March 19, 2019
The quest for giant walleyes takes a special breed of angler and a unique fishery. One’s mindset and game plan changes when pursuing record-caliber walleyes versus fishing for tablefare. It requires dedication to researching top fisheries capable of producing freakishly large walleyes and the persistence to grind out long hours on the water under difficult conditions. That means potentially breaking ice at boat ramps and having perpetually cold hands and praying for a long warm spell to keep you fishing through the New Year.
For fisheries with trophy walleyes topping 13 pounds, the range of options is extensive across North America. Such big-fish factories include Lake Erie, Lake Winnipeg, Last Mountain Lake, Green Bay, the St. Lawrence and Mississippi rivers, as well as many inland lakes with robust forage bases. For specimens in excess of 18 pounds, the list shrinks to quintessential giant walleye waters including the Columbia River, Tobin Lake, and Bay of Quinte.
Few anglers would be shocked if the next 20-pound walleye was caught from one of these fisheries during the Coldwater Period of November through March. During this time, walleyes are heaviest due to increased feeding and egg weight, in the case of females. For trophy walleye hunters, now’s the time.
The Columbia River is currently the greatest of all fisheries in terms of top-end walleye size. Andy Fiolka landed a behemoth 35-inch, 17.19-pounder from the Columbia last winter. He attributes his success to good old-fashioned homework—talking with local anglers, visiting area tackle shops, reading available literature on the fishery, and spending as many hours as possible on the water.
As a kid growing up in South Dakota, he spent a lot of time walleye fishing on the Missouri River system, where he refined his vertical-jigging and leadcore-trolling skills. “Reading river currents and structure is something I learned back home,” he says. “I can take these river-fishing fundamentals and apply them to the Columbia. Boat control in current is paramount, whether it’s to keep a jig presentation vertical or maintain position on structure as you’re trolling crankbaits.
“Most guys on the Columbia use jigs or bladebaits, but you have to get confident in plastics because the use of live baitfish isn’t legal here. Being new to the river, I prefer trolling whenever possible. It allows me to cover lots of water quickly. When fish are active, you know right away. If not, you move on.”
At depths of less than 20 feet, Fiolka trolls deep-diving minnowbaits on 20-pound braid mainline and a 12-pound fluorocarbon leader. Big lures grab the attention of big walleyes. Popular baits include the Bandit Walleye Deep, Rapala Husky Jerk, Storm Thunderstick, and Livetarget Smelt Banana Bait. Like in other parts of the country, custom colors are all the rage on the Columbia. Wicked Customs Jigs N Spoons is a major supplier of hot local colors, including Hellcat, Mystic, and Purple Passion Perch. Newbies should come prepared with plenty of lures in purple and chartreuse patterns, black with splashes of highly contrasting neon colors, and various “wonder bread” schemes. Color effectiveness changes based on water clarity and light conditions.
In water deeper than 20 feet, Fiolka straight-line trolls with Sufix 832 Leadcore. The general rule is that each color section (30 feet) adds 7 feet of trolling depth. Actual running depths of lures vary depending on trolling and current speeds. The extra depth afforded by leadcore means non-deep-diving lures, such as Rapala J-13s and Livetarget Jointed Smelts with distinctive broken-back actions, can be presented at any depth. If you’re not equipped with leadcore gear, attach a 2- to 4-ounce Acme bead-chain trolling sinker 4 feet in front of the lure. A popular technique is to slowly troll this rig upstream at 0.6 to 0.9 mph along the insides of current seams.
While the next world record could come from anywhere along the 1,200-plus miles of the Columbia, the McNary and John Day pools in the middle stretches of the river have historically produced the biggest walleyes. These pools have significant tributary rivers feeding them, as well as abundant walleye structure including tailraces, sandbars, ledges, submerged island, flats, and wide lake-like sections.
Opportunities for trophy walleyes are available on multiple Canadian fisheries prior to ice-up. David Shmyr Jr. works as head guide at Koobies Krankers Fishing Adventures out of Rycroft, Alberta, and travels throughout Canada during the fourth quarter of each year in search of giant walleyes. Two of his favorite fisheries are Lake Tobin in central Saskatchewan and Bay of Quinte in eastern Ontario. Both have given up walleyes topping 18 pounds in recent history and 15-pounders hardly raise an eyebrow at either location.
In late fall through ice-up, Shmyr focuses on catching the biggest walleyes possible. He schedules his trips during the full moon and new moon periods of each month. Generally, the period four days on each side of these moon phases triggers a big-fish bite. Since fish activity can change among day and night, he often pulls double shifts. On Tobin that means trolling the main river channel in 16 to 22 feet of water during the day and moving to the adjacent flats in 16 feet or less at night. The advantage of night-fishing is that walleyes on shallow flats are there to eat, whereas daytime fish in deeper water can be lethargic and less inclined to chase down a lure.
Shmyr likes balsa minnowbaits during the Coldwater Period due to their unique action and buoyancy. When targeting giant fish on shallow flats, he primarily uses the Bagley Minnow B or Rapala F-13 set 60 to 120 feet behind in-line planer boards. In depths of 8 to 16 feet, his favorite lure is the Bagley Rumble B. “It’s such a versatile lure, having a diving bill somewhere between a shallow and deep diver,” he says. “During the full moon, especially on clear bright nights, I have most success with brightly colored baits. During the new moon I mostly use dull, dark-colored baits. If one bait is out-fishing others, I change over all the rods to that one. Every location on the water and every night is different. You have to experiment with everything you do. Adjusting speed, changing colors, and changing depths and spots is the name of the game. Above all, minimize noise and light in the boat in clear or shallow water. These fish spook easily. Being stealthy is critical.”
