Across the Great Lakes and within many large natural systems and manmade impoundments around the Walleye Belt, summer transitions yield fine fishing for the walleye faithful. Staying on the bite, however, requires a solid understanding of the seasonal migrations and behavioral quirks of the sag-bellied hordes that call such super-size fisheries home.
Tip of the Spear
Captain Gary Zart, proprietor of Blue Dolphin Charters in Brunswick, Ohio, rides the crest of Lake Erie's summertime transitions to connect clients with numbers of trophy walleyes all season. Also a decorated tournament competitor with 20 victories and more than 40 top-10s at Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit, Lake Erie Walleye Trail, and Ohio Walleye Federation events, Zart constantly searches for the hottest bite and biggest fish.
As a result, typical charters with three anglers, a deckhand, and Skipper Zart see 25 to 30 walleyes averaging 8 pounds swing over the rail each day. "It's a riot for the clients," he says. "And quite a few come back for more." Mobility is key to such success, he says, which explains why, rather than pilot a large party vessel based in a single port, he captains a towable 20-foot Starcraft STX 2050. "I'm not tied to one dock," he explains. "I can trailer up and down the shore to stay on top of active schools of big walleyes."
Guiding his quest throughout the summer are two key factors: water temperature and forage abundance. These facets form the foundation of where and how he approaches walleyes on Lake Erie and other Great Lakes fisheries. "Water temp and bait dictate walleye location," he says. "This includes the eastward migration of fish on Erie, and the movement of walleyes from near-shore, relatively shallow structure to deep offshore areas in other fisheries as well."
While Lake Erie's eastbound summertime exodus is well-known in the walleye world, Zart takes things a step further than most anglers and dials in the big bite by targeting schools of the largest fish in the system. It all hinges on what giant walleyes want for dinner. "Walleyes eat a variety of baitfish, including yellow and white perch, shad, and shiners," he says. "But smelt is their favorite, especially for trophy-class fish."
Rainbow smelt are coolwater customers. "We typically see smelt in 50°F to 60ºF water," Zart says. "As western Lake Erie starts to warm, smelt migrate east toward the cool deeper water." He says smelt vacate warming areas in a hurry, often leading the charge of Erie's migratory mix, with the lake's largest walleyes in hot pursuit. "Typically the leading edge of the walleye migration both east and west holds the biggest fish, so if you want to target trophies, that's where you need to be." He says that protein-rich smelt also fuel phenomenal growth rates, and help walleyes replenish body weight after the rigors of reproduction. "A 28-inch fish can get back to 9½ to 10 pounds in a hurry if it's eating smelt," he says.
Understanding this helped him and his son Nicholas score a Cabela's MWC victory out of Huron, Ohio, in May 2013. "We found smelt off Lorain, and that allowed us to catch the right fish to win," he explains. The father-and-son team tallied an impressive 84-pound 13-ounce weight for 10 fish. Zart shrugs at the number, saying the running time to and from the hot zone cut their fishing time down to just a handful of trolling passes each day. "Given a little more time, we could have done better," he says. At that event, the Zarts' go-to tactic was pulling a mix of live nightcrawlers and 6-inch Berkley Gulp! Nightcrawlers on spinner rigs. Hot speeds were .9 to 1.4 mph, with diving planers taking the rigs near bottom in 48 feet of water.
That was May. From late June into July and August, the Zarts fish much deeper. "We typically fish 70 to 80 feet of water," he says. Weighting options include 3-ounce in-line sinkers for fish riding high in the water column, and 1- to 4½-ounce Offshore Tackle Tadpole diving weights or black #001 Luhr-Jensen Dipsy Divers for deeper fish. "Tadpoles are a relatively new option with less flutter and vertical swim than an in-line," Zart says. "They're also easier to control at higher speeds, and maintain greater depths."
Dipsy Divers are relegated to boat rods on 40-pound-test Maxima braid mainline, while in-lines and Tadpoles run behind planer boards on 10-pound mono. With all three options, Zart favors a 12-foot spinner snell of 20-pound fluorocarbon for added stealth. Blades are an obsession. "I must have 7,000 of them," he says. "It's a fun addiction." Top picks include #5 and #6 Colorados, and #4 to #7 willows, along with various hatchets. Colors span the rainbow, from gold, copper, and silver to chartreuse, pink, and white. "Water clarity and sun conditions dictate color, so you need to experiment with a wide assortment," he says.
