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Tips and Tactics for NY's Walleye Opener

Tips and Tactics for NY’s Walleye Opener

By Bill Hilts, Jr.

Anglers in Western New York are about to continue with a new era in walleye fishing when the season opens on Saturday, May 4. Diehard fishing veterans are itching to get out there and start catching fish on Lake Erie, again. So are newcomers to the sport. Water levels are up in this Great Lake and it could be from the number of fishes that currently take up residence in these waters. Get ready to rumble …

“Walleye fishing quality in the New York waters of Lake Erie has been at record levels for the past two years with 2018 being the highest catch rate in the 31-year history of the creel survey,” says Dr. Jason Robinson, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Lake Erie Unit Leader.

Walleye season opens on Saturday. Lake Erie walleye populations are estimated at 45 million fish. (Photo by Jim Klein)

For the eastern basin of the lake, the waters off New York’s shoreline have witnessed some excellent spawning success in 2010, 2012 and 2016. Recent netting surveys have also shown that 2017 could be another biggie. Combine that with western basin explosions in 2015 and 2018 and you can see the scenario that seems to be setting itself up for the future. “This level of successive spawning success in the east and the west has not been observed before,” insists Robinson.   “It’s an exciting time to be a walleye angler on Lake Erie. Walleye fishing is the best we’ve ever seen.”

For the big water action, we turned to the professionals for some tips and tactics for early season action. Capt. Joe Fonzi of Thumbs Up Charters focuses on using hair jigs, jigging spoons, and blade baits on rocky breaks and drops next to spawning areas. This usually means in depths 16 to 32 feet of water

“Try different methods when you are on the water and start out slow,” says Fonzi. “If that doesn’t work, increase your speed as the fish tell you what they like. Some days you must rip your bait big through the water. Other days it must be a subtle hop. You can also drag lighter color tubes and swimbaits along the bottom. Let the fish really load the rod before setting the hook. I can tell that it's going to be a banner year on the lake this year. We are catching 9 to 12 walleyes by accident every day while perch fishing.”

Jim Klein with Eye-Fish Charters says that “this week, part of your planning needs to be about ports without ice. Plan on possibly Sturgeon Point, which they are currently dredging. Hopefully it will be completed by Saturday. At Cattaraugus Creek, the Hanover or the state launch should be available, as well as Dunkirk or Barcelona.”

“Think about trying to find the warmer water by focusing on shallow structure and slower speeds,” says Klein. “The Eye-Fish single blade harness is ideal for slower speed trolling, say 1.0 to 1.5 mph. The weight slows the speed of the willow blade down for a slow and lazy presentation that walleye can’t resist. You can run this single blade Eye-Fish harness on a bottom bouncer or 3-way set up. You can also use lead core or inline weights.”

If you are not familiar with the Eye-Fish worm harnesses, they are a product of a local company located in East Aurora. They have been producing this new fish catching rig for a year and a half. You can get these at local retailers and online at They offer anglers Weighted Willow Blades that are made through an injection molding process. This involves melting plastic resin beads into a molten liquid and injecting it into a steel mold to form the blades. The graphics are printed on a label and placed inside the mold along with the weight. When the molten plastic resin is injected, the printed label and weight become permanently part of what’s called the Weighted Willow Blade. “This process produces an extremely durable blade that has no chipping paint, rusting or peeling labels,” says Klein. “The action of the blade has also been meticulously tuned by the size and location of the weight. The weight slows the speed at which the blade spins so that the Weighted Willow performs when trolled slowly at 1.0 mph in the spring or trolled all summer long at high speeds over 2.0 mph with your stick baits.”

Rob Oram of Franklinville isn’t a charter captain but he’s a very knowledgeable person on the water and a go-to guy for information. He shares this information for early season options: “Try trolling the shoreline at night. It’s always a good bet in 7 to 12 feet of water from Buffalo to Barcelona, using shallow running sticks like the Pillard, Storm, and Rapala in size No. 11 floaters. Keep your speed around 1.1 to 1.3 mph. To fish during the day I would probably try and find some fish with the electronics in the 40 to 50 feet of water range and jig with a jigging rap or shiver minnow. I would also try fishing in those depths with just a walking sinker and a 3-foot leader, tipped with a minnow for bait.”

Chautauqua Lake

Nearby Chautauqua Lake is also an excellent walleye fishery that has improved considerably the last few years through natural reproduction, as well as from supplemental stocking from the state. Most of the fish are 18 to 21 inches in length thanks to strong year classes in 2014 and 2015. However, some big adults are also available. The fishery is also a great second option if you get blown off Lake Erie.

Frank Schoenacker of Infinity Charters fishes the lake regularly. “First, I keep my trolling speed slow, usually under 1 mph in the spring,” says Schoenacker.  “Second, I downsize blade size and hook size on my rigs.  Water in the spring is pretty clear so a smaller presentation seems to work better.  Third, look for warmer pockets, such as mouths of streams, and shallow flats with weed edges.  Look for fish and trust your electronics.  Early on, live bait seems to work better than artificial.”

Mike Sperry of Chautauqua Reel Outdoors shares this information for early season on the lake: “As far as walleye, try casting F7, F9 and F11 Rapalas in the early morning. This will also work after dark in shallow waters, as well as trolling after dark in depths of 4 to 8 feet of water.”

“During the day, try jigging raps out deeper in 10 feet of water and out. Also, drifting a jig and minnow under a slip bobber will work.”

Oram also fishes Chautauqua and this is his early season tip: “Definitely troll the shoreline at night. This is probably the best way to catch ‘eyes. For the day time bite, I would target the edges of the deep holes with the jigging rap and shiver minnow or a blade bait.”

If you want to put these tips to the test, there will be a Chautauqua Lake open walleye tournament on May 5 being run by Chautauqua Lake Bassmasters out of Long Point State Park. Cost is $100 per 2-person team. Call Matt Fish at 720-2388 for more info.

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