How to catch summer walleye when the dog days of summer set in
by Mark Romanack, owner and operator of Fishing411 TV
As fishermen, we’ve all heard our share of cliches. The interesting thing about cliches is they are often rooted in truth. Unfortunately, as the saying goes, a little information can be a dangerous thing.
Who hasn’t heard someone proclaim that it’s too hot to fish in the dog days of summer and the fish don’t bite well anyway? Ironically, popular fish species such as walleye feed almost 24/7 amid the summer heat. At this time of year, the walleye’s metabolism peaks — food is digested so quickly that these fish feed nearly non-stop.
It might be hot and muggy outside, but as a walleye angler, there is no better time to be on the water. Summertime for the walleye angler is a time of plenty: limits are common, especially for those who understand the importance of trolling and covering lots of water.
Michigan’s big three
Michigan has many places an angler can target walleye, but three fisheries stand tall during the summer months — Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and Saginaw Bay rank as three of the most productive walleye fisheries in Michigan.
Each of these unique bodies of water host anglers chasing summer walleye using different trolling tactics.
Lake Erie’s high-action crank bite
There is a little-known secret about the Lake Erie walleye bite in the summer months. It’s not the traditional crankbait, the spoon or the nightcrawler harness that produces the most fish. It’s actually a small fraternity of high-action wobbling crankbaits that do the most damage during the “dog days.”
Catching summer walleye on Erie is about finding lures and presentations that catch fewer non-desirable species. Unfortunately, most traditional lures and live bait rigs produce too many sheepshead, white bass and white perch to be considered serious walleye producers.
The Storm 3/8-ounce Wiggle Wart is rarely considered a walleye bait; however, on Erie during the summer, this wide-wobbling plug piles up the walleye.
“The Wiggle Wart is niche bait, but it’s also a must-have bait on Erie,” says Captain Ron Levitan of Passin’ Time Charters. “What makes the Wiggle Wart special is they can be trolled fast without the bait blowing out in turns. Because we often run as many as five or six lines per side of the boat, a bait that runs true is critically important.”
Baits that track straight in the water at the higher trolling speeds are essential because trolling faster helps eliminate many bites from non-target species. “Certainly, sheepshead will hit the Wiggle Wart, but we catch far fewer non-target fish and more walleye by using Wiggle Warts,” says Captain Levitan. “The Wiggle Wart bite starts to kick in about the same time the mayfly hatch starts.”
The Yakima Bait 3.5 Mag Lip, a newcomer to the wobbling crankbait market, is another plug that works wonders on Lake Erie during the warm weather months. Like the Wiggle Wart, the Mag Lip is a compact bait with fast side-to-side wobble and a loud rattle. The Mag Lip also can be trolled up to 4.0 MPH without blowing out.
Lake St. Clair’s summer weed walleye
Lake St. Clair is classified as a Great Lakes Connecting Waterway. Many anglers see Lake St. Clair as little more than a wide spot in the St. Clair River. Indeed, a considerable current flowing from Lake Huron and the St. Clair River passes through Lake St. Clair. All this current provides an abundance of oxygen-rich water even amid summer.
Because Lake St. Clair is shallow and very fertile, weed growth explodes across the lake. Patches of common pond weed, aka cabbage, provide walleye the perfect summer haunts. Plucking walleye from the salad requires some unique trolling strategies.
Captain Rob Barnes of Barnstormer Charters is a Lake St. Clair Walleye Association member and has fished Lake St. Clair his entire life. “The spinner weed bite on St. Clair is something some anglers swear by and others swear at,” said Captain Barnes. “It’s a lot of work trolling in the weeds, but for those willing to put in the work, the rewards are amazing.”
Captain Barnes uses several trolling approaches to mitigate snagging and fouling his rigs in the weeds.
“I use a 1/4-ounce worm weight or bullet sinker threaded onto the main line and positioned about 36 inches in front of a No. 5 or No. 6 Colorado blade and two-hook worm harness,” said Captain Barnes. “The 1/4-ounce sinker is ideal for getting my rigs down just deep enough. I’m ticking the tops of the cabbage weed while trolling 1.3 to 1.6 MPH. The bullet shape of these weights allows them to pull through cabbage patches without hanging up like other in-line sinkers.”
The harnesses rigged with 1/4-ounce worm weights are fished on in-line planer boards to achieve a trolling spread that covers lots of water. “I use in-line boards to spread out my baits, but I also fish a couple of flat lines,” advises Barnes. “The Off Shore Tackle Tadpole Diver works great for pulling spinner rigs in weed cover. The Tadpole catches weed debris and prevents this debris from sliding down the line and fouling the trailing spinner rig.”
Because the Tadpole Diver catches on the weeds more than the 1/4-ounce bullet sinker, these rigs are best fished as flat lines that can be reeled in and cleared of debris quickly.
Saginaw Bay’s summer walleye red hot spoon bite
Saginaw Bay is being compared to Lake Erie more and more these days. What once was a fishery supported through annual stocking efforts, Saginaw Bay has been, for many years, a self-sustaining walleye fishery. The walleye population on Saginaw Bay is so extensive that biologists have approved an eight-fish daily limit year-round! Nowhere else in North America are walleye anglers treated to an eight-fish daily limit.
