It’s no secret walleyes roam the waters of every Great Lake. Some waterways within the massive freshwater system with huge bays, such as Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay and Lake Michigan’s Little Bay de Noc as examples, can spoil an angler because the high density of fish that reside year-round makes them easier to target.
But there’s more than just a handful of places walleyes wander in these vast inland seas; What’s unknown to many is nearly every river and stream that flows into the Great Lakes will, at one time or another, see rogue schools of fish feeding where water roils into the big lakes. The problem? Knowing exactly when the fish will drift through.
By the end of this month, however, the ice on the big lakes will be breaking up and the walleyes will be showing up.
It’s early spring when these marble-eyed inhabitants start congregating, gathering for procreation; this makes finding them a much less daunting task in these vast waterways. And the best technique for finding and catching walleyes, by far, is trolling. And when the water’s as cold as it is this time of year, I prefer to pull crankbaits.
Trolling crankbaits allows me to cover as much water as possible; the perfect ploy for locating small schools of walleyes. But there is more to trolling than just haphazardly pulling lures through the water column. Finding the fish, tweaking speed and placing lures perfectly within the strike zone are all imperative when it comes to catching versus just getting your lures wet.
The Art of Pulling
Walleyes can be in just about any depth of water near river mouths, from the single digits to 50 feet and beyond. And it’s because of the diversities in depth that I pull as many lines and lures as I’m able with a spread of Church Tackle’s in-line planer boards and stern planers.
Planer boards allow me pull several different lures at one time without getting tangles and permits me to try different depths with diverse lures with just a single pass. And while planer boards will spread my lines out, the stern planers keep lines in a direct path behind my Lund and between my planer boards, as well as having my lures in the strike zone due being able to manage the amount of line out.
But I don’t troll crankbaits just anywhere. Instead, I pull them along breaklines, making sure to get them running directly over the tips of points and through cuts unseen by the naked eye.
How I see those irregularities under the surface is by using Navionics mapping coupled with my Lowrance HDS Carbon 12. Navionics has high-definition maps of nearly every popular place walleyes roam, including the Great Lakes. With an SD card filled with Navionics’ charts in the unit’s card reader, I’m able to see which way I’ll have to steer my Lund well ahead of time, allowing me to get my baits on target each and every pass.
Another component to catching early-spring walleyes is being able to see my speed easily on the large screen of my Lowrance sonar. This is because controlling speed right down to 1/10 of a mile per hour is crucial when it comes to catching over just fishing.
Overall, the water’s still quite frigid this time of year and sometimes slower over fast paced is what’s needed to get bit. And it’s not because the walleyes don’t want to catch up to fast-paced forage, but it’s because these cold-blooded fish can’t. There’s bodies are the same temperature as their surroundings, and when the water is barely above freezing the fish’s muscles become rigid.
As I tend to do in summer, I’ll start trolling as slowly as my lures will allow and then start working my way faster by only 1/10 of a mile per hour until I start getting bites. I give it 15 to 20 minutes before changing. Overall, speeds of .8 to 1.5 MPH will be what it takes this time of year.
In general, lures with plastic bodies will wobble wider at slower speeds that those made of balsa wood. (Again, this is a very general rule.) Two of my go-to lures that have a lot of action at slow speeds are Rapala’s Jointed Deep Husky Jerk and their Scatter Rap Deep Husky Jerk; the former in size 12 (4 ¾ inches long) diving 8 to 12 feet and the latter in size 10 (4 inches) diving 9 to 12 feet. And if I need
the lures to get any deeper, I’ll
pull them with Sufix 832 Advanced Lead Core in 18-pound test, with a leader of 12-pound-test Berkley Trilene 100% Fluoro Leader Material.
When trolling crankbaits, I use either 10-pound-test Berkley Trilene XT (Extra Tough) or 12-pound Trilene XL (Extra Limp). Both are nearly identical in diameter, but the XL has a little more stretch to it; the elasticity aiding in hook ups when trolling as the lure flails a little more when stuck and the lure goes farther back in the fish mouth, while the XT is often needed in areas where extra abrasion resistance is a must, such as rocky or quagga mussel infested waterways. And no matter what crankbait I’m trolling, I connect it to my line with a Berkley snap, not snap-swivel, as a snap allows the lure the most action without the added weight of the swivel.
Here and There
As I mentioned, as soon as the ice breaks up off the Great Lakes walleye will start showing up near river inlets. In general, the smaller males will migrate in first, followed by the larger females. But the big hens may only be around for a short time, each one swimming in, laying eggs and then scattering back out into the big lakes. The males, however, will stick around after the main spawning, just in case a late comer swims in.
The main spawn will occur when water temperatures get into the mid-40’s, and will often correlate with either the full moon or new moon. Watch the environment of the waterways you fish and you’ll be fishing smackdab in the middle of the most fish.
Keep your eye on the conditions as soon as the ice starts to disappear from the Great Lakes; watch water temperatures and moon phases. Once the environment’s right, troll crankbaits behind planer boards precisely along different breaklines until you find fish. Once found, try different speeds until you get bit. You’ll be surprised at the walleyes you catch, even in the most unknown of walleye destinations.
Mark Martin is a touring walleye tournament pro and instructor with the Fishing Vacation/Schools. Check out his website at markmartins.net for more information.