Lake Erie produces trophy walleyes and in good quantity. Predictable, she is not, as yesterday's wisdom is often lost in today's changing conditions.
With summer comes heat, rising water temperatures, and quirky walleyes that take off after baitfish to distant waters. Anglers can wander aimlessly searching big water for a needle in a haystack — or they can dial in. Western- and central-basin captains Ross Robertson and Paul Powis and eastern-basin ace Dave Malloy shared years of success and frustration to reach the point of knowledge where the walleyes they target are less likely to be here today and gone tomorrow.
Robertson has clients who have traveled from Australia, Prague, Czech Republic, across the U.S., and Canada. Why they choose to spend their time on Erie with him is simple. "If you know enough to be able to transition from the western to the eastern basin, you can catch fish year-round," Robertson says.
During the summer, he targets the central basin primarily unless it's an unseasonably warm summer and walleyes move toward the border of the eastern basin into Pennsylvania. With Port Clinton as home base, he can trailer to multiple ports and strategically use the islands to knock down larger waves into more fishable 4-footers.
"In the eastern basin, come July, the fish start east and move west into deeper waters," Malloy says. Starting in 70 to 80 feet of water is typical but by August, they could be holding over water as deep as 100 with most holding in 82 to 84 feet and down about 70 feet. Anglers are wise to seek the weather buoy 8 miles straight out of Port Colborne. "Just west of the marker, there's a long hump and fishing is good on either side of it. As summer goes on, fish west of the marker 3 or 4 miles and then troll back toward it," Malloy says. If you were to walk into Erie Tracker Outfitters, he'd point to the map on the wall and tell you to fish the stamped compass located north of Morgan's Point and look for the hump.
Baitfish, Temperature & Current
"If you follow baitfish you're going to find walleyes," Robertson says. Both he and Powis comb the western basin, albeit from opposite shores, but they know that once water warms, baitfish push deep and so do walleyes. Walleyes can get their fill of smelt, which Powis matches with his lures, and emerald shiners, gizzard shad, gobies, perch, or a plethora of forage. "Fish want a certain temperature and bait and if it's all in one spot they aren't going to leave to go looking for it," Robertson says.
Limits keep clients happy, but Robertson doesn't strike me as an underachiever. "Trophy fish — 26 inches or larger — seem to eat and chase nomadic schools of baitfish. The farther east they go, the deeper they go because they're looking for cooler water and the water there is cleaner so there's more light penetration," he says.
Few anglers take into account the current that flows through Lake Erie. "In Lake Erie water comes in at St. Clair and leaves at the Niagara River," Powis says. "A biologist in Ohio told me that Erie is actually more of a river than a lake because it has a constant west to east flow. People drown every year because they don't realize how much current is out there," Robertson says. "The current is very misunderstood."
By using a Fish Hawk, a speed and temperature probe that can be mounted to a cannonball, much of the guesswork is eliminated. "Without a Fish Hawk you're trolling blind," Robertson says. He notices that the temperature can change 15 to 20 degrees overnight because the wind and currents changed, causing baitfish to move.
Powis, a veteran guide out of Erieau, Ontario, has witnessed a 1.5- to 2-mph difference in speed between the GPS feet-over-ground reading on the surface and the downrigger ball. "Erie has raging current in the central basin," he says. "You can have a southwest wind blowing hard but you have an east-west current pushing against it." This explains why some anglers only get bites when trolling in one direction. Current can alter speed at the ball and the running depth of lures. Equally important is dialing in your electronics and transducer placement.
"My best technique is running at 20 to 25 mph and marking fish and bait with my Humminbird Helix 12 while running 2D sonar. I have my transducer set up right," Robertson says. As Lake Erie can be ultra clear, walleyes can see a long way and "spook out" at low speeds. He finds walleyes can't swim fast enough to get out of the cone when you're searching at 20 to 25 mph.
"If you've ever seen an arch that takes up half the screen and looks like an upside down 'V,' it's typically followed by an orange and red thick center followed by thin light blue 'tails' on each end," he says. "The thin tails are fish marked at the edge of the cone. The thick orange and red marks are directly below the boat. When you see half arches with one thin blue tail you've likely marked a fish that has spooked from under the boat." When he spots those tails, Robertson expects them to be 7- to 9-pound fish. Smaller fish won't produce that significant a return, especially in deep water.
Malloy increases the sensitivity on his Lowrance units until he can see his rigger balls on the screen. If he can't, he manually tilts the transducer until they register. "I want to see my cannonball because walleyes often chase it. In all the tournaments I've won, we'd see fish following a ball, and I've seen up to 5 or 6 walleyes on the screen chasing the cannonball. That's when we shorten the leads to 5 or 6 feet and catch them," he says.
He also pauses the outboard in neutral for 15 to 20 seconds and lets his rigs sag before surging forward, which triggers bites. Similar logic applies when he slows his boat to 1.2 mph from 1.8 while landing a fish — rods go off once he throttles up.
Powis and Malloy use Cannon dual access rod holders rigged on a track to be able to stack multiple rods on each side of the boat and offer optimum coverage throughout the water column. Downriggers are a bonus. "It could be a planer-board rod holder program, in-line or big ski boards, or you can drop it down and turn it into a dipsy rod holder. Then, when you're on the run, you can leave them pointing up," Powis says. Bert's Custom Tackle Swivel Trees and Riser Rod holders are mounted to the gunnel of Robertson's Ranger Fisherman 621.