While Saginaw Bay is loaded with walleye, those fish are not always easy to find. Covering water and using modern sonar to locate constantly roving packs of hungry walleye is the key to putting limit catches in the boat.
The most significant advantage of owning and using modern sonar equipment is the speed at which fish can be marked. Back in the day, marking a fish on a monochrome sonar unit required passing over that fish at a relatively slow speed. Because modern sonar units feature more power and faster processor speeds, it’s possible to mark walleye even while the boat is on plane and moving 20 or even 30 MPH!
The problem with trying to mark schools of fish at faster boat speeds is that the marks on the sonar screen don’t look like much to the untrained eye. It’s important to note that the relative size of a fish mark on a sonar screen is dictated by how long that fish is in the transducer cone. The fish quickly passes in and out of the transducer cone at faster boat speeds, marking as only a tiny speck or blob on the sonar screen. At slower speeds, the fish is in the transducer cone longer and marks with a more prominent classic arch shape.
“The key to identifying walleye on sonar is to set up the unit so fish marks appear as contrasting colors such as yellow or red,” recommends Jake Romanack of Fishing 411. “Red is easy for the eye to pick out from a sonar screen. Even when the boat moves fairly quickly, those red specks are easy to spot. Those red specks will grow into arches when the boat is slowed down to take a better look.”
Once fish are located, spoons become one of the most popular ways of catching them. Small spoons such as the Wolverine Tackle Jr. Streak, the Michigan Stinger Scorpion and the Moon Shine Walleye Spoon are all designed especially for walleye trolling.
Trolling spoons have some advantages over traditional trolling gear. Because spoons enjoy their best action at 2.5 to 3.5 MPH, they work well for covering large amounts of water. In addition, spoons produce a lot of fish-attracting flash while also doing an excellent job of imitating the emerald shiner and gizzard shad Saginaw Bay walleye prefer.
Unfortunately, popular trolling spoons do not dive on their own. Reaching target depths requires fishing spoons, sinking lines and other diving devices. Lead core line and weighted stainless steel wire are popular among Saginaw Bay trollers. These sinking lines are fished as a pre-determined segment sandwiched between a fluorocarbon leader and a monofilament or braided line as a backer.
“I prefer fishing segments of weighted stainless steel wire compared to lead core line,” says Captain Jason Graham, who charters out of Linwood Beach Marina. “With weighted steel wire, I can run shorter lead lengths and still reach the target depths needed to succeed consistently.”
Captain Graham primarily uses two different weighted steel setups on Saginaw Bay. “I commonly run both 40- and 60-foot lengths of weighted stainless wire rigged with a 10-foot leader of fluorocarbon to the spoon and 40-pound test braid as my backing line,” explains Graham. “Most days, depending on how many people I have on board, I’ll stack two or three 40-foot setups as my outside board lines and a similar number of 60-foot rigs for my inside boards.”
When setting spoon lines using weighted stainless wire, it’s necessary to let out the spoon, the leader and all the weighted stainless wire spooled onto the rod. The planer board is then attached to the backing line and allowed to work out to the side.
“I run Off Shore in-line boards rigged with the Silverhorde Sam’s Pro Release on the tow arm and the Snapper Release mounted to the back of the board. This allows me to release my board when a fish is hooked, yet keep the board pegged in place on the line. Releasing the board so it no longer planes to the side makes it easier to reel in hooked fish and also allows hooked fish to be landed without having to clear other lines,” Captain Graham said.
Because a hooked fish rises quickly in the water column when trolling, outside board lines can be reeled in without fear of tangling on other lines. The released board floats on the surface and remains attached to the line, thanks to the Snapper release at the back of the board. When the board is reeled in close enough to reach, the board is removed from the line and the fish fought to the net.
While this process sounds complicated, it’s easy to master and works flawlessly even when running multiple lines on each side of the boat.
Sinking lines work well for spoon trolling, but anglers must own and set up dedicated rods and reels for that specific presentation. Small diving devices such as the Luhr Jensen Jet Diver, Big Jon Mini Disc or the Off Shore Tackle Tadpole Diver are other good options for getting spoons to depth.
When fishing spoons with divers, the reel is typically loaded with either 20- to 30-pound test super braid or 10- to 12-pound test monofilament line. The main line is attached to the tow arm of the diver using a small snap, and a six-foot length of 15-pound test fluorocarbon leader is added to the back of the diver. The spoon attaches to the leader using a small ball-bearing swivel that eliminates line twists and ensures good spoon action.
Divers do an excellent job presenting spoons to depth and are also quickly married to in-line planer boards.
Summing it up
Between Lake Erie, Lake St. Clair and Saginaw Bay, avid walleye trollers have lots to keep them busy. The summertime walleye bite kicks into high gear when the water temperatures hit 60 degrees and the action remains red hot all summer. Break out the T-shirts, Bermuda shorts and flip-flops, because the dog days of walleye summer are here and now.