He cautions not to get so hung up spinning the color wheel that you forget more important factors. "Speed and depth come first," he says, explaining that water temperature dictates speed. "The colder the water, the slower you troll, from .8 to 1 mph in 50ºF water up to 1.8 or 2 mph in 65°F to 70°F. Experiment, increasing speed in increments of .10 mph to find the fastest speed at which you can still catch fish." The depth of the fish, along with water clarity, determine his spinners' running depth. "In clear conditions you can be farther above the fish, but in dirty water, you want to be right in front of their noses — there's no margin for error," he says.
Not all summertime Great Lakes patterns hinge on following migratory walleyes into the abyss. In recent seasons, veteran tournament ace Steve Vande Mark of Linwood, Michigan, has seen a shallow program emerge. In fact, in 2013 it propelled him to a trio of regional tournament wins in the Saginaw Bay area of Lake Huron.
In the Saginaw system, anglers enjoy an influx of migrant main-lake walleyes in the winter and early open-water periods. As the bay water warms after the spawn, many fish begin the outbound journey back to Lake Huron. "They seem to head out in two main schools," Vande Mark says. "One group moves east toward the tip of the thumb, with some fish dropping down toward Lexington. The other follows the west side all the way to Thunder Bay and Alpena.
"There are deep fish, to be sure, but in the past two seasons we've found major schools in the 16- to 25-foot depth range," he continues. "These are better than average fish for the system, too, running 4 to 6 pounds, with some up to 9."
Like Zart, Vande Mark plays the forage card. But his pattern hinges on exotic gobies. "We find big walleyes feeding on gobies all day long in clear, shallow water," he says, noting that the goby buffet plays out on near-shore rocky structure such as points, humps, or reefs.
Much of Vande Mark's success has come along the east shore of Saginaw Bay, but it's worth trying to duplicate anywhere walleyes have access to abundant shallow-water forage. Interestingly, Lake Huron's forage base has been transitioning in recent years, and dips in offshore food options no doubt added fuel to the shallow fire. "We used to have tons of alewives and smelt," says Vande Mark. "Then our baitfish dwindled, but in the last three seasons we're starting to see more clouds on our graphs, and reports indicate they're making a comeback."
Still, the goby bite continues to gain steam. To tap it, Vande Mark trolls minnowbaits such as #10 and #12 Rapala Down Deep Husky Jerks on 10-pound-test Maxima mono at speeds of 1.3 to 1.5 mph. "I don't like burning them," he says, noting that shades of brown are key in color selection. "If you're not running goby colors, you're in for a long day." Given the baits' diving abilities and the relatively shallow depths, no additional weighting is needed. "I use boards to spread lines across the break," he adds. "Letbacks commonly run from 50 to 100 feet. Baits should run just above the rocks — if they're ticking, you end up losing them."
Before deploying his lines, Vande Mark identifies a potential hot spot on his electronic charts, and he recommends making a scouting run over new territory. "You're not looking for fish, because you never mark them in such clear, shallow water," he warns. "You want to plot a course for future trolling passes."
Seasonal migrations at times take twists and turns that run opposite to the classic shallow-to-deep progressions, which adds more options to our summer palette. On Minnesota's famed Mille Lacs Lake, for example, veteran guide Mike Christensen follows walleyes from near-shore haunts in spring out to offshore mud flats and subtle substrate transitions by late June, onto featureless basins in July and early August, then back toward shore around the middle of the month.
"In years with decent baitfish abundance, we see an inward migration in August," he says. "In 2013, it started around August 20. Walleyes begin moving from deep water offshore toward rocky main-lake breaks in 15 to 24 feet. If the fish disappear from your deep-water fishing areas, it's a safe bet they're on the move toward shallower water."
Christensen targets these fish by trolling small crankbaits like a 23„8-inch #3 Lindy River Rocker on leadcore, using a 20-foot leader of 10/4 Berkley FireLine. "Mono leads are fine in deeper water, but superline is important shallow," he says. "It lets you feel the second your bait ticks bottom, which is key because of snags and everything being covered in zebra mussels." Speeds average 2 to 2.5 mph. "Perch-colored lures are always worth fishing, but a splash of extra orange or pink can give you an edge because it stands out from the baitfish," he says.
Zart, Vande Mark, and Christensen's patterns offer collective wisdom to guide your summer walleye quests. Their advice centers on figuring out what walleyes are feeding on, and tailoring your presentations to match.
