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Supersize Walleyes

by Dan Johnson   |  July 1st, 2014 0

Rigging-Trolling-Lead-In-FishermanAcross the Great Lakes and within many large natural systems and manmade impoundments around the Walleye Belt, summer transitions yield fine fishing for the walleye faithful. Staying on the bite, however, requires a solid understanding of the seasonal migrations and behavioral quirks of the sag-bellied hordes that call such super-size fisheries home.

Tip of the Spear
Captain Gary Zart, proprietor of Blue Dolphin Charters in Brunswick, Ohio, rides the crest of Lake Erie’s summertime transitions to connect clients with numbers of trophy walleyes all season. Also a decorated tournament competitor with 20 victories and more than 40 top-10s at Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit, Lake Erie Walleye Trail, and Ohio Walleye Federation events, Zart constantly searches for the hottest bite and biggest fish.

As a result, typical charters with three anglers, a deckhand, and Skipper Zart see 25 to 30 walleyes averaging 8 pounds swing over the rail each day. “It’s a riot for the clients,” he says. “And quite a few come back for more.” Mobility is key to such success, he says, which explains why, rather than pilot a large party vessel based in a single port, he captains a towable 20-foot Starcraft STX 2050. “I’m not tied to one dock,” he explains. “I can trailer up and down the shore to stay on top of active schools of big walleyes.”

Guiding his quest throughout the summer are two key factors: water temperature and forage abundance. These facets form the foundation of where and how he approaches walleyes on Lake Erie and other Great Lakes fisheries. “Water temp and bait dictate walleye location,” he says. “This includes the eastward migration of fish on Erie, and the movement of walleyes from near-shore, relatively shallow structure to deep offshore areas in other fisheries as well.”

While Lake Erie’s eastbound summertime exodus is well-known in the walleye world, Zart takes things a step further than most anglers and dials in the big bite by targeting schools of the largest fish in the system. It all hinges on what giant walleyes want for dinner. “Walleyes eat a variety of baitfish, including yellow and white perch, shad, and shiners,” he says. “But smelt is their favorite, especially for trophy-class fish.”

Rainbow smelt are coolwater customers. “We typically see smelt in 50°F to 60ºF water,” Zart says. “As western Lake Erie starts to warm, smelt migrate east toward the cool deeper water.” He says smelt vacate warming areas in a hurry, often leading the charge of Erie’s migratory mix, with the lake’s largest walleyes in hot pursuit. “Typically the leading edge of the walleye migration both east and west holds the biggest fish, so if you want to target trophies, that’s where you need to be.” He says that protein-rich smelt also fuel phenomenal growth rates, and help walleyes replenish body weight after the rigors of reproduction. “A 28-inch fish can get back to 9½ to 10 pounds in a hurry if it’s eating smelt,” he says.

Charter Capt. Gary Zart (right) and son Nicholas have built guiding and competitive careers by using forage to find the biggest walleyes the Great Lakes have to offer. Nicholas currently serves as deckhand but will soon captain his own charter.

Charter Capt. Gary Zart (right) and son Nicholas have built guiding and competitive careers by using forage to find the biggest walleyes the Great Lakes have to offer. Nicholas currently serves as deckhand but will soon captain his own charter.

Understanding this helped him and his son Nicholas score a Cabela’s MWC victory out of Huron, Ohio, in May 2013. “We found smelt off Lorain, and that allowed us to catch the right fish to win,” he explains. The father-and-son team tallied an impressive 84-pound 13-ounce weight for 10 fish. Zart shrugs at the number, saying the running time to and from the hot zone cut their fishing time down to just a handful of trolling passes each day. “Given a little more time, we could have done better,” he says. At that event, the Zarts’ go-to tactic was pulling a mix of live nightcrawlers and 6-inch Berkley Gulp! Nightcrawlers on spinner rigs. Hot speeds were .9 to 1.4 mph, with diving planers taking the rigs near bottom in 48 feet of water.

