Open-Water Strategies for Giant Walleye
September 23, 2019
It’s the third pass of the morning and the planer boards are falling back like we’re trolling through standing timber. They aren’t merely surging backward, they’re being buried as trolling rods strain under the heavy pressure on the other end of the line. Being seven miles offshore on northern Green Bay, the closest standing timber is on distant limestone bluffs that overlook these underfished waters. The “logs” we are encountering are walleyes between 25 and 32 inches. There’s hardly a small fish in the bunch and that’s just the way we like it.
These open-water marauders are tracking pods of migratory baitfish, the location of which is dictated by water temperature and current. Captain Bret Alexander has fished these waters his entire life and eagerly anticipates the annual influx of giant walleye into northern Green Bay each summer. Having been on this same pod of fish for several days, it takes him minimal scouting time to position us right in the middle of trophy walleyes.
“It starts around the last week of July each year,” Alexander says. “The waters of lower Green Bay heat up above 70°F and temperature-sensitive forage such as alewives and smelt migrate north to the upper Bay. At the same time, pods of baitfish get pushed in by big winds from the colder open waters of Lake Michigan.” Upper Green Bay serves as a moderate water-temperature oasis of sorts for baitfish during the hot summer months. It also hosts a range of offshore structure that creates currents, traps thermal pockets of water, and holds baitfish well into the fall.
Since most of Upper Green Bay has water depths of greater than 80 feet, he focuses on areas adjacent to the major breakline in 35 feet of water and another significant break at 20 to 25 feet. “There are times when we mark and catch fish suspended halfway down over 80 feet of water,” he says. “Most of the time, however, I set up closer to structure that forms currents and holds baitfish in the 20- to 35-foot depth range.
“I start the day by cruising these breaklines and watching my Humminbird Solix 12 sonar. With side-imaging scanning nearly 100 feet off each side of the boat, it’s easy to quickly eliminate unproductive water and pinpoint inside turns and small humps that hold baitfish. Ideally, we find several distinct pods of baitfish around structure and then present baits slightly above them. If all you mark are thick clouds of bait stacked far and deep, it can mean a tough bite. The fish have too much to eat then and it’s hard to make your baits stand out. At that stage it’s best to fish farther off the bait clouds or come up with a different locational strategy.”.
On calm days with a chop of one foot or less, Alexander trolls crawler harnesses at speeds of 0.9 to 1.2 mph. He spreads lines out with in-line planer boards and gets baits down to desired depths with a 50/50 approach. Running 10-pound-test Sufix Advance Monofilament on line-counter reels, he lets out the crawler harness on 50 feet of line, then he attaches a snapweight and lets out another 50 feet of line prior to attaching the planer board.
He uses a 1/4-ounce snapweight on the outside board, 1/2-ounce on the middle board, and 3/4-ounce on the inside board. If he fishes more lines, 2- to 3-ounce bottom bouncers can be fished off the back of the boat. By using different size snapweights throughout the trolling spread, the depth at which walleyes are feeding can be quickly determined and the weights on the other rods switched to fish that depth. This versatility is a benefit that snapweights offer over leadcore line at moderate trolling depths.
Because this trolling program is in open water away from snaggy cover, consider using crawler harnesses with larger hooks for better holding power. Adding a treble hook to the rig can also make a difference in landing big walleyes. Rigs such as the Walleye Nation Double Trouble Harness come pre-rigged with a lead treble hook and a trailing slow-death single hook. A baiting trick: Use a whole nightcrawler on the single hook and a 4-inch Berkley Gulp! Crawler on the treble hook. Using the softbait insures a baited rig even when you pass through pods of pesky sheepshead.