Charting the Abyss
Nowhere is high-tech mapping more valuable to walleye anglers than on expansive stretches of our inland seas. Along with guiding you to far-flung fishing grounds and back to port, such systems offer a host of features to help you find big-water 'eyes fast.
"High-definition mapping with shaded contour relief helps dissect big bodies of water in a hurry," says veteran guide and national tournament champion Scott Glorvigen. "It allows you to look at a map and quickly have an intuitive feeling of the travel routes or structure fish are using." For example, the shaded relief feature on Lowrance's built-in Insight mapping and Insight HD charts helps him recognize key contours on specific pieces of structure — such as a reef, point, or channel — as well as predict general locational patterns across larger swathes of water and, in some cases, even system-wide.
"Case in point," he says. "I was fishing a tournament on Lake Oahe in South Dakota. The fish had been holding toward the back of creek arms, but when the water level started dropping, they began moving toward the main channel. I used contour shading to highlight the shortest route to deep water, and that's exactly where I found — and caught — big numbers of walleyes. I might not have made that connection just by looking at traditional gradient lines."
Other manufacturers offer helpful options as well. Longtime big-water guide and competitive ace Jon Thelen factors mapping into programs on Lake of the Woods, Devils Lake, Mille Lacs, and other sprawling natural systems. "I run a Humminbird 1199 with a LakeMaster chip, and use the Depth Highlight feature to shade fish-producing areas," he says. "This makes it easy to keep my boat over the right depths and structure, either when using a kicker or the iPilot Link system with my Minn Kota trolling motor. But what's really cool is that I can highlight hot depth ranges, such as 9 to 12 feet of water, and look for similar zones throughout the lake. It's a lot easier to pinpoint the right shelves, breaklines, and other features this way than by studying the contour lines on traditional charts."
Also noteworthy, Humminbird's new ONIX sonar-chartplotter units support the company's SmartStrike software, which scours LakeMaster map data and runs extensive search algorithms based on parameters such as fish species, season, and temperature, to predict top locations.
Envy Black by 13Fishing
- In a few years, 13Fishing has gone from industry upstart to serious tackle contender, offering an array of innovative rod designs. Envy Black is the newest series, sporting sleek looks and new actions. Among 13 casting and 9 spinning models, 'Crankenstein ' is a 7-foot 11-inch heavy-duty caster that fishes light for its size. Featuring a blend of glass and carbon fiber, this big stick matches outsize cranks and manhandles monster bass. Paired with a powerful reel and 12- to 25-pound line, Crankenstein wings plugs a mile, using its length to set hooks in deep water and keep bass pinned for the duration.
Built with J40T Japanese Tory Carbon composite blanks, Envy Black rods offer strength and minimal weight. Radical reel seats and cork grips by Evolve give them a modern, edgy look. Guides are wispy Titanium Black Pearl Recoils that match the cosmetics. Rods have a flexible hook keeper for securing lures, hooks, or drop-shot weights, $225 to $260.
Tactical Bass Rods by Cashion
- Upon receiving his Ph.D in chemistry, Dr. Matthew Cashion combined his flair for material science with an enthusiasm for fishing. His Cashion Fishing Rods are American made, catering to bass and inshore anglers. With a broad offering of tactically specific models, Cashion's Bass Series brings new features to the table. Cashion says the company tried to build a grip that would increase performance without dampening vibration. The high-density carbon fiber composite handle provides sensitivity but won't chip like cork or other materials. And its woven texture increases surface area for a better grip.
Carbon-fiber blanks carry Fuji Microguides for sensitivity and increased casting accuracy and distance. The Cashion F9047b is a 7-foot 4-inch heavy-action rod that's become a favorite for fishing frogs over matted vegetation. Paired with a Shimano Curado 200G spooled with 30-pound Power Pro, the rod's fine-tuned tip allows for intricate walk-the-frog retrieves. The blank and extended split-grip also boast ample leverage and power for winching hawgs from thick grass, $180 to $200.
Invicta Series by CastAway Graphite Rods
- Revitalized with light, powerful blanks and an impressive handle system, CastAway's Invicta rods feature fine-tuned actions built for specific applications. Their cosmetically striking grips were adapted from the golf industry. CastAway President Brett Crawford, previous designer for All-Star rods, added Winn Dry-Tac split golf grips, which retain their somewhat 'sticky ' composition in dry and wet conditions. I've fished the 6-foot 10-inch Spinnerbait model (INV-SBM610) and found the handle among the most comfortable yet. Although seemingly softer than many grips, it provides positive traction in your hand.