For rods, Robertson favors an 8-foot 5-inch Great Lakes rod he designed for Clam, with just enough backbone and the perfect bend. Malloy prefers 8-foot 6-inch medium-power Shimano Talora rods for boards and Berkley Workhorse 9-foot medium-heavy rods when running Dipsy Divers. Powis leans on 7-foot medium-power Shimano Talora rods in specific actions. "I have older guys and kids as clients that can't handle 10-foot rods," he says.
Malloy sells a lot of Okuma Magda and Vector reels, Daiwa Sealines, and Shimano Tekota 500 and 600 series line-counter reels, which he uses. He spools most of those with 30-pound Power Pro and Sufix braid. Powis uses different colored Power-Pro, with a rod length of 20-pound fluorocarbon leader to avoid tangles and stay organized during multiple hookups.
Robertson says few anglers are aware that their line-counters might not be properly calibrated. Line-counters are based on revolutions. If you spool 30-pound mono or a different diameter line, or have different amounts of line on the reel, they read differently. He suggests anglers fix their line to a solid object, walk out 100 feet, then measure with a survey tape. Once you get an accurate reading, you know how to compensate when setting up your lines.
Worm harnesses pass with the highest grade. "Spinners paid for my house," Robertson jokes. "Day-in and day-out they are more consistent." He ties his own harnesses with blades from Silver Streak Fishing Lures in UV and translucent colors. Colorado blades dominate when trolling under 1.8 mph and willowleaf blades when moving quicker.
Malloy ties his own harnesses, too. "For years, no one believed me that my best harness had a red blade and a black blade with matching beads. I've won the Lake Erie Can-Am tournament five times with that harness. I would tell everybody and they thought I was lying."
Crankbaits also are part of the program. Malloy legally runs two rods per person, and stacks lures through the water column in a variety of colors and styles. Once a pattern is found, he switches everything over. The Rapala Tail Dancer, Bomber Long A, and AC Shiner all have their place, but the Renosky Crystalina is king. It outsells all stickbaits in his shop 10 to 1.
Powis prefers deep-diving Livetarget cranks that represent the smelt he's trying to emulate. He uses leadcore line and snapweights to get them to dive as deep as 30 to 45 feet. He also runs spoons, smaller ones early in the season and switching to mag-sized Silver Streak spoons in August that he fishes behind two colors of segmented leadcore line. Copper-backed spoons, like the Jerry Lee pattern, are his top choices but he never shies away from a gaudy-looking spoon. He prefers treble hooks over siwash for keeping walleyes pinned, due to their soft mouths.
Robertson considers flat water to be prime Reef Runner territory, especially in finesse situations. Reef Runners in the original 800 series and Deep Little Ripper, either flatlined on a planer board, with a snapweight added or fished on wire, all work. In clear water, bare-naked or transparent colors work best while metallic patterns produce otherwise.
Getting lures far from the boat is imperative. Robertson prefers Church Tackle TX22 in-line boards with a flag system. If he's running snapweights, he adds 3 to 4 ounces and gets baits down and away from the boat. It's common to run outside boards between 150 to 200 feet from the boat, especially when targeting larger fish. Outside boards should always have the longest lead with the lead decreasing as lines run closer to the boat.
If fish are shallow, smaller Luhr Jensen Dipsy Divers known as "cookies" set to 3 and 1.5, leadcore line, and shallow Luhr Jensen Jet Divers are all viable options.
Malloy has found that while big walleyes can be deep, they also can hold in the upper part of the water column. "We often run a 10 jet on the shallow set on an outside board when fishing deep water and catch some of our biggest fish out there," he says. He's witnessed walleyes gorging on shiners at the surface over deep water under calm conditions. In July, he uses a mix of Dipsy Divers and jets, but come August, it's all Dipsy Divers. The farthest Dipsy is set at 210 feet, the next at 150 feet, the closest being 80 feet, with 0s right out the back.
When fish are deeper, full-size Dipsy Divers set at 3 on the outside, 1.5 on the inside, and 0 running directly behind the boat produce on long leads. Robertson recalls a day where running 15-foot leaders off his Dipsy Divers out-produced a traditional 8- or 10-foot leader by 10 to 1.
Malloy is big on the rigger program. He favors a black ball but experiments with Dipsy colors until fish show a preference. Cracked ice is a favorite, but black, watermelon, nuclear green, nuclear pink, copper, and silver all have their place. Running deeper jets is an option as is leadcore line, while snapweights can be key for Robertson's success
Way behind the boat, Robertson runs the Church Tackle Stern Planer Board TX-007 that he likens to a big non-directional snow cone. He lets out 150 feet of line with his hottest lure tied on, knowing that once that rod goes off it's like hooking a truck.
These experts stress the need to monitor and maintain proper trolling speed. While 1.8 mph seemed to be the norm, dropping down to 1.5 and speeding up to 2 mph can trigger bites. When faced with wind, they agree that trolling with the waves and adjusting speed is best to present lures accurately and consistently. They say walleyes swim into the direction of the prevailing wind.
"Even a bad day on Lake Erie is a good day everywhere else," Robertson says. Lake Erie is chock full of monster walleyes and good eaters, too. Respect the wind and have your gear in top working order. Nothing beats solving tricky summer walleyes.