When it comes to walleye fishing, the devil's in the details. Add a few small tweaks to the same old program and an angler can quickly go from zero to hero, even on big waters like the Great Lakes. The good news? None of these overlooked, winning ways requires a degree in rocket science. It's all about putting efficiencies into play, whether trolling or casting.
According to Lake Erie Guide Captain Ross Robertson, success often hinges on smarter spreads—keeping lines properly positioned and in the strike zone longer. "I use rod-holder trees to keep planer boards farther out and my line angles up so nothing tangles, even while turning in rough water. I run Bert's Custom Tackle Swivel Trees, because unlike a lot of the rod holders made for big boats, you can rotate these in or backwards for mooring at docks or backing into the garage. Even if you're running a fishing/ski boat, they take almost no space."
He finds rod trees a huge advantage in calm waters, when anglers typically have trouble boxing Erie 'eyes: "When it's calm, the water temp is either going up or down, and the bigger fish are going to move up in the water column chasing bait. Rod trees allow you to run three rods on the same tree at 75 feet, 100 feet, and your outside boards at 150 feet to cover various depths. I put a rod in the vertical, one at the top, one in the bottom, and keep the middle empty."
He mounts extra rod holders on a track system throughout his boat, which makes for fast rod movement when necessary. He may move an inside board from port side to starboard, casting it out as a fish is coming in. "It's about being efficient and keeping your lines in the water, even when someone is landing a fish."
To up his odds, Robertson also employs slider lines were legal, clipping them to existing planer-board lines. "If you're running boards at 75 and 150 feet, you have over 70 feet with no baits in the water. Try to run another board and you've got tangling or legality issues. The advantage of slider lines is you get to cover that void, working baits up high. It works well in calm to rough water."
He typically uses slider lines to run crankbaits high in the water column, an area he says is overlooked. "When I first started using Humminbird Side Imaging in 2008, I noticed giant clouds of bait high up in the water column off both sides of the boat. That gave me the confidence to pull cranks up high, even over deep water."
Robertson's slider lines consist of pre-tied 10- to 15-foot sections of 10-pound mono with a large swivel on one end and a large Duo-Lock snap on the other end to which he attaches the crankbait. When needed, he piggy-backs rigs to create 30-foot slider lines. "Let your board out with 25 to 30 feet of line, then attach the swivel of the slider line to a keychain-style clip on a planer board release. Then when you see a strike on your rod tip and there's no flag, bring the slider-line fish in hand-over-hand," Robertson says.
Slider lines take practice, especially on short trolling paths around clean or dirty water pockets or structure. "Some guys like to run a bobber or a foam indicator, which helps you know where the slider line is located at all times," he says. When not in use, he keeps his slider lines wrapped around sections of foam pool noodles. Some anglers wrap slider lines around suction cups positioned on the gunnel for quick access.
During early- and late-season, pro angler Marianne Huskey often downsizes from large deep-diving cranks to the less-erratic #9 Matzuo Kinchou Minnow. "The problem is getting these baits to dive beyond 18 feet," Huskey says. "So I add a 1-ounce Off Shore Tackle Pro Guppy weight to get smaller or shallow-diving cranks deeper. I generally put the bait out 20 feet and then go to the Off Shore website on my phone where there's a dive-curve chart for the various weights, bait lips, and boat speeds. That tells me which weight to use, which I attach to an Off Shore Pro Snap Weight Clip."
Why not lead core? In Huskey's opinion, more weight trumps more line. For that reason, she also utilizes Off Shore Tackle Tadpole weights when pulling 'crawler harnesses, situations that could call for a football field's length of leadcore. "Like on Oahe, where I might be pulling over treetops that are 50 to 60 feet down in 100 feet of water, I would need 8 or 9 lengths of leadcore and boards. Then add rough water. You lose too many fish. Snap- or in-line weights make it a lot easier."
Guide and former professional walleye tournament angler Captain Dale Stroschein works snapjigging cadences with the focus of a surgeon. "I don't spend much time talking when I'm jigging because I want to stay 100 percent focused on the end of my line. That's how I catch fish with it, day-in, day-out."
As owner of Sturgeon Bay's Sand Bay Beach, Stroschein says jigging doesn't get enough play on big waters: "When it's flat-calm, guys shouldn't be trolling. Jigging gives you better percentages. Guys are making critical mistakes by not setting waypoints while trolling, instead making long trolling runs even though fish are only picked up in specific locations. It's best to stop and rip jig those small schools of fish. Instead of it taking a day to get a nice limit of fish, now you can do that in a couple of hours."
The questions then are what and how to jig on big waters? "I teach my customers how to set up a snapjigging rod, the right lines, and the proper cadences to go out and catch fish," he says. He prefers a 6- to 6-1/2-foot medium-power spinning rod loaded with 6-pound Berkley FireLine in Crystal or high-vis orange attached to old mono backing, and a 16-inch section of 8-, 10-, or 12-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon connected with an Albright knot to the mainline. "Six-pound superline gives you the sensitivity to feel 'presence bites' and maintain constant contact with bottom, plus the visual cue for bite detection. Presence bites are when you lift your rod and feel weight because the walleye has pinned the bait to the bottom. And the thin FireLine casts long distances, even in wind," he says.
Lure choice hinges on water clarity and temperature. "Even if I'm working 4 to 10 feet, I use a 3/8-ounce jighead," he says. "If it's calm, 1/4-ounce. And anytime the water is dirty, even when it's calm, I fish a 3/8-ounce jighead so fish can find the bait. That's also when I go to paddletails or bladebaits, to create more vibration. And in cooler water, I snap hair jigs."