In waves over a foot, Alexander switches from crawler harnesses to stickbaits and increases trolling speed to 1.8 to 2.2 mph. “In choppy conditions, boards stall at slow trolling speeds and you lose the ability to keep blades spinning on harnesses,” he says. “Rapala Down Deep Husky Jerks and Tail Dancers are my go-to baits then. At approximately 3 to 5 inches long, they mimic the size of smelt and alewives where we fish. On one side of the boat I run Husky Jerks. They have a tighter action and cover the 16- to 22-foot depth range. On the other side, Tail Dancers cover the 20- to 30-foot depth range and have a more aggressive tail-kicking action.
“I adjust trolling leads to get lures running at different depths and experiment with lure colors. Pink and purple patterns are standard on the clear waters of Upper Green Bay but there is no one bait or color scheme that produces 100-percent of the time. Custom-painted baits can be invaluable, providing the ability to change colors. I change colors every 30 to 40 minutes if the color I’m using isn’t getting results. Don’t get complacent with your lures. If you’re marking fish, your task is to determine what they’ll bite. I’ve often seen where small changes in color schemes, depth, or speed make a big difference in triggering fish. Don’t assume a bite has turned off—you can always figure out something that they’ll bite.”
Wind direction, moon phase, direction of current, and direction of the trolling pass are also important considerations that affect catch results. On Upper Green Bay, the predominant currents are north to south or south to north. Alexander pays attention to which side of the structure bites occur. He notes if more bites come when trolling in a specific direction and he watches his moon charts for key feeding windows. “On Green Bay, we have everything from mini-tides and internal currents to an intermittent seiche and even isolated weather patterns,” he says. “All these factors can change the position of baitfish and the mood of walleyes. It’s important to track these conditions and anticipate how they affect the bite.”
Find Bait to Find Walleyes
On Lake Ontario’s Bay of Quinte, a similar open-water forage bite occurs from late summer through fall. Here, shad, smelt, and more recently, gobies, are important prey items for trophy walleyes. Walleyes transition between Lake Ontario and the upper reaches of Bay of Quinte as forage species seek preferred water temperatures. Captain Preston Jeaurond operates Living the Dream Sportfishing Charters and suggests casting to or trolling along outside weededges early in the morning. After the sun gets higher, however, the deep water of Pickton Bay is where to locate baitfish schools and concentrate your trolling efforts.
“When I started my charter business, some of the best advice that I received from successful captains was ‘find the bait to find the fish,’” he says. “That applies to walleyes as it does salmon and it’s as true on Bay of Quinte as it is on Lake Erie or any other fishery. There are times when we all get too excited and charge out to an area without following these fundamentals. And unless you get lucky and happen to set up on a school of walleyes, you typically pay the price for that overconfidence.
“I begin the day by watching charts and scanning structure as I cover territory at 25 to 30 mph. I can get good depth readings and mark schools of bait at this speed. When I find likely areas on the graph, I slow to 5 mph to get a better view of the bait pods to see how tightly they’re packed and how many streaks or arcs of big fish are around them. Dropping down an underwater camera to identify baitfish species and size is never a bad idea. Matching prey can be critical for targeting trophy walleyes. I place icons on the graph at key locations and get the boat positioned for my desired trolling pass.”
During the summer, some of Quinte’s best walleye action occurs at depths of 60 to 120 feet. To get baits to these depths, Jeaurond has a complement of rod-and-reel combos spooled with 100, 150, 200, and 300 feet of copper, as well as combos with 5, 8, and 10 colors of micro leadcore and snapweights up to 6 ounces. With this gear, he can fish baits from 40 to 100 feet deep. He runs lures on a mast and ski system, instead of in-line boards, to withstand the drag exerted by the heavier copper outfits. At times he runs one side of the boat with copper outfits for the added depth they provide and leadcore on the other side for the more fluid action leadcore imparts on lures. He suggests running baits 5 to 10 feet above groups of deep-water baitfish and make walleyes swim up for lures.
