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Spring is a time of transition for Lake Erie's Western Basin walleyes


More Than 80 Percent Of The Lake's Walleyes Are Here...



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April 01, 2010
Three main factors make Lake Erie's walleyes move around a lot during the spring: The spawn, warming water temperatures along with changes in the walleye's preferred forage combine to cause the Western Basin's walleye to greatly transition in both their feeding habits and the locations that they prowl. It can be challenging for anglers to constantly stay on the hot bites, though savvy anglers with a thorough knowledge of spring walleye migrations and habits can cash in on some of the best fishing opportunities of the year.

The Walleye Migration

Studies have shown that during the spring, more than 80% of Lake Erie's walleyes end up in the Western Basin and its tributaries. As part of a study, walleyes have been netted by the DNR since 1978 where technicians install metal lip tags on the fish they capture. Anglers that later catch those tagged fish are encouraged to report the length, weight and catch location of the fish to the DNR.

On average, anglers catch and report four to five-percent of the walleyes that are tagged. Even though Canadian commercial fishers account for the vast majority of the walleyes harvested from Lake Erie, sport fishermen still report far more tags than those the netters do. I've reported well over 100 tagged walleyes over the years on my charter boat. In return for reporting the tagged fish, the DNR typically mails cooperating anglers a fact sheet on the fish. It's kind of fun reading the fishes' bios that they send.

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Mark Roberts caught these two dandy walleyes on the author's charter boat fishing the transition time last spring. Author photo

The Lake Erie migration study has revealed some interesting information over the years. Most of Lake Erie's walleyes are tagged in the Western Basin, which should come as no surprise since the majority of Erie's walleyes spawn at Western Basin reefs and tributaries. It's no surprise either that most of the tagged fish are also caught from the Western Basin, which accounts for most of the sport fishing harvest on Erie. Only about five-percent of tagged returns come from the Eastern and Central Basins combined. However, when the percentages of the tagged returns are factored against the total catch from each Basin, statistics show that Lake Erie's adult walleyes travel all over the system during the year.

The tagging studies have shown that after spawning in the Western Basin, most adult walleyes (trophy class fish) migrate east in a circular pattern. They move eastward along the northern half of Lake Erie during the spring and summer. During the fall and winter, those same walleyes make their way back "home" by heading west along the southern region of the lake.

A good number of Erie's tagged walleyes are taken from rivers feeding the Western Basin, especially the Maumee and Detroit Rivers. Surprisingly, a good number of Lake Erie's walleyes end up in Lake St. Clair and the St. Clair River and they don't stop there either. Many of Erie's Walleyes are caught all along the Michigan waters of Lake Huron especially in outer Saginaw Bay. Some have even shown up at Thunder Bay near Alpena and still farther north all the way to the Mackinac Bridge. Research has also shown that as walleyes grow older, they tend to migrate more and farther.

Big walleyes also move around the Western Basin a lot during the spring before heading to waters elsewhere. Right after spawning, they typically stage in mid-depth areas somewhat close to where they spawned. The main lake waters from 15 to 22' deep from Stony Point to the Wood Tic Peninsula are often home to marauding schools of post spawn adult eyes'. Those same depths from Little Cedar Point to the islands north of Port Clinton are also home to thousands of lunker walleyes right after the spawn.

As the water warms up, bigger walleyes tend to move toward deeper water and eventually, when the waters of the Western Basin get hot enough, big adult walleyes become scarce as they've mostly migrated to the cooler, deeper waters of the Central and Eastern Basins of Lake Erie. Smaller walleyes seem to tolerate much warmer waters that bigger fish. In fact, those eating sized walleyes really put on "the feed bag" when the waters rise to the point when the big fish move out.

Smaller male fish make up the brunt of the catch during the actual spawning phase. They are much easier to catch during the spawn as they tend to tightly school and hit lures aggressively. The males really stack up on select reefs and in rivers where anglers can really hammer them with jigging, drifting and casting techniques. Big female walleyes though are seldom caught using those methods as trolling accounts for the lion's share of trophy fish caught every year.

Fishing Ohio

On April 18, 2009, I had a father and son charter. It was a bluebird day with a gentle south east wind putting a perfect chop on the water. The water was dirty though as a month of nasty weather had kept most of the Western Basin saddled with muddy conditions. The fish were schooled up and even though the water visibility was less than one foot, we were still taking easy limit catches. The day before we had caught all the walleyes we wanted on the reefs and shallow waters just outside the mouth of the Maumee River near Turtle Island. The area from Turtle Island to the Toledo Harbor Light is a major spawning area for walleyes about April 10 to 25. The same goes for the 8-15' flats area running south/east of the shipping channel towards Little Cedar Point. These are Ohio waters though so anglers need to have an OH license to fish there.