That was May. From late June into July and August, the Zarts fish much deeper. “We typically fish 70 to 80 feet of water,” he says. Weighting options include 3-ounce in-line sinkers for fish riding high in the water column, and 1- to 4½-ounce Offshore Tackle Tadpole diving weights or black #001 Luhr-Jensen Dipsy Divers for deeper fish. “Tadpoles are a relatively new option with less flutter and vertical swim than an in-line,” Zart says. “They’re also easier to control at higher speeds, and maintain greater depths.”

Dipsy Divers are relegated to boat rods on 40-pound-test Maxima braid mainline, while in-lines and Tadpoles run behind planer boards on 10-pound mono. With all three options, Zart favors a 12-foot spinner snell of 20-pound fluorocarbon for added stealth. Blades are an obsession. “I must have 7,000 of them,” he says. “It’s a fun addiction.” Top picks include #5 and #6 Colorados, and #4 to #7 willows, along with various hatchets. Colors span the rainbow, from gold, copper, and silver to chartreuse, pink, and white. “Water clarity and sun conditions dictate color, so you need to experiment with a wide assortment,” he says.

He cautions not to get so hung up spinning the color wheel that you forget more important factors. “Speed and depth come first,” he says, explaining that water temperature dictates speed. “The colder the water, the slower you troll, from .8 to 1 mph in 50ºF water up to 1.8 or 2 mph in 65°F to 70°F. Experiment, increasing speed in increments of .10 mph to find the fastest speed at which you can still catch fish.” The depth of the fish, along with water clarity, determine his spinners’ running depth. “In clear conditions you can be farther above the fish, but in dirty water, you want to be right in front of their noses—there’s no margin for error,” he says.

Skinny Water

Steve Vande Mark plies the shallow-water trade when big-water walleyes feast on near-shore gobies.

Steve Vande Mark plies the shallow-water trade when big-water walleyes feast on near-shore gobies.

Not all summertime Great Lakes patterns hinge on following migratory walleyes into the abyss. In recent seasons, veteran tournament ace Steve Vande Mark of Linwood, Michigan, has seen a shallow program emerge. In fact, in 2013 it propelled him to a trio of regional tournament wins in the Saginaw Bay area of Lake Huron.

In the Saginaw system, anglers enjoy an influx of migrant main-lake walleyes in the winter and early open-water periods. As the bay water warms after the spawn, many fish begin the outbound journey back to Lake Huron. “They seem to head out in two main schools,” Vande Mark says. “One group moves east toward the tip of the thumb, with some fish dropping down toward Lexington. The other follows the west side all the way to Thunder Bay and Alpena.

“There are deep fish, to be sure, but in the past two seasons we’ve found major schools in the 16- to 25-foot depth range,” he continues. “These are better than average fish for the system, too, running 4 to 6 pounds, with some up to 9.”

Like Zart, Vande Mark plays the forage card. But his pattern hinges on exotic gobies. “We find big walleyes feeding on gobies all day long in clear, shallow water,” he says, noting that the goby buffet plays out on near-shore rocky structure such as points, humps, or reefs.

Much of Vande Mark’s success has come along the east shore of Saginaw Bay, but it’s worth trying to duplicate anywhere walleyes have access to abundant shallow-water forage. Interestingly, Lake Huron’s forage base has been transitioning in recent years, and dips in offshore food options no doubt added fuel to the shallow fire. “We used to have tons of alewives and smelt,” says Vande Mark. “Then our baitfish dwindled, but in the last three seasons we’re starting to see more clouds on our graphs, and reports indicate they’re making a comeback.”

Still, the goby bite continues to gain steam. To tap it, Vande Mark trolls minnowbaits such as #10 and #12 Rapala Down Deep Husky Jerks on 10-pound-test Maxima mono at speeds of 1.3 to 1.5 mph. “I don’t like burning them,” he says, noting that shades of brown are key in color selection. “If you’re not running goby colors, you’re in for a long day.” Given the baits’ diving abilities and the relatively shallow depths, no additional weighting is needed. “I use boards to spread lines across the break,” he adds. “Letbacks commonly run from 50 to 100 feet. Baits should run just above the rocks—if they’re ticking, you end up losing them.”