For water under 50°F—or when it's warm and chalky—Stroschein says over 90 percent of his walleyes are presence-bite fish. But if the water warms or clears, 90 percent hit on the drop.
Cadence & Count
Stroschein says subtle snaps are best. "I don't move my forearm much, it's more in the wrist. I don't snap too sharply because the tendency is to drop the rod tip too early on presence bites," he says. Another big part of his program is counting. "When the jig hits the water, I count one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, and so forth â€¦ then if say on 7 my line lays down, I start the retrieve," he says. "Then I cast again and count again. I might count up to 12 in another spot and I know it's deeper. I might catch a fish there, and now I can start to put something together. Counting helps you learn and visualize the underwater topography. Casts where you count to 5 or 7 might not produce, but areas with counts to 10 or 15 do, so you know fish are holding off the edge and deeper. That's something more anglers should be doing."
He also urges anglers to make full retrieves, working the snap-jig retrieve all the way back to boat: "Fish have the tendency to hit by the boat because of the angle change," he says. "As you get closer to the boat, the angle of the jig is getting higher and higher off the bottom, like baitfish escaping to the surface."
Two additional problems he sees beginners make are getting snagged and having trouble detecting bites in wind. "Don't let the jig settle for long," he says. "As soon as you see the line start to bow, snap. I only let my jig hit bottom for a split second. Let it sit too long and it will fall down between the rocks and snag. You want to get into a rigorous rhythm. And if you're new to this, cast into the wind or with the wind. Don't work perpendicular to the wind."
Big Water Spots
"Seventy-five percent of the year I fish 10 feet or shallower," Stroschein says. "I look for points on shorelines, preferably near a flat with scattered rock. With StructureScan, I survey rock size and look for sand-rock transitions. I like larger rock, which makes for the best walleye ambush spots."
He suggests anglers keep moving. "Especially when it's calm, a spot won't reload, so keep working new water," he says. "Every day there's going to be a new crevasse, depression, point, or sandy spot between rocks that walleyes use. Make sure to fancast the area and if you don't get bit by the time you've worked 180 degrees around the boat—or two guys covering 360 degrees—there's probably no fish there. Move 20 yards and start over. Each day can vary as to where walleyes are located.
"But don't be afraid to cast over and over in one spot if you get a fish. This summer I made 12 consecutive casts into the same spot and caught 12 walleyes in a row. When you're casting, always make a mental note of where you're casting, because where there's one fish, 9 out of 10 times, there are two. If you get bit and miss, cast right back again," he says.
Green Bay Guide Bret Alexander relies on snapjigging to put walleyes in the boat, although his take on the technique typically involves larger baits and a slower retrieve. First used to extract big Green Bay 'eyes from rockpiles and reefs, Alexander also plies shallower water with success.
"I've used it on Lower Bay rock reefs: all over on the East Shore; Two Mile Reef; all the rivers and tributaries; Fox and Menomonie rivers; Sturgeon Bay shipping channel during spring; everywhere on Green Bay; even some inland lakes. I've had customers tell me it works for them back home on river systems, inland lakes, in Canada, especially waters with a larger forage base. The key? Match the hatch," he says.
He casts plus-size swimbaits like 4.5-inch Berkley Rib Shads on saltwater-style jigheads from Owner or VMC. "If there's no wind, I use 1/4- to 1/3-ounce heads; with the wind, 3/4- to 1-ounce heads. I cast as far as I can and let the bait fall to the bottom. Then I lift the rod tip, stop my arm, and let the lure flutter down. Some days the fish want a faster hop like a rip-jig, but typically it's a slow lift so the bait only rises 8 to 10 inches off the bottom before I let if flutter down. In those cases the walleyes won't hit until it drops, when they pin it to the bottom and suck it in."
This feeding behavior is the result of walleyes that have learned to eat Lake Michigan's ubiquitous gobies. Half of Alexander's walleyes "are simply there" when you lift up your rod after the bait falls to the bottom.
Now add wind, and he says Sturgeon Bay walleyes go on an alewife chew, pushing bait into shallow waters. "I filmed a show with In-Fisherman TV's Doug Stange and we found walleyes along the milfoil and sand edges of Green Island's rockbars. We could literally see them chasing our baits in 6 to 8 feet of water," he says. Particularly during June, Alexander says these shallow, windward spots can really produce: "A lot of days I had 6, 8, or 10 walleyes chasing the same bait, which I'd never seen before. I could catch 15 to 20 fish a day doing this, and all big ones."
He locates fish-holding spots by idling around points, islands, and other structure with his Humminbird Side Imaging set to 100 to 120 feet. "I find the fish first, mark waypoints, then stay out from them with my bowmount Terrova so I don't spook them," he says. "I attack the windward side first, quickly fancasting. Then I make a pass shallow, then deeper. Some days I work the opposite side of the structure if the wind is blowing hard, which can push bait over the side. Sometimes you get a dirty-water cloud that builds up on the back side and the bait moves there. If I get on a good pod of fish I hit SpotLock on my Terrova. If it isn't too windy, I program Link to run the contour slowly," he says.
His advice for slow-motion snapjigging? "People come in, work it for an hour, don't catch anything, then give up," he says. "Experiment with speed. Some days fish want a slow drag, sometimes they don't. It can take some time to figure out how the fish want it, but it eventually pays off."