A poem I read somewhere summarized the feelings of many walleye anglers this time of year. “Get up early, stay up late, fish all day, the grass can wait. Boat’s on the trailer, trailer’s on the truck, walleyes are bitin’, wish me luck.”
Unfortunately, luck alone won’t make you a successful walleye angler. Success comes from knowledge, and knowledge comes with study and practice. With that in mind, here are five tips and tactics to help improve your summer walleye-fishing success.
Follow the Fish
Walleyes inhabit many different places in a lake or river during summer. They may be in weeds or woody cover on flats, patrolling the edges of bottom channels, roaming the open lake basin, lying at the base of deep structure just above the thermocline or moving around shallow rock reefs at night and on windy days. To catch fish, you need to know when they’re mostly likely to be feeding, and that is determined largely by wind, weather and sunlight penetration.
For example, summer walleyes often are found in lush stands of coontail or cabbage weeds atop shallow flats because these weedbeds offer cover and hold schools of baitfish. In this situation, walleyes tend to wait for low-light conditions before feeding aggressively. Most will be caught at night, near dawn or dusk or on windy or cloudy days when sunlight penetration is reduced in the shallows.
In deep water, walleyes may suspend, roam the basin or relate to the bases of structure at or slightly above the summer thermocline. The deeper the fish, the more active they’ll be during the day. So if your fishing time is confined to daylight hours, it’s best to concentrate on deep-water structures.
When you determine which areas to fish at which times of day, select an appropriate presentation. Shallow fish may require using slip bobbers, casting crankbaits or jigs, or trolling minnow imitators over flats with a long-line presentation. Deep fish may require vertical jigging, open-water trolling with crankbaits or live-bait rigging. The better you can adapt to depth, cover and the aggressiveness of local groups of fish, the greater your chances of catching fish.
Weedbeds in lakes attract and hold walleyes throughout summer. Walleyes may be deep within the greenery or cruising over the tops of weeds. Most will be active at a certain depth, usually where the best weed growth is found. You’ll have to fish the area first to determine which depth this is.
Begin testing the water by drifting or fan-casting crankbaits over the weedbeds. If the vegetation rises near the surface, use floating-minnow imitations and work them with a herky-jerky retrieve so they just tickle the tops of the cover. When the weed tops are separated from the surface by a few feet of water, try a suspending minnow crankbait. Where weed tops are deep, and in places where weeds are sparse, try a deeper-diving, shad-imitation crankbait worked between the stalks. You’ll get snagged occasionally, but that lets you know you’re doing things right.
Trolling for Suspenders
In steep-banked impoundments, many summer walleyes move slightly offshore, away from structure, and suspend over deep water several yards out along a tight contour. To catch these suspenders, try trolling with leadcore line extended out from the sides of the boat using 8- to 10-foot rods. This makes it possible to get lures down to the fish and still keep the presentation compact enough to maneuver along shoreline contours.
For this type of fishing, you’ll need a trolling reel large enough to hold about 100 yards of 18-pound leadcore (braided Dacron line with a skinny internal lead filament). This is mounted on an 8- to 10-foot downrigger rod with enough backbone to support the weight of the line. A leader of 12-pound-test monofilament is connected to the leadcore with a barrel swivel. The angler then ties on a diving crankbait such as Rapala’s Shad Rap.
The rods are extended out to either side of the boat, permitting you to cover a 25- to 30-foot swath of water along the edges of contours. Troll at 1.5 to 2.5 miles per hour to quickly cover a lot of water. In many situations, you’ll be trolling with 60-70 yards of leadcore out, which positions your lure at about 25-35 feet deep. If no bite is forthcoming after you troll an expanse of water, change lures and try to find one that produces.
Leeches and Lighted Bobbers
When fishing shallow rock-strewn cover at night, you need a simple snag-free system to keep you in action. One such rig is a lighted slip-bobber rig, which employs a small battery-powered bobber, or a Cyalume light stick attached to the bobber stem with a plastic sleeve, that signals you when a fish strikes. When the light goes out (the bobber goes under), fish on!
Run the bobber on your line, then tie on a #8 hook. Add a few split shot 18 inches above the hook to keep your bait down while the bobber drifts. The ideal bait for this type of fishing is a leech hooked through its suction cup.
Use this rig anywhere walleyes concentrate in limited areas or where finesse is needed to fool fish into biting. It’s particularly effective on small select spots such as the tip of a rock-crested reef, the edge of a weedbed, around a river wing dam or the end of a boulder strewn point.
Anchor casting distance away from the structure, upwind. Set the bobber at a depth so your bait is suspended just above weeds, rocks and wood. Cast it, letting the wind drift the bait above the walleye hideout. Then watch for the light to go out.
River Walleyes at Night
Night fishing for walleyes on big rivers is one of the most overlooked summer patterns. Most walleye anglers leave rivers in summer because they think walleyes have, too. But as water temperatures rise, so does the activity of river walleyes. At night, many can be found chasing schools of baitfish in shallow shoreline areas easily fished from the bank or a boat.
Look for these fish near tributary mouths and river junctions where two currents merge to form a “seam” or “break.” Cast a 1/4-ounce jig outfitted with a Johnson Beetle-Spin-type spinner upstream just beyond the current seam and immediately begin your retrieve. Walleyes often strike even before you reel up slack. Small shad-imitation crankbaits worked slowly over adjacent flats may also produce well, since small gizzard shad make up much of the walleye’s summer diet.
Scout your fishing area thoroughly before dark to determine the best fishing areas, then avoid shining flashlights or lanterns on the water you plan to fish. Walleyes may be only a foot or two deep at night and are easily spooked.
There’s much more to be learned about summer walleye fishing, but with some study and on-the-water experience, you should be able to target these great-eating fish successfully. When you’ve learned as much as you can about this prized sportfish, how and where it spends its time, putting walleyes on the stringer is really fairly easy. Give it a try this summer.