An argument could be made that Lake Erie offers the best walleye fishing on the planet.
Any discussion about what makes for the best walleye fishing usually includes talk about lots of fish, the ability to catch a limit, and how large the fish are in that location. While several lakes in northern parts of Canada offer fish quantity and fast action, in my experience, the fish are smaller.
Lake Erie, on the other hand, has no slot limits, sixfish limits, and lots of large fish.
And when I say large, my largest fish is 11 pounds so far, and there have been many over five pounds.
Why is Erie So Good for Walleye?
The fourth largest of the Great Lakes, Erie is 241 miles long and has a maximum width of 57 miles. It is, however, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, with a mean depth of 62 feet. The furthest south of the Great Lakes, it’s a walleye-production factory. Walleye reach 15 inches in only two to three years.
On the other hand, I have been on some colder northern lakes and have been told that a keepable-sized walleye is more than a decade old. The colder water is blamed for slower growth.
The Western Basin, stretching from Ontario’s Point Pelee to Huron, Ohio, is shallower with more shoals and islands. This is the prime breeding ground for the lake’s walleye. Generally, this part of the lake is best earlier in the season. Later in the summer, as the shallower water warms, the fish move east towards deeper water.
The Central Basin, which stretches from the Western Basin’s limit to a line from Long Point in Lake Erie to roughly Erie, PA, is deeper. Most of the Central Basin bottom is gradually sloping sand with little structure. Generally, the fish move into the Central Basin in May or June, depending on the year, and feed there all summer.
The Eastern Basin—its waters from Long Point to the east end of the lake—is the deepest, and contains the lake’s maximum depth of 210 feet. The bottom is rockier and there is more structure. Besides transient fish moving from the Western Basin, the Eastern Basin also has some spawning taking place on the shoals and in Ontario’s Grand River.
The typical Lake Erie angler is a troller. In the shallower Western Basin, it’s often done with bottom bouncers and worm harnesses. And trolling can be replaced by drifting with the right wind.
Chante Charters is one noted exception to trolling. Jared Sim, the owner of Kingsville-based Chante Charters in the Western Basin, is carrying on the tradition started by his father John. The elder Sim developed a reputation over 40-plus years as one of the only charter operators who doesn’t troll or use bottom bouncers for walleye.
Sim uses spinning gear, casting his custom-designed Weapon, then letting it sink at the rate of one second for every foot of water. Upon reaching the count, the angler slowly sweeps the rod back. Then, the slack is reeled in, the rod swept, and the pattern continues until a fish hits or the lure is retrieved.
“An angler must have the patience to let that strike happen and wait for the scent of the worm to attract strike two before they set the hook,” Jared said. “That’s where the true challenge lies. Timing is everything, and after that, it’s a one-on-one battle of continual tension to land the walleye.”
Sim’s Weapon is basically a casting harness with a quick-release clevis to hold the blade. Sinkers can be easily changed with this rig, and they can vary between a half-ounce and one ounce, depending on water and wind.
The Go-To: 30 Count
For my first time fishing with the Sims, we started casting and drifting once we arrived in 36 feet of water. Our go-to was to count to 30 before sweeping the rod, and we were told to vary it slightly if the fish weren’t hitting. We were also warned to be prepared to set the hook if there was any resistance after the initial count, as walleye will often hit as the lure falls.
To start, we had gold blades on our Weapons. With no bites immediately, Jared switched to an orange blade and had a fish in short order.
The Weapon is meant to simulate hatching mayflies coming up from the bottom.
At the end of July, the Weapon is retired, and the Sims switch to weight-forward spinners like Erie Dearies, or those made by Bakie’s Baits. White is the color of choice to simulate minnows.
Traveling further east, trolling is the go-to for taking walleye. Dipsy divers, Jet divers, planer boards, downriggers, and lead core all play a part in getting the bait in front of the walleye.
There are days when one technique gives the presentation the walleye like, and there are other days when it’s something else.
Planer boards can be either fully rigged planer boards with a mast or inline planer boards. If opting for the inline, Offshore is the main brand, as these handle the larger waves better. The new Dreamweaver boards work well, too. They are easy to take off with one hand and have an option with a flag.
Dipsy Divers, or the alternate Dreamweaver Deeper Diver, are a mainstay of Lake Erie walleye fishing. It’s a topic of debate as to what color works best. American walleye tournament angler Zachary Jobes likes black Dipsies. He experimented using black Dispsies versus silver, with the same bait on both, and found black outfished silver 3-1. He also likes clear and says to avoid flashy colors.
Port Burwell charter boat captain Larry Donovan, who operates South Coast Charters in the Central Basin, believes the opposite. He likes flash and color and has experimented with nail polish to add more color to both his lures and his Dipsies. After Donovan found this tactic worked, he started getting both of them custom painted, often to match.
“It’s a bigger fish and the smaller ones trailing behind,” he said of the matching hardware. “It seems to excite them.”
Many anglers choose the middle road, having only a few divers of one or two colors.
An advocate of worm harnesses, Donovan prefers Colorado blades early season, and willow blades as the water warms.
Spoons Are a Mainstay
Jim Carroll, of Jimmy Riggin’ Fishing Charters in Long Point, starts the season with purple when the fish are shallower. “They’re feeding on gobies when they are shallower,” he said. “If they’re deeper, they are fishing smelt or emeralds (shiners), so I switch to blues and greens.”
Jobes considers purple a standard on Lake Erie. In sunny conditions, he likes pink and green. On cloudy days, he reverts to darker color lures like copper and chartreuse. He also looks at what walleye are eating after he has boated one. If goby is on the menu, Jobes like copper or brown colors, as compared to pink or purple, if smelt are the favored target.
Don’t Forget Warm Harnesses
Ernie Calandrelli, of Buffalo-based Calandrelli’s Guide Service, likes to use warm harnesses and troll with a spinner and worms. He runs a combination of rods with bottom bouncers and side planers to fish waters between six and 70 feet deep.
Worm harnesses and worm-tipped spinners used to a standard in the 1990s walleye boom when a worm-tipped Erie Dearie was the main bait. One thing with worm harnesses is that they run best at a little slower speed than spoons. I have had success running both at once though, zigzagging so the bait speed varies.
The Precision Trolling app is a good resource to let anglers know how much line needs to be out to reach a certain depth. Mark Romanack, who wrote the Precision Trolling book and app, is a big advocate of getting the right speed at lure. He uses a Fish Hawk for this purpose. For instance, the current from the rivers at both ends of the lake can result in the boat GPS showing one speed, but the lure traveling either much slower or faster.
Donovan didn’t use a Fish Hawk for years, but he has become a big advocate. He uses mostly spoons and said hitting more than 2 mph is vital to success.
For those not willing to make this investment, trolling in a zigzag pattern varies the speed of the presentation. In areas where bottom is within reach and not rocky, another trick is to put the boat in neutral and let the lures hit bottom. When forward motion starts again, it stirs up the bottom, creating the illusion of feeding baitfish and triggering strikes, plus it varies speed.
One of the questions with all the water in Lake Erie is where to start. Before heading to a port, check online fishing forums before leaving home. Calandrelli said he talks to other charter captains, but his fallback is to use his spots that have worked in past years.
When arriving, ask at the launch ramp. My best trip was an evening trip when I ran into a friend leaving just as we were launching, and he told me the depth to head to. It took less than two hours for two of us to catch our limit, and we were throwing fish back as we pulled the lines in.
By Jeff Helsdon