Walleye season opened the first Saturday in May. For many Lake Erie walleye fishermen, though, the official kick off is the Southtowns Walleye Association of Western New York’s annual tournament, scheduled for June 10-18.
Nearly 1,000 fishermen will ply the waters of Lake Erie and the Upper Niagara River is search of the biggest marble eye – a quest that has been going on for 33 years. The official action starts at 12:01 a.m. Saturday. We turned to the captains who spend a tremendous amount of time on the water to see what their recommendations are for seeking out that one big fish worth $5,000. Here’s what they had to say:
Capt. Tom Marks (Gr8 Lakes Fishing Adventures): “When it comes to catching tournament winners, it is not likely that you can bottom-bounce your way to the top leaderboard. It is going to take an effective spread of lures. I have talked to many tournament professionals and they all say that the big winning fish are suspended in the upper one-third of the water column. Set your lure spread (up to three lines per angler) away from the boat with inline boards; use snap weights or jet divers to get your presentations to the desired depth. Lead core in three, four and five colors is another way to target the right depths. Fishing in that upper one-third of the water column, you seldom see the fish you are targeting on your electronics. They are out away from the boat.”
"In the spread, the shallowest lures run furthest from the boat and the deepest lures run closest to the boat. This allows fish to be fought without tangling any lines. Then you can run one line just off the bottom. I like to run all my lures back as far as possible without getting out of my targeted depth. I prefer running all stickbaits or all worm harnesses. The ideal speed is different for each and a tournament is not the time to compromise on your presentation.”
Marks has one more tip: “Big walleye are loners. Fish away from the crowds.”
Capt. Mike Rauh (Steel Leader Guide Services): “Knowing the preferred temperature for walleye is much warmer than 51 degrees (the temperature I found over the weekend out of Dunkirk below the surface), anglers should focus efforts on shallower and warmer waters,” says Rauh. “Look for pockets of warm water on the right structure and fish them.”
According to Rauh, there are a couple ways fisherman can find warm waters. “One such method utilizes information online at the NOAA – Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. Visit their page to see the surface temperatures of the various Great Lakes and find the ‘temperature breaks.’ Even moreso, look at the ‘temperature transects’ to find the temperature at depths.”
“Another way that a fisherman can find warm water is by using another piece of technology. A device called a FishHawk uses a subsurface probe that transmits speed and temperature data from a downrigger back to a monitor at the helm. In this way, the astute fisherman can determine the depth at which the temperature changes. It is still too early in the season for a ‘thermocline’ to be present. However, this device can be used to help find optimal water temperatures for the elusive Sander vitreus (walleye). Although some are concerned with placing a downrigger ball and cable into shallow waters for fear of dispersing fish, technology such as a FishHawk may help to find the ‘right water.’ FishHawk even makes a less expensive version called a ‘TD’ which clips on your downrigger without a transducer and monitor at the helm. These ‘necessary items’ can be found at Cabela’s and FishUSA online!”
From Capt. Frank Campbell of Niagara Region Charters: “More and more people are reverting to a simpler method of bottom bouncing using a three-way rig and a worm harness. You have the rod in your hand. I like using worm harnesses and shorten up the lead length to about 3 1/2-4 feet so that I avoid contact with zebra mussels on the bottom and help to stay away from the gobies. I’ll use 3 ounces of weight to maintain contact with the bottom.”
Campbell is also a believer that boat pressure has an effect on walleye catching, and he insists you should seek out areas that have limited activity. “Stay away from the other boats. Find your own fish.”
Capt. Joe Fonzi of Thumbs Up Guide Service (716-438-2366): “If I had to look for one giant walleye for the tournament I would focus my efforts in the Upper Niagara River. The waters between the head of the river and Strawberry Island hold some big fish and I would take my chances there. I would run a three-way rig bouncing bottom, using either a worm harness with silver blades or a silver Kwikfish tipped with a worm. You are not looking for limits, you are looking for one big river monster.”
Capt. Lance Ehrhardt of Sassafras Fishing Charters: “I’m a stickbait guy. Bombers and Smithwick’s Perfect 10 lures work best for me and I will run smaller sticks in the spring to ‘match the hatch’ of what is available for the walleye to eat. This time of year, fish should be just off the beds. I throw a whole spread at them that will include sticks off planer boards on lead core, downriggers, slide divers and a lead core off the back of the boat down the chute.”
He uses longer leads off each of those tools. From the riggers, the leads will be 50-70 feet back of the ball. On the slide divers, the lead will be 60 feet back behind the diver to the stick. The lure will be 130 feet back total on a No. 3 setting to get the lure away from your other offerings. He also likes to use a 60-foot fluorocarbon leader in front of the three or five colors of lead core line.
“I’ll try and put out 11 rods and spread them all out to cover more area. It works for me.”
The rest is up to you. You must be signed up by the start of the SWA tournament and you must be a member of SWA. Go to their website for details. Good luck!