According to CastAway general manager, Adam Murray, the interior handle contains dense material that improves bite transmission, while its ALPS TexTouch Triple-Exposed reel seat provides three contact points with the blank for amplified sensitivity. The double-locking aluminum reel hood is another great feature, keeping reels solidly in place.
Invicta rods are made with 40-ton, 12-toe carbon fiber blanks, purported to be among the lightest available. ALPS Bronze SS316 guides have zirconium inserts to reduce line friction and extra hardness to withstand coarse braided lines. A wide range of tactic-driven spinning and casting rods are offered in both fresh- and saltwater models, $250 to $260.
Spiral Wrap Casting Series by Edge Rods
- Designed by Gary Loomis, Edge Spiral Wrap rods feature advanced rolled HM graphite composite blanks and sensitive custom carbon-fiber handles. Spiraled guides give the rod excellent balance and transfer torque across the blank. First used in saltwater to maximize pulling power against big, powerful marine fish, Edge spiral guides also increase casting distance by reducing line contact with the blank and by reducing friction. Weight has been minimized at all points. Nine casting models, $400 to $450.
HMG & Aetos by Fenwick
- In the 1970s, an exciting new material caught the imagination of rod designers. This material — graphite — was lighter, stronger, and stiffer than fiberglass. Fenwick became the first rod manufacturer to introduce an all-graphite fishing rod, the famous HMG. In 2013, the HMG is reborn, with a proprietary handle design that is more durable and tackier than traditional cork. Unlike conventional cork, the TAC handle material provides a solid grip when wet. Carbon Bound blanks are spiraled with carbon thread for strength and precise action. Titanium guides are ultra-lightweight and deep pressed to help eliminate pop-out and enhance durability. Comes in 17 spinning and 6 casting models, $99 to $109.
Striking blue Aetos rods are the lightest Fenwicks ever made. Twenty-six artfully crafted rods (13 casting and 13 spinning) sport TAC handles, Fuji 5K reel seats, and lightweight and strong Ti titanium frame guides. $179.
NRX Bass by G. Loomis
- Proprietary NRX technology has allowed G. Loomis to build this bass-focused series with less material and weight, and with higher modulus blanks than ever before. Communications Director Bruce Holt says NRX rods employ light Recoil guides on the tip for precision and distance, and larger Fuji SiC Titanium guides in lower section to reduce noise and friction with lines of all sorts.
Two new series augment the proven NRX line, including Mag Bass and Umbrella Rig rods. Six Mag Bass models have fast-action, magnum-taper blanks for presenting lighter jigs and soft plastics. Rated for 6- to 12-pound test, the 7-foot 842S is a delightful tool for fishing shaky heads and heavier drop-shot rigs. Mag Bass rods retail for $525.
Holt reports that two new Umbrella Rig rods have softer tips that allow heavy rigs or swimbaits to load the blank, limiting backlashes. These rods also have extra power and stiffness in the butt to control big lures, as well as big, powerful fish. Both 7-foot 7-inch casting rods are rated for 50- to 80-pound braid and 3- to 8-ounce lures, $650.
Helium 3 by Kistler
- Founded 14 years ago by Trey Kistler, who learned the craft from his father Billy Kistler, former owner and designer for CastAway and All-Star Rods. This year, the company is honoring the tenth anniversary of its flagship Helium series, unveiling the new Helium 3. American made high-modulus graphite blanks have been chosen by Kistler and fine-tuned by Gary Loomis and his team of rod builders at North Fork Composites. The rod reflects what Kistler calls a 'raw carbon look. ' It's unlacquered exterior is polished instead of colored and coated, and which reduces weight and bolsters the blank's responsiveness. Helium 3 rods have Fuji tangle free K-frame Alconite rings and a patent pending stainless-steel hook hanger. A lineup of over 50 models highlight this series, finished with either a split-grip cork or traditional cork handle and a Fuji reel seat, $250 to $290.
ARMS Paraizo by Megabass
- Yuki Ito founded Megabass Japan in 1985, and by 1997, when Megabass USA came into being, the company had built an almost mystical reputation for innovative lures and rods. ARMS is the culmination of Ito's rod design ideology, with origins in martial arts, with arms used in battle.