“Color and finishes are game changers on the clear waters of Quinte,” he says. “Last year, whites and purples were deal breakers, but you have to be prepared for color preferences to change. One of the more consistent producers has been the Livetarget Rainbow Smelt deep-diving banana bait. The version with the purple hue on the back worked well last year and the silver/black and gold/black versions are great alternate colors depending on light conditions and water clarity. I troll them at 1.5 to 1.9 mph in a grid pattern to hit the bait pod from multiple directions. There are times when walleyes are particular regarding how lures are presented in relation to current, structure, and baitfish schools.
“On Lake Erie, one of the quickest shortcuts to locating big summer walleyes is to find commercial trawlers. It’s their livelihood to constantly be on schools of smelt or perch. Trawlers stir up bait of all sorts throughout the water column. When bait pods are disturbed like that and the bait disperses, walleyes streak through them from all directions to get a meal. As such, it’s typical for lures set at various depths to get hit when trolling alongside trawlers,” he says.
On large western rivers such as the Columbia and Snake, walleyes set up on similar deep-water midsummer patterns. Cody Bumpaous operates Havin’ Fun Fishing Guide Service on these rivers and buys into the notion of finding bait to find fish. “During summer, walleyes here eat most everything that swims,” he says. “That includes leeches, aquatic insects, and crayfish, but they predominantly have a fish-based diet of shad, trout, smelt, perch, and minnows. Our goal is to present lures in areas and at depths where walleyes are most active and make it easy for them to eat our baits.”
Bumpaous keys on feeding shelves adjacent to deep-water pools. Here open-water forage suspends and frequently moves up on this structure. He uses a one-two approach similar to Alexander on Green Bay and switches between crawler harnesses and stickbaits depending on conditions. Instead of wind and waves dictating tactics, however, current speed and water clarity are determining factors in the river. During times of less flow and clear water conditions, he fishes 2-ounce bottom walkers with smile- or Colorado-blade harnesses at 1 to 1.5 mph downstream. Crawler harnesses allow him to cover ground quickly and appeal to both bottom hugging and suspended fish around bait.
When water conditions deteriorate and current increases after thunderstorms, stickbaits provide added benefits of larger size, vibration, and noise. “My big-fish lures are Bagley Balsa Minnows and Balsa Diving Sticks,” Bumpaous says. “I like to slowly troll them upstream in water 20 to 30 feet deep, but as shallow as 10 to 15 feet when walleyes move shallower under low-light conditions. You want lures digging hard and occasionally bouncing off rocks without snagging.
“The primary advantage of these Bagley baits is that they have quick dive curves, especially on 20-pound braided line, so less line out means a more direct connection with the lure. This allows for more precise trolling passes and a quicker turning radius to get back on fish. At times, we make short trolling passes of less than 100 yards when we find walleyes grouped tightly on a pod of baitfish. Quickly getting back on fish is critical to capitalizing on a big-fish bite. Shorter trolling leads help make that happen.
“Since we primarily longline troll directly behind the boat with fishing rods held in hand, we know exactly how the lures are running based on their vibration. Bagley Balsa Minnows and Diving Sticks track well and don’t blow out even through quick current seams. This makes it easier for walleyes to hone in on them, even in stained water. They also back-up wonderfully if you drop the rod back after hitting bottom.”
Bumpaous suspects that a large proportion of their trophy walleyes suspend around open-water prey during the summer. “Some of the biggest walleyes in our system follow baitfish schools and hunt that forage both suspended in the water column and where bait intersects feeding shelves,” he says. Make sure to spend some time with baits positioned within a few feet of the bottom, not just high in the water column.
Nearly identical patterns to those outlined here play out on the Central Basin of Lake Erie, the Charity Islands of Saginaw Bay, Lake Superior’s Chequamegon Bay, Lake of the Woods, and many other inland lakes across the country. Once you have identified the location of open-water forage that attracts walleyes, pick your favorite stickbaits or harnesses to capitalize on giants.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan contributes to all In-Fisherman publications and travels far and wide to pursue the largest specimens of freshwater gamefish.