March 24, 2023
There are two kinds of walleyes—reef spawners and river spawners. In Lake Erie's Western Basin, experts estimate approximately 10 percent of the walleyes are river spawners that do the deed in the Detroit, Sandusky, Maumee and other rivers. The spring runs on these rivers are well known throughout the region, and many anglers flock to them each year to take advantage of this ritual.
However, with Lake Erie's booming walleye population, that still leaves about 70 to 90 million walleyes that spawn in Lake Erie proper. The bulk of these fish end up spawning on isolated reefs, including the massive Camp Perry Firing Range reef complex. Anglers willing to brave cold—and sometimes choppy—waters can find fast-and-furious action for large spring walleyes.
Walleyes are broadcast spawners. Females randomly drop eggs, which fall into the crevasses of rocks, and males emit a cloud of milt that settles over and fertilizes the eggs. Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Fisheries Biologist Travis Hartman says that Erie's walleyes ultimately spawn wherever they find suitable gravel and rocky rubble habitat. However, much of the rocky substrate walleyes prefer is found around Turtle and West Sister islands, along the South Bass Island reefs, West Reef west of North Bass Island and the Starve Island Reef off the southern tip of South Bass Island. Other areas with isolated outcroppings of gravel and suitably sized rubble also draw fish. One of the most substantial portions of the Lake Erie walleye population, however, spawns on the shallow Camp Perry Firing Range reef complex.
Found between Toledo and Port Clinton, the Camp Perry Firing Range reef structure is a complex of rocks and rubble in 5 to 20 feet of water. The trapezoid-shaped area is vast, measuring roughly 7.4 miles at its widest point (west to east) and 10.1 miles at its longest point (south to north), with numerous smaller reefs, including Crane, Locust, Toussaint, Little and Big Pickerel, Cone and others. All offer fantastic walleye opportunities in the spring.
Fishing is allowed on the firing range, which the Ohio National Guard manages. Closures on the reef are extremely rare, but on the infrequent occasion live firing is taking place, the Camp Perry strobe light will be activated, and red range flags will be displayed. Patrol boats will also make it crystal clear if you need to leave the area. However, again, these drills are extremely rare. For specific firing schedules, you can also call the Camp Perry Range Safety Office on Marine VHF Channel 16 or at 419-635-4021, ext. 6203 or 6245. For those looking for seriously big walleyes, it's pretty hard to overlook this reef system.
Millions of walleyes stage in deeper water adjacent to these structures before swarming the reefs in a finned orgy. Lake Erie's Western Basin is like a giant bay that warms quicker than the rest of the lake, and it becomes a muddy, cloudy veil due to wind and milt in March and early April. Murky rivers add tepid spring runoff, and the cloudy water soaks up sunshine. Spawning begins in earnest when temps top 40 degrees. During a cold winter, the rotund pigs move shallow under the ice to stage.
"The biggest hens spawn right after ice-out and usually not before," Hartman says. "During years when we have a solid ice cover, the walleye numbers will build and build as the fish stage. As soon as the ice goes off, the fishing is phenomenal."
If Lake Erie isn't iced over, the spawn can last longer, dragging out a month or more. It especially intensifies around the full moon. The ice-off bite usually produces the biggest walleyes year after year. While anglers aren't catching as many of the near-15-pound fish that mostly came out of the prolific 2003 spawning class, Hartman says plenty of big fish are still around. In fact, soon things could be even better. "Trophy fish are the result of population dynamics," Hartman says. "Given time to grow to trophy proportions, Lake Erie will be producing double–digit monsters in numbers not seen before."
In the meantime, hefty 7- or 8-pounders offer ample enjoyment, and, chances are, anglers will still see some 10- to 11-pound giants this spring. With a series of prolific spawns recently, the odds for trophy walleyes will only improve in years to come.
CATCH A DRIFT
Drifting is the preferred reef-fishing method. Anglers must consider wind direction and speed and water depth when setting up a drift. Additionally, each boat drifts differently. High-profile aluminum boats skitter across the surface like a leaf on windy days. Meanwhile, low-sitting fiberglass boats are less affected by wind.
Either way, it's better to go too slow than too fast. A 2-foot chop sets up the perfect drift. Walleyes—especially roe-laden hens—are lethargic in cold water, and they're more likely to hit a garish jig that dances in their face a while than one that zips by. Aggressive males sometimes like fast-moving jigs, though.
Anglers can control their boat speed with a drift sock or sea anchor. Tie the anchor off the front of the boat to a sturdy cleat. As the wind pushes you, the anchor fills with water, slows you down and points the bow into the wind. Excessive wind may necessitate two anchors. Veteran walleye guide Captain Dan Woodward (734-968-1222; thebluelinecharters.com) uses a sock in combination with his trolling motor to control his drift. Ideally, your lines will be at a 45-degree angle in the water.
