Cranking Up Lake Erie Walleyes
Trolling crankbaits is a go-to on Lake Erie. Here's how to fill your livewell.
Crankbaits areking in the spring for the majority of Lake Erie walleye anglers. At least those who catch big fish consistently. Come May, the walleyes are in post-spawn mode from Toledo east to Presque Isle, and are seriously hungry.
The prime action moves with the fish, from west to east, as the walleyes seek cooler waters and follow schools of baitfish doing the same, often not peaking in Pennsylvania waters until late in the month.
According to lifelong Lake Erie walleye angler and guide Captain Ross Robertson, the fish that migrated west to spawn on rock reefs and rivers earlier in the spring are hanging out on the mudflats adjacent to those locations, as well as the deep water around the Bass Islands and spreading east to seek out the cooler, deeper waters off Pennsylvania and western New York.
“Once water temps top 40 degrees in the spring,” explained the Toledo native, “it’s all about the food for walleyes, and for anglers looking for the fish.”
Season-long, Robertson spends 80 percent of his fishing days pursuing walleyes. In May, that jumps to “90 percent-plus” because, he says, the fishing can be fast, the fish big and the weather favorable, which adds up to a fun day to be out on the water for both guide and clients. Robertson pulls crankbaits about half the time over the course of a season, with the balance split evenly between trolling spinners or spoons. That changes in May, when three-fourths of the time he is presenting crankbaits to Lake Erie walleyes.
“They are incredibly effective in May,” he said of the minnow-imitators. “Or I wouldn’t be using them.”
FIND THE RIGHT SPEED
One reason for their ability to catch spring walleye is the speed at which crankbaits can be trolled, explained Robertson, which allows anglers to cover more water while searching for pods of active fish. And when that water is roiled by frequent spring winds, he added, crankbaits seem to attract and catch more ’eyes than spinners or spoons.
Using crankbaits correctly is the key, according to the captain, and that starts with trolling the lures at the right speed.
“In May, the speed of the lure is critical,” he explained. “Anglers in small boats generally don’t troll fast enough, and those in big boats often troll too fast. A target to shoot for is getting the lure to travel at 1.5 mph. Note that I said the lure, not necessarily the boat. We have current in Lake Erie, from west to east, and that current is always changing and affected by winds and other factors. Lure speed and trolling angle are usually the factors that separate the men from the boys. Get one or both right and you’re going to outfish everyone else.”
Robertson has his Ranger 621FS rigged to take advantage of those factors, using a 15-horsepower kicker outboard at the transom and a Minn Kota Ulterra electric at the bow, at times using both in combination to attain the speed and angle he wants to catch the larger walleyes he seeks. To dial in to the actual lure speed and water temperature at the depth he’s trolling the crankbaits, Robertson uses a portable Fish Hawk X2 underwater speed probe.
“The currents we face in the spring can cause lure speed to vary as much as .7 mph from the boat speed, depending on the direction you are going,” he said. “Knowing the actual speed of the lure down below is critical.
“It can be the tipping point on a daily basis: One day it’s fast, the next painfully slow,” he continued, referring to the trolling speed required to tempt a walleye. “The cooler the water, the slower you should start as a rule of thumb. When the water is in the 40-degree range, this can mean barely breaking 1 mph to get the walleye to bite. Once we start seeing 50-degree water, the preferred speed range can jump almost double.”
FIND THE FISH
According to Robertson, some of the bigger spring walleyes don’t spawn every year. This can affect their springtime behavior.
“The largest fish may only spawn every other, or every third year, and therefore will do things a little different than your average-size fish,” he said. “They often suspend higher adjacent the spawning reefs with a little more energy and willingness to bite than the spawning fish.”
The spawners, he said, can be “a little neutral as they recover from the effort.” He added that these fish often move to the mudflats neighboring spawning grounds and tend to hold near the bottom.
“I’ve actually caught them with mud caked in their gill plates, living up to the nickname ‘ole clay face’ I suppose,” he laughed.
Robertson suggests that diving crankbaits perform best on larger, suspended fish in May. He adds that a snap weight might be required to get lures deeper.
“I prefer using a 1-ounce when I can get away with it,” he said, “since that size doesn’t disrupt the action nearly as much as heavier weights and lets me still get to the desired depth – but I’ll go as high as 2-ounce if needed.”
That said, the walleye guide adds that neutral fish, walleyes that aren’t active, often won’t hit a lure with a snap weight on the line.
