Trends in Great Lake Walleyes
April 01, 2017
Anglers go to the Great Lakes to be spoiled. They're a wonderland where diligent anglers are rewarded with limit catches on a daily basis. And what constitutes a trophy walleye from inland waters is commonplace on these fisheries: 10-pounders routine and even 12s don't garner great fanfare. It takes something pushing 14 pounds to turn heads. Best of all, this exceptional fishing lasts the entire open-water season for anglers who learn to spread lines, cover water quickly, and use tactics from the best captains on the Great Lakes.
Lake Michigan: Upper Green Bay
Walleye fishing on Green Bay is as good as it's ever been. Numbers are strong and trophy fish can be targeted through August. During late summer, coldwater baitfish, such as alewives and smelt, vacate the lower portion of the bay and big walleyes follow their migration northward to the deeper and colder waters of upper Green Bay.
Here captains Bret Alexander and Max Bornemann work as a team to stay on top of highly mobile schools of mature walleyes in the upper Bay. "Unlike smaller 'eater' fish in the lower Bay that relate to mudflats and weedbeds for months at a time, trophy walleyes in the upper Bay often travel miles in a matter of days," Bornemann explains. "So anglers need to fish fast and cover water to capitalize on these roaming giants."
To avoid spooking fish in the clear waters north of Sturgeon Bay, they run deep-diving minnowbaits on in-line planer boards far from the boat. Bornemann says that running more lines helps to dial in productive color patterns and the depth where fish are concentrated. "My crankbaits of choice include Rapala DHJ-12s, Bandit Deep Walleye Baits, Bagley Rumble Bs, and Berkley Flicker Minnows. These baits have large profiles to match baitfish in late summer. The biggest mistake anglers make is fishing deeper than the fish. Active walleyes hold higher in the water column, and in clear water, they swim up to hit a lure. When deciding on a spread of lures or when fishing new water, I divide the water column into thirds and place lures in each third. This is a great way to begin figuring out a pattern. I troll at 1.5 to 2.4 mph to cover water faster than other popular presentations such as crawler harnesses."
To locate deep walleyes, Captain Alexander looks first at reefs topping out in 15 to 20 feet of water with access to 40 to 50 feet. Windy conditions are helpful as they make fish less skittish and also concentrate baitfish against the windward side of the structure. "During windy days," Alexander says, "pay particular attention to underwater points, cups, and troughs that can be scanned quickly with Humminbird's Down-Imaging and Side-Imaging sonar. Since currents are created by these structural elements, it's critical to pay attention to the direction of your trolling pass when you catch fish. Often, one direction outproduces the other by a wide margin. Anglers should pull lines in at the end of a successful trolling pass to repeat it from the same direction, instead of running the same trolling pass in the opposite direction."
Lake Ontario: Bay of Quinte
There is no place better on the Great Lakes to target 14-pound-class walleyes than Bay of Quinte in fall, and there's no better captain than Tom Gustar. He's been putting clients on personal-best walleyes for decades and has fashioned a system to maximize his odds at landing trophy fish each time out.
"What sets Quinte apart is that it has a resident population and a migratory population of walleyes, and each behaves differently," Gustar says. "A look at a map helps illustrate the dynamics of each of these groups. The Bay of Quinte is basically an estuary, consisting of a river basin conglomerate, which dumps into Lake Ontario. The migratory population of walleye leaves Quinte for Lake Ontario after the spring spawn and returns in fall, so October through the end of the year is the best time to catch the walleye of a lifetime."
Quinte, along with the West and East Kingston basins, offers plenty of great structure for fall trolling, but Gustar favors Adolphus Reach. This is partly because anglers are permitted to use two rods per person. More importantly, it serves as an entry point for migrating fish returning in fall.
Here he trolls large deep-diving minnowbaits such as Mann's Stretch 20s, Reef Runners, and Rapala Taildancers on 20-pound monofilament. "Anything with purple gets my vote," Gustar says. "But mylar mirrored-clear baits are deadly on bright sunny days. I troll them fast, around 3 mph.
"Trolling is math. More speed equals more water coverage in a given period, increasing your potential to contact fish. My approach is go fast first and slow down if necessary. Speed variation can be a game changer as well. Throttle bursts and stall-outs are sometimes exceptional for initiating strikes."
Depth placement of lures is more important than color in Gustar's opinion. Since Adolphus Reach has water depths to 245 feet, walleyes can move below a safe catch-and-release range. "But don't ignore the top 20 feet of the water column," he adds. "It's counterintuitive to fish high over deep water, but walleyes often hold high in the water column, even over such depths. Leads of 20, 30, and 40 feet behind planer boards can produce when nothing else does. Frequent changes of depth in your presentation can be important. Pay attention to your electronics and know the running depths of lures in your spread."
Since Quinte gets heavy boat traffic in fall, it can be tempting to follow the pack. Instead, Gustar suggests finding a small group of fish away from the crowd and marking them with GPS. "These are migratory fish so they move constantly. Often, I've spent the entire morning looking for a pod of fish and then caught 10 to 20 in a quarter mile square grid."
