Trolling for Muddy Water Walleyes
A precise presentation and plenty of patience both are required to catch walleyes with mud in their eyes. 
By Michael Veine    

Some of the toughest walleye fishing involves pulling those fish from muddy, low visibility water.  To many, it seems like walleyes tend to shut down when the water dirties up; the truth is that walleyes will still actively feed, but they really have a tough time catching their dinner.  Walleyes are primarily sight feeders, so poor water clarity forces them to rely heavily on their senses of smell and hearing to find food.  Under crummy conditions, walleyes need to hunt for food longer in order to satisfy their hunger.  One thing's for sure: When walleyes are forced to feed in low visibility water they are often very aggressive biters.  The trick is to put the lure right in front of the snapping jaws of old marble-eyes' and keep it there long enough for them to gulp the bait down.     

Last April, Lake Erie was one tough customer when periodic storms with gale force, east winds turned much of the Western Basin into a big bowl of mud-soup.  The muddy water persisted well into May creating the lowest early spring catch rate in modern years.  Even when the weather permitted anglers to hit the water, typical fishing success was still dismal.  Only those anglers that applied some specialized, refined techniques managed to eke out decent catches of walleyes.   

 One day during mid-April, my partner and I fished Erie with only one inch of water visibility.  Baits would literally disappear just under the surface of the water.  My normal fishing technique for Lake Erie is to first locate the fish using my electronics.  I often search for hours before even wetting a line.  While searching on that day, we managed to find some slightly clearer water several miles out from Breast Bay, but there were no fish inhabiting the cooler water in that area.  However, we did mark large schools of bait-fish and large hook shaped icons close to shore and right in the middle of the slop.  According to my Lawrance X85, the bait-fish were near the surface and the predatory walleyes were just below them perhaps five or six feet down.  The overcast skies and dingy water conditions prompted us to try a modified night-fishing technique.  We deployed dark colored, minnow imitating body baits that contrasted with the light brown hue of the water.  Minnow imitating body baits like Black/silver and Black/gold Storm Jr. Thundersticks are proven baits under these conditions; they closely resembled the Real McCoy; an important factor considering that the walleyes would get a close, first look at the baits.  Thundersticks also have rattles that give out increased fish attracting vibrations.      

The body baits were set back varying distances from 40' to 100' behind the boards.  1/4-oz. rubber-core sinkers were installed one rod length in front of the baits to both take them deeper and to catch debris to prevent the lures from becoming fowled.  The varied set-backs would present the baits at differing levels allowing us to determine a productive running depth.  Mr. Walleye, in-line planer boards were then used to take the trolled offerings away from the fish spooking presence of the boat.  The boards would also allow us to sift the water with a wide trolling spread. Since we had marked the fish close to the surface and there was little boat traffic, we deployed the boards quite a distance out from the boat for the ultimate in stealth.  During poor water visibility, walleyes become more tuned into any vibrations in the water, so presentations way out away from the boat are typically the most productive.  At these times you can count on the outside boards getting the most action and the further out they are --- the better.      

We started our trolling pass up wind from some GPS waypoints that we had punched in when we passed over and marked fish.  To add even more stealth to our presentations, my Minn Kota, bow mounted, electric, trolling motor was dropped into the water.  I turned on the handy Auto Pilot function of the electric motor and then directed the boat on a straight, hassle free course down wind and right through the fish.  A very slow trolling speed was selected.  Night fishermen often employ this same slow trolling technique.  The object is; to present the baits in front of the walleyes long enough to allow them enough time to locate the bait and accurately strike.    

In no time, one of the boards started dropping back in violent jerks as a big walleye smacked a gold Jr. ThunderStick set-back 60' behind a board.  After we hooked our second walleye on that same ThunderStick, we switched the rest of the rigs to the hot setup.  As we slowly trolled along, we were constantly being annoyed by big walleyes as they relentlessly chomped on our baits.  Four hours and four aching arms later, we had experienced true walleye euphoria, and we did it in the mud.   

Slowing down the presentation is a critical ingredient to muddy water walleye success.  Keeping the bait in front of the fish for a prolonged period is the key.  If the presentation is too quick, then the walleyes won't have enough time to react to the bait whizzing by.  Even when the fish are feeding aggressively, they simply can't catch a fast moving target.  Slow things down and the walleyes have time to target the bait and gulp it down.      

When water visibility is low, walleyes will key in on structure more than ever.  The walleyes will locate tightly to the structure because of a readily available food source.  Rock piles, sharp drop-offs, reefs, channels, holes and shoreline shallows are all good places to search for active walleyes during dirty water conditions.  The walleyes take advantage of the structure because bait-fish are forced to swim along predictable routes.  Walleyes use these funnels to ambush prey and also to herd schools of bait-fish for easy pickens.  The trick is to locate fish holding in these lairs and present baits slowly and precisely.    

When the water is muddy, I almost always check for active walleyes in shallow areas first.  If I find eyes' in shallow water, then the water column that holds fish will be that much narrower and my catching success typically skyrockets.  However, when walleyes suspend in muddy, deep water, the strike zone is that much wider and success usually suffers.  I generally make a reconnaissance run over shoreline depths of around 10' first and then make another pass a few feet deeper until I locate fish.  Since it's nearly impossible to mark fish on sonar that are holding in water less that eight feet deep, I usually just troll the shallows to seek out walleyes.           

Walleyes sometimes relate closely to the bottom when visibility is low making bottom bouncer presentations a logical choice.  Live bait appeals to the olfactory senses of the fish and it's hard to beat a spinner/crawler rig when dragging lead.  Since the mud necessitates an ultra slow presentation, I use bottom bouncers that are just heavy enough to keep things on bottom while maintaining a 45-degree line angle.  I also send my spinner/crawler rigs out on in-line boards to increase their effectiveness.    

I've found that smaller blades about he size of a nickel work best in dingy water and chartreuse blades with a splash of florescent orange have produced well for me on Erie.  I tie my own muddy water spinners by first cutting off a 4' length of clear, 20lbs-test monofilament.  Two #6 bait holder hooks are snelled onto the business end about six inches apart.  Above the hooks I add two chartreuse beads, then a chartreuse/orange rig float followed by a pair of orange beads.  A quick-change clevis is used to attach the spinner blade.  An overhand knot is tied on the end and the rig is attached to the clip on the bottom bouncer.  I thread the crawler's mouth and head onto the front hook and then push it forward to the barbs on the back of the bait holder hook to grip it in place.  The rear hook is threaded on in the same manor just behind the collar.  This specialized rig has caught dozens, if not hundreds of Lake Erie Walleyes for my fishing partners and I.             

The next time your favorite walleye waters look like a cup of strong coffee with a dash of cream added, don't despair.  The fishing may be a little tough, but by slowing down the presentation and putting the right baits within the narrow strike zone, you'll get plenty of walleye slime on your hands.  Don't forget a towel.  Email me at [email protected] if you have any questions.