Staying on Big-Water Walleyes

Dan Johnson

Across the Walleye Belt, big water often equals big opportunities to enjoy some of the continent’s finest walleye fishing in terms of size and quantity of fish. A variety of massive fisheries including the Great Lakes, large inland lakes and reservoirs, and the connected river systems of all of the above offer anglers willing to tackle big water a chance at outstanding action.

The trick is finding fish, and for extended success, staying on them. Despite the proportions of big water, finding walleye nirvana is far from a needle-in-a-haystack proposition. Modern mapping and sonar systems, along with an ever-improving understanding of walleye behavior and migrations, makes it easier than ever to put your boat over the strike zone.

Ultimately, the goal is tapping the best patterns, as walleyes move from shallow spawning grounds toward their summer ranges, often stopping at forage-rich feeding areas along the way, then staying on the best bites as summer and fall patterns set up in response to forage availability and other pertinent factors.

Patterns on the Bay
In past discussions on the subject, we’ve often looked at fishery-specific patterns with detailed seasonal progressions. We’ve covered how hordes of Bay of Green Bay walleyes, for example, spawn in the Fox and Menominee rivers when water temps hit 42°F to 46°F in late winter or early spring, then transition out of the rivers and start following shorelines up the east and west sides of the bay. This sets up May patterns including a near-shore trolling bite in 7 to 9 feet of water, just off the first break and old weededge. Select structure such as a handful of notable reefs also produce fish.

Veteran guide and tournament competitor Jason Muche says his favorite stretch has traditionally been between Suamico and Oconto, where schools of shad, shiners, and other baitfish gather in fast-warming water, though he says, “There are also a few notable reef bites going, such as Geano’s Reef and Oconto Shoal.”

As the season progresses into June, he says Green Bay walleyes move toward deeper water and softer bottom. Muche has enjoyed fine fishing by tracking the transition into 14 to 20 feet of water, especially off Geano’s Reef, and following the deep break from a firm mixture of rock, gravel, and clay down into the mud, focusing on 20- to 30-foot depths. “The mud bite often lasts through September, as the fish move progressively north,” he says.

On the tactical front, early in the migration, Muche mainly favors a ‘crawler harnesses, adding 1-ounce in-line sinkers ahead of the spinner rig to reach deeper fish. He says a trolling speed of 1 mph triggers walleyes and helps him calculate letback. “Running 10-pound mono, going 1 mph, you get one foot of depth for every two feet of letback,” he says.

Once summer walleyes transition to the mud, daily vertical migrations aren’t uncommon, he says. “They tend to start the day near bottom, then rise 3 to 6 feet above it. In recent years, though, it’s not unusual for them to suddenly disappear from sonar and rise within 3 to 5 feet of the surface, even on glass-calm days. To target these fish, he trolls crankbaits 1.8 to 2.2 mph on letbacks staggered from 25 to 100 feet, with the shortest leads farthest from the boat.

Such seasonal migration patterns aren’t uncommon on other large fisheries, where walleyes gather near spawning grounds from late winter into early spring, then disperse postspawn into a variety of habitats, often progressively moving deeper and farther from shore. But not always.

Weeds on Winnebago
On Wisconsin’s storied and sprawling Lake Winnebago system, which offers a variety of riverine and lake-run habitats, Muche says one of the most productive yet commonly overlooked patterns hinges on shallow near-shore vegetation.

“From the end of May into June, big fish move into the weeds,” he says, explaining that as walleyes drop out of spawning rivers like the Fox, they follow shorelines up both sides of the lake. Many fish move into lush beds of coontail and other vegetation in 4 to 6 feet of water. “Traditionally, you can catch 4- to 6-pounders all day long in the weeds, and it’s the one time that tournament weights consistently top 20 pounds.”

I recall like it was yesterday when a team of anglers fishing Winnebago’s weeds topped the leaderboard back in June 2010 during a record-setting walleye tournament featuring 362 two-person teams. A combination of the Cabela’s National Team Championship and Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit’s Lake Winnebago Central Division Qualifier, the event offered more than $350,000 in cash and prizes—and was recognized by Guinness World Records as history’s largest fishing tournament to date.

