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Will Elliott: Private walleyes keep anglers guessing

Last week we worked a shutout on Lake Ontario. This week it was Lake Erie’s turn.

For weeks, the night walleye bite had been spectacular along the Buffalo-Hamburg shoreline and between Brocton Shoals and Lake Erie State Park to Van Buren Point around every shoals walleye saw as spawning beds.

So when talk of an emerging dayside bite began coming from many directions, we thought it would be good to check out the near-shore bite from Dunkirk Harbor westward to Brocton’s scattered and spectacular shoal structures.

Friday morning we hooked up the new set of Canon downriggers, a good assortment of worm harnesses and minnow-type baits (especially the Junior and standard-sized Thundersticks) and headed to Dunkirk Harbor.

A light northwest breeze pushed over rolling waves from high northwesterly waves whipped up by Thursday’s big breezes.

First reports were walleye schools in the top 20 feet over less than 60-foot depths before that nor’easter that turned things over on Erie and Lake Ontario more than a week earlier.

Now, the school movement should be at 30 to 60 feet with varying depths for lure setting. They were. Odd, good-sized fish appeared on the sonar screen at mid-depths and an unusual number of “marks” appeared just under the boat at less than 20 foot depths.

At about 8 a.m. we set up two downrigs, two Dipsy Divers and a flat line to see if we could cover top to bottom at 30- to 60-foot depths just west of Dunkirk Harbor, depths where many a walleye and rogue lake trout have come over the transom and gunwales in years past.

But the sonar screen was nearly clean. An odd pod of perch showed in short spurts that were belly to the bottom and barely detectible along short drop-offs and small belly drops along the way.

The two Canon Magnum 10 Model STX downrigs Tony “The Reel Man” Anthony set up after last year’s trolling season ran smoothly, at about twice the speed of the older units that had seen decades of service.

A short spurt of rain was just enough to get out the rain gear; the remainder of the morning was summer-like, tee-shirt weather. But the bite simply was not there. First sign of that was at the harbor launch, where less than 10 boat-trailer rigs were parked. If the bite had been productive, dozens of boaters would have been on Dunkirk-area waters during the last Friday of competition for the Annual Southtowns Walleye Tournament.

We learned. It took a downwind troll from Point Gratoit and the Dunkirk Lighthouse to just off Brocton Shoals to know that walleye have yet to set up at suspended levels in this area. Nearly five hours and several depth and lure changes later, the catch count had not started; the hit count matched, with nightcrawlers intact on worm harnesses and some of the finest dark and silvery minnow baits only displacing water that morning.

Later we learned that most of the size and numbers catches were coming in at and well west of Barcelona Harbor, a pattern Southtown Walleye Tourney competitors have followed in previous years.

Soon the eastward migrants from Ohio will be chasing minnow schools in Eastern Basin waters from Buffalo to Barcelona. Night trollers just off the areas we fished that morning had brought in limit catches most nights the lake could be navigated. Capt. Fred Forsythe of Castaway Charters has been working the night shift either side of Lake Erie State Park for steady numbers of ‘eyes in May. But during his dayside outings in June he has gone well west of Barcelona Harbor for a better bite.

These same reconnaissance runs are needed off Buffalo Harbor. Capt. Joe Fonzi of Thumbs Up Charters had been pulling limit catches of resident walleye from near Buffalo waters until this last nor’easter/turnover-like wind and wave action.

“We just can’t seem to find them now,” Fonzi said after modestly successful recent outings off the windmills out to depths of 52 feet. “Minnow schools aren’t coming out of the river and the walleye are still there but hard to find,” he added.

On the plus side: Two year-classes produced well – 2010 and 2012. Fonzi and others have seen a distinct pattern of 17- to 20-inch fish and 22- to above 25-inch walleyes since the season opener.

Another plus is the solid presence of smallmouth bass hitting around shoals from Buffalo to Myers Reef. That and an upsurge in walleye activity should make things interesting for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation’s Annual BassEye Celebrity Challenge fishing day on June 26. A gala event the Thursday before is always an enjoyable gathering.

For details on the Thursday dinner/auction and Friday fishing competition, visit