If that sounds ethereal it's meant to. With a G-note price tag, a little implied magic goes a long way. And as any angling conjurer knows, a fine wand begins with a beautifully built handle. Custom carved from red maple, the ARMS Ergonomic Natural Wood Gripping Handle can be custom ordered to fit your hand. The reel seat, too, is an object of intrigue, constructed with 'Triple Spiral Bone Architecture. ' Made of three skeletal aluminum monocoque frames that are center-wrapped over the rod's blank, the reel seat transmits vibration especially well.
Built around Hi-Impact Multiplex graphite blanks, ARMS rods provide exceptional power-to-weight ratios. Blanks are ultra slim for minimal heft, yet operate with surprising strength and torque. Fuji SiC Titanium Frame Guides use ARMS Tight Wrapping Thread to maximize blank action and casting distance. Cosmetically and functionally, the 6-foot 5-inch ARMS Paraizo is impressive. Rated medium fast, medium power, this extreme rod matches 10- to 25-pound test, [imo-slideshow gallery=148],000.
Destroyer X7 by Megabass
- Megabass retooled its Destroyer series, the company's most popular high-end rod, adding cosmetic touches. Destroyer X7 has a durable carbon cross-weave that envelops the blank, adding strength and durability. Engineered by Ito's design team, Yoloy is a new high-torque, elastic overlay that protects the rod's 7 axis micro-fiber blank.
Beyond exotic graphics and technologies, the rod's Super Metacompo Stealth Reel Seat minimizes bulk and weight. Its skeletal structure locks the reel to the blank to maximize ergonomics and bite transmission. Available in 12 casting models with split cork or EVA, Destroyer X7s carry such names as Diablo Fastmove (for fast crankbait retrieves) and Western Flip, around $500.
Cumara by Shimano
- Rebuilt from tip to handle, Cumara rods wear a metallic red facade over light and sensitive HM-1 carbon blanks. Cumara bass rods have Fuji's new KR-Concept guide train, a combination of micro guides in the top section and standard guides in the lower half to optimize casting performance, as well as hook-sets and lifting power. A sleek, minimalist handle and split grip use shaped EVA and a custom Shimano reel seat.
When you grip one, such as the Medium Drop Shot (CUSDX72MA), you get maximum blank exposure and contact with the rod. This 7-foot 2-inch rod fishes with medium power and extra-fast action. Its semisoft tip is exceptional for working dainty drop-shot baits and keeping big fish pinned. I pair this rod with 6-pound mono and it stays in my rod locker all season. Cumara's lineup of technique-driven models include 20 casting and 10 spinning rods. Tactical matches range from Shakey Head Spinning to Punching and Umbrella Rig Casting, $250 to $260.
LegendXtreme by St. Croix Rods
- In back to back years, the LegendXtreme series has taken Best in Show honors at ICAST, the freshwater version in 2012 for Freshwater Rod, while its Inshore counterpart won in Saltwater Rods in 2013. According to St. Croix Promotions Manager Rich Belanger, designing and building the Xtreme series has required more time and energy than any other rod they've produced.
It's hard to miss LegendXtreme's handle. Belanger says that at St. Croix's factory, an entire temperature and humidity controlled room has been set aside for building the Xtreme Skin handle. This design, he explains, is so intricate that it takes nearly six days to build one. 'We found a rigid handle material that perfectly matches the angler's hand and the way they grip the rod. It's machine under-laid with a rigid polymer that transmits the slightest signals from lures and fish. ' When wet, it grips, forming a somewhat tacky surface that gently adheres to your hand.
'We worked with a team of engineers to conceptualize the rod using 3-D computer models. We designed each component on screen, built complete models that our product team evaluated and fished, and eventually came to a consensus. ' Three other St. Croix technologies give the rod blank a light feel and fine fishability. Integrated Poly Curve tooling smoothes its action, eliminating any inconsistencies in the blank. Taper Enhancement Technology boosts sensitivity, while Advanced Reinforcing Technology improves hoop strength, preventing the rod from ovaling under severe loads, such as a powerful hook-set.
LegendXtreme blanks feature high-modulus/high-strain SCV graphite built with a carbon-matte scrim for strength, durability, and sensitivity. Fuji K-R Concept Tangle Free guides with SiC Titanium rings work seamlessly with braid, mono, and fluorocarbon. The sloped guide frames shed tangles before they become a problem. Casting rods feature extra micro guides, which maximize line-to-blank sensitivity, minimize tip mass, and improve performance, $340 to $420.