Naturally we first tried the same area where the fish had been biting the day before, which was a Friday. The difference between a Friday and a Saturday though at Turtle Island at that time of the year can be dramatic. On Friday there were only a couple dozen boats in the area and the fishing was fantastic. That Saturday though there were hundreds of boats buzzing all around like crazy. We got a few fish during that first hour of jigging, but then things died down completely. All the boat traffic had killed the bite.

Techniques

I decided to move across the shipping channel to the flats area where very few anglers were present. I had a bunch of old waypoints for areas where I'd found concentrations of fish in years past at that time of the year. I deployed a drift sock and on the first drifting pass we caught fish non-stop. I called a buddy of mine who was struggling and told him to head over that way.

We were the only two boats in that area and we hammered the fish, which were all males that weighed 2-6 pounds. We caught all of them using silver Blade Baits. I've been using Bass Pro Shops Lazar Eye Blade Baits for many years. These lures have a holographic finish and my favorite fish catching patterns are silver, gold, fire tiger and green/silver.

There are two main techniques for fishing a blade-bait: The most popular way is to just vertically jig the lure. The lure is dropped to the bottom and then snapped up about 12-18" in a quick, short jigging stroke. That quick upward motion on the lure produces a vibrating side to side action on the bait and it's the vibration that really brings on the strikes. After the upstroke, the lure is then allowed to fall back to the bottom, however its best to keep some slight tension on the line during "the fall" as that's when most fish will strike. If too much slack is in the line, then you'll miss a lot of bites. When you feel anything on the line, set the hook with a hard, snappy hook set and the fight is on.

Another technique for fishing blades' are to cast them out and retrieve them with the same type of snap-jigging action as described earlier. The bait is worked along the bottom out away from the boat and this technique is most productive when the water is clear and calm.

Blade-baits are not the only way to "jig up" spring walleyes either. Hair-jigs tipped with a lively minnow are a staple among spring fishermen on Erie and they account for thousands of walleye fillets every spring. Savvy anglers use a stinger hook on their hair-jigs, which substantially ups the catch rate.

If the lake water is clear, then trolling will be at its best. The big adult walleyes stage in mass in the southern end of the Western Basin during the spring. That area has the warmest water in the lake at that time of year. Baitfish are drawn to the warm water and the walleyes are drawn to the baitfish.

Temperatures

During March and early April, slow trolling stick baits is my go-to tactic. When the surface water warms beyond 47 degrees, which is typical during mid-April, crankbaits rule the trolling game. Shad Raps, Glass Shad Raps, Deep Jr. Thunderstick, Reef Runners and Hot N' Tots all have their days from Mid-April into May. Those baits are best pulled at speeds to ranging from 1.2 to 1.5 MPH. As the water warms up into the 50s, then faster speed to 2.0 MPH are often very productive. Most of the fish caught then will be suspended. I really on my fish finder a lot at that time to not only locate the fish, but also to tell me what depths the fish are holding at so I can accurately present my lures in the middle of the strike zone.

When the waters warm past 60 degrees, that's when most of the big walleyes will vacate the Western Basin, but it's also when some of the best trolling bite of the year occurs for smaller eating sized fish. The warming waters tend to drive the best action deeper though, so try targeting your efforts in waters deeper than 20'.

Warming waters mark another major tactical shift too: It's when a lot of anglers switch to spoons primarily. My favorite spoons on Erie over the last few years have been Moonshine Walleye Spoons. These spoons are available in either silver or gold models. Gold seems to work better by far on Lake Erie's Walleye; however silver is best on Saginaw Bay. My favorite Erie walleye spoon patterns last year were Glow Purple Nose, Red Grape, Trophy Specialist and Shell Bell. I use Luhr Jensen Jet Divers to take spoons to the desired depth and run a 5' leader from the diver to the lure. My trolling spread typically consists of six spoons run off Church Tackle Walleye Boards and another two let out right behind the boat. Last year we limited out on most of my mid to late spring walleye trips and 2010 should provide outstanding spring fishing for walleyes on the big pond as well.

The author offers fishing charters for Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay walleyes along with trips for salmon and trout at Manistee on Lake Michigan and Rogers City on Lake Huron. Contact Mike Veine at www.trophyspecialists.com or 734-475-9146.

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