As the summer sun neared twelve o'clock high, its fiery rays burned into the clear water shimmering around the boat. With scarcely a breath of wind to stir my dreams of a walleye chop, the lake's smooth surface did little to impede light penetration, and I pondered my choices for prying a few more walleyes from the depths below.
I was fishing with my father-in-law, Duane Thiel, with whom I've shared many a fishing adventure since he relinquished his daughter's arm to me in the sanctity of a quaint country church one fine June day more than two decades ago. On this day, we were exploring a natural, central-Minnesota gem of a lake that held good numbers of walleyes. But, while the morning bite had been solid, our midday prospects, given the bluebird sky, full sun, and virtually no wind, seemed poor at best.
Earlier in the day, our hottest presentation had been longlining stickbaits along the edge of a weedy near-shore drop-off, where hungry walleyes patrolling the periphery were hard-pressed to pass on our tight-wobbling crankbaits. But as that action had ebbed with the rising sun, our playbook called for fresh options, ranging from jigging the jungle to scraping bottom with livebait rigs or three-ways. Before we shifted gears, however, Duane turned the boat out from the dropoff and cut a wide arc into open water — speeding up our baits to at least 3 mph in the process, maybe more. We hadn't gone 100 yards when, a long cast off the weededge, a plump walleye struck my rocketing Rogue.
The bait was maybe four feet down over 20-plus feet of near-crystal water, and given the conditions I would have been less surprised if Elvis had pulled up in the next boat and started singing "Blue Suede Shoes." Of course, the fish was hardly a fluke. Walleyes often rise high — even when all signs point to a bottom bite. And it happens in more lakes, under more conditions, than most of us realize. All of which begs a closer look into the vertical extremes of our favorite fish.
Captain Jason Muche isn't surprised by my story. Based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the hard-fishing guide frequently targets walleyes suspended in the upper levels of the water column on the Lake Winnebago system, as well as Lake Michigan's legendary Green Bay. Both destinations are world-class fisheries and have taught Muche much about when to expect — and how to fish for — high-riding fish.
"One of the first clues to a suspended bite is when you head out on the lake early in the morning and spot fish swirling on the surface," he says. "Often, these are walleyes feeding on lake flies and other forage." Interestingly, these fish often drop lower in the water column shortly after sunup, then rise again as the day progresses.
"Watching sonar, it's not uncommon to see the fish move down into the 5- to 10-foot range around 8 or 9 a.m., then go even tighter to bottom, say, 14 to 18 feet down in 20 feet of water," he says. "But just when you think it's going to be a bottom bite, most of the fish disappear from your electronics. This is a good indication they've moved higher again. The fish are flaring off to the sides of the boat where you can't mark them, and your lures are running too deep catch them."
Beyond morning surface activity, Muche uses weather and water clarity to help predict when walleyes head for the penthouse. "Generally, clear water conditions are best," he says. "Clear enough so you can see your lure 6 or 7 feet down. So is a flat-calm surface. This flies in the face of conventional wisdom, but walleyes tend to be highest on calm days in clear water. I've found this the case on Green Bay, lakes in the Winnebago chain, and on a lot of other systems."
Walleyes go where the food is, so the question of why they suspend is easily answered. As In-Fisherman publications have often noted, walleyes frequently suspend throughout the summer months in ecosystems containing shad, emerald shiners, ciscoes, smelt, alewives and other forage at least occasionally found near the surface.
But the question of why a walleye — let alone a school — willingly moves into an area where their wickedly effective low-light vision and lateral-line system are virtual non-factors — that is, where they give walleyes little or no advantage over baitfish — is harder to answer.
A better feeding opportunity must exist near the surface than in the depths for walleyes to take the high road. Perhaps one of the most important points of this entire discourse, however, is that this scenario happens so often, it should be considered anytime action in the lower levels of a lake dies down. We have to think "up" as often as we think "down."
