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Author: Frank Ross
Across the upper Midwest, there are a number of communities that promote their local waters as the "Walleye Capital of the World." While all of these waters are great fisheries, there is only one "real" walleye capital of the world, and that would be Lake Erie.
On this Great Lake, a number of different cities could make this claim, but only for a few months of the year. You can mark your calendar by the dominant location of walleye as they progress through their seasonal cycles. Starting in the Spring, the heaviest concentrations are spawning in the western basin from Toledo to the Bass Islands. As the weeks progress, a teeming mass of forage packs up and starts heading toward Buffalo. The walleye go with them.
During the steamy days of July, you can find schools of walleye in the central basin, from Cleveland to Fairport Harbor. These schools are measured in miles, not yards.
Despite heavy harvesting by commercial fishing vessels from both sides of the border, and untold legions of recreational anglers, DNR officials estimate the number of walleye around the 60 million mark.
With that many fish, you'd think that catching walleye would be as easy as falling overboard. It's not necessarily so, and if you are looking for a wall hanger, there are some tricks that will improve your chances markedly.
During six years of conducting tournaments with North American Walleye Anglers, I watched as Jim Bell, of Blaine, MN, proved himself an exceptional fisherman on all types of water. He won NAWA's inaugural event and garnered many trophies on his way to being named Pro Angler of the Year in 1999. Bell has won with finesse presentations, but he is always tough competition when it comes to the fine art of trolling.
Since Jim had the largest "unofficial" basket of fish ever taken in any walleye tournament, I called him to get some advice on Erie. If that fateful day had not been cancelled due to 45-mph winds, Jim's 63-pound basket would be a record that would be hard to top. The largest hog in that six-fish basket weighed over 13 pounds.
Curiously enough, I caught him last evening when he was packing up for a bass tournament. He had already qualified for the PWT Championship and was off to have some fun in Canada. Taking time inbetween packing jigs and tube baits and eating daughter Lindsey's birthday cake, he shared some valuable insights.
"The biggest mistake anglers make when they fish Lake Erie, is spending time looking for fish. You've got to look for forage, because that's what the fish are looking for. Fishermen need to learn more about all of the forage species that walleye feed on, and they'll catch more fish. In Erie, during midsummer, the fish are migrating from the western basin toward the eastern shores. They're not migrating because they want to. They're migrating because the baitfish are migrating," he said.
"In 1994, when I was fishing the central basin in the first NAWA tournament held in Fairport Harbor, I noticed heavy clouds of something just above the bottom. I talked to local charter captain, Ron Johnson, who won that year. I asked him if they were smelt. Once he confirmed my suspicion, I knew what I had to do," he said matter-of-factly.
"The thermocline in Erie averages about 28 to 34 feet. Walleye want to be just above that temperature line. That's where anglers fish for them. While we were pre-fishing, we kept a few fish for dinner, and noticed they were puking up smelt in the livewell. All of the big fish that I caught came from 60 feet. "No, walleye don't want to be in that cold water, but yes, they will go down for smelt and come back up again," he said.
So now you know where the big fish are, but how do you troll at 60 feet?
"The rule of thumb that you need to follow is get to the speed that you want to troll and freespool your bait to the bottom. I use crawlers on big spinner rigs with #7 Colorado or Indiana blades in dark colors and snap on a 6-ounce weight. The best colors that I've found have been hammered copper or dark colors like black nickle. It's much the same as a muskie looking up at a bait. Dark colors work best because fish see darker colors against a lighter background of sky and clouds, especially in situations when you have low light penetration. When you tie rigs with blades that big, you need to use a heavy line. I always use 17- to 20-pound test Berkley line. When you are speed trolling with heavy blades it will eat up a lighter line in a hurry," he cautioned.
When your weight gets to the bottom, put your thumb on the spool and hold it for 30 seconds then repeat that process two more times. After three cycles of dropping and waiting 30 seconds, you'll be running about 2 feet off the bottom. That works no matter how fast you are going," he added.
So what happens when you are marking baitfish at that depth, with walleye suspended over them, but still aren't catching fish?
"The first thing I turn to is speed, and don't be afraid to go up to 4 mph. A lot of guys think you can only troll slowly, but sometimes speed is the answer. I've caught an awful lot of big fish at 4 mph. At that speed, you get a lot of instinctive strikes because the bait is moving so fast they don't have time to think about it. They just strike!"
"If you're going to speed troll, you have to be able to tune your crankbaits. If you don't tune them, they'll kick out to the side, and you're not going to get the depth you need. I see a lot of guys that look at their charts and set their lines to correspond but can't catch fish. Problem is they haven't tuned their baits and they're running at 12 to 15 feet instead of the 20 that they're expecting based on the charts," he said.
Bell also reminded me that three other factors to keep in mind are movement of the pods, currents, and the wind.
"When you mark an active pod of fish on one day, and go back the next, they aren't there anymore. Again, they're migrating with the smelt, and it's a constant process. By the time you get back, they may be a mile further east. When you find them, mark them again, and compare their progress. Over several days and you'll begin to see a pattern of movement. The most important thing to remember is, don't go back to where they were yesterday. You'll be wasting time and gas. Start looking for yesterday's fish at least a mile further east of where they were."
"Another important aspect, and probably the most important one for fishing Lake Erie, is the current. A lot of people ask how can you have a current in a lake?" he said. "Just look at Niagara Falls. That's a lot of water and it all comes through Erie."
According to Bell, there's a number of factors that effect trolling in Lake Erie. "When you're trolling along at two miles per hour and get into a current that's going in the same direction at the same speed as your boat, your lure is just sitting there in the water and you won't get any hits. If you reverse the effect, you lure is running a lot deeper than you think because of the increased effect of the swift current."
A trick that seasoned anglers use on Erie is a dipsy diver with no bait. "If you run a dipsy diver out as an extra rod and watch the rod tip, when it pops straight up you are in a strong current that is running with you. You can either speed up or turn at an angle to overcome the current," he said.
A final variable, as if you didn't have enough to worry about at this point, is the wind. A strong wind out of the east will push a lot of water into the western end of the lake. When the wind lies down, that water is going to go back to where is wants to be. In semi-scientific terms, water seeks it's own level. Once the wind abates, there will be a gradual increase in eastbound currents.
Ok, now you're ready to take on the real "Walleye Capital of the World". Follow the baitfish, tune your crankbaits, fish at the right depth, watch the current and winds, and you'll catch that wall-hanger. You've got 60 million to choose from.
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