Bay of Quinte
On big waters such as Bay of Quinte, walleyes may be suspended 15 to 30 feet down under giant schools of gizzard shad in water as deep as 200 feet or more. Here, anglers should constantly monitor their electronics for baitfish schools and the location of giant walleyes in relation to baitfish.
For presenting lures at accurate depths, Shmyr says the Precision Trolling app is an invaluable tool. “The app as constantly being updated with new lures, so it never goes out of date and is the single most reliable tool for getting baits exactly where you want them,” he says. “Whether you’re running braid or mono, the app has you covered. I prefer braid, especially at night. Its added sensitivity lets me detect any debris fouling lures. Its lack of stretch, however, also mandates the use of longer and slower-action trolling rods. Rods with more flex help guard against big walleyes throwing hooks or tearing holes in their mouths during long battles.”
He sets his primary trolling speed and direction with his kicker motor but makes adjustments with his bowmount trolling motor. He says that big walleyes follow a lure for a considerable distance. Sometimes speeding up or slowing down just 0.2 mph triggers strikes. “Speed varies on any given night, but generally I troll on the slower side of 1.2 to 1.8 mph,” he says. “I’ve caught fish at 2 mph and faster, but at night, slow is better. Walleyes need extra time to track down a lure after dark.”
Inland Shoreline Strategies
Austin Gates from Neenah, Wisconsin, offers a shore angler’s perspective. To say Gates fishes a lot or gets around would be an understatement. He does so with a plan and a purpose that can be applied by anglers across North America to multiple walleye scenarios.
If 18 pounds is the mark for a truly giant walleye, Gates understands the odds are against catching such a fish from Wisconsin waters. The last such fish was caught on September 16, 1933 from High Lake in northern Wisconsin, and it still holds the state record. It’s gone largely unchallenged, unless you count the gigantic 17.5-pounder that the Wisconsin DNR netted and returned to Lake Wazee on December 16, 2015. Until that time, the small 146-acre iron mine lake, with depths to 350 feet, wasn’t even on the radar of trophy walleye hunters. The recent introduction of ciscoes as a forage base may have been the tipping point that allowed this lake to grow such an extraordinary walleye.
Gates takes notice of such unique fisheries and also puts time in at all the big fish producers within driving distance of him. In Wisconsin, that means Green Bay, Lake Geneva, Big Green Lake, the Madison Chain, and the Fox, Wisconsin, and Mississippi rivers. All these fisheries have produced walleyes exceeding 13 pounds, and quietly, some have grown fish approaching giant status. Every state has its own list of big walleye fisheries. Typically, they’re large systems or unique fisheries with a newly introduced walleye or baitfish population that enables above-average growth rates.
To an even greater extent than Shmyr, Gates finds value in targeting trophy walleyes at night, paying attention to moon phases and a stealthy approach. Since shore anglers generally rely more on fish coming to them rather than constantly moving to find fish, he starts by identifying key areas that concentrate or attract walleyes throughout the night.
Examples include shallow flats with healthy green vegetation, funnels or necked-down down areas that create current, and areas that retain or generate warm water. These locations draw baitfish and attract hungry walleyes under the cover of darkness.
Since no two nights are identical, patience and persistence is important. The bite might begin immediately upon your arrival or take several hours until the first bite. “I’m a believer in moon phases and pay attention to full- and new-moon periods,” he says. “Just as importantly are the daily moon rise and set times. On heavily fished waters, 10 guys might cast to a key shoreline spot without a bite. Then a key moon-phase period occurs as the eleventh guy hits it and pulls a handful of big fish from the spot. It pays to use a muskie fisherman’s mentality and set up on your best spots during major and minor periods.
“Speaking of muskies, we catch plenty of big pike and muskies that use these same prime feeding areas in late fall. To help prevent bite-offs, I typically use 15-pound-test fluorocarbon leader. Mainline is 15-pound Sufix 832 braid. The manageability of this line allows for extra casting distance and its strength lets me better manage double-digit walleyes near shoreline rocks, docks, and piers.”
Keeping baits high in the water column and working them slow are additional tips for nighttime shorecasters. This especially holds true where artificial light sources are present. Shoreline lights attract baitfish, and walleyes push bait up to the surface and then explode on it. A lure worked slowly within a few feet of the surface offers a silhouette for walleyes to target.
Gates’ favorite lures include the Rapala BX Minnow, Shadow Rap, and Husky Jerk. “These lures can be cast far into the wind and they suspend nicely between twitches and pauses,” he says. “Anglers are often surprised how long of pauses are needed to trigger a strike and how shallow big walleyes can be when they feed. That might mean slowly pulling a lure forward with the rod, giving it one slight twitch, and then allowing it to sit motionless for several seconds in water as shallow as 2 feet. Fish also follow lures to shore, especially on windy nights. Work baits all the way to your feet and keep your headlamp off, except when necessary.”
The best bite of the year typically occurs when water temperatures rapidly drop into the low 40s and upper 30s. The amazing thing about the fall cool-down is that a significant portion of a lake’s walleye population, generally spread throughout and entire lake for most of the year, congregates in relatively small predictable areas. When selecting nights to chase giant walleyes, cold front days accompanied by stiff winds tend to be better than warm calm days.
Whether you are working major river systems, the Great Lakes, or inland lakes, late fall and early winter offer unprecedented opportunities to target once-in-a-lifetime walleyes. Identifying prime fish holding locations and targeting them during prime periods will put the odds in your favor to connect with a giant walleye.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan is an expert multispecies angler and travels extensively to connect with the largest specimens a species offers.