Finding the “spot on the spot” is like discovering the Holy Grail of walleye fishing. It’s one place where, once you identify it, you can rest relatively assured that your angling dreams will be realized. Late-summer trolling over massive bodies of water isn’t so different. However, instead of trying to locate slight variations in a piece of structure or along a breakline, the right spot is more often related to depth control. Whether you are fishing one of the Great Lakes or a renowned walleye producer like Mille Lacs, Winnebago, Big Stone or Devil’s Lake, the key may well be found in your ability to keep your crankbaits and spinner rigs in a precise strike zone.
First, you have to find the fish. If I’m heading onto a body of water with little or no reliable information to build on, the first thing I do is consult a map and search out deep-water humps and flats, along with breaklines that feature quick access to shallow feeding areas. Then I can cruise over those locations and let my Lowrance X-19 sonar unit tell me if anybody’s home. These fish can be anywhere from two or three feet over the top of a hump or flat in 40 feet of water to suspended anywhere between the bottom and the surface.
Breaklines come into play more when cold-front conditions are present and fish bunch tightly against steep structure. Under fair-weather conditions, I’ve frequently found these schools of walleyes suspended outside the breakline at the same depth as the adjacent shallows where they feed actively during low-light conditions.
For example, if the flat is 10 feet deep, make sure you check out the 10-foot depth in the deeper, open water that surrounds it. Sometimes, water color is the key to locating these fish. Even the slightest tint or stain in clear-water lakes and reservoirs can make a big difference. Consider where the wind has been blowing and focus your efforts in places where it has left its mark. Once you’ve located these schools of fish, it’s not unusual for them to be scattered up and down the water column.
It can be a frustrating situation to watch what you know to be walleye after walleye hang listlessly in the water column while you pass through them trying everything but dynamite to catch them. One problem is that these fish aren’t usually feeding actively. Late summer walleyes in big, clear waters seem to do a lot of their table work at night. However, their metabolism is working hardest when the water is warmest, so there are also brief periods during the day when they’ll become aggressive. It’s a good idea to lock in GPS coordinates on your X-19 unit any time you find a school of fish. If they all look like stationary hooks on the sonar screen, they may prove impossible to catch no matter what you do. Look for more active fish. You can always come back to work on the other fish later.
If your sonar is revealing more straight, diagonally positioned lines than hooks, it probably is showing you fish that are moving through the water column. This is a situation that usually tells me to get my lures out and get after it. And, if you come across pods of baitfish with hooks and lines mixed in, you are likely looking at actively feeding walleyes.
Once you’ve zeroed in on an area to fish, the next challenge is to find the precise depth at which the fish will eat. Many times, you have to put your bait right in their faces to provoke a strike. Fortunately, modern technology has provided us with a number of tools to make this task easier. Downriggers, directional trolling sinkers such as Dipsey Divers, snap weights, in-line sinkers, lead-core line, line-counter reels and even bottom bouncers can be used independently or in combination to help anglers find that “spot on the spot.”
Downriggers are a great tool because it doesn’t matter at what depth the active fish are holding. From a few inches under the surface to 100 feet deep, you can take a crankbait or a spinner rig to those fish and keep it there. One trick I’ve learned about downrigger fishing is to not rely on the traditional releases that attach to downrigger cables. More than once, I’ve hauled a walleye around the lake without even knowing it was there until I checked the line, and some of them have even been fish larger than five pounds. I’ve gone to using extremely thin rubber bands to attach my line to the downrigger release. Simply loop it around the line that goes to the bait and hook it into the release. Lower the cannon ball very slowly and you’ll be in business.
Dipsey Divers aren’t as precise as downriggers, but when used with line-counter reels they can help you duplicate depths while also spreading lines away from the boat, and that can be important in clear water. I use Fireline or Berkley’s Gorilla Braid with Dipseys because it will take my presentations a few feet deeper when that’s where things need to be. Don’t be afraid to experiment with extremely long leaders behind those Dipseys. You are dealing with finicky fish and clear water, and sometimes they want nothing to do with a bait presented on a six- or eight-foot leader no matter how good it might look. I’ve fished Dipseys with leaders as long as 20 feet, which means either walking all the way to the bow of my Triton 215X while my partner nets my fish or hand-lining the fish to the boat when the fight is all but finished.
Lead-core line can be used in combination with Off-Shore Planer boards for more precision depth control and more width in the spread you present. Usually, that means segmenting the lead-core line with monofilament or Fireline. The trick to this set-up is determining exactly how much leaded line is required to get into the active depth. Typically, this means monofilament backing on the reel, then anywhere from two or three to 10 colors of leaded line, then a Fireline or mono leader of 25 to 50 feet. A quality sonar unit like the Lowrance X-19 will show you what depth the fish are holding. Then it’s a matter of experimenting with combinations of lead and regular line until you find the right numbers. A good way to do that is to run two lines straight out the back of the boat. Start with a 50-foot lead and three colors of lead. If that’s not working, go to four colors, then to five, etc. Once you find a combination that’s working, you can move the rig to your Off-Shore Planer boards.
Snap weights and keel sinkers both have their positive and negative points. Snap weights are clipped to the line well ahead of the lure, which is a plus in clear water where walleyes can be spooky. However, precision is more difficult to achieve because there are factors such as wind, waves, sinker weight, blade size on spinner rigs, crankbait styles and boat speed that all contribute to what depth a rig is running. You also run the risk of giving fish some slack line when you are detaching the snap weights during the fight. In-line weights offer more depth control precision and less margin for error during the main rounds of battle, but like Dipsey Divers they aren’t made to fish with long leaders. Again, you’ll have to go to the bow of the boat when you hook a fish or hand-line it when you reach the sinker.
Bottom bouncers seldom figure into my open-water arsenal. There are too many other ways to get to the fish without dragging around the bulk of a bouncer. One situation where bottom bouncers are an asset is when there is a lot of debris on the bottom where snap weights might hang up.
It pays to tune crankbaits and sort out productive spinner blades as you fish. A big walleye can knock a crankbait out of tune, as can a tangle in the net, and it’s nice to have another ready to go. Likewise, I like to have snap weights and spinner blades within easy reach rather than leave a half-dozen boxes of tackle scattered around the boat where they can get stepped on or tipped over. For this purpose, I keep an extra Flambeau tackle storage box around and use it as a “hot box” while I’m putting the pieces of any open-water situation together.
With any of these systems, speed control is also critical. I rely on my Mercury 9.9 hp Bigfoot kicker motor. It’s an economical four-stroke the purrs like a sewing machine and lets me maintain consistent trolling speed without the surges in power and toxic exhaust that a lot of small outboards and two-strokes seem to experience.
Late summer is a great time to get in on some good action for big walleyes. When you find them, they are usually present in large numbers and once you get to them, you can make some impressive catches. Set yourself up with a variety of tools for the job and you can double or even triple down. You’ll come up a winner more often than not.