At nearly 10,000 square miles, Lake Erie is the 11th largest lake in the world. And right now it arguably has the best walleye fishing in the world.
Fish are caught year-round on Lake Erie—east to west, north to south, and thousands of anglers and vacationing fishing families are getting in on the hot walleye action. Fisheries experts say Erie now holds over 100 million walleyes.
But walleyes are the big draw, and anytime the wind is down, and the water is right for boating, fishermen are out and about to catch Erie “eyes.”
And the fish are big, with plenty in the 3-to-6-pound class, and many weighing over 10 pounds are taken annually.
“It’s pretty incredible,” says full-time charter captain Ross Robertson, age 43, who has operated “Bigwater Fishing” guide service out of Port Clinton, Ohio for 23 years. “The fishing can be good year-round, and limit catches of six walleyes per person, per day is more the norm than the exception for anglers in the know.”
A Seasonal View
Robertson says hot fishing spots and tactics change with the seasons on Erie, starting with the spring season at about the end of February when ice allows boat anglers to get after pre-spawn walleyes.
Because actively spawning walleyes don’t hit well, Robertson concentrates on pre-spawn fish on mud flats using blade baits and hair jigs in water 25 to 40 feet deep. Ice fishing tactics also work well with jig-and-minnow combinations and ice-type jigs productive.
“Erie has a different kind of walleye spawn compared to other waters,” Robertson explains. “They don’t spawn all at once. They spawn in waves of fish—in the bigger feeder rivers, but mostly in the lake itself. In the lake, they spawn on hard bottom, reefs and skinny water out to about 15 feet. The whole spawning season can take over a month, and we’ll see big concentrations of fish on sonar.”
As water temperatures rise into the upper 40s and 50s, trolling with 4.5-inch Rapala DHJ12 “Husky Jerks” in chrome or clear patterns work well. He trolls lures 13 to 20 feet deep. Rapala “Tail Dancers” are other lures Robertson uses at this time of year.
On The Troll
He fishes out of a 23-foot Ranger 622, a fast open boat that he can guide three anglers from. Trolling is his forte’, using side planers and 6 to 9 fishing lines with lures trailing from the same number of rod-reel combinations. Such trolling with side planers allows Robertson to cover a wide swath of water, out to about 75 feet port and starboard.
This trolling setup (3 lines per angler) allows many different types of lures, colors and depths to be covered until feeding Lake Erie walleyes are found. Such trolling is highly productive, and it’s ideal for family-style fishing since casting and retrieving is unnecessary.
Robertson’s trailerable fishing boat is an important asset to his success, as he can move around easily to where the best walleye fishing is found on the lake according to the season and weather.
“In a cool year walleyes tend to be in the western basin of the lake,” he explains. “In a hot year, they move to the eastern end of Erie. There’s a lot of good fishing around the Bass Islands area, which allows for protected fishing in windy weather. Families like the islands, too, for going ashore to shop and eat in restaurants during a day of fishing.”
Using crankbait plugs through the post-spawn period is productive for walleyes on Erie, says Robertson. But beginning in May he’ll start trolling nightcrawlers rigged to harnesses. Slower trolling speeds are needed with nightcrawlers. Small spoons like the 2.25-inch “Silver Streek Jr.” can be effective, too, mixing them up with colors and finishes at a side planer trolling spread.
It’s A Family Affair
Summer fishing on Erie runs from June to early September. Schools are out, families are on vacation along the Ohio Lake Erie shoreline, and the fishing is prime.
“In my experience, what typically happens once school lets out is that families will book a few days of fishing trips and by the second day only the dads want to keep fishing,” says Robertson. “But that’s the beauty of Erie. There are so many other things for the family to do. The Bass Islands have on-the-water dining. There are winery tours on South Bass island. Cedar Point in Sandusky has one of the country’s biggest amusement parks and Toft Dairy, which is an amazing ice cream shop that’s been around since the 1900s. At Put-In-Bay is Perry’s Victory and International Peace Memorial. It was established to honor those who fought in the Battle of Lake Erie, during the War of 1812, and to celebrate the long-lasting peace among Great Britain, Canada and the U.S. Cedar Point Shores Waterpark spans 18 acres and is a must-see. And, best of all, there are multiple ferry companies to take you wherever you’d like to go.
“On the fishing side, the bigger summer walleyes usually move east, chasing different baitfish because of the water temperature,” says Robertson. “Downsized crankbaits, small spoons and deeper fishing work well. Using ‘Dipsey Divers’ and ‘Jet Divers’ help get trolled lures deep, catching slightly smaller summer walleyes in the 1-to-5 pound class.”
Robertson mostly uses Shimano line counter reels spooled with 10-pound test monofilament line. However, with “Dipsey Divers” he employs 30-pound test braided lines with fluorocarbon leaders.
Big walleye action cranks up in the lake’s central basin starting in September and October and sometimes running well into December.
“For big walleyes, the later in the year, the better,” Robertson declares. “The fish feed well because they’re trying to put on fat for the winter, and eggs are developing in the females.”
Early autumn fishing with spoons and smaller cranks is excellent. Gizzard shad schools begin to congregate as the water gets colder. Slow trolling with big lures like the Husky Jerk produces some huge walleyes.
Erie’s walleye fishing can be great year-round, though in colder weather. fishing can be choice one day and poor the next. Summer fishing offers fast action, but smaller fish. And for big walleyes, autumn to winter can be outstanding.
So when’s the time to make a trip?
“That’s a loaded question,” Robertson says with a chuckle. “I’ve got some fishing clients who come every March or April, and they wouldn’t go at any other time. And I’ve got other fishermen who want to hit Erie in June, others in late summer or autumn.”
The best time to fish for Lake Erie walleyes is when you have time to do it. If booking a trip with a guide, contact him and ask for his advice. Walleye guides are well-versed in working with anglers since making them happy is what it’s all about.