Efficient Walleye Fishing
February 28, 2018
One of the few things I remember from philosophy class is the epigraph above—but I always thought "and the fish are not the same fish," could be added, too. I always read it to mean that the natural world is in a constant state of flux.
In fishing, environmental conditions change, we change, and fish behavior changes, sometimes on a dime. Each time we "step into the river" we're dealing with a different set of circumstances and countless variables at play, which ultimately determine our level of success.
Good thing for guides and pros with big hearts and loose lips. Given the sheer number of hours they spend on the water, they begin to notice the emergence of patterns that recreational anglers do not, and from that, efficiencies to put more walleyes in the boat.
Cranks vs. Spinners
By mid-summer each year, walleye anglers are faced with a dilemma: cranks or spinners? Some anglers rely on water temperature as an indicator, while many live by trial and error. But wasting time randomly pulling baits is not the M.O. of most guides and pros. For Lake Erie's Captain Ross Robertson, there are situations that call for each, and make him more efficient on Erie's expansive waters. "Based on my experience, four situations call for trolling crankbaits over spinners," Robertson says. "Situations that involve subsurface currents, dirty water, night-fishing, and the presence of other species."
Conversely, five main factors turn him back to spinners: versatility and control, clean water, deep fish, finesse-feeding walleyes, and second-chance fish. "Plain and simple, the strike zone is bigger with spinners. And they're versatile. If I'm in 30 feet or so and go through a pod of fish on the bottom, I can slow down, even stop the bait because I'm using a bead-chain sinker or snapweight. And if I mark bait high, I speed up or turn the boat. It's hard to make these micro-adjustments with a crankbait."
As Erie walleyes move from springtime spots to deeper water, cranks get harder to fish. "As postspawn walleyes move to mudflats, getting past that 20-foot mark is difficult with a crankbait. Husky Jerks work only to about 17 feet. I can get a spinner down deep fast and easily. When the water is starting to warm in early summer, I have to get down quickly because walleyes are in small pods and we're only trolling 200 to 300 yards, and it's two seconds to get down, two seconds to get back up. With spinners you're letting out 50 feet of line versus a couple hundred with cranks."
He also uses spinners to tap what he calls "second-chance" walleyes. "If I see a board go down and come back up, I grab the rod and free-spool back like rigging or slipbobber fishing. Drop back, reel up, and they usually hit as you just engage and start reeling. I feel my odds on a bad day are 50/50, and on a good day I catch 3 out of 4 fish. The number of second-chance fish I catch is in the hundreds every year."
But for Robertson and other Lake Erie anglers, the summer of 2016 was spent fighting wind and current, so crankbaits prevailed. "East and northeast winds punished Lake Erie for a month and a half straight. Erie naturally has a west-to-east current because of the Detroit River and the pull of the Niagara. I spent most of the summer with my boat pushed perpendicular to 3-foot waves. The interplay of wind, current, and boat control made it hard to control the running depth of spinners. A one-ounce spinner could be on the bottom or the surface because of currents. Day in, day out, current was a major factor and crankbaits ruled with 60 feet of line back from the board at any given depth," Robertson says.
The combination of northeast winds and cross-currents also dirtied the water, meeting Robertson's crankin' criteria. "Northeast winds are notorious for dirty water, which shrinks the strike zone. That's when I turn to crankbaits with rattles, which walleyes detect better. In dirty-water situations, 99 percent of the time you do better with a crankbait than a spinner."
Preferred crankbaits change day to day, sometimes hour by hour. "It's not consistent, and I've noticed how important experimenting with different rattling crankbaits can be. Certain frequencies definitely do better than others at times." The multi-rattled Smithwick Rattlin' Rogue, for example, sounds like someone shaking a bowl full of BBs. On the other hand, one-knockers aren't as consistent. "You want that shake, shake, shake sound. I know a lot of other guys who are using Bandits and doing well, which are pretty loud." At other times, lures without rattles work best, for example "pulling steady" with Shad Raps when trolling with the waves downwind.
In terms of trolling direction, in most circumstances Robertson trolls with the current to decrease tangles and water over the bow. "Start trolling by moving with the waves while watching your course heading. Almost always we're trolling downwind," he says.
