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Fishing for Lake Erie Walleye

Fishing for Lake Erie Walleye Fishing for Lake Erie Walleye
By Dave Adams

Inside a prominent outdoors magazine was a fishing story. In eloquent prose it spoke of an angler fishing a pristine mountain stream. It then continued on to describe a trout that rose gently to the fly and of a beautiful sunrise. The trout missed the fly, yet the angler was happy.

Of course, that story is fine and dandy for some, but most anglers get darn right grumpy if they don't catch fish. So, this story is about catching fish - lots of them - and big ones at that. The kind with fillets larger than the fish you catch in those puny streams.

Where at, you ask? “It's here, right in Pennsylvania,” says Captain Dan Kelly of Buckets Fishing Charters. "The quality of fish is second to nowhere and Lake Erie is the only place where you can expect to catch the walleye of a lifetime on every trip."

According to a recent Lake Erie Fisheries Status and Trend Report, anglers, who fish the Pennsylvania section of the big water, catch as many 84,000 walleye each season, with catch rates peaking during July.

Where to go:

A little searching might be needed. But once on the water, walleye can generally be found not far from any of the following ports: Presque Isle Bay, Walnut Creek, or North East.

First, is a near shore area that is commonly referred to as the "Condos.” It is located approximately four miles from the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission marina at Walnut Creek or the available marinas in Presque Isle Bay. Kelly says the shoreline has a high clay bank, which can help identify this area. Fish this spot during the first part of summer. "You're not going to kill them here, but you'll catch some,” he says. “Most fish generally hold in the 30 to 50 foot depths."

Another key location is the “Trench.” It is seven miles north of Walnut Creek and nine miles from Presque Isle Bay. This is a popular spot that is easily identified by the packs of boats seen on the water. If you’re the first boat there, watch the depth on your fish finder because the water depth is 65 feet near the edge and as you enter the trench, the depth drops to 77 feet. "Most walleye will be suspended between 35 and 45 feet. And depending on wind direction (always troll with the wind) begin trolling at either spot," says Kelly. "Most important, don't leave fish to find fish. If you caught a few, they're eating - stay there."

Finally, and a favorite of smaller boats because of a short boat ride to the fish is the PF&BC marina at North East. Here, walleye anglers will be greeted by deep water (120 feet deep just five miles offshore), structure (an underwater mountain that stretches from PA to NY), and even bigger walleye (10 pounders are not uncommon).

The mountain, which is three miles north of the marina, is easily located with a depth finder. As your boat approaches the mountain's edge the water depth drops rapidly from 55 to over 100 feet. Begin trolling here - similar to working the riprap of any manmade lake - and work along the edge of the mountain. The best spot is four miles northwest of the marina.

What to use:

Tradition plays an important part in catching Lake Erie walleye. If you have baits that traditionally worked in waters elsewhere, leave them at home. These are big fish that require big tackle; you know the type – lures that have real man sized hooks. Plus, Lake Erie is clear (visibility is 100 feet). So, trolling - and getting baits far from the boat – is the best tactic to catch these fish.

Charter captains or “trolling meat hunters" as some call them are the best at catching walleye. They are anglers, who would rather be with strangers whom fish than their spouses. Their boat names usually end in III or IV, and they have navigated through more storms than the Andrea Gail did. On their days off, they fish. So, it pays to listen to them. Especially, when they’re sharing their favorite walleye tactics.

Captain Kelly`s favorite baits are the worm harness or Michigan Stinger spoon combined with the Dipsy Diver and diving plugs. Use the smaller size 0 dipsy off the planer boards and the larger size 1 behind the boat. Plugs can be long lined or used with planer boards.

When using the 0 dipsy, the best setup, according to Kelly, is obtained by using Clear Blue 17 pound Stren line and 17 pound Seaguar fluorocarbon line as a leader. Tie the dipsy directly to the line (no swivel) and follow with a six foot leader. A single blade worm harness is attached to the line. "Don't use a swivel to attach the harness," says Kelly, " because the swivel takes away some of the harness action." Kelly's favorite harness color is the mass confusion, which is a combination of purple, yellow, and orange with a copper back.

On the larger # 1 dipsy, use one of the super lines such as Berkley Fireline or Cortland Spectron in either 20 or 35 pound test. Kelly uses the same pound test in fluorocarbon line for a leader. On this setup, a swivel is used to attach the Michigan Stinger Spoon in the colors of perch or shrimp.

Depth control is important. The smaller dipsy is set at 0 and trolled 125 feet back from the planer board. Use "trolling" rubber bands and planer line clips to attach the fishing line to planer board line. The larger 1 dipsy is set at 3 and trolled the same distance back. But vary your setting throughout the day. "If one setting works, stay with it, but move them till you catch fish," Kelly says.

Trolling speed can vary too. During the early part (end of June till mid-July) of the season, walleye prefer a slightly faster speed of 2.0 to 2.5 MPH. As the season progresses, slow it down - 1.5 to 1.8 MPH is best.

While plug fishing, Kelly prefers to fish with the Reef Runner in black/chrome, eriedescent, or pink trailer trash. Again, the planer board will give you the best presentation, but long lining behind the boat will catch fish too. And he recommends that you don't use the superlines with plugs. Instead, use 12 pound test Clear Blue Stren because the lures will run too deep with the anything else. Also, use a fluorocarbon leader. Most charter captains troll plugs a minimum of 180 feet back and some as far as 400 feet back.

It's not a secret anymore: Tips from the Captains

  • Worm harness tip: If you`re catching more sheephead than walleye, try an old "Captain's" trick. Instead of letting the nightcrawler trail from the last hook, "ball" up the crawler on the bottom hook. It might look strange, but when hooked 5 or 6 times, the walleye really devour it.
  • Don`t overlook the evening bite. At North East, walleye are known to rise up the water column to feed during the evening hours. The last hour of daylight results in huge fish being caught. Fish just offshore in the 65 to 75 foot depths with plugs.
  • Dipsy Diver tip: Once a pattern is discovered, stick with it for a few hours. Also, color is important. Use the same color harness and dipsy. For example, green dipsy with a green worm harness. No scientific reason to this; but, it works.
  • Plug trolling tip: All of the common plugs – Reef Runner, Thunderstick, Rapala, Power Diver, and Long A – will catch fish; however, the next time you are at the flea market try to find the old Deep Diver Thundersticks in the color of firetiger. Since Rapala purchased the rights to make Thundersticks, the quality is not there. Old Thundersticks are worth their weight in gold because they remain, without a doubt, the best plugs on Lake Erie. Most captains keep them under lock-and-key. I'm just kidding.
  • Most walleye are caught in the upper 45 feet of the water column and precise trolling depth is important. Each spring, charter captains will set out all their baits and diving disks and troll along the shoreline. When the baits to hit bottom, they will write down in their logbooks, what depth, what length the bait is trolled, what line is used, and what speed they are trolling.
At the end of the day listen to the gulls and smell the warm air flowing off the lake. Then, a sensational sunset that the National Geographic Society considers, "The second best in the world" is etched into the mind.

Isn't this a pretty ending to this story? Sure, except this time, you're taking the dinner home with you.

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