March 25, 2017
By Steve Ryan
Pursuing trophy shore walleyes presents a unique set of challenges and rewards. On the one hand, you can't get to most of the fishable water available to boat anglers, but you can access areas where fishing from a boat is difficult or impossible. Fishing these less accessible locations can pay huge dividends for shore anglers.
Finding shore access for giant walleyes is less difficult than you'd expect. Some of my favorite spots include small-river spillways, big rivers, and Great Lakes seawalls. In each location, certain tactics work best, based on the season and activity level of fish.
Spillways and Tailraces
Spillways across walleye country are fish magnets throughout much of the year. These overflows from lakes and reservoirs offer resident walleyes a year-round supply of cool, bait-rich, oxygenated water. Even in the middle of summer when walleyes have moved to deep water in the lake, there are opportunities for trophy fish at spillways.
With current, turbid water, and a deep scour hole below most spillways, walleyes may feed throughout the day. For lure selection, think big and snag-resistant as plenty of debris collects below spillways. Use large-profile lures that emit plenty of vibration to get noticed in this low-visibility environment.
Prime picks include large, soft-bodied swimbaits like the 5-inch Havoc Grass Pig and 5-inch Berkley Hollow Belly Swimbait. With large paddletails, swimbaits can be fished quickly for a more frantic action and slowed in slack current pockets to give chasing fish a chance to strike. Use dark colors that allow the bait's silhouette to be seen from a distance. Rig swimbaits on a 1/2- to 1-ounce Owner Bullet Head Jig or Kalin's Ultimate Saltwater Bullet Jig tied to 15- to 30-pound-test braided mainline.
These tactics work equally well in tailraces where smaller jigs go unnoticed by big walleyes and crankbaits get blown out by current. The goal is to make long casts to the face of the spillway. The heavy jighead allows for greater feel and control as the lure is drawn out of the turbid water and swept along the current seam.
Swim the bait in mid-water column through the scour pool for actively feeding fish. During the retrieve, it's pulled downstream by the current and retrieved back upstream to your casting position. On each successive cast, allow the lure to sink slightly deeper before commencing the retrieve. Resist the urge to make constant bottom contact because a swimbait that's retrieved to mimic a large fleeing baitfish is often what draws walleyes to strike.
Braid in the 15- to 30-pound range allows for sensitivity and is strong for sweeping, overdrawn hook-sets, which are necessary to drive home a stout jig hook from a distance of 60 feet or more. Heavier braid also results in fewer lures lost to snags. Fish both sides of the spillway if possible. Even where the wash pool is smaller than a cast-length, current breaks often set up differently along each shoreline. Walleyes' preference and tolerance for current often affects their position, so adjusting the angle by which lures are presented can make a big difference.
Big River Wading
One of the most consistent trophy walleye bites occurs each spring as fish move upstream to complete their spawning ritual. These fish are seeking prime spawning grounds that contain a mix of sand and gravel and scattered boulders or other cover that create current breaks in 2 to 6 feet of water. The first shallow gravel flat or current break area formed by an island, point, or peninsula downstream from a dam concentrates big walleyes each spring. The trick becomes safely accessing these areas in waders and precisely presenting lures to fish that are not inclined to move more than a couple feet to strike.
Timing also becomes important. Hit these spots too early and they're dominated by 15- to 19-inch males. As water temperatures rise above 40°F, mid-size females arrive and the action can be consistent for a good mix of sizes. When temperatures approach 45°F, there's no better time to be wading for trophies. But don't arrive too late — when fish are in full spawning mode, they're less likely to actively feed.
While some walleyes feed during daylight, the best bite for big fish occurs a few hours after dark and continues sporadically throughout the night, with a flurry occurring an hour or so after first light. When the sun rises above the treeline, big females move back downstream into deeper water beyond wading territory.
Capitalizing on peak feeding periods means wading in swift current, in the dark, in cold water, so you need to be organized and on your game. Essential gear includes a warm pair of waders, no-slip wading boots, collapsible wading staff, and a wading vest or jacket with plenty of storage pockets. A quality set of 5-mm neoprene or lighter weight waders, like the Hodgman Sawbill Creek Insulated, allows a greater range of motion than standard neoprene waders. Wear a wading belt and have a knife handy in case you fall and your waders fill with water.
