There’s no disputing the fact that Lake Erie is one of the best walleye fisheries in the world. Erie’s mix of numbers of fish and trophy fish potential are unmatched, but if you’re new to the system you could get overwhelmed trying to decide when and where your best chances are to catch numbers of big fish.
The reality of Lake Erie is that it’s a big lake and fish are constantly moving. If your boat is on a trailer and you can be mobile as the fish migrate, you certainly give yourself the best opportunity to consistently catch big fish. The large-scale migrations are mostly seasonal, so I will break down each season’s best trophy bite.
Spring is by far the most predictable opportunity, and in my opinion offers the best chance for the single biggest fish of the year. The spawning season puts all the largest females in predictable locations and even the slightest help from weather conditions makes them fairly easy to catch.
Many of Erie’s fish spawn on the western basin reefs contained within the Camp Perry firing range, and lots of the biggest pre-spawn fish will be staging within a few miles of the reefs. The first week or two after ice-out can be fantastic as long as the wind doesn’t pick up and the water doesn’t turn the color of chocolate pudding. All you have to do is find the best water color east or north of the reef complex, usually a greenish brown stain is best, and start trolling from 8 to 15 feet down with reef runners or deep husky jerks at speeds right around 1.0 mph.
Water color and temperature are essential. You need to find water that is a few degrees warmer than the rest, and many times you will need to push your water clarity comfort level to fish in the warmest water. I usually hope that I can at least barely make out my big engine’s cavitation plate, although in the spring I will tolerate not seeing it as long as there is at least a white or green tint to the mud stain. Make sure you’re marking big red or orange “hooks” on your sonar, and play around with lure depth and color until you hit the sweet spot. I honestly believe the Ohio state record will fall in the next three or four years, and it will probably be an early spring fish that does it.
Fall is easily the second best trophy fish opportunity, and only second because conditions can cause fall to be far less predictable. The fish are generally moving back to the western basin from the central basin, and water temperatures and baitfish location can dictate how quickly they move back. They are definitely the easiest to catch as they get to the area from Vermilion to the Bass Islands and Catawba, but when they actually get there in big numbers can vary from late September to Thanksgiving. Lately it has felt like no two fall seasons are ever the same.
When they finally make their appearance, the fishing can be fantastic. The trolling tactics are similar to the spring, but locations are more widespread. In the fall, you want to find cleaner water. I usually “have” to see my cavitation plate to be comfortable, and I’d like to see my prop. Brown stains are bad, and I am usually looking for a nice green color. With the best areas being open water, you don’t want to stop and fish until you find them. Your sonar will tell you if they are there, and there’s no reason to fish if they aren’t. My favorite areas are 2 to 6 miles east of Cedar Point in 35 to 45 feet of water, just off Ruggles Reef in 28 to 40 feet of water, and the area from Catawba to South Bass Island all the way west to the Camp Perry firing range.
Summer is showing up lower on the list because the fish weigh less than they do the rest of the year, but honestly if you’re more worried about the average length of your catch, summer would be number one. That’s counter-intuitive to most walleye anglers’ thought processes, but the eastern Ohio waters off of Fairport, Geneva, Ashtabula and Conneaut produce some of the best big fish bites of the year with the only drawback being, at times, long runs to get to the fish. The big fish bite really gets going in mid to late June, and if you’re patient enough to follow them around, it can last well into September.
The deep open waters of the central basin present plenty of trolling presentation options, but my favorite by far is shallow-diving stick baits on leadcore line. I like to run 18-pound test leadcore with a 50-foot fluorocarbon leader. Depending on the type of leadcore you use and your speed, the best number of “colors” will be from five to seven on most days. I have my reels set up so that I can put the leader and leadcore out and then I have braided line backing underneath the leadcore so that I can use inline planer boards and fish four leadcore lines at once. Speeds from 2 to 2.5 mph are best and it seems like windy days allow the waves to impart vertical action that fish can’t resist. Usually the bite starts inshore in 40 to 60 feet of water and then moves to 65 to 74 feet of water well offshore as the season progresses. On the best days, many of your fish will be over 28 inches and you’ll catch multiple over 30 inches.
Because of the unpredictability of winter, I won’t spend much time talking about it, but in the winters that Erie doesn’t freeze you can continue to catch trophies from a boat from Huron all the way to the reefs. During the hard winters when we get thick ice, there are plenty of trophies caught by ice fishermen from Catawba to West Sister Island. The reason winter is last on the list is because it can be so hard to plan for. You have to be prepared to take what the lake gives you and not be disappointed if the conditions that you were hoping for don’t show up.
Lake Erie is one of the few trophy walleye factories in the world that gives you legitimate fish-of-a-lifetime opportunities nearly every day of the year. Be versatile, pay attention to conditions and also fishing reports, and you’ll certainly land huge walleye all year long.