Before deploying his lines, Vande Mark identifies a potential hot spot on his electronic charts, and he recommends making a scouting run over new territory. “You’re not looking for fish, because you never mark them in such clear, shallow water,” he warns. “You want to plot a course for future trolling passes.”

Inward Bound

Veteran guide Mike Christensen trolls small crankbaits like the Lindy River Rocker when late-summer walleyes shift shallow.

Veteran guide Mike Christensen trolls small crankbaits like the Lindy River Rocker when late-summer walleyes shift shallow.

Seasonal migrations at times take twists and turns that run opposite to the classic shallow-to-deep progressions, which adds more options to our summer palette. On Minnesota’s famed Mille Lacs Lake, for example, veteran guide Mike Christensen follows walleyes from near-shore haunts in spring out to offshore mud flats and subtle substrate transitions by late June, onto featureless basins in July and early August, then back toward shore around the middle of the month.

“In years with decent baitfish abundance, we see an inward migration in August,” he says. “In 2013, it started around August 20. Walleyes begin moving from deep water offshore toward rocky main-lake breaks in 15 to 24 feet. If the fish disappear from your deep-water fishing areas, it’s a safe bet they’re on the move toward shallower water.”

Christensen targets these fish by trolling small crankbaits like a 23⁄8-inch #3 Lindy River Rocker on leadcore, using a 20-foot leader of 10/4 Berkley FireLine. “Mono leads are fine in deeper water, but superline is important shallow,” he says. “It lets you feel the second your bait ticks bottom, which is key because of snags and everything being covered in zebra mussels.” Speeds average 2 to 2.5 mph. “Perch-colored lures are always worth fishing, but a splash of extra orange or pink can give you an edge because it stands out from the baitfish,” he says.

Zart, Vande Mark, and Christensen’s patterns offer collective wisdom to guide your summer walleye quests. Their advice centers on figuring out what walleyes are feeding on, and tailoring your presentations to match.

Charting the Abyss

Lowrance HD in regular mode.

Lowrance HD in regular mode.

Nowhere is high-tech mapping more valuable to walleye anglers than on expansive stretches of our inland seas. Along with guiding you to far-flung fishing grounds and back to port, such systems offer a host of features to help you find big-water ’eyes fast.

“High-definition mapping with shaded contour relief helps dissect big bodies of water in a hurry,” says veteran guide and national tournament champion Scott Glorvigen. “It allows you to look at a map and quickly have an intuitive feeling of the travel routes or structure fish are using.” For example, the shaded relief feature on Lowrance’s built-in Insight mapping and Insight HD charts helps him recognize key contours on specific pieces of structure—such as a reef, point, or channel—as well as predict general locational patterns across larger swathes of water and, in some cases, even system-wide.

“Case in point,” he says. “I was fishing a tournament on Lake Oahe in South Dakota. The fish had been holding toward the back of creek arms, but when the water level started dropping, they began moving toward the main channel. I used contour shading to highlight the shortest route to deep water, and that’s exactly where I found—and caught—big numbers of walleyes. I might not have made that connection just by looking at traditional gradient lines.”

Lowrance HD in shaded relief mode.

Lowrance HD in shaded relief mode.

Other manufacturers offer helpful options as well. Longtime big-water guide and competitive ace Jon Thelen factors mapping into programs on Lake of the Woods, Devils Lake, Mille Lacs, and other sprawling natural systems. “I run a Humminbird 1199 with a LakeMaster chip, and use the Depth Highlight feature to shade fish-producing areas,” he says. “This makes it easy to keep my boat over the right depths and structure, either when using a kicker or the iPilot Link system with my Minn Kota trolling motor. But what’s really cool is that I can highlight hot depth ranges, such as 9 to 12 feet of water, and look for similar zones throughout the lake. It’s a lot easier to pinpoint the right shelves, breaklines, and other features this way than by studying the contour lines on traditional charts.”

Also noteworthy, Humminbird’s new ONIX sonar-chartplotter units support the company’s SmartStrike software, which scours LakeMaster map data and runs extensive search algorithms based on parameters such as fish species, season, and temperature, to predict top locations.

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