Summer Great Lakes Walleyes
September 16, 2015
Summer walleye fishing on big water often involves using a mixed bag of trolling techniques to maximize water coverage and minimize undesirable bycatch. Crankbaits, spinner rigs, and spoon combos all fit this bill. Top captains put these tactics to use across the best walleye fisheries on the Great Lakes.
Captain Mike Veine has guided on the Great Lakes for over 25 years. He trailers his 22-foot Lund Baron to various ports on lakes Michigan, Erie, and Huron for the best seasonal bites. When summer arrives, he gets excited about the prolific walleye bite on Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay. From July through September, he has a near perfect track record of producing limit walleye catches during his charters over the last several years.
The bite happens like clockwork, he says. "Each July, as inner Saginaw Bay warms up, a migration occurs sending hordes of walleyes northward toward the deeper portions of the bay. Here they concentrate to feed on emerging midges, mayflies, and other insect larvae, as well as shiners. The 25- to 40-foot edge of the shipping lane that runs from Buoys 1 and 2 and extends northward to a line drawn between Sand Point and Point Au Gres is dynamite during this period. Walleyes are feeding tight to the bottom on insects and that's when I run bottom bouncers with spinner-crawler rigs."
He prefers bottom bouncers in the 3- to 4-ounce range with custom spinner rigs. "Those heavy weights bouncing on the bottom stir up silt and dislodge bugs, which turns on walleyes and generates strikes," he says. "The heavier weights also allow me to troll faster to run baits past a greater number of active fish." His favorite spinner pattern consists of six red beads and a #3 chrome Colorado blade with two #6 baitholder hooks spaced two inches apart. The harnesses are 4 to 5 feet in length and tied using 25-pound-test Berkley fluorocarbon leader material. He uses half crawlers on these rigs to catch short-striking fish.
His typical spinner trolling spread consists of eight rods, six with planer boards and two flatlines fished off the gunnels behind the boat. The flatlines allow Veine to periodically "feel" the bottom and adjust speed to maintain bottom contact with all lines.
As the water continues to warm in the lower bay and insect hatches diminish, massive schools of walleyes move into the shallows along the north end of Corion Reef. "This reef starts in the south end of the bay and runs north to Little Charity Island and features a bottom consisting of marl, gravel, and rock," he says. "Walleye feed mainly on shiners in this area. Here they can be caught on a variety of lures, including crankbaits like Storm Hot 'N Tots, Berkley Flicker Shads, spinner-crawler rigs, and spoons — my favorite being Moonshine Lures Walleye spoons with silver backs. Fast trolling speeds are necessary to keep hookups with sheepshead and catfish to a minimum. I usually go no slower than 2 mph in this area."
When running bottom bouncers on planer boards, proper spacing of boards is important, Veine says. "Having them too close together seems to reduce catch-rate. I think it's because too much bottom commotion from the bottom bouncers creates clouds of silt. Spread the boards 50 feet apart and watch for slight tipping or subtle dragging on the boards, especially when small walleyes are present. Check your rigs to make sure you're not dragging dinks, or that your 'crawlers haven't been stolen. On Saginaw Bay, if a bait hasn't had any action in 30 minutes, there's probably something wrong with it."
Other midsummer areas frequented by Veine are shallow weedbeds on the west side of the bay from Point Au Gres south to Pinconning Bar. Trolling with weed-resistant spinner-crawler rigs is effective here. Veine notes the importance of monitoring water temperatures to better stay on schools of migratory walleyes, instead of blindly fishing areas based on calendar date. "If the summer is cool, like it was during 2013 and 2014, then the weedbed bite lasts well into fall," he says. "But if the water warms into the 80s, many of those fish vacate the shallows and migrate into the vast area north of Big Charity Island and into Tawas Bay.
The Charity Island area is a world-class trolling fishery for summer walleyes suspended over water depths of 40 to over 100 feet. Big flashy spinner-'crawler rigs with #6 and #7 blades help attract fish from a distance in these clear, deep waters. Veine's harnesses for suspended walleyes feature two #8 treble hooks for better hooking and holding. He fishes the rigs behind 1- to 3-ounce in-line weights and prefers whole 'crawlers for this application, with trolling speeds in the 1.0- to 1.5-mph range. As the summer ends and water cools, walleyes begin their migration back to the inner portions of the bay, and a fantastic crankbait bite continues until ice-up.
Lake Erie Spoon-Spinners
The astonishing number of walleyes in Lake Erie provides fast action for eater-size fish during the summer, while fish remaining from the strong 2003 year-class provide a bonus trophy fishery. Captain Ross Robertson borrows from his tournament background to devise strategies for his customers to catch more of these trophy fish. He fishes away from the crowds and uses large-profile spinner rigs to minimize wasted time and bait due to pesky sheepshead and white perch.
During the summer, he's focused on walleye schools with fish measuring 26 to 32 inches. These larger walleyes are more temperature-sensitive than smaller ones and migrate more than a hundred miles from their spring spawning grounds in the Western Basin to the deep, cooler waters of the Central Basin in summer and then back again in fall. These walleyes feed on schools of rainbow smelt in open water.
Robertson relies upon his Humminbird ONIX8ci SI Combo sonar unit to scan large sections of open water. "Even when I'm traveling at 25 mph, I can mark fish with certainty on sonar," he says. "In deep water, the cone diameter of the signal spreads out and is much larger near the bottom, allowing for wide coverage. You also can quickly pinpoint the depth ranges where fish are holding by utilizing Side Imaging prior to setting up a trolling spread."
