In the immortal words of John Belushi in the movie Animal House: “Nothing is over until we decide it is. It isn’t always pretty, and no one said it was always going to be comfortable; but for those willing to lay it all out there, it can be the wildest walleye party of the year. So are you with me?
A few years ago, on the morning of December 7, it so happens, I was finishing another 14-hour fishing adventure with my buddy Paul Delaney. The sun was just rising and the morning light revealed the tenuous nature of our surroundings and our senility. With single-digit air temperatures and wind chills below zero, steam rose from the narrow path our boat cut in the ice as we broke our way back to the launch. The upper portion of Little Bay de Noc had been locked in ice for more than two weeks, with the big water of Lake Michigan holding off the onslaught of winter ice.
This day ice stretched for as far as we could see and the lane we cut was solid again before the boat was on the trailer. Icicles looked like 12-inch fangs hanging from the Ranger. We were the last of the crazies to fish Bay de Noc that fall. Our reward that day was 27 walleyes, with a dozen from 9 to 12 pounds.
Get The Lead Out
The license plate on Paul Delaney’s truck reads I FISH L8. By the last week of October, he goes strictly nocturnal in his pursuit of big fish. By the full moon in November, he is all but a vampire, sleeping during the day and stalking his prey at night. “If their eyes aren’t glowing, I’m not going,” he says. “Ideally, I want cold, stable weather with steadily falling water temperatures into the low-40° F to mid-30°F range—and waves of less than three feet. The fishing often is just peaking as the water turns solid.”
Delaney’s passion for giant walleyes spans three decades and includes thousands of hours on the water. He favors big water for big fish and spends most of his time guiding on portions of Lake Michigan. His system is to longline troll deep-diving stickbaits on light braided line and run big minnowbaits on leadcore line, often behind planer boards.
“I give up livebait rigging or casting cranks once the water hits the low-40°F range,” he says. “You can still catch them that way but the odds are in favor of trolling techniques that keep lures in the feeding zone.”
As the water cools into the 40°F range, walleyes move from offshore haunts and stage in large basin areas just outside of wintering and spawning grounds. Rock reefs, pier heads, weedflats in front of river mouths, and mudflats hold fish, but steep edges get the largest concentrations. The biggest groups of big walleyes use quick-breaking contour lines near deep-water transition areas.
Delaney: “Some walleyes suspend near baitfish schools over 70 feet or more of water—trolling open-water basin areas with deep-diving crankbaits is an option, but especially during late fall, it’s a lower-percentage affair than fishing structure. Fish that are scattered over deep water push up on edges at night.”
Delaney focuses on long tapering flats that drop from 18 to 45 feet deep. Many of these edges are the width of a trolling spread. To fish these areas, lure placement must be precise.
Leadcore allows fishing shallow-running minnow baits with subtle wobbles in deeper water. Thus, a hard-thumping Rapala Deep Tail Dancer can be freelined on braid to run side-by-side with a slow-rolling Rapala Flat Rap behind leadcore, both plugs running at the 20-foot range. Walleyes often show a preference for one lure action over another, and with multiple setups ready, productive patterns can be quickly duplicated.
Delaney: “Between setting lines, battling waves, and landing fish, things can get messy after dark unless you keep it simple and stay organized. That means working with no more than four rods.”
Flatlines work best in water less than 25 feet deep, while leadcore excels in water from 20 to 45 feet deep. Usually two rods are on Church planer boards while the other two rods are flatlined directly in back of the boat.
Ten line-counter rod-and-reel combos are rigged to cover all possible depth ranges. Four outfits (flatline rods) are spooled with 15-pound PowerPro braid. This braid is equivalent to 14-pound Berkley FireLine and 14-pound Suffix Fuse. Meanwhile, working with 18-pound leadcore, two rigs have two colors of leadcore; another two have three colors; and the final two have four colors. He carries one spare reel for each setup.
With leadcore, each color (50-foot segment) pulls a lure 5 feet deeper than it runs normally. Boat speed and the amount of backing let out further affects lure depth The leadcore reels have a 50-foot leader of 20-pound PowerPro and a monofilament backing of 12-pound Berkley Trilene XT.
The super-thin, no-stretch PowerPro allows lures to run deeper as it adds a measure of protection against cutoffs from zebra mussels and rocks. Braid also transmits the vibration of lures to the rod tip better than monofilament. This is important when running leadcore, which has a dampening effect.
The mono backing is preferred in sub-freezing temperatures because it doesn’t freeze up so quickly and it holds better in the release pads on the boards. Braided lines are so slick they require a half hitch around the release pad to keep from slipping in choppy conditions. Untangling a wrapped line from a frozen release is one less thing to worry about when conditions are brutal.
Through years of trial, Delaney has doctored up the basic figures from Precision Trolling: The Troller’s Bible, to account for trolling speeds of 1 to 1.5 mph and for the amount of monofilament backing he runs behind leadcore. For those just getting started with leadcore and longline trolling, the book shows dive curves for all popular walleye lures—at a glance, you know how deep a Rapala Minnow Rap runs on 12-pound line set 100 feet back.
Once fish are located on the graph or a likely fish-holding area is identified, Delaney runs lures 1 to 3 feet above the fish or the bottom. Marred with teeth marks from giant walleyes, lures like his #18 Floating Rapalas (7 inches) are among his all-time favorites. In the clear water of Lake Michigan, F-18s in Silver/Blue resemble whitefish, a prime prey for big walleyes. With three colors of leadcore and about 50 feet of backing out this lure covers the 18- to 21-foot range. The Smithwick Super Rattlin’ Rogue in Glo/Purple, Glo/Chartreuse, or Glo/Blue also excels in this range, with the rattle and glow of the Super Rogue offering a contrast to the more subtle F-18.
