August 11, 2023
There’s much debate amidst the hardcore walleye angling crowd about the best places to fish for 30-plus-inchers—fish that eclipse the standard “10-pounder” trophy designation on most waters.
We’re talking about monster marble eyes … Walleyes that are pounds above the 10-pound mark, behemoths that fall between 15 and 20 pounds—and beyond—do exist on certain waters throughout North America.
Waters that hold (or have held) Nessie-sized walleyes include the Columbia River in Oregon and Washington; Greers Ferry Lake, Arkansas; Old Hickory Lake, Tennessee; Bull Shoals Lake, Arkansas and Missouri; North Little Red River, Arkansas; Muskegon Lake, Michigan; Fort Peck, Montana; Last Mountain Lake, Saskatchewan; and Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba.
And those are just waters that have had 15-pounders to a historically debated 25-4 pulled, photographed, weighed, and “certified” in some manner over the years.
A Hidden Giant Walleye Gem—New York
Absent from the list above are waters to the east, which don’t get talked about as much as the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest, or the mid-south lakes that produced giant walleyes decades ago—the latter hasn’t recently produced the caliber of walleyes turned topside years and years ago.
But if you’re looking for really big walleyes, you might want to strongly consider venturing out to the Empire State and fish either Lake Ontario, the St. Lawrence River, or the Lower Niagara River.
Consider the recent New York state record walleye catch, a massive 18-pound, 2-ounce beast caught on May 6, 2020, by angler Brian Hartman on the St. Lawrence River.
Experienced walleye angler, Brian Hartman, resides in Alexandria Bay, New York, located right on the east bank of the St. Lawrence River, just north of Keewaydin State Park.
To open the New York Walleye Season properly, Hartman and fishing buddy Mike Savoia stayed at a cabin right on the St. Lawrence in Morristown so they could hit the water at 4:30 a.m.
How were they fishing early-season St. Lawrence river walleyes?
According to reports, both diehard, early-morning walleye anglers were jigging and dragging 4-inch, now-defunct Trigger-X soft plastic swimbaits in pearl white—and caught a few smaller fish right after they hit the water in the dark, followed by “the fish” at about 6 a.m.
After a strong fight and solid netting job, the two fishing buddies apparently talked about releasing the giant female, but Hartman knew the fish was in a league all of its own.
So, the two drove the boat into shore and had the 32-inch, sag-bellied, egg-laden female weighed several times on a certified scale at the Thousand Island Bait Store.
Weight? An astonishing 18 pounds, 2 ounces. After paperwork and photography, Hartman’s fish was certified as the New York state record status (walleye), besting a fish caught in 2009 by a pound-and-a-half—which was actually pulled through the ice via a tip-up, not open water.
New York’s Big Walleyes
To fully understand what’s going on with the giant walleyes emerging from the St. Lawrence River, Lake Ontario, and Niagara River, I talked with veteran New York Charter Captain, Frank Campbell, who was happy to share his experience and understanding of New York’s walleye fishery.
“Lake Ontario is probably the best big walleye fishery in the world right now,” Campbell said.
“While Lake Erie has numbers of walleyes, they don’t get the ridiculously big toads. I mean, they get some 10s and 12s, but it taps out there because there’s something like 130 million walleyes in Erie and a lot of competition for food,” he said.
“Lake Ontario has been growing monster walleyes for years. The Bay of Quinte has always produced big fish. In recent years there have been more and more reports of 14- and 15-pound fish being caught on Lake Ontario. And I think some of those fish are migrating into other areas of Lake Ontario, especially into the bays on the east end and the St. Lawrence.
“The scenario is setting up perfectly for growing giant walleyes,” he continued. “There’s been an explosion of forage: smelt, alewives, emerald shiners, gobies, you-name-it – so there’s food for these fish 12 months of the calendar year. And there have been cuts to the salmon stocking so you don’t have that competition in the system. It’s become the ideal situation to grow what I believe will be the next world record walleye.
“While there was the 18-02 caught on the St. Lawrence a few years ago, I personally saw a guy with an 18-pounder not long ago on Lake Ontario, which was another ridiculously big New York walleye. Why he didn't turn it in for a state record? I'll never know. But I saw the fish and by my judgement it was 18 pounds—and that’s what he said it was on his scale in the boat.”
In terms of angling pressure, most anglers aren’t fishing Lake Ontario for big walleyes—they’re fishing salmon or chasing smallmouth bass, which are also growing obese on the lake’s abundant forage.
Lake Erie still draws more anglers because of numbers, not size. And Campbell said anglers will still go to Erie to fill their freezers but your serious big walleye hunters? They’re getting hip to what Lake Ontario has to offer. Campbell says fall is the best time to visit Lake Ontario for a shot at a giant ‘eye.
“What I learned years ago on Lake Ontario’s Bay of Quinte is go out in November after the salmon leave. There were numerous days when we’d try to catch walleyes for shore lunch and we couldn’t boat anything smaller than 8 or 9 pounds, so we never had a lunch up there!” He said. “Personally, my best days were during outings with five or six fish over 10 pounds, which is unheard of anywhere. And now that kind of fishing is spread out over the lake, not just the Bay of Quinte—and guys are catching them spring through fall—and in some areas through the ice. “I would highly recommend that serious trophy walleye anglers give Lake Ontario a shot. There's some big fish to be had from the Niagara to Henderson Harbor—and other areas, too. You might not catch 30 walleyes a day, but the five to eight walleyes you do catch are going to be big. That’s what New York’s Lake Ontario is all about.”