Years ago, as his theories on suspended walleyes first began to gel, Muche tentatively pushed the vertical envelope. "I started running one lure high on an outside line," he recalls. By "high," he means anywhere from 3 feet under the surface to halfway down, "no deeper than 10 feet in 20 feet of water." The high line soon proved its worth. "It was amazing how many 10-pound-plus fish I caught on it."
This single-line experimentation evolved into a full-blown presentation involving 6 rods (for 2 anglers, legal in Muche's Wisconsin waters) that strains key levels of the water column's stratosphere. "I run 3 rods on each side of the boat, all with planer boards," he says. "The lure on the outside line runs about 3 feet beneath the surface, the middle line covers 5 to 8 feet, and the bait closest to the boat hits 10 to 13 feet."
When presenting baits to fish that are marked on sonar, Muche errs on the high side. "Walleyes have eyes toward the top of their head, which makes them much more likely to strike a bait passing overhead than one running below them," he says. In fact, Muche prefers a few feet of vertical separation between his lures and his quarry. "A walleye doesn't have as much time to scrutinize a lure passing several feet above it as they do a bait running right in front of its nose. You double your catch by putting the bait 2 to 5 feet above the fish. In fact, one of my biggest tricks is making the fish chase my baits."
Another benefit: Strikes from fish rising to hit a lure tend to be harder than hits made on baits trolled at the same level as the fish. "When you're using planer boards with tattle-type flags on them, the flag slams the board — instead of gradually falling back, which makes it easy to detect strikes," he says, adding, "rising walleyes hit so hard you think you have a sheepshead on the line." For these reasons, Muche positions his lures as high above the fish as he can get away with. "The clearer the water, the more distance you can have between your baits and the fish," he notes.
Crawl Or Crank?
When it comes to targeting high-flying walleyes, Muche favors several time-tested presentations: crankbaits, and spinner rigs with nightcrawler harnesses. Often, the fish dictate a choice between the two, but sometimes a mix is best, and Muche responds by throwing everything together in a unique, slow-trolled smorgasbord. He notes that the heat of summer is prime time for a crawler-crank combination. "In July I catch of lot of walleyes trolling cranks and spinners at the same time," he says. "About 60 percent of the fish hit the cranks.
"People think I'm crazy doing that, because they think you can't pull cranks that slowly," he says. "But divers that aren't tremendously speed-dependent tend to run fine at spinner speeds, too. For example, with 90 feet of letback on 10-pound mono, a #5 Shadling has a nice, slow wobble and runs about 3 feet down at 1.1 to 1.2 mph — the key speed range when running spinners and cranks together." With strictly spinners, Muche trolls .9 to 1.1 mph, while a crank-only palette is pulled from 1.8 to 2.2 mph.
A typical blended, six-rod spread might see the Shadling setup outlined above behind the outside board, which is deployed 100 feet from the boat. The middle board runs 70 feet out, 'crawler harness in tow. "Anytime I need to fish deeper than 5 feet, I add a 1-ounce in-line sinker 6 feet ahead of the spinner or crankbait," he says. "For every 2 feet of letback, the sinker adds a foot of running depth." Following this formula, 16 feet of letback puts the rig at about 8 feet beneath the surface — a great depth for the middle line. On the inside rod, Muche longlines a diving crankbait like the Shadling 150 feet behind his board, which runs 40 feet from the boat.
Clear water calls for natural spinner and crankbait colors. "I like perch, shiner, and bluegill patterns," Muche says. "But when the fish are closer to, or on bottom, brighter patterns such as firetiger can be better."
Walleyes won't stalk the stratosphere in every situation, but it pays to keep the option in mind in almost every instance outside of heavy current. And once you find them, high-riding walleyes can be the most aggressive fish in a given system at the moment, yielding banner days to anglers savvy enough to tap the bounty up top.
Dan Johnson,Harris, Minnesota, is coordinator of the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit, masterswalleyecircuit.com, and writer well known within the fishing industry. For more information on Jason Muche, visit wwww.bagoguide.com.