Outlaw Walleyes: Radical Fishing Tips and Tactics
Walleyes don't always play by the rules, and neither should you
If you’re a die-hard walleye fisherman, you probably know all the basic rules for outwitting these elusive fish. They’re pounded into your head at fishing seminars, on the Internet and in books, magazines and videotapes. When you’re on the water, you can’t help feeling the weight of all this conventional wisdom; you’ve been programmed. But too many anglers take such rules as gospel—they always fish “by the book” and rarely try anything out of the ordinary. If the walleyes aren’t biting according to the rules, they reason, then the walleyes just aren’t biting.
Not so. Take a look at these universally accepted tenets of walleye fishing. Then read on to see why you shouldn’t take any of them too seriously.
1. GO DEEP IN SUMMER
A fishing buddy called one day to tell me about the walleyes he found 50 feet deep in a heavily fished lake. “Couldn’t find them along the weed line,” he said. “I figured the hot weather pushed them deep, so I started to graph at 35 feet and worked my way out to 50 before I started marking fish. But I couldn’t get them to bite.” I asked how he knew they were walleyes. “Had to be,” he replied. “They were right there on the deep break.”
My friend was most likely targeting the wrong fish. In the lake he was fishing, the thermocline ended at about 25 feet deep, and there was little dissolved oxygen below that. The fish he’d graphed were probably crappies, which require less dissolved oxygen than walleyes do.
Walleyes in most lakes do not go as deep in the summer as many anglers think. In fact, in highly fertile lakes, the level of dissolved oxygen that walleyes need typically runs out at depths of about 10 feet. Consequently, walleyes stay relatively shallow.
What to Try
Hit a few shallow points and stretches of weedy banks with jigs and shallow-running crankbaits. If the lake you’re fishing was stocked with pondreared walleyes, some of them will be in the shallows. Upon their release, stocked walleyes gravitate to the same weedy cover they favored in the rearing ponds.
2. FISH THE BANKS IN FALL
Lots of good walleye lakes (and rivers) have a terrific fall shallow-water bite. There’s nothing I like better than pitching a jig into 2 or 3 feet of water and feeling that solid tap when a walleye inhales the lure. But there are also plenty of lakes where the shallow-water bite is short-lived, if it occurs at all.
I can name several large lakes that have a great shallow-water bite in one part of the basin (usually the shallowest part with the dingiest water) and an equally good deepwater bite on another part (usually the deepest and clearest area of the lake). And on many super-clear lakes, the only good fall bite is at depths of 30 to 80 feet (presuming the dissolved oxygen level is adequate after the fall turnover). That’s right: 80 feet. That might explain why so many anglers miss out on the action bite altogether when the weather cools. They simply can’t convince themselves that walleyes go that deep.
What to Try
If you plan on fishing at the deep end of the range, spool up with 6- to 10- pound-test braided line and use a fairly stiff rod. With a softer rod or monofilament line, you’ll have trouble feeling bites at those depths and even more trouble setting the hook. I prefer a half-ounce jig tipped with a minnow, but a live-bait rig will also work.
3. LOOK FOR A ROCKY BOTTOM
This is actually a pretty good rule if you’re fishing a lake with lots of soft bottom. Even in a sandy lake, a rock pile will usually produce abundant fish. But in a deep, rocky “shield” lake in northwestern Ontario, rocky bottom usually doesn’t mean much.
One midsummer day I started out fishing some rocky midlake humps where I presumed the fish would be. After casting jigs and crankbaits onto the top of the humps and dragging bait rigs around the edges, I realized I was wasting my time. Motoring down the shore, I noticed something different: a sandy beach with bulrushes growing right next to shore. A closer look revealed some scattered cabbage in deeper water, so I tossed out a curlytail jig and retrieved it along the outer weed edge. That did the trick. For the next two hours, I got bit on almost every cast—nothing huge, but I caught plenty of fish in the 2- to 4-pound class.
When fishing a rocky shield lake now, I make it a point to look for any kind of sandy structure, whether it’s a sandy shoal, point or hump or just a shallow sandy bay. Walleyes are drawn by the baitfish that take cover in the few weed beds that exist on sandy bottom. A bare rocky bottom usually offers little in the way of food for walleyes.
What to Try
The most important element here is not what to try, but where to try it. First, locate sandy or soft bottom with your fish finder. Depending on the depth, there should be some weed growth. Fish it with a twist-tail jig or jighead and minnow.
4. WALLEYES WILL ALWAYS BITE BEST ON CLOUDY DAYS
While clouds increase the bite in clear lakes, they really have no effect in murky lakes or turbid rivers. In such waters, walleyes feed most heavily when the sun is highest in midday.
Regulars on big Midwestern walleye lakes know all about the sunny-weather action. In Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Lake, the hottest bite—literally—usually occurs on sunny, windless days in midsummer. You’re sweating, the flies are biting and the big walleyes are on the rampage.
What to Try
Fish crankbaits and spoons and cover as much water as you can. At Machawaian Lake in Ontario, I watched huge schools of walleyes chasing shiners in water less than 6 feet deep in bright sunlight. They hit just about anything tossed their way, including big flashy Dardevles.
5. WALLEYES ARE EXTREMELY STRUCTURE-ORIENTED
Structure is great, but there is also a pretty good “basin bite” in a surprising number of walleye lakes, usually those with lots of deep, clear water and not much in the way of drop-offs, rock piles and the like. In such lakes, tullibees are often abundant and walleyes relish them. But tullibees are cold-water roamers, so walleyes will pursue them in open water.
What to Try
The technique that seems to work best is trolling Rapala Shad Raps or other thin, deep-bodied crankbaits at a depth of 20 to 30 feet over much deeper water. When the basin bite is on, every other tactic is usually a waste of time.