August 27, 2020
By Jeff Knapp
Though perhaps thought of as a primary target species more in spring and fall when water temperatures are cooler, walleyes often provide good action during the mid- to late-summer period. They can be caught in significant numbers by anglers who focus on the open-water basins of lakes and reservoirs where they congregate in good numbers now.
Walleyes are one of freshwater’s most adaptable species, able to utilize a wide variety of habitats and food-source options. Once summer is well established, much of a lake’s walleye population will have moved to offshore areas far removed from the shallow, spawn-related areas that held them during spring.
A lake’s or reservoir’s physical characteristics and food supply—things that must be considered when searching for summer walleyes—will vary from one body of water to the next. Fish that inhabit a 1,000-acre reservoir are not likely to behave like the ones that call the vast waters of Lake Erie, eastern Lake Ontario or Lake Champlain home. But chances are good they will fall into one of four categories: suspended and keying on pelagic baitfish; holding within deep-water stump fields; holding on outside edges of deep submergent weedbeds in clear-water lakes; or relating directly to bottom composition changes.
Pelagic baitfish, like emerald shiners, rainbow smelt, gizzard shad and alewives, are all important walleye food sources. Each of these baitfish species largely feeds on plankton suspended in the water column. Walleyes that key on them tend to be nomadic and follow the movements of their prey. For instance, in Lake Erie, walleyes make a west-to-east migration from spring through late summer, placing much of the lake’s walleye population off the shores of New York and Pennsylvania by mid- to late summer. Given the scattered nature of walleyes relating to suspended baitfish, trolling is the most effective tactic.
Success in catching suspended walleyes calls for understanding a couple basic principles. For one, walleyes tend to hold beneath schools of baitfish and feed upward. As such, if schools of baitfish are showing up on sonar in the 20- to 30-foot range, be sure some of your presentations are running in the 15- to 20-foot zone. Also, walleyes tend to slide off to the side of boat movement, so an effective trolling program will include lures presented out away from the boat.
There are many means of spreading lures when targeting suspended walleyes. However, for the typical small-boat angler who fishes for a variety of species and doesn’t care to dedicate a boatload of tackle for this scenario (as a Great Lakes charter captain would) two wonderful tools are directional trolling sinkers, like Dipsy Divers, and inline planer boards, like Off Shore Tackle’s OR12.
Directional sinkers have the ability to both dive and plane off to the side—the latter via adjustments made by the angler. They couple well with both flutter spoons and spinner rigs tipped with ‘crawlers. Such sinkers can dig down into the 50-foot range. However, know that adjusting the device to plane to the side will lessen its depth potential.
Inline planers, as their name suggests, fasten to the main line and pull the presentation out to the side of the boat. The farther you let an inline planer out, the more perpendicular to the boat it runs. Inline planers work well with crankbaits and spinner rigs.
Another option for spreading out lures, particularly from a smaller boat, is to use long trolling rods. I often use 11-foot-long trolling rods planted in rod holders to carry lures out away from the boat. This is particularly effective in dingy-water reservoirs where walleyes are less spooky. Books and apps, like the one offered by Precision Trolling Data, provide the dive curves of popular lures.
TROLLING STUMP FIELDS
When walleyes are utilizing bottom-holding food sources, like yellow perch, it’s often imperative to get the lures right down in their faces. When the depths are in the 20-foot range and deeper, as they often are in this scenario, targeting these walleyes requires a weighting system, such as lead-core line, for presenting a variety of crankbaits.
For this example, let’s consider an extensive flat in the 22- to 26-foot range that’s adjacent to a reservoir’s old creek channel. The flat is seasoned with scattered stumps that rise off the bottom two to three feet. While walleyes tend to relate to the stumps, it doesn’t make sense to target individual stumps since the cover is scattered. Thus, a trolling approach is best.
Lead-core line features a thin filament of lead enshrouded by a nylon coating. Think of it as an inline sinker that pulls even shallow-running crankbaits down to 30 feet or more with ease. Due to its bulky diameter (when compared to monofilament or braid), lead-core line is usually spooled on large levelwind reels, often with line counters. Affix a length of mono or fluorocarbon line to the end of the lead core to serve as a leader. Ten feet will typically suffice in dingy water, but 20 to 30 feet is common in clear water.
When trolling with lead-core line, allow line to pay out as the boat moves forward at trolling speed. Occasionally engage the reel so that the line tightens up and the lure stabilizes at that depth. Continue doing this until the lure starts to tick bottom, then take in enough line so that it no longer bumps. This will place the lure within a foot of the bottom.
Lead-core line is speed-sensitive—it lifts the faster you go and sinks as you slow down—so maintaining a constant speed is critical. In warm water, summer walleyes often respond best to crankbaits trolled in the 2 to 2.5 mph range. Consistently monitor the depth, taking in line or paying it out, in response to changes. In our stump flat example, you would want to take in a couple extra cranks of the reel to lift the lure(s) above the tops of the cover.
Crankbaits such as Rapala’s Shad Rap, Berkley’s Flicker Shad and Storm’s Hot ‘N Tot are among the many lures that function well on lead-core line. Also, lead core can be used to present lures to suspended fish. Dive curve apps, like the one mentioned above, are useful in achieving the desired depth.
It’s well known that walleyes like edges. Some obvious examples include the outside edge of a submerged weedbed and bottom composition changes, such as from rock to sand. The latter is most common in natural lakes, while the former can be present in both lakes and reservoirs that tend to have a fairly stable pool level throughout the year.
As with the previous scenarios, the use of electronics is a key to success when fishing edges. In most cases you’ll be utilizing sonar to find the outside edge of the weeds since the top of the cover will likely be well under the surface, particularly in clear-water environments where weeds commonly grow in 15- to 20-foot-plus depths.
In the case of bottom composition, harder bottoms will provide a thinner return on traditional 2D sonar, while the return will be thicker over softer areas. Side imaging is particularly useful in locating bottom transitions, as areas with a hard bottom will be brighter. Side imaging will also show walleye-attracting rocks and ledges, as well as individual fish, which mark well over soft-bottom areas.
Since foraging walleyes will often roam along weed and bottom transitions, a mobile approach that covers the water tends to be most efficient. Perhaps the best is pulling a spinner rig, like a crawler harness, behind a bottom-bouncer sinker.
With its V-shaped wire form, the bottom-bouncer sinker, when rigged three to four feet ahead of the spinner rig, leads the way along walleye holding edges. Commonly used in ½ to 3-ounce weights, this sinker tends to bounce erratically along the bottom, transmitting an equally erratic action to the trailing spinner rig. Trolling speeds around 1 mph tend to be best when pulling bottom bouncers, a slow pace that’s best attained by an electric motor.
As with suspended walleyes and structure-trolled walleyes, it’s best to leave rods in rod holders when trolling edges. Soft-action rods used in combination with bouncer/spinner rigs typically hook walleyes before you even pull the rod from the holder.
If there’s a downside to spinner rigs, it’s having to rebait night crawlers often due to pesky yellow perch and sunfish. This can be remedied by using ribbon leeches, which are tougher than night crawlers, or artificial crawlers, like those in the Berkley PowerBait and Gulp! lines.
While we have looked at several different scenarios for targeting deep-water walleyes, understand that these methods can often be used together. For instance, you can target suspended walleyes with lures run behind inline planers while running a bottom-hugging lead core line off the back of the boat. By utilizing these techniques, or a combination of them, you’ll be able to stay on walleyes throughout the summer months.