Perhaps the most sporting way to catch Great Lakes walleyes presents itself early each spring when the fish move onto shallow rock reefs to spawn. Because the ‘eyes are concentrated and active in waters that may only be a dozen feet deep, the most productive way to catch them is also one of the most enjoyable: vertically jigging beneath an anchored or slowly drifting boat. With a direct, short line to the fish, free of planerboards, weights and bobbers, anglers use spinning or baitcasting tackle to fool willing walleyes with lead-head jigs, blade baits, spoons and live minnows. The method is productive wherever walleye roam on the Great Lakes, from ice-out until the water temperatures approach the 60 degree mark.
The timing of the hot walleye bite depends on the progress of the spawn. Typically, fishing will be fast for a few weeks before the spawn, which occurs shortly after ice-out, but once spawning begins the action slows dramatically until the post-spawn bite commences. What’s more, walleyes spawning in a Great Lakes tributary, which is warm before the main lake waters, might spawn several weeks earlier than those in the lake itself.
Much like yellow perch fishing later in the season, when you are on a ‘hot’ rock pile in water deep or turbid enough that you can make out the bottom, a vertical presentation is all you need. Although some anglers prefer to fan cast around the boat to cover more water and locate active fish, when the action peaks all you need to beg a bite is to drop a jig, blade bait or jigging spoon over the side, let it touch bottom and give it some action. If there are any male “jack” walleye on the reef, the bait won’t rest for long. For added appeal, some anglers tip the jig or spoon with a minnow. Adding a minnow to a blade bait, on the other hand, ruins its unique action, and is not recommended.
In some Great Lakes waters, anglers often find walleye shallow, relating to the shoreline in early spring. Productive locations include protected shallow bays or shallow gravel and sand flats that warm up relatively quickly during the spring. In many areas, water clarity is often clear and as the water warms up, the water tends to take on some color. Clear water that hasn’t had a chance to warm up requires some adjustments to the vertical jigging method. With some of the larger fish in water as shallow as 5 feet, the water clarity becomes a factor. When the sun is out early in the season, you can often find – and sometimes actually see – big, active fish in the clear, shallow water. These walleyes are hard to approach and call for stealth and casting from deeper water.
When walleyes are shallow or holding tight to shallow offshore structure, anglers can cast to the shallows from a boat positioned just off the deeper edges to locate active fish. A ‘hopping’ retrieve from the shallow flats to the depths beneath the boat imparts a leaping motion to the jig, spoon or blade bait, which should make contact with the bottom between each short jump. After each hop, try allowing the lure to flutter back to the bottom on a controlled slack line. Once the bait is worked back to below the boat, impart a vertical jigging action, allowing the lure to pound the bottom, sending up clouds of silt or ticking off gravel to attract fish in the area. Once you determine the depth where the active fish are holding, you can focus on the productive presentation, either vertically jigging or casting.
A common setup among Great Lakes walleye jiggers is a medium action spinning or bait casting outfit spooled with super-braid, such as Berkley Fireline, which offers good casting capabilities and sensitivity; 8-10 pound test on the spinning reel and12-15 pound test on the bait caster. A double Uni-knot is attached to a leader of fluorocarbon and a round-nosed snap to attach the lure. The leader tests 10-12 pounds with the spinning rig and 15-17 pounds with the bait casting outfit.
Some anglers use an extended leader, which may measure 18 to 20 feet in length. The reason for the leader is that Fireline alone sinks fast, and the long fluorocarbon leader slows down the descent of the bait, which can trigger more strikes. The long length also means that when a walleye is at the boat there isn’t a knot between the angler and the fish he’s trying to land, keeping the weakest link on the spool at that critical time.
Captain Mike McCroskey is a Lake Erie charter captain known for his early-season walleye jigging success. Capt. Mike uses oversized, three-quarter-ounce jigs most of the time, but will go to a full ounce-sized jig if the lake offers a 3- or 4-foot chop. “It is imperative to fish a heavy jig so you keep that contact with the bottom,” says the captain, “no matter what the lake is doing.”
McCroskey prefers to drift to cover more water, and he concentrates on depths of 12 to 14 feet, but will move deeper when the circumstances demand. He usually drags traditional lead-headed jigs dressed with purple hair, but claims chartreuse, white and other colors can be effective at times. A key to McCroskey’s jig presentation is a stinger hook, a small treble connected to the main hook’s shank with a short piece of monofilament to trail below the jig. He tips the jig with a large minnow, preferably an emerald shiner.
“Whatever you’re fishing, the key is keeping regular contact with the bottom,” advised the charter captain. “Do that, find active fish, and this time of year you’ll limit out faster than you can say, ‘Fish On!’”
Captain Lee highlights Captain McCroskey
Hawg Hanger Charters Captain Mike McCroskey works out of a 27-foot Sportcraft Fisherman based at Wild Wings Marina, located west of Toledo, Ohio, off State Rt. 2. He is one of the pioneers of early spring jig fishing on Lake Erie, a technique he has perfected over 35 years of messing around with the tactic. Capt. Mike can be reached to discuss jigging for spring walleyes at 419-460-7815 or at www.hawghanger.com.