Michael Galligan and Stuart Wells, both of Oshkosh, were crowned NTC champions with a 10-fish limit weighing 26.24 pounds. Their winning ways included fishing vegetation. While many of their competitors looked offshore, the hometown heroes leaned on the weed bite. They pitched shoreline vegetation and rocks with Northland Fishing Tackle Weed Weasels, tipped with either a half nightcrawler or full leech. “We caught our biggest fish along rocky banks, while the average fish were in the weeds,” says Galligan, who noted that they also caught at least one “decent” fish trolling ‘Bago’s midlake mud each day.

Similar weed bites exist on many large fisheries, and are a testament to how multiple patterns (and hot zones within the water column) are often in play on a large fishery. Greg DeKalb and Joe Ebel captured top honors on the MWC side of the event with 10 fish weighing 28.63 pounds. They pulled ‘crawler harnesses with hammered copper blades 1.2 to 1.3 mph over Winnebago’s mudflats. “We got our fish both high and low in about 19½ feet,” Ebel says.

Skarlis’S Strategies
Veteran walleye tournament angler Tommy Skarlis is no stranger to the big-water game. The charismatic Iowa pro has found and kept tabs on walleyes on big waters for decades while competing in major walleye tournaments including the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), National Walleye Tour (NWT), and MWC.

The first time we fished together, in the mid-1990s, he was on the hunt for big-water walleyes on Lake Michigan’s Bays de Noc system out of Escanaba, pre-fishing for an MWC championship. I was impressed then and continue to be by his knack for quickly breaking down massive fisheries and dialing in the most productive bites.

Proving his big-water tracking abilities are sharp as ever, just last fall, Skarlis and fishing partner Jeff Lahr, also of Iowa, won the team-format MWC World Walleye Championship on the Bays de Noc system. They topped the elite field in the three-day event by bringing a total of 54 pounds 14 ounces to the scale. To put that weight in perspective, teams were allowed to weigh their best five fish per day, and each angler was allowed only one walleye over 23 inches in the daily limit. While some teams struggled to stay on the bite and saw their daily weights drop during the event, Skarlis and Lahr finished strong, weighing heavier bags each day to rise through the ranks to top the leaderboard after landing 10 pounds out of first place on day one.

Notably, it was Skarlis and Lahr’s second straight MWC World Championship win. In September of 2017, they overcame a day-two deficit, fierce competition, and tough-bite conditions to win the trail’s coveted title on Minnesota’s Cass Lake Chain—another large fishery with a diverse variety of structure and patterns. It was the first time in 25 years that a team was able to retain the title in back-to-back championships. Walleye legends Gary Gray and Bill Klotzbuecher accomplished the feat during the 1992 and ’93 seasons.

Advanced mapping and sonar are key in the quest to find and stay on top of schools of big-water walleyes.

Skarlis and Lahr’s winning ways on Bays de Noc last fall were a perfect example of Skarlis’s big-water patterning strategies at work. They boated their walleyes by vertical jigging and casting in depths ranging from 18 to 50 feet. “Most of the big fish came in 22 feet of water,” Skarlis says, noting the team’s Navionics mapping software was key in identifying prime structure and positioning their boat in the perfect spot to execute their presentations.

Skarlis takes a systematic approach to finding and staying on big-water walleyes. “It’s all about putting together a solid pattern,” he says. “It’s amazing how some anglers never put this concept into practice. They follow charter captains around or look for the biggest pack of boats. This might give you an opportunity to see what’s going on, but figuring out your own pattern is more advantageous than joining the circus.

“A bunch of boats could be on a good bite and you might pick up a few fish on the outside edges of the cluster,” he says. “But more often, you’re too late for the best fishing because so many walleyes have already been turned into gut piles and fillets.

“Instead of following the crowd, I try to establish the hot depth or depths and go from there,” he says. “On any given body of water, there could be two to four different patterns going on at different depths. Sometimes the hot depth is where the thermocline intersects structure. Sometimes it’s along cabbage edges. It depends where structure, cover, and forage come together.”

