Given decent conditions during March and early April, savvy anglers are regularly treated to monumental catches of monster walleyes
It’s no secret that Lake Erie provides world class trophy walleye fishing during the spring from ice-out until mid-April. In fact, no other walleye fishery in the world even comes close to producing as many 10-plus pound walleyes as Lake Erie. That spring fishing phenomenon hinges entirely on the weather. Given decent conditions during March and early April, savvy anglers are regularly treated to monumental catches of monster walleyes. This author has had many days where over a dozen walleyes over 10 pounds were boated on Erie. One year, we landed well over 100 jumbo walleyes during the spring. The good news is that 2014 promises to offer a bumper crop of double digit walleyes from the record 2003 year class. Those fish are now 11 years old and millions of those giants are still roaming Erie just waiting to snap up your lures.
Before I start my Lake Erie charter season, I go on a shakedown cruise where I take some guests fishing. I typically hit the water as soon as the conditions allow for good fishing. Last year I didn’t get out until April 1. In 2012 though, we started fishing Erie on March 8. My start date varies from year to year based on weather and water conditions.
For my shake-down-cruise, I typically don’t venture too far from port and just fish the Michigan waters close to Bolles Harbor, which is typically the best bet for accessing Erie during early spring for Michigan anglers. When I first hit the water last year, I was accompanied by my wife Donna along with friends Judy and Rodger Poore. It was a sunny day with a light, onshore, east wind putting a definite chill over us. I had already formulated a battle plan based on pre-trip research. I had viewed Internet satellite images and surface temper maps and found a promising area where dirty water met clearer water just a few miles from the harbor. We cruised around my target area and when we started marking lots of fish, we set up for our first trolling pass. The water temperature was in the high 30s, and moderately dirty, so we deployed a spread of mostly Storm Thundersticks, and kept the trolling speed just under one mile per hour. Slow trolling speeds necessitate going with the wind, so we set lines upwind for a trolling pass over two miles of some fishy looking water.
It didn’t take long before one of my old, reliable Church Walleye Boards pulled back hard signaling a big fish on the line. I’ve had those same walleye boards for over 15 years and they have thousands of trolling miles on them and they are still running strong. Rodger was up first and I switched on my hat-cam as he proceeded to pull in the fish. Accept for a stint in the armed forces, Rodger has lived all his live near Monroe and has been fishing Erie since Dwight D. Eisenhower was president. Even seasoned, veteran walleye anglers though get flustered when doing battle with a huge walleye, especially one that does not want to cooperate.
I was running an eight rods trolling spread and that fish was bound and determined to make of mess of things. I cleared one line out of the way, but the brute of a fish still managed to tangle into another line as she pulled sideways like crazy along the surface of the water looking like a giant planer board. Eventually though Rodger worked the obese walleye close enough to the boat so I could net the trouble maker. Before I could unhook that fish, I noticed that another board was digging in and being pulled back. I planned to release Rodger’s pre-spawn female, but wanted to take some photos before turning her loose. With another fish on the line though, I didn’t have time to mess around with my camera, so I temporarily deposited the fish into the live well for safe keeping and later release.
Judy was up next and that fish turned out to be even bigger. Judy is also a seasoned angler. The four of us once went on a fishing trip together to North Carolina and targeted blue fin tuna on a charter. We got into the tuna big time on that trip and all of us caught by far, the biggest fish of our lives that day. That big walleye that Judy was battling seemed to jazz her up every bit as much as that giant tuna that she caught. Her fish was so fat that it couldn’t even swim straight and it just rolled and flopped on the surface as she gained line on the pig. When the fish was about 10 feet from the boat, I instructed her to lift her rod up and the lunker walleye slipped into the net and Judy was smiling ear to ear after catching her biggest walleye ever.
The next fish on the line was Donna’s and like the two before it, her fish was another big one. Donna’s walleye stayed down near the bottom all the way in. The big fish pulled hard and steady, but when it neared the boat, it surged downward over and over. You could hear Donna straining, but she kept the pressure on the fish and eventually it tired and I was able to scoop it up with the net.
I was up next and like the three fish before, mine was yet another trophy walleye too. That fish made us four for four on trophy walleyes. In fact we each went on to catch several more dandies that day with the smallest fish of the day being eight pounds. You’ll often hear people bragging about the big fish they caught, but on that trip even the smallest fish was a bragging fish. You can check out my YouTube video that shows some big walleye action. My website at trophyspecialists.com has a link to the video.
Trolling is the name of the game when going after Erie’s spring trophy walleyes. I’ve been avidly fishing on Lake Erie, during the early spring, for over 25 years and I have tried hundreds of not thousands of different lures in the process. I have learned that the preferred lures and trolling speeds depend greatly on water temperature and water clarity. When the water is very cold (below 40 degrees) I run mostly shallow diving (sort bill) Storm Jr. Thundersticks and keep my trolling speed glacially slow at between .5 and .9 mph. Those stickbaits have a delicate side to side wobbling action and have loud rattles that sound noisy even at slow trolling speeds. My two favorite Jr. Thunderstick patterns are black/gray and black/gold colorations.
