May 16, 2023
By Ross Robertson
Walleyes are widely known for their ability to be less than cooperative, regardless of the type of water you are chasing them in. Larger bodies of water like the Great Lakes or Lake of The Woods have huge populations of fish compared to other popular walleye fisheries, but there is also a lot more water to strain to locate these ghost-like fish. Here are three factors to consider and better understand to locate and catch more walleyes this season.
You don’t have to be in a river in order to have current. My home body of water, Lake Erie, has a constant west-to-east flow that by definition could actually classify it as a river and inland sea. Current helps keep the food chain in motion and is important to understanding how the walleyes move. Structures that can act as a current break such as islands, shoals and even shorelines are important for helping locate where baitfish, and ultimately, the walleyes will be. Find the food and the target fish generally aren’t far behind.
The caveat with current in large lakes is that it can be hard to see and understand. One minute the current is coming from the west and an hour later its roaring from the east.
A seiche is basically a wave oscillating in a body of water. This causes the top and bottom layers of the water to be going in different directions. Without turning this into a giant science lesson, it is noteworthy that current really effects the food chain, but it also really effects how our lures run.
A Fish Hawk speed and temp probe can be your best friend when trolling or drifting on large lakes. The probe is placed down in the water near where your lures are in the water column and will show you what your actual lure speed is as compared to the speed over ground on your GPS. It is not uncommon for this number to vary by more than a half mile per hour. This is critical information to have because at these different speeds, crankbaits might not be wobbling or weighted lures likely will be significantly higher or deeper in the water column that you believe them to be.
When you fish the Mississippi River, it is not uncommon to have just a few inches of visibility and walleyes or saugers in these waters have adapted to limited visibiliity. When you are on large bodies of water like Great Lakes, a large change in water clarity can make for a tough day. Aside from making it harder for walleye to see your lure, there are several factors to consider with water clarity.
When water is gin clear during the cooler water periods of the spring and fall, baitfish often seek out off-colored water for both shelter from predators, but also because it can be a degree or two warmer. In turn, walleyes will also find these water clarity transitions looking for a little extra warmth and food. Many hardcore guides and tournament anglers will tell you to avoid the dirtiest water and look for chalky water where you can just make out your prop as you look at it from your boat while fishing.
This isn’t to say that walleyes can’t be located or caught in clean water, but it can be more challenging to both find and catch them from clear water this time of year. Real talk: If you have off-colored to dirty water due to wind and sediment, walleyes most likely will be in that colored water and only use the clean water to migrate. When searching for walleyes in clean water high-speed marking at speeds in excess of 30 mph with 2D sonar can be the best and most efficient way to locate clear-water walleyes. While you may mark fish like crazy running at high speeds, once you slow down the 2D sonar usually becomes blank and you will have to rely on either Side Imaging for more bottom-focused walleyes or forward-facing sonar such as Mega Live for suspended fish.
If I am being honest, current and water clarity are the most important factors to understand because they play a daily role that we need to understand, but depth is a big deal that seems to change not only from day to day, but hourly. Large lake walleyes can be pelagic as they migrate with changing water conditions or to find food. When it comes down to it, it is almost always about the grocery store.
As an example, during cool-water periods with off colored water and sunny skies the fish tend to be higher in the water column. Whereas walleyes will often be deeper when the water is clear and warm. Each system will have nuances that vary due to individual factors such as overall water depth and type of forage, but by paying attention to these scenarios you will be able to pattern walleyes quickly.
The depth that the walleyes are at also makes it easier to decide which tactics to fish. If walleyes are located on or near bottom in cold water, slow jigging tactics can be the best option because you can stay on top of the fish and easily locate another pod once the group you are fishing breaks up. Inversely when walleyes are suspended in very specific levels of the water column trolling with crankbaits, spoons or spinners can be the most effective way to fish them.
There certainly are more than three factors to consider when targeting big water walleyes, but if you take the time to understand these three specifically, you’re very likely to catch more walleyes each trip out.
Capt. Ross Robertson