Robertson recalls getting out of school at the end of the day and hitting Erie with his buddies—when he first discovered the efficacy of crankbaits after dark. "You'd be out there with a bottom bouncer and as soon as it got dark the walleyes would quit. We quickly learned that switching to cranks lit the bite up again. Nine out of 10 fish would come on the crank, which you can pull faster and with more efficiency than a spinner."
Walleyes are keen low-light feeders due to a layer of tissue in the eye called the tapetum lucidum located just behind the retina. This thin layer reflects light a second time to photoreceptors, increasing visual sensitivity at night and in stained waters. But sight-feeding is only part of it. Walleyes also rely on their lateral line to detect the presence of food, especially in low light. Hence, a vibrating crankbait (especially one with rattles) is often the best nighttime crankbait choice. UV finishes also have become a go-to for many walleye anglers.
Junk Fish Filter
Robertson also uses crankbaits when "junk fish" begin actively feeding as Erie's water temps reach 55°F and above. "I often run cranks on one side of the boat and spinners on the other. If I'm catching walleyes on spinners and start catching white perch, white bass, sheepshead, and yellow perch, I switch all the lines to cranks. It's not an issue of what's best for walleyes, but what keeps other fish off."
The same thinking applies to upgrading walleye size in the presence of smaller year-classes. "This past August we had an abundance of 8- to 14-inch walleyes in both Erie and Saginaw Bay. Some guys were catching 50 to 60 'cigars' a day, but you don't want to go through 2,000 'crawlers. Switching to bigger cranks (or Magnum salmon spoons) keeps the small walleyes off. That's a huge efficiency."
He's found that larger-profile 600 or 800 Reef Runners are good for getting down deep, staying in the strike zone, and filtering out smaller fish. He uses 10-pound monofilament and a 1-ounce snapweight 20 to 30 feet up. "You get a greater landing percentage thanks to monofilament's stretch, and the snapweight helps me keep baits where they need to be."
Lately, he's been experimenting with thin braid, like 16-pound Sunline SSX1, which he says gets a Husky Jerk down 3 to 4 feet deeper, and puts Reef Runner 800s into the 30-foot-plus zone without extra weight. The results have been promising. "With 150 feet of line back, I've been contacting bottom in 36 feet."
As summer progresses, Robertson runs crankbaits on Dipsy Divers and increases his trolling speed. "As walleyes move up in the water column, it's more efficient to fish crankbaits on Dipsies and troll faster," he says.
Big River 'Eyes
Mississippi River Guide Josh Wetzstein keeps numerous rods rigged at all times with Dubuque rigs, livebait rigs, tandem crank rigs, bladebaits, and more. But when it comes to putting the crosshairs on big river walleyes, he says it's hard to beat pitching plastics, especially in spring and fall. "In my experience fishing rivers, 90 percent of big fish are caught in 10 feet or less," Wetzstein says. "For me, it's all about pitching plastics in shallow water. You need to get out of the fast current. Find a point, a rockpile. Get down-current. That's where the big fish are. I move around using my bowmount, jogging up and down, pitching riprap, wood, and current seams. Electronic anchoring is key."
While high-tech fishfinders have revolutionized walleye fishing, Wetzstein spends as much time with his eyes watching for subtle nuances in river flow, like current seams and eddies. Consider Heraclitus' words of wisdom: rivers are in a constant state of flux. Where current seams and eddies exist today, they may not be in the same place tomorrow. Same thing for fish. Excellent walleye habitat like flooded wood and rock can quickly disappear as locks and dams are closed, for example.
"With electronics, the important thing is knowing where you can motor, and where you can't," he says. "Otherwise, it's about reading the river, looking for current seams, inside and outside bends, eddies, and working riprap."
Some days yield big fish, while others don't. It's not a deal-breaker to Wetzstein, whose other passion is muskie fishing, which has taught him the patience to deal with the doldrums between giant fish. It's the anticipation that the next cast could connect with a 30-incher that keeps him swinging.
