Big walleyes didn’t get big by accident. They’re the ones that have lived up to the law of nature “survival of the fittest”, both physically and mentally. These fish are smarter, whether it’s through genetics or just sheer experience. If you want to consistently catch extremely big walleyes, try fishing extremely different than you would if you’re just looking to fill a limit.
Talk about fishing “Extreme”, and you’re talking about the hunt for big walleyes. That’s my passion (along with shooting really Big Bucks), and I take it seriously. You hear it all the time…”The lake I fish has plenty of big fish in it, but other than spring or fall, no one can catch them … Where do they go?”. The answer to that question could take volumes, but I’ll try to lay down some key factors that should help with locating and catching the biggest walleyes on your favorite water all year ‘round.
Extremely different forage:
Trophy fishing experts will tell you, what catches the most fish will rarely catch the “Big Boys”. That’s because usually the largest fish in a body of water feed differently than the larger population of smaller fish living there. Their nutritional needs are different and they’ll exhibit different behavior patterns when it comes to searching out food. Competition rules the habits of walleye populations, but when those same fish reach trophy status, there is usually not much competition to deal with. Big fish have bigger appetites. They also get smarter with age, and learn that there are certain food sources that allow them to fill up with less expenditure of energy. Where a 17 inch walleye may be content with chowing down 2 to 3 inch minnows, a 30 inch fish will search out 6 to 10 inch prey. Other critters such as waterdogs, frogs and panfish also enter the picture as prime candidates for a trophy walleye’s diet. Because of this difference in prey preference, larger walleyes will be found in areas often much different than the rest of the walleyes in a body of water.
Deep structure is always a prime location for good sized walleyes. The depth will be relative to the particular body of water, but we are primarily talking about fish that will be found in 30 to 60 feet of water. The key, as in all fishing, is to locate the fish first. A good quality depth finder is essential for this. Units with a bare minimmum of 240 vertical pixels and 3000 watts of power will give you the resolution necessary to separate bottom hugging walleyes from structure. State-of-the-art sonars go much further than that, like the Lowrance LCX-19C which sports a phenimenal 480 vertical pixels with up to 8,000 watts peak-to-peak power (depending on transducer used). This type of unit gives a deep water angler a real advantage when scoping out walleyes. Even lower priced sonar units like Lowrance’s X-125 feature 480 vertical pixels and 2,400 watts of power at a price most any walleye angler can afford.
Typically, deep fish are going to be related closely to structure, hanging on points, inside turns or humps. Precise presentations like a bottom bouncer and live bait set-up are ideal for targeting walleyes in this situation. Try running a 1 1/2 oz Northland Rock-Runner Bottom Bouncer with a 6 to 9 foot snell of 12# Vanish Fluorocarbon and a hook appropriate for the bait you are using. Especially if you’re targeting big walleyes, a big minnow is tough to beat. A light wire bait hook will improve your hooking percentage. I actually like Mustad’s Ultra-Point Double Wide Live Bait Hook (model 10548R) in size #2 to 1/0 depending on the size minnow being used. This is a hook I helped design specifically for walleye featuring a wide gap, super sharp point and light wire build that makes it a great live bait hook.
You can move along fairly quickly with the electric motor as you work this rig, but as soon as you spot fish on the locator, slow down and let the bait dangle right in front of their noses. Its a presentation that walleyes find hard to resist.
On the other end of the spectrum, big fish can move into very shallow water in search of their favorite forage. I’ve seen this on many occasions on reservoirs like Fort Peck in Montana and Lake Oahe in South Dakota. The best shallow water spots are where erosion has created banks with a “stair step” look to them. Walleyes will push baitfish up against these banks and corral them for an easy meal. Shallow weeds can also attract walleyes on many bodies of water. Here the fish react much as other predators, lurking along the weed edges in ambush of unsuspecting prey. In either case, pitching small jigs tipped with either a piece of nightcrawler or a plastic tail such as a Berkley GULP! Fry will be your best tactic. Locating shallow fish is difficult with electronics. It’s a time when you must fish an area quickly and thoroughly looking to contact fish in order to locate them. However, marking fish with your electronics in the deeper water close by is a good indication that some fish may be learking in the shallows.
Suspended walleyes are not a phenom solely of the Great Lakes. Most any walleye water can harbor a population of suspending fish if that water contains forage that utilizes the open waters. In many so-called “dishpan” lakes, this is where you’ll find the lake’s largest walleyes spending a good deal of their time. A perfect example is my old “home water”, Lake Winnebago in eastern Wisconsin. While Winnebago has lots of walleyes utilizing structures like rock reefs and weeds, many of this lake’s big walleyes roam the open basin like wolf packs foraging on everything from insect hatches to schools of white bass. Even though the average depth of the basin runs about 20 feet, most of these fish are caught by anglers trolling crankbaits that are only going down maybe 3 to 6 feet. In-line planer boards like Off Shore’s OR-12 Side Planer are important tools for getting those lures off to the sides of the boat to help eliminate the “boat-spooking” factor as you troll over these shallower open-water walleyes.