June 28, 2019
By Joel Nelson
Sonar is big business these days and rightly so.
We have come a long way from “fishfinders” that will give a general recommendation on depth and smatter onscreen a few goldfish-cracker lookalikes as the walleyes we are looking to target. Most boats, even old ones now, have updated electronics that will show 2D sonar in ever-impressive fashion, along with side imaging, down imaging and even ultrasound-like live views of the lake area in all directions.
Another upgrade from the past is GPS and the associated mapping that lives on your sonar device. Map chip options abound, depending on your brand of choice, and where anglers of old would “mentally map” the structure they fished below, we get to see it as one-foot precision contours. That changes not just your perception of location, but also the idea of a “spot.” Anglers are less reliant than ever on the thought of lining up a green boat awning with the red cabin to locate a hotspot, as they have a better understanding of the structure, its substrate, and nuances that hold fish.
Yet it is interesting that with such a rapid evolution of electronic capabilities, specifically in the last decade, that we continue to fish many of the same old spots, regrettably the same old ways. We do this despite clear cues and clues to what fish are doing at any particular moment, on a myriad of pieces of structure. Although we have more information than ever with which to make an educated decision, we rely too often on historical details of success to predict what’s presently put in our laps.
Each day is different, and the best walleye anglers on earth will tell you that environmental factors such as wind, sun, moonlight and a host of other things can change the bite inside of minutes rather than hours.
Unpredictability in fronts, cloud cover and bug hatches can make it harder than ever to be presenting the right bait at the right time in the right location. While there is probably even more bad news to share, the above constitutes the bulk of it.
The good news is that today, more than ever, we have the tools to make better decisions on the water. While it is still up to us to perform the latter part of that statement, consider sonar as the cart your nurse rolled in the last time you visited the doctor, constantly taking the temperature of fish as you drive over them in your rig. That computer can also test blood pressure, oxygen levels and a host of other health indicators; much like your sonar can detect depth of fish, size, location and their position on the graph relative to substrate and structure. Just like your doctor, you need to take into account all factors before arriving at the proper diagnosis, and then prescription for the ailment at hand.
Thankfully, you have some great treatments at the ready. There are plenty of presentations in walleye fishing these days, ranging from speedy trolling runs to the slowest and most precise vertical applications. While all of them will catch ’eyes provided the conditions are right, the fact of the matter is that the rose-colored glasses of yesteryear’s bites, rather than current fish location and variables, are what make us select the techniques that we do for any given day. I am just as guilty. I love a handful of select patterns and tend to reflect on what has been successful rather than what will be. That said, what’s helped me get out of those ruts, when needed, is to break down the bevy of presentations we have into three main speeds, then let fish locations and what I’m seeing on my sonar reflect how I should fish them.
FAST: TROLLING (2.0 MPH – 3.0+ MPH)
Pulling crankbaits is great fun, but more importantly, it is your No. 1 defense against scattered fish. Especially in mid-summer and later months, as fish grow rather fat and happy, sonar indicates a parade of fish along bottom. Often, they are walleyes that seem to show up in great regularity and rather poor concentration. Fish strewn about a long breakline or flat, along with walleyes that are suspended and roaming, are prime candidates for fishing hard baits in front of their noses. As a rule, in my boat, scattered means speedy in terms of the presentations I’m looking to employ.
Of course, many of the Midwest’s walleye factories have expanses of water that are both humbling and huge. If this is new water to you, the effect is amplified when pulling over rather homogenous bottom and unchanging depths. Of course, good intel or sonar-based evidence of scattered fish in these scenarios makes trolling crankbaits a no-brainer. That said, it is rarely a bad plan to start pulling crankbaits at the start of any day come summer. If you are on any of the big, windswept walleye lakes and fishing new spots, you can cover some water and put more lures in front of more fish. More importantly, it is a great way to scout areas while having a line down.
In states or border waters where multiple lines are allowed, pulling cranks looks even more attractive. Whether by long-lining or pulling lead core for deeper fish, the onus is on you as an angler to put these diving lures in front of fish at the proper depth. From there, you will be relying on the fish and your electronics to give you clues on what you might do next.
Process the information in a general way by paying attention to the size, distribution and number of fish that you’re seeing on the screen, in order to put together a game plan that continues to evolve as you gather more information. Trolling allows you to pass over areas while gathering valuable data, both visually and virtually, as you hopefully catch fish and see them onscreen. Generally, fish positioned off bottom and actively feeding on pods of bait are more likely to respond to aggressive speeds like this one. Fish that are belly-to-bottom can be triggered into striking, but more often require a subtler approach.
MODERATE: TROLLING/DRIFTING (1.0 MPH – 1.5 MPH)
This intermediate speed is where many tournaments are won, and it involves a number of related techniques from spinners on bottom bouncers to slow-death rigs pulled in the same manner. The key to these presentations is certainly feeding the fish what they want, but before we get there, we have to know quite a bit more about their locations. Here is where your sonar interpretation comes into play. You are looking for active fish off bottom in twos and threes. Sometimes you will just see a string of them strewn about a breakline or edge, but when these techniques work best, you’re seeing a good number of arcs onscreen, preferably a foot or two from the lake bottom.
Moderate speeds and the techniques that live in the space work great for pods of fish along a pronounced break, structural element, weedline or other linear features. I spoke with Fishing Hall of Famer and consummate tourney pro Perry Good a while back, and we talked about a few locations where we like to pull slow-death rigs. Not surprisingly, most of those locations were broad pieces of structure where fish like to congregate along a certain stretch, rather than a precise, on-the-spot location. We are talking about a fishy underwater feature in between massive and miniscule, measured in yards, not miles or feet. Sometimes, you do need to pull through a school of fish glued to these tiny spots in order to get them to bite, but usually if they are highly concentrated, there are more efficient means to present baits to the same fish.
SLOW: NEARLY STATIONARY (0 MPH – 0.5 MPH)
To me, the most important reason to slow down when walleye fishing is when you have some solid information on fish locations, whether electronic or otherwise. Fishing slowly with little intel on where fish may be, especially on larger waters, can be frustratingly futile. Often, there is just too much water for them to be elsewhere if we subscribe to the 80/20 rule of most of the fishing being in very small portions of the lake. While this speed has probably the largest category of patterns residing within it, we can break them up between relatively shallow and deep presentations. For many summer applications, we are often fishing off the main break into deep water, relying on our sonar to show off larger schools of fish relating to bait, hard-bottom edges or other structures of interest. This is where the Jigging Raps come out, should fish be aggressive and in a chasing mood. If fish are in a more sullen mood, rigging various types of live bait up to 0.5 mph or vertically jigging that same bait is often the ticket.
On the shallow end, again, I’m looking for intel like sonar side imaging as to why they’d be in that specific location to start with, but I’m also looking for certain conditions to excite the bite. Wind is the primary driver here, but pair it with lower light — whether morning, evening or just plain overcast — and you have some prime conditions for a casting bite. Whether soft-plastic swimbaits, cranks or even jigs with live bait, think of fishing shallow and more slowly like you’re fishing for bass. Pick a few areas that are being buffeted by 10- to 15-mph winds or better — especially if wind has been coming that direction for some time — and put the bow-mount down to cast at some shallow zones.
Of course, there are many more presentations, and exceptions to these rules. Not to mention, wrinkles or riffs on the same patterns detailed here. That said, the most important part about matching your presentation speed and resultant pattern to sonar is to focus on what you are seeing, not on what you once saw.