Other essentials include a dual-beam headlamp with a low setting to tie knots without spooking fish and a high setting for seeing distances. Keep a pair of pliers or hemostats on a retractable lanyard and pack valuables, like your wallet, camera, and phone, in a waterproof case such as a triple-latching Plano #3540. A small waterproof case like this can save you considerable expense and frustration in the event that you get wetter than expected.
Keep lure selection to 20 to 30 lures that fit into a single storage tray. Primary baits are mid-sized stickbaits and shad baits that run from 3 to 8 feet deep. Plano makes a Hyro-Flo StowAway Utility Box that's perfect for wading. With hundreds of tiny holes on the top and bottom of the tray, air is allowed to flow through the box and dry lures that are put away wet. You might work through as many as a dozen lure changes at a single spot to narrow down size, color, and depths walleyes prefer.
Productive lures change from day to day and year to year, but effective ones include the Rapala J-11, Husky 13, and BX Minnow, Storm Thunderstick and Thunderstick Jr., Smithwick Suspending Rouge and Limited Rogue, Yo-Zuri Edge Minnow, and LiveTarget Smelt. Each offers a unique action and rise rate when paused. In recent years, shad-style lures like the Berkley Flicker Shad, Rapala Shad Rap, and Sebile Rattsler have excelled in water 5 to 8 feet deep. They dive quicker, have a faster action, and maintain their depth better when paused. Experiment with lure selection throughout the evening.
Working crankbaits at night requires both long casts to reach mid-stream current seams and short pitches to place lures behind shoreline boulders. I favor a 7-foot 2-inch moderately fast action, medium-power Fenwick Elite Tech Walleye Rigging Rod. When paired with a Pflueger Patriarch 9535 reel, the combo provides maximum versatility since carrying multiple rod and reel combos is not an option when wading.
Line selection is a matter of personal preference, as superlines and monofilament both offer advantages and disadvantages when wade-fishing. Berkley NanoFil, a fused superline, offers the thinnest diameter and slickest surface for maximum casting distance, sensitivity, and lure running depth. Braided line provides unmatched strength and pulling power to free snags. Monofilament imparts a softer action to lures and allows fish a split second longer to suck in the lure prior to feeling resistance. In deeper water, NanoFil may be the best option. In snag free areas, monofilament may have a slight edge over braid, and in shallow snaggy areas, braid wins out over the other options.
Attach lures to the line with a cross-lock snap. The snap gives the lure a better range of motion, allows for quick lure changes, and provides a slight degree of protection to the line as the nose of the lure deflects off rocks during the retrieve. In moderate to slow current, cast slightly upstream. Make several quick cranks of the reel handle to pick up slack and get the lure diving and digging in the current.
As the lure swings downcurrent from your position, slow the retrieve to a crawl until it barely maintains its wobble. Stop the lure at mid-retrieve and make a slight forward sweep of the rod to insure it's running just above the bottom and making occasional bottom contact. If you're constantly hitting bottom, switch to a shallower lure, and vice versa if you fail to make bottom contact. By fancasting an area, you gain a clear picture of the bottom topography — where shallow humps, boulders, and wood are located, and how fish are relating to them.
As the lure approaches, slow your retrieve even more and keep the rod at a low angle. Before raising it out of the water for the next cast, pause the retrieve. Sweep the rod forward and be ready for a tap. If you remain relatively stationary while working current areas, big walleyes often set up in the current break created directly downstream of you. As the lure swings by them, they might strike with only 4 or 5 feet of line out. This makes for an exciting and tense battle as the fish thrashes and throws water on the surface.
Apart from taking a stealthy approach, be mindful of every possible disturbance on the surface of the water to determine where possible current seams and breaks exist. Study the current and take note of any changes in current speed or water levels throughout the night. These changes affect fish location. Note each area where your lure ticks bottom or produces a strike, and adjust lures and retrieves based on your observations.
Change location if mostly small male walleyes are present or if fish aren't encountered within a short period of time. Even an adjustment of 30 feet downstream or several feet toward mid-river can make a difference. Large females congregate along prime spawning grounds and multiple trophies can be caught on successive casts.
