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Walleye Week: The Walleye Storm Before the Calm

Timing and fishing the summer peak.

Walleye Week: The Walleye Storm Before the Calm

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Like most good things in life, the Summer Peak Period for walleyes is frustratingly short, typically lasting only a couple weeks. But the fishing is so good that you don’t ever want to miss it—or see it come to an end.

Sandwiched between the Presummer Period, when the walleyes are recovering from the spawn and regaining their vigor, and the long Summer Period, when they’ve dispersed throughout the lake and settled into stable locations, depths, and patterns, the Summer Peak Period is characterized by rapidly warming water, vibrant weedgrowth, exceptional insect and baitfish activity, and a voracious shallow-water bite that carries on throughout the day, peaking in a Pavarotti-like evening crescendo that brings the house down. As In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange likes to say, “The summer peak is the walleye storm before the calm.”

Unfortunately, though, being transitory in nature means that it’s also unpredictable in terms of precise timing from one year to the next. It happens when it happens. But that doesn’t mean you can’t read the tea leaves to know it’s time to drop everything and get out on the water.

Summer Peak Signals

“I’m looking for lush green weeds,” says Ted Takasaki, “and water temperatures that have settled in the low to mid-60s. When I see those things, walleyes generally tell me that the summer peak is underway by crushing aggressively presented baits and lures.”

Weeds are the key for Dylan Nussbaum, too, who, at 20 years of age became the youngest angler ever to win a National Walleye Tour event. “The Kinzua Reservoir, also known as the Allegheny Reservoir, is my home water,” says the Pennsylvania pro, “and you start to see the walleyes firing in new weedgrowth, on gradual sloping flats with gravel patches, and on muddy windblown shorelines. The action typically stays great for two or three weeks.”

The lilac bloom, on the other hand, signals Jason Mitchell to take advantage of the hot summer peak walleye bite in the Midwest. He says most years it occurs around the end of May, after the water temperature has climbed rapidly into the same low- to mid-60°F range that gets Takasaki excited.

Like Mitchell, my driveway is bordered by purple and white lilac bushes and when the air is pungent with the blossoms, I know that smallmouths are starting to nest in Lake of the Woods, black crappies are snapping in Rainy Lake,  and the summer-peak walleye bite is underway across northwestern Ontario. In early spring years, it happens in mid-May, normal years at the end of the month, and late-spring seasons during the first week of June. Forget about looking at the calendar—simply smell the roses, or in the case of summer-peak walleyes, the lilacs.

Shallow, Fast, and Furious

Because the walleye bite is often demanding during less stellar calendar periods, many anglers assume the worst and start fishing every day around deep structure and cover, using slow-moving finesse presentations that rely heavily on livebait. But it’s rarely the best strategy during the summer peak.

“A lot of things work at this time of year, including trolling and casting crankbaits,” Mitchell says. “It depends on the specific body of water that I’m fishing, but I really like swimbaits and paddletails on prairie-type lakes.

A smiling angler holding a large walleye in a boat on a lake.
Jason Mitchell likes pitching paddletail swimbaits for summer-peak walleyes on prairie lakes.

“I remember fishing the summer peak for walleyes in new feeder lakes that are connected to Devils Lake. As Devils Lake kept growing, it flooded and connected a lot of shallow wetlands. At first, these wetlands were full of small pike, but as the wetlands grew bigger and deeper, we speculated that there were walleyes in them. At first, we started catching walleyes in these lakes through the ice, but then we began exploring in our boats.

“The fishing reminded me of what you would expect on a high-end fly-in fishing trip to Canada—huge numbers of stupid and aggressive walleyes that were often over 25 inches in length. The fishing was so incredible that we would anchor in one spot and catch over 30 fish without moving the boat. We caught so many walleyes that I quit using lures with treble hooks so I could release the fish faster and save my hands from getting cut up so badly. I would rig my clients up with a big swimbait and have them cast and retrieve it along shallow weededges. I would also typically tie on a 2-foot-long, 30-pound-test titanium leader so I could grab it with gloves and shake off the walleyes because we were catching so many fish. I felt like a commercial fishing operator out on the ocean.”

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In the Vegetation

Like Mitchell, Takasaki is enamored by the explosion of fresh weedgrowth that occurs during the summer peak, when his go-to presentation many days is pulling a ‘crawler harness behind a bottom bouncer at 1 to 1.5 mph. “I love it when the weeds form a distinct breakline in 10 to 15 feet of water, the 1998 PWT Classic Champion says. “But if you’re getting hung up and it’s difficult to get the bouncer through the vegetation, switch to a bullet weight. I’ll also pull shallow running cranks over the tops of the weeds. And on a really good weedline, I’ll stop and toss a jig tipped with a minnow or leech into the pockets.”

Having several rods rigged is Nussbaum’s summer-peak game plan as well, because he says you can catch fish so many different ways. But his favorite presentation, especially when he finds a big pod of fish, is casting an aggressive bait like a #9 Jigging Rap or Z-Man Scented Jerk ShadZ on a 3/8-ounce VMC jig.

“I fished a walleye tournament on Kinzua this past June with a younger angler (Ethan) from the area and the day started out tough for us,” Nussbaum says. “We only stopped for a few minutes at a couple of spots because we couldn’t locate anything on the fishfinder. After graphing for nearly three hours, we came across a mega school of walleyes on a wind-blown gravel and mud shoreline. My Lowrance StructureScan lit up with fish and I said to Ethan, “If these are walleyes, we just won the tournament.

