As a lifelong Michigan resident, you won’t find me complaining when the weather is hot and the air is sticky. Here in the Great Lakes state avid anglers endure way too many cold, rainy and nasty days and not nearly enough days made for T-Shirts, shorts and flip flops!
The dog days of August puts the brakes on fishing for some species, but thankfully walleye don’t seem to mind the heat. One of the great things about walleye is they bite well in both cold and warm water conditions. No matter how hot or sticky it gets, anglers can count on good walleye fishing action if they know where to look and how to target these fish.
In August walleye aren’t going to be found in the same areas they frequented in May, June and July. Walleye have a lot of habits, but sticking close to home isn’t one of them. Walleye have been documented traveling great distances in search of preferred forage species, comfortable water temperatures or both.
Case in point, walleye of the Saginaw Bay system that spawn in the Tittabawassee River in April are likely to be spending their summer months hundreds of miles away in Lake Huron! A similar migration of walleye occurs in Lake Erie. Fish that spawn in the Western Basin, routinely end up spending their summers in the Central and Eastern Basins and also along the north shore in Ontario waters.
It’s these open water basins, often found miles from shore that attract the largest schools of baitfish and also mid-summer walleye. Routinely these fish experience little fishing pressure because most anglers are uncomfortable targeting fish out in the great abyss! To make matters worse, these fish can be in one location today and tomorrow that same school of fish might be miles away.
Mid-summer walleye are seemingly always on the move. Enjoying consistent action requires adopting the same wander lust ways as the fish. It’s also interesting to note that most of the walleye that favor open water tend to be the adult sized fish. Lots of fish and big ones too is a recipe for fishing success any angler would be crazy not to consider.
Locating fish in this sprawling open water environment might seem like finding a needle in a haystack. Actually with the help of quality sonar, a simple game plan and some patience, finding fish is the straight forward part.
Huge basins are best approached by breaking down the water into smaller and more manageable chunks. The best open water trollers set up a grid search pattern that breaks down the water into quadrants about 1/4 mile apart.
Start by splitting the screen of your sonar/GPS unit so half the screen is set on broad beam sonar and the other half is set to the mapping screen. Cruising the boat along at about 10-15 MPH, search for about a mile or two in one direction, saving waypoints anytime a noteworthy cluster of fish appears on the sonar screen. If several fish are marking on the screen at the same time, that is defined as noteworthy and worth taking a second look at.
Once the boat has covered a mile or two in one direction, jog over about 1/4 mile and repeat the process heading back the way you started. This process continues, saving waypoints on clusters of fish and eliminating unproductive water.
It’s a good thing to mark fish on a sonar unit, but the only way to confirm if these fish are indeed walleye is to set up a trolling pass. Once a few clusters of fish are located in the same general geographic area, it’s time to set up a trolling pass to confirm that the fish are indeed walleye. Running straight upwind of a waypoint about 1/2 mile and then trolling downwind makes it easier to steer the boat and navigate towards specific waypoints.
If on the test pass walleye are caught, save those locations as waypoints using a different mapping icon to differentiate between actual walleye caught and waypoints that simply note the location of fish on sonar. Gradually the pieces of the puzzle start to come together. If you find fish and then lose them on subsequent passes, refer back to the waypoints indicating where fish have been caught and also waypoints that indicate the presence of fish on sonar. Use this information to make an educated guess as to what direction the fish may have disappeared and make another pass in that direction.
This cat and mouse game is what open water walleye fishing is all about. When a sizable school of fish is located, they can often be caught using a variety of trolling tactics. Finding good numbers of fish is the key to success.
Step Up The Trolling Speed
During the hot days of summer walleye will bite a wide variety of trolling presentations including spoons, crankbaits and open water spinner (crawler harnesses) set ups. Of these options spinner fishing is the least desirable because it limits trolling to a top speed of about 1.5 MPH.
Spinner trolling is a game best played at slow speeds and not the ideal trolling tactics for covering water quickly when hunting for open water fish. Both crankbaits and spoons are a better option for covering water and contacting the maximum number of fish.
In a tough open water bite that only yields the occasional fish on cranks or spoons, an angler can always slow down on known fish holding waypoints and fish spinners. Day in and day out however, spoons and crankbaits will boat more fish during the heat of summer.
In warm water fishing conditions, walleye will hit a wide variety of crankbait styles, brands and models. Minnow diving baits like the Storm Deep Jr. ThunderStick, Reef Runner Deep Little Ripper, Yo-Zuri Deep Minnow, Berkley Flicker Minnows and the Bandit Minnow are all good options.