According to Robertson, he will also “tinker with braided line since [he] can get lures down deeper by as much as 4 or 5 feet and get better hookups with long leads.” When those neutral fish do bite, it’s often “more of a slurp than an aggressive strike,” Robertson said. He suggests loosening the reel’s drag a bit when using braided lines as compared to where it’s set when using stretchier mono to avoid losing fish to hooks pulling free when the walleye is near the boat.
PUT IT ALL TOGETHER
A typical spring crankbait trolling rig for Robertson consists of a Reef Runner or Rapala Husky Jerk lure trolled 80 feet back on 10-pound-test monofilament, which will achieve a depth of up to 20 feet, depending on boat speed.
When the fish are deeper, he snaps on a 1-ounce weight to get another 5 to 8 feet of depth — or a 2-ounce weight to net another 10 to 15 feet with the same 80 feet of line out, depending on the boat speed.
“Many days a majority of strikes come from the outside lines,” explained Robertson. “Make sure to spread lures out within the water column, as active fish can be found from just below the surface all the way to belly on the bottom. Small changes in weather such as a change in wave action or sunshine can both move fish and change attitudes quickly. In the spring time, thinking and acting quickly is required because the windows of activity can be small.”
Line choice “can play a huge role” in spring fishing, according to the captain.
“Day-in and day-out, I run 10-pound-test Sunline Super Natural monofilament,” Robertson said. “It’s super strong and has a small diameter relative to its breaking strength, but the real key is having the stretch from the mono. This is extremely important when trolling with short lines or when getting ready to net fish at the boat, when extra ‘give’ can mean the difference between getting a fish in the boat and shaking your head.”
While monofilament line is Robertson’s “go-to” line, braided lines play a role.
“A small-diameter braid is strong but with a diameter so small that crankbaits can get an additional 5 feet of diving depth,” the guide noted. “This is incredibly important because a mid-range crank can get to deeper depths otherwise unachievable. When using these long leads, it can also help with hookups due to lack of stretch.”
A recent trend for spring walleye anglers on Lake Erie, Robertson said, is the use of large stickbaits, and even big jerkbaits, designed for catching bass. Anglers snap on a weight 30 feet up from the lure, letting additional line out as needed for increased depth.
“The extended distance [between lure and weight] gives you plenty of time to get the weight off the line before getting the fish boatside and allows the lure to have a little more action that’s less affected by the weight,” he said.
Robertson employs Yellow Bird in-line planer boards to spread out the weighted crankbait presentations, running up to three per side depending on how many anglers he has aboard and the number of rods each may legally fish. When possible, the captain keeps one “flatline” rod trolling a crankbait rig off the transom, which he can manipulate to put the lure in front of individual walleyes he sees on the sonar.
“That ‘sight-fishing’ is especially fun,” he said. “But any time in May you can get out on The Big Lake with a box of crankbaits, the potential is there for a great day of walleye fishing.”
ERIE’S OFTEN OVERLOOKED ’EYES
From the broad window of his Huron, Ohio, tackle shop overlooking Lake Erie, each year about this time Bob Hanko watches boat after boat of eager walleye anglers depart his marina’s narrow entrance and power up, headed for the distant horizon. What they don’t realize is that just about where they are jumping on plane is where they should be throttling back to present baits to the shallow-feeding walleye 3 to 15 feet below.
“The walleyes come in shallow feeding on minnows attracted by the warmer water and cover,” the avid walleye angler explained. “Most fishermen think they have to be out deeper, where they can see packs of other boats, to catch fish. That’s not the case in May, where walleye are shallow and deep — wherever they need to go to find baitfish.”Hanko said the shallow action begins when surface temps hit 50 degrees.
“The guys who know about it will troll crankbaits, like RipSticks, Smithwicks and Husky Jerks, in 15 feet or less water until they get bit, then switch over to casting,” he stated.
He said trolling speed is critical and suggested 1 to 1.5 mph. Hanko added that the shallow catch is usually comprised of male walleyes, and when you cross paths with a pod of active “jacks,” you can suddenly score a hit on every line in the water. The marina owner said that anglers also drift and cast hair jigs, sometimes tipped with an emerald shiner or a piece of worm, or they use blade baits like Vibes or Heddon Sonars, to fool the shallow-holding walleyes.
“When they are on,” he said, “a plain jig will do just fine.”
Just beware of those boats blasting past the shallows for distant, deeper waters that may — or may not — be as productive for catching May walleyes.