“I had the boat in 8 feet of water and we were casting up into 5 feet. I was throwing a #9 Rapala Jigging Rap on a 6-foot 8-inch medium-fast-action KastKing rod paired with a Sharky III 2000-size spinning reel. Ethan was pitching a Z-Man Scented Jerk ShadZ and we put 9 pounds of walleyes into the boat pretty quick, which is a good limit on Kinzua. The key to presenting the Jerk ShadZ is developing a popping cadence. I like to hold my rod high, pop the lure up 6 to 12 inches and then let it pendulum to the bottom. I let it sit there for a couple of seconds and then pop it up again.

“After we caught 25 or so fish doing this, they got a little spooked, so I moved down the shoreline and found another mega school about 100 yards away. In three casts, we caught a 20-, 21.5-, and 23.5-inch walleye to jump us up to nearly 13 pounds and enough to win the tournament.”

An angler in a boat holding up a jig.
One of Nussbaum’s favorite presentations is an aggressive bait like a #9 Jigging Rap or a Z-Man Scented Jerk ShadZ on a 3/8-ounce VMC jig.

Jungle Warfare

The most memorable summer-peak walleye bite I’ve ever seen unfold came courtesy of southern Ontario magician, Frank Pugelj, who pitched a bucktail jig into thick weeds. I still wonder if what I witnessed was real.

Pugelj has won three Can/Am Walleye Championships in the weed-choked waters of the Kawartha Lakes, where the tournament is held each spring during the Summer Peak Period. “I don’t care where I’m fishing,” Pugelj says, “I’ll catch walleyes in the weeds.”

He says milfoil harbors the biggest walleyes, while coontail and cabbage cough out larger numbers of small and medium-size fish. He also searches far and wide for weeds growing in water that resemble a cup of coffee. “If I can see down 2 feet, it’s too clear, so I’ll keep searching for darker conditions,” he says.

When he finds it, he hunts for clumps of vegetation growing in ever-so-slightly deeper pockets of water. We’re only talking about 8 to 12 inches of extra depth, but Pugelj says these spots-on-the-spot are so superior, he never forgets where they’re located. “The hole may be only 20 or 30 feet in diameter, but it draws walleyes back year after year during the summer peak,” he says.

Black Magic Bucktail

Pugelj mines the golden pockets with a black bucktail jig that he attaches to a short 5-foot 3-inch to 6-foot 3-inch extra-heavy-power baitcasting rod that he fashions from a much longer muskie stick, cutting off the end. “If your rod tip is the least bit flimsy you can’t rip a bucktail properly, he says. “You won’t feel a walleye hit it, either. I’ve tried all kinds of different rod actions and the stiffer the better.”

Spooling his baitcaster with 20-pound-test, moss-green-colored Power Pro braid (30-pound when he’s mining trophy-size walleyes), Pugelj never uses a leader. He ties direct and insists it produces the ideal glide for the 1/4- to 3/8-ounce black bucktail jigs he uses. “I always use a dark-colored bucktail jig when I’m fishing for walleyes in dark-bottomed holes,” he says. “Black and red and black and green are my two favorite combinations, but any color works as long as it’s primarily black.”

Standing at the front of the boat, his foot on the trolling motor, Pugelj pitches his bucktail into every pocket in the weeds. As soon as the jig touches the bottom, he rips it up. Occasionally, he lets the hair jig fall back down, but more often than not, he reels in the lure and pitches it quickly to the next opening in the grass.

On windy days, he works into the wind, using a heavier 3/8-ounce bucktail jig, and makes short precise pitches to specific pockets. Fishing this way prevents the line from billowing, allows the jig to drop straight down, and lets you achieve maximum depth and speed control.

“Walleyes hammer a bucktail,” Pugelj says. “You can’t rip it fast enough, but at times times you need to be more precise and move it more slowly. The fish are always there. You just have to adjust.”

A smiling angler holding a large walleye in a boat.
Dylan Nussbaum says new vegetation growth sets off a hot summer-peak walleye bite in his home waters.

Vicious Vengeance

Because my northwestern Ontario Shield weed waters are much sparser than those growing in Pugelj’s fertile neck of the woods, I’ve taken his advice to slow down and pick apart the outside edges using more standard walleye gear like a 6-foot 4-inch medium-heavy-power spinning rod teamed with a 2500-series reel spooled with 15-pound-test Sufix 832 Advanced Superline.

In sparser grass, walleyes prowl the outside edges during the Summer Peak Period like street gangs defending their neighborhood turf, and attack bucktails with what can only be described as a vicious vengeance. I’ll cast a 3/8-ounce black bucktail jig—black with a core chartreuse highlight is my favorite—let it fall to the bottom, and then gently lift up my rod tip the same way that I would if I was feeling for a fish. If the rod doesn’t suddenly buckle and try to fly out of my hand, I let the bucktail settle back down until it does. The only time I actually rip the jig, like Pugelj, is when I feel it snag a strand of grass. Then I’ll snap it to clean the hook and then finish my retrieve.

All Good Things End

Like all good things, unfortunately, the Summer Peak Period for walleyes is much too short and concludes much too quickly. “In my area, it ends with the water temperature climbing rapidly and walleyes moving off flats and shallow gravel patches,” Nussbaum says. “The bite just gets progressively more difficult as walleyes move into deeper main-lake structure areas. It seems like when they do this, they spread out more and don’t school as much.”

Mitchell, Takasaki, and Pugelj also see the size and number of fish drop off dramatically and the action slow, as the fleeting summer peak comes to an end. But until it does, they keep monitoring water temperature, searching for vibrant weedgrowth and smelling the lilacs for the walleye storm before the calm.


In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer is a former Ontario natural resource manager, decades-long contributor to In-Fisherman publications, and inductee to the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Canadian Angler Hall of Fame.




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