Crankbaits with a wider wiggle and more action are also good candidates for warm water trolling. Classics in this category include the Storm 3/8 ounce original Rattle Tot and Salmo No. 6 Hornet. Both of these lures have a wandering action that gives off a lot of flash and vibration in the water.
A newcomer in the crankbait market that is rapidly making a name for itself is the Yakima Mag Lip series. These baits come in several sizes including the 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.5 and 5.0 versions. For walleye trolling the 3.0 and 3.5 sizes are ideal.
All of the Mag Lip baits fish with an aggressive side to side wobble and a “skip beat” action that does wonders at triggering fish strikes. The “skip beat” action is built into the lure, causing it to dart out to the side periodically like a baitfish that’s trying to elude a game fish.
Fishing legend Buzz Ramsey the designer of the Mag Lip series has a couple suggestions for getting the most from these lures. “The Mag Lip has great action at all trolling speeds, but the skip beat action of these lures becomes more prevalent at faster trolling speeds,” explains Ramsey. “Vary trolling speeds from about 2.0 to 3.5 MPH to get the most benefit from the Mag Lip’s built in skip beat action.”
Ramsey goes on to explain that how the Mag Lip is attached to the line also makes a difference. “Most anglers tie their crankbaits directly to the split ring or snap on the diving lip of the bait,” says Ramsey. In the case of the Mag Lip it helps to tie a snap to the end of your fishing line and attach this snap to the snap that comes standard on all Mag Lip baits. Attaching a snap to a snap opens up the action of the Mag Lip even more and helps this bait trigger the maximum number of strikes.”
Like crankbaits spoons can be fished at faster trolling speeds and do an excellent job of covering water. Unfortunately, unlike a crankbait these lures have no natural diving ability. Spoons must be fished in combination with one of several diving devices to get them to the respective target depths.
Great mini divers for fishing spoons include the Off Shore Tackle No. 2 Tadpole Diver, Lurk’s 44mm Disco Diver and the Big Jon Mini Disks. In the case of each of these divers a five to six foot leader of 15# test fluorocarbon line is used to connect the diver to the spoon. At the terminal end a good ball bearing swivel is required to allow the spoon to have maximum flip and action.
The best spoons for walleye trolling are the smaller versions. Wolverine Tackle, Michigan Stinger, Yeck, Dream Weaver and Moonshine all produce small spoons designed especially for walleye trolling.
The diver and spoon set up can be trolled on super braid or monofilament lines. If using monofilament a good choice would be a high abrasion line with low stretch such as Maxima’s Ultra Green or Chameleon. Both of these lines are tough enough for serious open water spoon trolling.
For anglers who prefer braided lines, the best options are braids that are tightly twisted to create a line that round in shape like monofilament. Most braids and fused lines are flat in shape, which means they do not load evenly onto the reel spoon making it tough for the drag to function properly.
The best braids for trolling are also the most expensive. Maxima’s Braid 8 is made by twisting, under high pressure, eight different Spectra braid fibers. The line is then coated to give the line the look, feel and handling characteristics of monofilament, but in a line that has zero stretch.
The added cost of premium braids scares off a lot of anglers, but there are ways to mitigate the costs associated with spooling up with braid. Instead of loading the entire reel spool with braid, load first a less expensive monofilament line and then top dress the spool with 100 to 150 yards of premium braid.
It’s also worth noting that braid lasts longer than monofilament. Even charter captains who fish daily routinely get two or even three seasons out of premium braids.
How Deep Does That Dive?
Finding fish is the key to catching open water walleye. Once fish are located it’s also critical to fish at the depths these fish are holding at. Open water walleye can literally be found a few inches below the surface all the way to the bottom and anywhere in between.
Knowing how deep crankbaits, divers and other trolling gear fishes on various lead lengths becomes a fundamental part of successful open water trolling. The Precision Trolling Data, LLC apps are hands down the definitive source on how deep stuff dives. Available in both an Android and iPhone version, this app allows anglers to select a target depth and the app spits out the exact amount of line out needed to achieve that depth! Sold at the Google Play and the Apple App Store respectively.
Virtually every pro on the walleye tournament circuits is using the Precision Trolling Data app to quickly dial in their baits and gear to the depths at which they are marking fish. Anglers can purchase individual Dive Curves, complete versions or a lifetime version that provides all the currently available data and subsequent updates at no additional cost.
Summing It Up
Chasing walleye in open water is a challenge at many levels. Finding fish, staying on those fish, figuring out what depths are the most productive and what baits the fish want to eat on any given day make for world class trolling challenges. The cool thing about open water trolling is once a pattern is figured out, catching lots of fish and often big fish are the rewards.
Fishing out in the middle of nowhere isn’t for everyone, but in the Great Lakes those who master the open water basins, rule when it comes to catching limits and lots of big walleye.