Early-season water temperatures between 40°F and 50°F find him using a B FishN Tackle Ringworm to find fish, then sizing up to a Moxi. "Beefier plastics like the Moxi do better on big fish this time of year," he says.
Same deal in fall, as he waits for water temps to drop into the 55°F to 58°F range. "That mid-October to mid-November window is great. For me, the best fishing starts around November 1. By the time the water temp drops to 50°F it's show time, and pitching plastics is hard to beat for big fish.
"I usually pitch upstream and let the flow sweep my bait down past the boat," he says. His best advice is to remember the exact location of your pitch just before the bite occurred. "You might catch a fish as your jig and plastic moves right in the front of the boat, but don't cast back to where you got bit. Pitch back to the exact spot where the jig hit the water before you got bit. That's where I see guys messing up."
With regards to jigging cadence, it "depends on the day" but Wetzstein's routine involves casting upstream, lifting the jig off bottom, reeling in slack, and keeping the line tight as the current sweeps the jig downstream. "Then I repeat when the jig hits bottom or lightly shake the rod tip as I reel in slowly," he says.
And if he finds fish, he moves on after 20 or 30 minutes. "I don't like to beat up the fish too much. Some guys sit on 'em all day, but I like to move on to a fresh spot, let the spot refill, and come back later."
River Pitching Gear
"You've got to bring the mother lode with you when you fish a river. It'd be like a plumber showing up to fix your sink with nothing but Channellock pliers. Sure, you might be able to fix it, but you can do a better job by bringing all your tools."
For Wetzstein, a "better job" equates to a dozen or more 6-foot 8-inch to 7-foot St. Croix Legend Elite and G. Loomis NRX rods with extra-fast actions—rigged with different line types in different diameters and tests. He also totes a vast selection of jighead styles and weights, and various profile and color plastics. A few more rods are rigged with bladebaits and hair jigs.
During spring and fall, Wetzstein typically pitches jigs tied to 10- to 15-pound PowerPro braid or 10-pound Berkley NanoFil and a 15-pound fluoro leader so he can free baits from snags without wasting time re-tying. But when it's cold and the water clears, he opts for 6- or 8-pound Berkley Sensation monofilament (high-vis green or orange), which sheds water and doesn't freeze up his guides and is highly visible for line-watching.
He fine-tunes his presentation not only with jig size (typically those he pours himself into Do-it Molds or else stock B Fish N Tackle H20 Precision and Northland Tackle jigs), but also line diameter and bait profile. "You might have to go from a lighter mono to a heavier braid, or vice versa, to get the right rate of fall to trigger bites, which changes from day to day. Same goes for softbaits. Cut off an inch or two, or size up. Again, there are a lot of factors at play. Don't assume the fish aren't biting if you don't catch them on one bait. I see guys fishing 1/4-ounce jigheads and the same color plastic, but don't catch fish and go home. When you fish the river you have to experiment with jig weight, lure profile, color, and line."
He also believes too many river anglers play it safe. "Don't be afraid to cast into the wood and sticks. Walleyes feel safe there; they even spawn in there. It boggles my mind that you have guys in $50,000 boats who cringe at losing a bait. Burn through jigs if you have to."
Wetzstein says a 3/16-ounce jighead offers versatility for a lot of river situations, but reminds anglers that there's a fine line between getting bit and getting snagged. As the water drops early- and late-season he often downsizes to an 1/8-ounce head.
For snaggy spots, he recommends jigs like a B Fish N Tackle Draggin' Jig with a built-in hook guard. The Northland Tackle Weed-Weasel is another good option. "If the wood is gnarly, these jigs do the job. I'm always surprised how many big fish I catch way back in wood."
His favorite plastics are primarily B Fish N Tackle Moxis, ringworms, and a host of paddletails. He sticks to fluorescents and the occasional dark pattern for dirty water and natural colors like "oystershell" for clear water.
Besides brighter colors during high, muddy water, he recommends changing cadence to aggressive rips. "Vibration is the deal during low visibility, so you have to rip aggressively to let walleyes know the bait is there. Along the same lines, don't be afraid to grab a bladebait or hair jig, too."