Delaney jokes that at 1 mph, the F-18 has almost no side-to-side action, just a slight roll. “It looks like half a broom stick coming through the water but giant walleyes love playing fetch with it,” he says. “I toss it out there and they chomp down on it, run around and bring it back to me. It’s a game I can play all night long.”
At trolling speeds of 1.3 to 1.5 mph, lures including the deep-diving models of Storm Thunder Sticks, Yo-Zuri Crystal Minnows, Rapala Husky Jerks, and Reef Runners, can be fished on flatlines 100 to 150 feet behind the boat to cover the 18- to 24-foot range. Flatlines are the quickest and most efficient way to fish an edge. These rods can be hand-held while trolling, allowing for quick adjustments in the amount of line fished in order to maintain constant near-bottom contact. Pumping the rod tip forward and then letting the lure drift back at times triggers strikes from following fish.
Flatlines can also be set and cleared faster to move or to repeat trolling passes. On a slow night Delaney might troll miles of shorelines and trace the entire edge of several offshore reefs. On a good bite he may repeat one trolling pass of 400 to 800 yards a dozen or more times, catching multiple fish on each pass.
For slightly more depth, Rapala models like the Deep Tail Dancer and Trolls-To 20 Minnow, along with the Sebile Koolie Minnow, have exaggerated diving lips to reach depths from 24 to more than 30 feet set on flatlines. The wider, more aggressive action of these lures at times draw strikes from fish that fail to react to the subtle roll of stickbaits on lead core.
To fish the deep edge of the breaks in 30 to 45 feet of water, the combination of leadcore and deep-diving crankbaits works. Two colors of leadcore allow the plugs to cover the 28- to 34-foot range; four colors gets them as deep as 50 feet.
Living On The Edge
Stepping back to mid-October and into more pleasant daytime temperatures, we find Captain Steve Everetts on a classic inland Wisconsin walleye water for the late-afternoon bite. Everetts isn’t going to be the first boat to the launch in the morning and, indeed, notes, “I prefer late-morning starts. The fish are more active after the sun heats the water and the edges of weedlines become more visible in brighter conditions.”
Key locations on inland lakes include main-lake humps and long tapering points with weeds, weeds and rock, or just rock, always near deeper water. Fishing these edges allows livebait and lures to be fished at the same time. On the artificial side of things, Everetts’ favorite approach for shallower edges is to rip stickbaits like the Rattlin’ Rogue or the Rapala Husky Jerk through the tops of healthy green cabbage and coontail. Braided line (15-pound PowerPro) on a medium-fast-action 6.5- or 7-foot rod allows snapping through or snapping off most weeds with a rip of the rod tip.
Everetts: “Walleyes usually like the stickbaits worked aggressively. Instead of straight retrieves I often use exaggerated jerks and pauses. The pause allows the lure to suspend momentarily, which often is key in triggering fish. But I’m always experimenting with retrieves to see what the fish want. I also try different color patterns as the sun moves across the sky and changes the lighting conditions down below. Sometimes even just a bit of red or orange on the underside of a lure seems to be the difference in triggering strikes.
“To probe deeper weededges and along the edges of reefs, I switch to a 6-inch Berkley Hollow Belly Swim Bait or a 5-inch Gulp! Jerk Shad on a 1/2-ounce Owner Saltwater Bullet jighead. These options work well in water down to about 20 feet. The swimbait requires a steady retrieve with momentary pauses to allow the lure to sink back to the intended depth. On weed contact, keep reeling steadily until you stretch the weed out just a bit, then snap the rod tip to rip free.
“The Jerk Shad has a different look to it than the swimbait and sometimes the fish seem to prefer it. In this case, use a steady retrieve with pauses, keeping your rod tip high, pumping it to add a swimming movement to the lure.”
Everetts also fishes livebait, presenting it on deadstick rods. “My deadsticks are 91⁄2-foot medium-action St. Croix Wild River models designed for steelheading,” he says. “The rod length and slow action allow reading the activity level of the bait by watching the rod tip. A nervous bait means something’s about to happen down below.”
The reels are Diawa line-counters spooled with 12-pound monofilament. The terminal rigging consists of a free-sliding 3/8- to 1-ounce Lindy No-Snagg Sinker on the mainline, with a small bead to cushion the knot above a barrel swivel. The leader is 4 feet of 10- or 12-pound fluorocarbon and an Owner #1 or #2 octopus hook. Each rod is placed in corner rod holders, horizontal to the water. The reels are set in freespool with the bait-clicker on so fish can run with the bait. If you don’t see the fish take, you hear the clicker.
The baits are either 4- to 6-inch sucker minnows or 5- to 7-inch redtail chubs. Both work but suckers get lazy after being in the water a while, so they don’t react to walleyes as feverishly as the redtails. The additional movement from redtails often produces more strikes.
Fish the inside livebait rod—the one closest to the weedflat or reef—slightly off the bottom and with a lighter sinker, allowing the livebait to trail behind the boat slightly higher in the water column. This often intercepts fish that follow a lure to the boat but don’t bite. This rigging also is less likely to snag on weeds or rocks if the boat slips too high on top of the edge. The outside rod can have a heavier weight and larger bait to cover the deep edge and target bottom-hugging fish.
Some of the best walleye fishing of the year takes place from now until ice up—at least two months or more of prime time for big walleyes. These aren’t the only patterns that produce fish, but they are two consistent options—and with modification, they can be used on many waters, large and small, across North America.
*Steve Ryan, Des Plaines, Illinois, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Steve Everetts: finseekers.com. Paul Delaney: lateeyessportfishing.com.