - use dark colored baits, and high visibility - use bright colored baits is usually a good place to start when fishing on Lake Erie during the spring. During low-light conditions or if the water is muddy, black/silver or black/gold are good choices. If it’s bright and the water is clear, fluorescent colors tend to work well. With walleyes there are no hard rules, so it often pays to experiment. A typical trolling spread will present a variety of baits in differing colors targeting various depths. When one rig produces, the other outfits are changed to the hot setup. Last year black/silver, chartreuse/silver, fire/tiger, golden shiner and shad patterns all produced well for me.
When a cold-front sweeps into the region, walleyes will typically move deeper in the water column sulking right down on the bottom. They most often are found in areas with subtle bottom structure. During these tough fishing conditions it’s hard to beat a minnow or crawler presented right on the bottom. A spinner/crawler rig slowly dragged over these lairs will often produce the occasional strike. Vertical jigging with a lip-hooked minnow is another good choice especially if there’s a decent chop and the water is muddy. I like bright colors after a cold front. Chartreuse and florescent orange are my best colors.
During early spring big walleyes will often seek out the warmest water in the basin because that’s where baitfish congregate in mass quantities. This usually equates to the Michigan waters in the Western end of the Basin. The Michigan waters from Breast Bay just north of Monroe down to the Wood Tick Peninsula near Luna Pier are usually top-notch. Portions of the Ohio shoreline East of Toledo also serves up some awesome trophy walleye fishing. Sterling State Park, Bolles Harbor and the Luna Pier Harbor Club all have decent launch facilities for the traveling angler. Boles harbor and Sterling State Park are both Michigan DNR operated launches. A good lodging facility located close to the Bolles Harbor boat launch is the Amerihost Inn (734-384-1600).
Even though Lake Erie is home to millions of walleyes, over harvesting the adult brood stock can and will impact the quality and quantity of Erie’s walleye fishery. During early spring anglers should consider releasing the larger walleyes and only keeping the better eating small-eyes’. My charter boat policy states that all pre-spawn female walleyes must be returned to the water unless the fish is headed to the taxidermist.
The many reefs that stud the Western Basin seem to draw the bulk of the early spring fishing pressure. While it’s true that these spots produce their share of smaller walleyes, the best trophy walleye spots are often away from the crowds. Instead of joining the packs why not try matching wits with those isolated, roving, schools of trophy walleyes? Who knows, you might find the kind of fishing that dreams are made from. My email address is [email protected] in case you have any questions.