Trophy class walleyes, the kind that have a mouth big enough to swallow a soft ball, are most often caught in the early spring and late fall months. During the summer it’s the “eater” sized walleye you typically see in livewells and featured on Facebook posts. Thankfully, anglers who love to catch big walleye don’t have to wait until fall to experience world class fishing. The key to catching big walleye in the summer is understanding these fish and the unique habitats they favor.
Big Walleye Eat Different
Big walleye and the average sized versions may share the same genius species name and DNA, but the forage they favor is vastly different. Occasionally while catching a bunch of “eater” sized walleye a truly big fish is caught, but during the summer months big fish tend to hang together. These adult fish school together because they share similar needs that vary from the needs of younger walleye.
Forage is one of the keys to understanding big walleye and finding concentrations of these fish. A walleye over 25 inches in length favors larger averaged sized forage. Instead of feasting on two or three inch emerald shiners, adult walleye are more likely to target bigger forage types like gizzard shad, rainbow smelt, suckers, young of the year whitefish or alewives. Not only do these larger forage types provide adult fish with the nutrition they seek, adult fish condition themselves to feed less often. This unique instinctive behavior allows adult walleye to grow into trophy class walleye.
In a word, efficiency describes why larger walleye favor larger forage. When these fish feed on bigger forage, they burn up much less energy that it would take to catch smaller prey and in the process add body mass quickly.
Big Walleye Are Cool
A second and important biological feature of trophy walleye centers on water temperature. Adult fish tend to favor cooler waters than their immature relatives. In the summer time finding cooler water often means moving deeper in the water column, but it can also mean simply moving further off shore to where water temperatures are routinely 10 or more degrees cooler all summer long.
In places like the Central and Eastern Basins of Lake Erie or along the north shore of Lake Erie, walleye stack up along the thermocline where they find the coolest water and also the best available oxygen. In the middle of summer these fish are often found 25-60 feet below the surface and reaching them requires a page out of the salmon trolling hand book.
Thermoclines are certainly logical places to hunt for summer walleye in the Great Lakes, but walleye can also find cool water in other ways. Most of the prime walleye fisheries in the Great Lakes are associated with shallow bays that warm rather quickly in the summer. Classic examples of this include the Inner Bay portion of Saginaw Bay and the extreme western portion of the Western Basin of Lake Erie.
Most of the adult fish that frequent these fisheries during the cooler water portions of the year, simply migrate out of this warmer water and into adjacent cooler waters during the summer. In the case of Saginaw Bay, the bigger fish tend to inhabit the outer reaches of Saginaw Bay and they also spill over into Lake Huron from Tawas north to Oscoda.
In the case of Lake Erie, these fish abandon the Western Basin and spend the summer in the deeper and cooler Central and Eastern Basins and also along the north shore where the water is both cooler and deeper.
Salmon Tactics For Walleye
Not always are summer walleye found far below the surface, but it happens often enough that anglers targeting big walleye in the summer should come prepared to fish water depths more commonly associated with salmon than walleye. The deepest I have personally taken walleye currently stands at 90 feet of water and that fish came on a downrigger set to target lake trout!
On average the bigger summer walleye I have taken come from 25-60 feet below the surface. A number of presentations can be used to reach these fish including using downriggers, diving planers, wire line trolling and also trolling with weight systems.
Downriggers are rarely seen on a walleye boat, but these depth control aids are highly useful for targeting walleye. I prefer to fish spoons when targeting walleye on riggers. The spoon is set to run 20-30 feet behind the downrigger ball and I routinely use an “add-a-line” to rig a second spoon on the main line about 10 feet above the downrigger ball. Rigging two spoons on each downrigger rod doubles the amount of lures in the water and helps in covering a larger percentage of the water column.
An add-a-line is easy to make. Simply take a seven foot length of 17# test fluorocarbon line and tie a heavy duty snap to one end. Next thread an Off Shore Tackle OR14 planer board release onto the leader and then tie on a quality ball bearing swivel to the tag end. Add a spoon to the ball bearing swivel and the add-a-line rig is ready to fish.
Setting an add-a-line is also easy. Begin by setting the lure on the terminal end of the fishing line 20-30 feet behind the boat and placing the line into the downrigger release. Now simply lower the downrigger ball about 10 feet and stop. Grab the line and clip the snap over the fishing line and close it. Next take the OR14 planer board clip and attach it to the line just below the snap. Toss the spoon into the water and make sure the spoon is working and the add-a-line leader isn’t tangled around the main line. Now simply lower the downrigger weight to the desired fishing depth.
This simple downrigger “stacking” method fishes two spoons at different depths and is amazingly productive.
Another great tip for downrigger fishing is to add a Big Al Fish Flash to the downrigger ball. These spinning attractors do a great job of adding flash to a trolling pattern pulling fish up from the depths. Attach the Fish Flash to the back of the downrigger weight and the downrigger line clip to the back of the Fish Flash. This simple trick will put lots more fish in the boat.
Fishing Divers For Walleye
Diving planers like the Walker Deeper Diver or Luhr Jensen Dipsy are also great tools for targeting big walleye in deep water. Usually the normal diver sizes are adequate for reaching walleye at the depths they tend to favor. Save the magnum divers for salmon fishing at extreme depths.
As with downriggers, the best lures for diver fishing tend to be trolling spoons. I rig a seven to eight foot long 17# test fluorocarbon leader for diver fishing. Snubbers are not necessary for fishing walleye with divers.
When fishing divers for walleye I generally rig the diver on a No. 2 setting that allows the diver to both dive and plane out to the side a short distance from the boat. The trolling depth is controlled by line diameter and how far behind the boat these trolling aids are fished. I use the same diver rods rigged up for salmon to target deep water walleye. These 10 foot diver rods have a line counter reel loaded with 40# test Vicious Braided line.
Lead Core For Open Water Eyes
Lead core is a third method that works well for targeting walleye in open water suspended far below the surface. A full core of 18 or 27 pound test lead core line will fish about 40-45 feet below the surface when trolled at 2-2.5 MPH. Again the best baits for lead core trolling tend to be spoons, but anglers can also experiment with diving crankbaits, spinner rigs and stickbaits.
Lead core is most effective when combined with in-line boards like the famous Off Shore Tackle Side-Planer. The planer board is placed on the backing line once all the lead core is let out behind the boat. When fishing lead core on boards I tend to favor two different set ups including a five color and 10 color rig on each side of the boat. The five color is set on the outside board and the 10 color set on the inside board. This arrangement allows me to fish 20-25 feet down on the outside board and 40-45 feet down on the inside board.
The new kid on the market for deep water walleye fishing are the Tadpole Divers produced by Off Shore Tackle. Currently available in a No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 and Magnum sizes, these divers are not directional, but simply dive straight down into the water. Ideal for fishing with spoons or spinner rigs, because these divers sink they are speed dependent for depth. The slower an angler trolls the deeper the Tadpole will fish.
At spinner speeds (1.0-1.5 MPH) Tadpoles can reach depths far in excess of lead core line, making them very useful for summer walleye trolling applications. Even better, Tadpoles actually dive so they achieve their depth on shorter lead lengths than possible with lead core line.
As with lead core, Tadpoles can be fished in combination with in-line boards to gain greater outward lure coverage.
Summing It Up
Targeting trophy walleye in the summer months requires an approach more similar to salmon trolling than walleye trolling. The biggest hurdle to catching these overlooked fish is simply leaving the shallows behind and concentrating on an open water mentality.
Take a camera and a tape measure along. The summer walleyes waiting out there in open water are going to blow your mind.