August 26, 2022
A buddy of mine—fish-head “Big Mike” recently asked me where he should fish to join the 30-inch walleye club. With a 28-incher already under his belt, he’s still on the prowl for an honest 30-plus-inch fish and won’t be happy until he nabs a photo with one. His question got me thinking—where are the best waters to catch a trophy walleye? What follows is an exploration of Big Mike’s question: a brief look at four of the top big-walleye producing waters in North America, with inside information on the best times to go, top presentations, and where to stay.
#1 STURGEON BAY, WISCONSIN
-- Driving distance from Chicago: 245 miles; 4 hours
-- Driving distance from Minneapolis: 322 miles; 5 hours
When to Go
“For big walleyes, there’s a very short window of early-ice—basically from Christmas through the first part of January. That’s probably an angler’s best shot for walleyes from 10 pounds into the low teens,” says Karyn Stroschein of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin’s Sandbay Beach Resort.”
How to Catch ‘Em
Having fished the Sturgeon Bat big walleye program myself, I know the drill employed by guides Dale Stroschein and Brett Alexander. Goes like this: Get out onto the ice early in the morning and right before dark.
Although you will catch a few small walleyes, the Sturgeon Bay program is about a shot at trophies, so both Stroschein and Alexander put you where those fish are (or could be). At its most basic, the big fish program involves dropping a size 5 or 7 Jigging Rap to the bottom, bringing it up no more than 6 or 8 inches, making small snaps with the occasional high rip so big ‘eyes can see the bait from afar in the gin-clear waters.
“Too often I see anglers change their jigging when a big fish shows up on their electronics. These Sturgeon Bay fish, they don’t like that. The key is repeatability. It’s almost as the fish watch and study the best time to hit the bait. Change it up too much and they’ll move on,” said Stroschein.
Where to Stay
The accommodations at Dale and Karyn Stroschein’s Sandbay Beach Resort are spacious and clean. There’s an indoor pool for the kids (hot tub for the adults), nearby shopping and countless Door County attractions that makes a fishing trip to Stroschein’s incredibly family friendly. They offer both permanent and portable fishhouse fishing packages, as well morning drop-off at fishing spots and lunchtime and evening pickup via heated Ranger UTVs. They can accommodate fishing parties up to 40 anglers.
Learn more about Sandbay Beach at SandbayBeach.com and WackyWalleyeGuideService.com.
#2 Lake Erie (Western Basin, Port Clinton, Ohio, area)
--Driving Distance from Chicago: 278 miles; 4 hours, 15 minutes
--Driving Distance from Minneapolis: 690 miles, 10 hours, 45 minutes
Best Time to Go
“First ice isn’t really the time to fish Erie from a safety perspective. February is the month to put on the calendar. March can be insane, but you can’t bet on it,” said ice fishing guide, Captain Ross Robertson.
Robertson is quick to point out that ice fishing Erie can be a sketchy game and recommends anglers don’t get their courage and skill confused.
“Come ice, we don’t often get to fish where the fish are located. We go where you can fish safely and make it home safely. We either have no ice or treacherous ice it seems, but the last couple years have spoiled us greatly. A lot of anglers have gone through because we have a lot of current. There’s a big variation in the ice. It’s not Lake of the Woods, it’s not Mille Lacs—you’re not going to drive your truck out there. How far does safety need to be considered? Put it this way: I spend a lot of time trolling open water in January.”
I tell everyone: You don’t drive your sled 50 mph here. Be cautious and go slow, your safety and gear depends on it,” he said. “Bring safety equipment like throw ropes, self-inflating PFDs, recovery straps for getting machines out. You’ll probably be on glare ice, so you need scratchers on your sled, studs and chains on ATVs. Liquid-cooled machines don’t do so well. Also be sure to have adequate GPS and mapping to find your way around.”
Where and How to Fish
Robertson said 99% of the fishing is west of the Bass Islands, so Port Clinton, Ohio, makes a good home base.
“Two things I do: run and gun or squat. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday I stay away from everybody and squat because traffic shuts the fish down. We’re on giant mud flats and sometimes little moves of a 1/4-- to 1/2-mile is enough to find fish. Or just sit and jig aggressively to bring fish in.
“Then, the later we get in the season, the more fish will move toward the reefs and rock. But 95% of the time we’re fishing mud in that 24- to 34-foot zone. Any shallower you’ll be on rock; conversely, you won’t find many walleyes deeper than 34 feet,” he said.
Where to Stay
Port Clinton, Ohio, and motels along the Catawba Peninsula down to Camp Perry, the military base. Crane Creek State Park provides legal, free parking to access the ice.
How Catch ‘Em
Robertson said the hottest bait on the ice has been something called a Silver Streak Rattle Streak.
He said rattlebaits also have their place but are not consistent.
“I’ll use a firetiger, red and white, or natural perch Psycho Shad to draw in fish for the follow-up bait—the Silver Streak Rattle Streak tipped with a couple small emerald shiners. Jigging Raps also come into play. Sometimes the ‘Rap brings them in, sometimes they crush it, and other times you need a follow-up bait. It’s like being a really good pitcher. Sometimes you must use all the pitches in one day, sometimes just one. I switch up more often in the winter. The water is clear and the fish have longer to look at presentations.
Robertson stresses the importance of the right rod for Erie ‘eyes: “I use G. Loomis 392 and 413 IMX Pro Series ice rods. They have both the length and power needed to handle big walleyes and larger-than-normal walleye ice lures. It’s really important ‘cause you’re fishing bigger baits. When you put two or three minnows on a ¼-ounce spoon, all of a sudden it weighs over a half ounce. You want something with some backbone and flex so when you need to make subtle movements you can. With my rod, when I come to a dead stop, the bait comes to a dead stop. I can twitch the bait very subtly so it’s not going up or down in the water column—just the bait is shaking.”
For line, Robertson prefers 10-pound Sunline Supernatural monofilament. “I don’t want super-thin line. I want a little more drag and diameter, so the bait has a slower rate of fall. When I’m using something like a Slender Spoon, I can watch the fish take the bait on the slack. And on my deadsticks I use 12-pound (2-pound diameter) Sunline SX1 braid, which helps me with really subtle bites. For those rigs I use a tiny Spro Power Swivel and a two-foot leader section of 14-pond Sunline FC Sniper fluorocarbon.”
A day on Erie will leave you hungry and exhausted. To those ends, Robertson said no tip is complete without a meal at Casa Las Palmas in Port Clinton.
“The food is cheap, tasty and freaking amazing! Try #73, El Molajete (translated mortar or lava rock’), he said. “Literally, a giant lava bowl of goodness filled with shrimp, ribeye, peppers, ranchero sauce … enough food to two big guys. And another plate of rice and beans.”
Casa Las Palmas Mexican Food
For more info on giant Lake Erie walleyes, contact Captain Ross Robertson via