Robertson gets spoons and spinner rigs to desired depths using jet divers, dipsy divers, and in-line bead-chain sinkers. Each method has advantages and disadvantages. Jet divers provide a consistent diving depth for baits and tend not to sink as quickly when lines stall, but they have limited flexibility in their depth ranges. Dipsy divers offer directional coverage and greater diving depth, but sink quickly when lines stall. They also require heavier equipment to run and a minimum trolling speed to keep lines spread away from the boat. In-line bead chains are simple and can be run at a variety of depths based on the weight of the sinker and boat speed. He prefers running 1/2- to 2-ounce bead-chain sinkers on board setups.
His favorite presentation in summer is a spinner-crawler rig with a #6 Colorado blade tied on a leader behind a hookless Silver Streak Jr. spoon and fished on a 4- to 7-foot leader behind a bead-chain sinker. The rigs are spread out from the boat with either Church Tackle's XT-22 planer boards or walleye boards with a double-action flag to detect subtle bites and bait stealers. "The added profile of the Silver Streak spoon seems to deter small walleyes and unwanted fish, allowing you to keep your lures in the water longer," he says. "The length of the harness can be critical and depends on water clarity and temperature. We've had success tying the rig as little as a few inches behind the spoon to as much as 4 feet behind it. If strikes occur on the hookless spoon, shorten the leader to get fish focused on the 'crawler. This rig also excels when trolled at speeds up to 2.5 mph with dipsy divers."
Experiment with different blades. Large blades seem to produce well with this setup and don't overpower the flopping action of the spoon. Robertson favors pinks, anti-freeze, and UV schemes on his blades and spoons but changes often based upon conditions and bite rates.
Deep Cranking Green Bay
Regarded as one of the country's finest year-round fisheries, upper Green Bay produces some of the finest trophy walleye fishing during the dog days of summer. Captains Bret Alexander and Max Bornemann team up to put their customers on some of the largest fish of the season during August. As in other Great Lakes, coldwater baitfish such as alewife and smelt vacate the warmer, lower portion of the bay as it heats up in mid-summer and big walleyes follow their migration northward to the deeper and colder upper bay region.
Upper Green Bay is dominated by steep-breaking shorelines with limited islands and offshore reefs. Bornemann says that big mature walleyes in the upper bay are mobile, unlike smaller "eater" walleyes in the lower bay that may relate to mudflats and weedbeds for months at a time. "Trophy walleyes in the upper bay often travel miles in the span of a few days, so anglers have to fish fast and cover lots of water to capitalize on these giants." Alexander says that in the clear waters of upper Green Bay, running 6 to 10 planer boards up to 300 feet off each side of the boat can be critical to both cover water and go undetected by walleyes that spook easily.
With so much water to cover and the limited number of anglers working these waters, planer boards allow Bornemann to run more lines, which is crucial for dialing in color patterns and the depth fish are concentrated. "I use Rapala DHJ-12s, Reef Runner 800s, Bandit Deep Walleye Baits, and Berkley Flicker Minnows," he says. "Crankbaits with large profiles are a must in midsummer to 'match the hatch.' In clear water, prism patterns are standouts, with purples, pinks, and chromes best on sunny days. On cloudy and rough days, natural -colors are best. Experiment with precise hues.
"The biggest mistake I see anglers make is fishing deeper than the depth at which fish are suspended. Active fish tend to be high in the water column, and in clear water, walleyes swim up long distances to hit a lure. When deciding on a spread of lures or when fishing new water, I typically divide the water column into thirds and fish lures in each third of the water column simultaneously. That's a great way to begin -discovering a pattern. I troll at speeds of 1.5 to 2.4 mph, faster than crawler harnesses can be fished effectively."
To locate deep fish, Alexander looks first at reefs topping out in 15 to 20 feet of water with access to 40- to 50-foot depths nearby. Windy conditions are a blessing as they make walleyes less spooky and concentrate baitfish against the windward side of structure. On windy days, he pays attention to underwater points, cups, and troughs where he scans for walleyes and baitfish with his Humminbird's Down Imaging and Side Imaging sonar. Since currents are created near these structural elements, it's critical to note the direction of your trolling pass when you catch a fish. Often one direction produces the most fish, so repeat your trolling passes from the same direction rather than trolling back through the area in the opposite one.
Alexander and Bornemann troll with Abu Garcia 8-foot 6-inch Vendetta Line Counter rods, preferring longer rods to keep line off the water and to minimize boards crisscrossing in big waves. Their soft tips act as shock absorbers when big fish make powerful runs near the boat and to minimize the surging action on boards in waves. They pair the Vendettas with Abu Garcia Alphamar line-counter reels spooled with 14-pound Berkley Trilene XT and use 30-foot 12-pound-test fluorocarbon leaders.
When smaller inland lakes suffer through the dog days of August, walleye fishing on the Great Lakes gets sizzling. Massive schools of trophy fish make predictable migrations from shallow warm water to deeper cool-water locations. Take advantage of these seasonal movements. Ready your spinner rigs, add spoons to your arsenal, and fine-tune your crankbaits for more mid-summer gold. â–
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan, Des Plaines, Illinois, is an exceptional multispecies angler who frequently plies the Great Lakes for trophy fish.