Lake Huron: Saginaw Bay
Captain Mike Veine has more than 25 years experience targeting walleyes on the Great Lakes. He exclusively fishes Lake Huron during the summer for walleye, and notes that the bite happens like clockwork.
"Each July as inner Saginaw Bay warms, hordes of walleyes migrate northward toward the deeper portions of the Bay. Here they concentrate to feed on emerging midge, mayfly, and other insect larvae as well as shiners. These walleyes are feeding tight to the bottom on insect larvae so I run bottom bouncers with spinner/crawler rigs. I prefer 3- to 4-ounce weights to stir up silt and dislodge bugs. This turns on the walleyes and generates strikes. Heavy bouncers also allow me to troll faster and show lures to the most fish."
Veine's favorite spinner pattern consists of six red beads and a #3 plain chrome Colorado blade with two #6 baitholder hooks spaced two inches apart. The harnesses are 4 to 5 inches long and tied using 25-pound-test Berkley fluorocarbon leader. He uses only half crawlers on these rigs to guard against short-striking fish. His typical spinner trolling spread consists of 8 rods — 6 with planer boards and 2 flatlines fished off the gunnels behind the boat. Flatlines allow him to periodically feel the bottom and adjust his speed to maintain bottom contact with all lines.
He notes that water temperature dictates both the location and feeding habits of walleyes. As the water warms in the lower Bay in August and insect hatches diminish, massive schools of walleyes vacate the mudflats. These fish transition to the reefs that run from the south end of the bay to the Charity Islands. "This area features a bottom consisting of marl, gravel, and rock," Veine says. "Walleyes feed mainly on shiners here and can be caught on a variety of lures, including fast-action crankbaits like Storm Hot N' Tots, Berkley Flicker Shads, and Bagley Balsa Shads. Fast trolling speeds are necessary to reduce bites from sheepshead and catfish. I usually go no slower than 2 mph in this area."
During warm-water years, he's quicker to abandon the lower portion of Saginaw Bay for the Charity Island area, and he takes advantage of this world-class trolling fishery to target suspended summer walleyes over depths of 40 to 100 feet or more. Big flashy spinner/crawler rigs with #6 and #7 blades help attract fish from a distance in this clear, deep water. His suspended walleye harnesses have two #8 trebles for better hooking and holding percentages. He fishes the rig behind a 1- to 3-ounce in-line weight. He prefers whole 'crawlers for this application and slows his trolling speed to 1 to 1.5 mph. As summer ends and water temperatures cool, walleyes migrate back to the inner part of the Bay and a fantastic stickbait bite continues until ice-up.
Lake Erie: Central Basin
To cash in on Lake Erie's incredible summer fishery, Captain Ross Robertson uses his tournament experience to stay away from the crowds and find overlooked pods of active fish. He uses large spinner rigs, which tend to reduce bites from sheepshead and white perch. During summer, he focuses on schools of walleyes from 26 to 32 inches. These big fish are more temperature sensitive than smaller ones. They regularly migrate more than 100 miles from their spring spawning grounds in the Western Basin to the deep cooler waters of the Central Basin in summer, then back again in fall. To find these open-water feeders that pursue schools of rainbow smelt, Robertson relies upon his Humminbird ONIX8ci SI Combo sonar unit with side-imaging to scan large sections of water at high speed. And he employs several systems to get spoon and spinner rigs to a desired depth, including jet divers, Dipsy Divers, and in-line bead chain sinkers.
His favorite summer setup is a standard spinner/'crawler rig with a #6 Colorado blade tied on a leader behind a hookless Silver Streak Jr. spoon, fished on a 4- to 8-foot leader behind a 1/2- to 2-ounce bead chain sinker. He spreads the rigs out from the boat with either Church'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 smaller walleyes and non-target species," he says, "so we keep lures in the water longer. The length of the harness can be critical and should be adjusted based upon water clarity and temperature.
"We've had success tying the rig just a few inches behind the spoon to as much as four feet behind it. If strikes occur on the hookless spoon, shorten the leader to get fish focused on the 'crawler. This spoon rig also excels when trolled at speeds up to 2.5 mph with Dipsy Divers."
Experiment with blades as you would with any spinner rig. Surprisingly, large blades seem to produce well with this setup and don't overpower the action of the spoon. For color, Robertson favors pinks, anti-freeze, and UV schemes on his blades and spoons but changes regularly based upon conditions and bite rates.
Lake Superior's walleye fishing can be excellent in discrete areas, and is primarily concentrated on near-shore structures of the North Shore, St. Louis River, and Chequamegon Bay regions. It involves livebait and casting techniques customarily used in inland settings, in contrast to the specialized offshore techniques.
Relying on the advice of these fine Great Lakes captains, the prospect of targeting big-water walleyes becomes less imposing. To become a better big-water angler, master depth control of lures and take a logical approach to quickly cover water and find fish, based upon their seasonal migrations.