Seawalls and Break Walls
The Great Lakes are known for giant walleyes, and seawalls, break walls, and pier heads offer the best means to access deep water corridors used by big fish. Walleyes follow these artificial structures to enter rivers, connecting lakes, and harbors. Where these structures narrow the flow of water, they create current and attract fish even more.
In some settings, boat anglers can fish these areas by slipdrifting and casting, but often wave action and swift currents make shore-fishing the most productive option. There's no need to constantly be on the trolling motor or to be in fear of the boat being pushed against the rocks or a seawall.
To fish these deep, often featureless areas, compact lures with a lot of vibration work best. As with wading shallow rivers, the key to fishing seawalls is concentration and observation. Pay attention to variations in bottom composition, depth, and current seams, and know where your lure is in the water column at all times.
Bring a long-handled net, as seawalls and break walls often are 5 to 6 feet above lake level. Frabill's Crankbait Conservation Net #9522, with its cam-lock telescoping handle, extends from 4 to 8 feet with a twist of the handle. The 1-inch knotless micro mesh netting protects the slime coat and fins of fish, while the coated finish resists hook penetration, making landing and safely releasing fish quicker and easier.
Top lures include bladebaits like the Heddon Sonar, Silver Buddy, and B Fish N Tackle B3 Blade. They have a broader profile than other blades and cast well, even in windy conditions encountered along the Great Lakes. Cast at a 45-degree angle to the seawall and allow the current to sweep the lure toward the wall. Then methodically hop the lure over bottom parallel to the wall. Feel for strikes as the lure flutters on the fall. Since these lures are fished in deep water and with bottom contact between hops, 15- to 20-pound braided line works well to detect strikes and free snagged lures.
In areas with less current or when fish demand a smaller presentation, switch to a banana-shaped bait like a 1/4- or 1/2-ounce Big Dude bladebait, which offers a tighter vibration. Fishing it on lighter 10-pound braid or NanoFil increases the fall rate and enhances the lure's action.
Fishing seawalls involves constantly being observant and on the move. Fish a spot for 10 minutes and then move along the seawall 30 feet and repeat the process along a piece of structure that may stretch a quarter of a mile or more. Along with watching for current seams, pay attention for color changes in the water that can indicate temperature changes. Also be on the lookout for bird activity. Diving gulls and terns can signal a concentration of baitfish and predators below. Once walleyes are located, multiple trophies often are available.
Shore anglers have no need to be discouraged in their quest for trophy walleyes. The satisfaction of catching a giant walleye from shore is immense. From wading rivers to probing dam spillways to exploring expansive stretches of Great Lakes seawalls, year-round options exist for nearshore giants.
A versatile utility player, the Hornet can be idled along slow and steady, for a subtle shaking action, or fast-tracked for wild, erratic thumping. Either way, the bait's near-bulletproof, high-density foam body stands up to plenty of hard hits from hungry 'eyes. Of the four sizes, the 1¾-inch #4 is a favorite. The floating option is great for trolling — whether pounding bottom in three feet of water on a short lead behind a planer board, or when you need to dredge the depths across a summer mudflat. The sinking version, meanwhile, is perfect for snap-pause casting cadences, and for counting down to deep structure. salmofishing.com
This is a great big-bite bait, thanks partly to its size and profile. But also credit the amount of commotion it creates — due to water displacement and its medium-pitched but nonetheless raucous rattle. Think power trolling for aggressive summertime fish, plus classic fall scenarios such as casting and trolling baitfish 'exit areas ' or main-lake reefs. While it yields a rather tight wiggle overall, the top of the back tilts wildly, and the tail also produces a lot of action. Of the three lip options available on the 3¼-inch Rattsler, the VLL (very long lip) is most walleye centric, covering depths of 10 to 20 feet. sebileusa.com
Cotton Cordell Wally Diver
Sometimes pigeonholed as a trolling bait, the Wally Diver also shines for casting. I especially like the suspending version when spicing things up with twitches, pauses, and pulls. The bait's stock action is best described as moderately tight, and has closed the deal with countless 'eyes over the years. The lineup offers several sizes from 2½ to 3¾ inches, plus a jointed model. The deepest-running non-jointed Wallys dive up to 20 feet on the troll and 15 on the cast, making it a great diver for a wide range of applications, from weededges to breaks and the tops of sunken islands. lurenet.com