Another alternative is to drift and cast. Note each drift on your GPS and repeat tracks that produce fish. Generally, 10 to 12 feet is prime territory when the spawn is intense. However, depending on the spawn's progression, deeper water off the edges of reefs (20 feet or more) can prove superior.
On a cold, windy trip to the reefs one April with Woodward, my boatmates and I caught post-spawn male walleyes by popping gaudy, pulsating hair jigs a few inches off bottom. Tipped with a nice shiner minnow, these jigs offer an alluring silhouette for Erie's walleyes. Woodward prefers 3/4-ounce jigs but occasionally uses 1-ounce jigs in windy conditions or when clients have difficulty feeling bottom. To avoid snagging rocks, you want jigs to just touch bottom and not drag.
Dark colors like purple, black and John Deere green excel in murky water. Chartreuse, yellow, hot pink and lime shine when it's sunny and calm. Woodward ties jigs directly to a strong 8- or 10-pound braid like Power Pro. He suggests using a hard, fast pop off bottom to garner reaction strikes. While dragging can work, it takes a toll on jigs. Stinger hooks, meanwhile, are mandatory to pin short strikers.
Blade baits like Custom Jigs & Spins' B3 Blade Bait and Northland Tackle Whistler Jigs also catch reef walleyes. These baits add vibration, which helps fish find them in murky conditions. For blades and Whistler Jigs, 3/4 ounce is a good size. Dark colors usually trigger strikes, but glow shades have their days, too. Fish these just as you would the hair jigs.
An ideal stick for drifting is a medium-action 6 1/2- to 7-foot rod like St. Croix's Avid Series ASWS70MM spinning rod. Pair this or an equivalent with a Pflueger Supreme XT model SUPXTSP30X spinning reel.
On that chilly April trip, we caught walleye after walleye with our hair jigs. Unfortunately, they were all males; we were looking for the big girls. Apparently, the chunky hens had already done their thing and left. Fortunately, on Lake Erie, you have options, so after hearing some good reports from friends, Woodward pointed his Ranger east toward the deeper water around Turtle Island. There, we fished deeper and used another solid spring tactic on Lake Erie.
When walleyes leave spawning reefs to occupy deeper water in Erie, trolling deep-diving lures with in-line planer boards usually gets the nod. On our April trip, we set our trolling spread in 35 feet of water and employed an array of outrageously colored deep-diving plugs like Bandit Walleye Deeps, Rapala Down Deep Husky Jerks (size 12 or 14) and MadEye Minnow 120s. We let these out (three per side) without any weight from 50 to 100 feet behind the boards, allowing baits to dive to 25 feet without assistance and placing them right in the face of suspended fish. Woodward used his main and trolling motors in tandem to achieve a speed between 1 and 1.3 mph. This is ideal when trolling for spring fish.
That day, the walleyes were recuperating from the rigors of spawning and—given the cold water—weren't inclined to chase. They loved the baits' slow wobbles that suggested easy prey. Action was excellent on 4- to 6-pound post-spawn fish. I also caught an 8 1/2-pound post-spawn female that easily would've weighed 10 or 11 pounds back when she still had a belly full of eggs. In short, when walleyes are off the reefs after the spawn, ditch the drifting approach. Bust out the planer boards and deep-diving hardbaits and slow-troll your way to quality fish.
A BRIGHT FUTURE
As good as the walleye fishing on Lake Erie is now, the ONDR's Hartman believes it might be even better in the years to come. He says lake conditions have contributed to some exceptional hatches recently. Eventually, anglers will be the beneficiaries of this, as even more giant walleyes could very well be prowling Erie's many reefs. Until then, anglers willing to give the big lake a try in spring can wear themselves out on pigs well on their way to becoming true monsters.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
- Things to consider when planning a trip to Lake Erie's Western Basin.
Port Clinton, Ohio, bills itself as the "Walleye Capital of the World" for good reason. The city's wellbeing revolves around walleye fishing, and citizens and businesses often cater to anglers. At many ports on the Great Lakes, the docks don't go in until May. But in Port Clinton, when the ice goes out the docks come in.
The city has many boat launch options. Private launches like Turtle Creek, Magee East and Locust Point have great facilities and charge a reasonable fee. Public options include Catawba State Park, Mazurik Access Launch Ramp and East Harbor State Park.
Port Clinton lodging options range from reasonable chains to luxury operations. This includes many that cater to anglers and have spacious lots and security for boats and trailers. Check the Port Clinton Travel Guide for details (portclinton.org).
Looking for a cold one or a hot toddy after a chilly day on the water? Try Twin Oast, Burns' Brew House or Catawba Island Brewing Company. For tackle needs, hit up Happy Hooker Outdoors (happyhookeroutdoors.com). They might have the biggest selection of hair jigs and blade baits in the world, plus everything else you'll need to catch Lake Erie walleyes.