When water temperatures warm into the low 40s, I start incorporating bigger stickbaits into my trolling spread including Rattlin Rouges and Husky Jerks (three hook models). These are still shallow diving lures with the short bills that have that slow, wobbling action. Speeds are somewhat on the slow side in the .9 to 1.3 mph range. Black/silver, black/gold/orange and gold/purple have been long time, productive patterns for me then.
As the water rises above the mid-40s, I switch over to faster action, deep diving crankbaits with longer bills. The fish get more aggressive then and seem to respond to the faster action lures as the temp increases. I bump my speed up then too, trolling at 1.4 to 1.8 mph. My overwhelming favorite lure for this period is the #7 Shad Rap in either Natural Shad or black/silver patterns. I also frequently use Glass Shad Raps, Deep Jr. Thundersticks, Deep Husky Jerks, Deep Rattlin Rouges and Reef Runners. In somewhat clearer water, bigger brighter colored lures seem to work best. In dirty water or in low light conditions, more natural colored lures in smaller sizes produce more consistently. It often pays to experiment at that time of the year though as walleye preferences vary from day to day and from one location to another.
Early spring walleyes often suspend at varying depths and presentations need to be tailored to put the lures in front of the most fish possible. I rely heavily on my electronics when I’m trolling Erie during the early spring. I try to set most of my lures just above the depth where I’m marking most of the fish. I install a rubber core sinker about 6′ ahead of all my trolled lures while fishing on Lake Erie. The rubber core sinkers serve many purposes: they take the lures down to the fish, the sinker blocks debris that slides down the line and would otherwise fowl the lure and they also prevent anglers from reeling the fish in too close to the rod tip so it impedes netting them.
During the early spring, I mostly use 3/8 ounce rubber core sinkers, but occasionally I’ll use 1/16 or ½ ouncers. I can hit deeper running depths with the heavier sinkers while also keeping my setbacks shorter. A shorter setback is preferred because it makes setting lines faster and also improves the bite to catch ratio due to better hook-sets, fewer tangles and less general messing around that causes lost fish while bringing them in.
Incorporating rubber core sinkers into the program allows for quick depth adjustments too. Sinkers can be quickly changed or setbacks can be shortened or lengthened to put the lures right in their faces. You can also just speed up some which causes lures to rise or conversely, slow down, which causes them to drop. By making lots of turns in the trolling run, the boards on the outside of he turn speed up, while the boards on the inside of the turn slow down causing that rising and dropping action that is deadly some days.
Early spring fishing for trophy walleyes on Lake Erie revolves around spawning and water clarity. The vast majority of Erie’s walleyes spawn in the Maumee River, Maumee Bay or the Camp Perry Firing Range reef complex. Before the spawn, which typically peaks during mid-April, egg laden, female walleyes stage near those primary spawning areas en mass. They usually suspend at various depths over water ranging from 10 to 30 feet deep. Some consistently good, early spring fishing areas include the Michigan water from Bolles Harbor to the Wood Tic Peninsula, the Ohio waters from Little Cedar Point to the western boarder of the Camp Perry Firing Range, A, B & C Cans (north of firing range) along with north and west of the Niagara Reef.
Water clarity is absolutely critical for finding and catching Lake Erie’s walleyes. Unfortunately for anglers, given a choice, walleyes prefer to hold in dirty water. If you have clear water near dirty water, 99% of the area’s walleyes will be in the muddy water. Only when there is no dirty water anywhere in the vicinity of the walleyes staging areas will there be numbers of walleyes in clear water (a rare event in the spring on Lake Erie these days). Usually anglers are forced to fish in dirty water in order to catch fish, however there are certainly different degrees of dirty water to be considered, which I judge by looking at my prop under the water. If water visibility is less than a few inches, then I don’t even bother trying to fish there. If water visibility is about one foot, then the water is fishable, but the catch rate will not normally be very high. If the visibility is two or three feet, then the catch rate can be very good. If the visibility is four or five feet, then catch rates can be outstanding. Any more than 5 feet of visibility will not typically hold many walleyes.
Oftentimes, the best fishing locations are going to be along the edges or breaks where muddy water meets clearer water located in areas adjacent to preferred spawning areas. These spots can be located on the Internet by searching for a website called Lake Erie MODIS Imagery maintained by NOAA. Every day a satellite goes over the Great Lakes and takes digital photos of the region, which are posted on that website daily. If there is not too much cloud cover, those images show all the dirty and/or clear water on Erie. There is also another NOAA website that has nautical charts that is handy for comparing to the satellite images to pinpoint exact spots. Lake Erie is chart number 14830.
An article on early spring fishing on Lake Erie would be remiss if safety were not addressed. Erie can be a diabolical adversary during the spring. If a boat goes down in those very cold water temperatures, in just a few minutes, it’s all over but the crying of loved ones. Only very seaworthy vessels should venture onto Erie during the spring and all the necessary safety gear should be double checked before hand. Oftentimes, during early spring, boat traffic on the lake is very light. I often fish in areas all day without ever seeing another boat. One needs to be self sufficient on Erie. A backup motor should be considered essential safety gear then. I once found human remains that belonged to a boater that fell overboard. He was not wearing a PFD and before his crew could turn around to recover him, he was gone. I found part of him years later, which was not pretty.
The author offers fishing charters specializing in Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay walleyes. Contact Mike Veine at www.trophyspecialists.com or 734-475-9146.