Bomber Model A
For casting riprap banks, wing dams, and other rocky structure, the venerable Model A has few equals. One of the main reasons is the bill's sweeping action, which more times than not bounces the bait out of harm's way. If not, a little slack often helps back it out of box canyons. The hard-wiggling action is key, too, to targeting active walleyes prowling relatively shallow rocks. Six sizes and 15 stock colors offer plenty of options, but the 6A and 7A, which are 2 1/8 and 2 5/8 inches long, and dive 6 to 10 feet, collectively, can handle almost anything. bomberlures.com
Berkley Flicker Shad
More than just another shad in the school, the Flicker features an 'eye-catching action that combines top-to-bottom roll and side-to-side wiggle, complemented by a unique front-to-back motion. Run one next to the boat and you'll see what I mean. Five sizes let you target everything from skinny water to depths of about 15 feet on standard monofilament. The bait trolls well, but it's a great casting option, too. In 2010, Johnnie Candle and Dave Noble won the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit World Walleye Championship casting Flicker Shads into current breaks on the flood-swollen Mississippi River. Candle credits the bait's slow-rising characteristics for being able to fish a stop-and-go retrieve without it rocketing to the surface on the pause. It also has a high-pitched rattle, which is a plus in and around cover, and when fishing mudlines or other low-vis environments. berkley-fishing.com
Storm Original Hot 'N Tot
Another bait with a long history of putting walleyes in the boat, the Original Hot 'N Tot — produced from the original molds, sporting a metal lip — offers a wild and erratic, side-to-side action. While it's not exactly my first bait of choice in cool water, it's absolutely lethal for trolling aggressive walleyes during the summer. Available in 2- and 2½-inch sizes and 23 colors. Expanding the lineup, the Hot 'N Tot MadFlash version brings external scale patterns, 3-D eyes, and flashier finishes to the table — including four UV Bright options. stormlures.com
Although the original Shadling had its followers, the new version, released several seasons ago, elevated the bait to Top 10 status. A joy to cast or troll, it holds its tight-wiggling action at speeds well above the typical walleye pace of 1 to 3 mph, and hits depths to about 13 feet unaided. A rattle adds to the attraction, but holographic, baitfish-inspired finishes such as Natural Perch and Purple Smelt are a real score, especially in clear conditions. Available in #5 and #7 sizes (2 7/16 and 2 7/8 inches, respectively) and 21 finishes, at last count. lindyfishingtackle.com
Koppers LiveTarget Threadfin Shad
Admittedly, my love of baitfish biology helps explain my affinity for many of Koppers' realistic cranks, including the Threadfin. Like the rest of its kin, its shape, lifelike flashy finish, and amazing head and pectoral fin detail make it a great candidate in clear water. But the Threadfin raises the bar with an extra-tight wiggle. Said to mimic a fleeing shad, it also does a fine job triggering strikes on lakes well outside the Shad Belt. Plus, it suspends, opening the door for stop-and-go cadences when a steady retrieve won't cut it. Two size options, the 2½-inch S65M and 3-inch S75M. Both cover the 5- to 7-foot range without assistance. livetargetlures.com
Rapala Shad Rap
An iconic walleye crank, the Shad Rap performs so well, in such a wide variety of duties, that anglers have scooped up more than 2 million of them since its debut. You can throw it on light spinning tackle in shallow water, troll it deep behind a leadcore tether, or fish it in just about any manner in between. Four sizes are available, with the 2-inch #5 and 2¾-inch #7 staples of the walleye trade. Add the shallow, glass, plastic (RS), and jointed versions to the mix, and the family's got most applications covered. rapala.com
Reef Runner Rip Shad
Yes, these baits are notoriously needy of tuning, both when new and while on the job. But when you get it right, the Rip Shad's subtle wobbling action is worth the effort. This, coupled with a bit slimmer profile than many shad baits, makes it a great addition to the arsenal. Both the 200 and 400 series have a place in the walleye world, but neither are speed-trolling candidates, especially the 200. One last tip, don't limit them to trolling. Savvy smallmouth fans catch tons of 'eyes on Rip Shads while hunting bronzebacks. reefrunner.com