Research can begin long before you get to the lake. “You can scout ahead of time to help figure out what’s going on,” Skarlis says. Online recon is helpful. Checking past fishing reports, tournament results, and social media can help you figure out seasonal hot zones and top presentations that may be in play when you visit a given destination. But he’s a bigger proponent of on-site sleuthing.

“You can conduct a lot of research right at the boat ramp or at the fish cleaning station,” he says. “At Lake Erie and other major harvest fisheries, cleaning stations are great places to talk to anglers. They might not tell you their lure of choice, the color, or where their go-to spot is at. But they’ll think nothing of telling you how deep they were fishing. And once you hear the same depth a few times, you have a starting point. For example, if multiple anglers tell me that 18 feet was the hot depth, I’m going to focus on 16 to 20 feet when I start looking for fish.”

Once he has a depth in mind, he looks for other pieces of the puzzle. “When you start looking, you may also want to put together what kind of structure or bottom content the fish are on—such as a mud-sand transition, or an old reservoir shoreline lip that developed when the lake was low, like you see on Sakakawea, Oahe, and numerous other big reservoirs,” he says.

River Dance
Veteran walleye pro Tommy Skarlis advises anglers to keep tributaries in mind when fishing big water. “There’s always fish in major rivers flowing into large lakes,” he says. “Most anglers abandon rivers once the majority of large schools leave after the spawn, but residential fish remain year-round. And a lot of times, you have them to yourself.”

Skarlis tapping the river bite during an MWC event where the rest of the field fought heavy seas on the main lake.

Besides flying under the radar of other anglers, tributaries offer safe havens when foul weather rocks the main lake. “I always try to establish a river pattern during tournaments,” Skarlis says. “Not just in case the wind blows, but because it’s a great way to find walleyes and other species nobody else is fishing.”

For vacationing anglers, having a few river spots to fall back on also eliminates precious fishing time lost to high winds or other adverse weather. “A lot of times when it’s too nasty to go out on the lake, everybody stays in and plays cards or twiddles their thumbs. River hotspots are your ace in the hole to avoid such wasted downtime,” he says.

He relies heavily on his electronics during on-the-water searches. “Having your electronics set up so you can mark fish at faster speeds is a plus,” he says. “The faster you can scan an area and eliminate unproductive water, the better off you are. Not just for finding walleyes initially, but in keeping up with them as they move. I’ve been on schools of fish on Lake Erie, for example, that move three miles during the course of a tournament.”

He’s also a believer in never skimping on lake maps. “I can’t stress enough the importance of having good mapping with the most detailed contour lines possible when fishing on big water,” he says. “That’s one of the reasons I like Navionics, because they come up with updates every week so I have the freshest data on every trip.”

Like Muche, Skarlis says that walleyes can and do travel throughout the water column. “You have to be careful on big bodies of water because the fish move up and down,” Skarlis says. “One minute you’re catching them on the bottom in 18 feet and the next they seem to disappear, when they’re so high in the water column you can’t mark them on sonar.”

Baitshops are additional sources of intel for folks visiting big water, though Skarlis encourages anglers to prime the pump when seeking information from a retailer. “I’m amazed at how many otherwise savvy anglers travel to a faraway land and walk into a baitshop looking for advice but never take their hands out of their pockets,” he says. “You get the best info when you walk up to the cash register with a basket full of lures and say, ‘where can I use these to catch walleyes right now?’”

To get the most bang for his buck, Skarlis keeps a list of items to stock up on—such as particular lures or snaps—and buys them while research shopping. “It’s also smart to keep an eye out for discontinued lures or colors, and grab them when you can,” he says.

Finally, he encourages budding big-water anglers to set their sights on where the fish are going. “Try to stay ahead of them and focus on where the walleyes are going, not where they’ve been,” he says. “Visualizing general migration directions and taking into account things like forage, current, thermocline, and other factors that make certain spots hot can help you find the best fishing areas, stay one step ahead of the crowd, and put your lures in front of as many big-water walleyes as possible.”

*Dan Johnson of Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-­Fisherman publications and Public Relations Manager for the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance.