By: Cory Schmidt
You have to admire the optimism of statements like, “There’s no such thing as a bad time to go fishing,” even if it’s not necessarily accurate in the sense of fantastic versus difficult times to catch walleyes.
I appreciate the opportunity to fish for the palliative effects of the experience. But I’m mostly here to catch fish, and August walleye fishing comes with challenges. In my guiding days years ago, the August calendar always filled in with folks who subscribed to the notion that hot, late-summer weather and biting bugs somehow translated to biting walleyes. Augusts were made for summer family vacations, and so by the same logic, why not also an ideal time for catching walleyes?
The consequence of such an unfortunate notion was that yours truly and other guides learned by necessity how to scratch enough walleyes on breathless, dog days of late summer. Even on clear, classic walleye water, the task isn’t insurmountable, although you may need to scale back expectations. Regardless of where the walleyes take you, the best late-summer fishing seems to revolve around some combination of these factors: shallow vegetation or rocks; open water; low-light phases; and/or dramatic surges in lure speed and direction.
We’ve long known the reasons behind difficult August bites—incalculable clouds of baitfish shimmer along nearly every drop-off you encounter. Shallow plants are at maximum growth and density; some plant types have begun to wither. Other than a stray thunderstorm, weather and water conditions are about as stable day to day as they are all year.
Essentially, walleyes and their patterns may never be more predictable than in late summer.
But are late summer walleyes easy to locate? If you’re acquainted with the lake, absolutely. And once you find them, you can stay on them for days and even weeks. Easy to catch? Maybe. Boat traffic and fishing pressure often get in the way.
Interestingly, I’ve found that intense motor traffic affects walleyes in shallow water almost negligibly. For the past two summers, we’ve located schools of walleyes in 8 to 17 feet of water in vegetation with an Aqua-Vu camera and noticed that even on busy weekends, they mostly go about their business. Amid endless propeller noise, we’ve watched pods of several dozen fish mill about, occasionally drifting off the edge and reappearing a short distance down the vegetated flat. Over about a five-week period from late July through early September, we’ve tracked the same schools within the same plant bed, sneaking in to scratch four or five fish during hour-long peak bites, often at midday, before anyone’s the wiser.
Ultimately, it’s about pattern predictability. Walleyes might only feed for short windows, for instance at first light, moonrise, 1 to 2 p.m., the first hour after sunset, or even at 3:30 in the morning. The rest of the day, it’s often about scratching a fish here and there. That’s walleye reality on relatively clear lakes with modest populations of fish and heavy fishing pressure. Of course, August can be easy, too, like when you’re on a fishery with a peaking walleye population and/or a depressed baitfish supply. I love lakes like Lake of the Woods, Erie, Green Bay on Lake Michigan, Winnebago, and Leech. Rivers also can offer consistent late summer walleye fishing. Reservoirs like Sakakawea also can be fantastic in late July through early September.
Relative to locating fish in vegetation, the best advice I can give is to use an underwater camera. Even with the best sonar screen, walleyes can be tough to discern within vegetation, and easy to overlook. It’s why my Aqua-Vu HD700i camera goes overboard a lot during August.
Besides species identification, the Aqua-Vu also answers important questions. Why are the walleyes here, as opposed to every other cabbage bed in the lake? Perhaps because here a diverse mixture of large leaf pondweed (cabbage), elodea, eelgrass, and coontail provide a patchy and diverse landscape with oodles of edges—key for baitfish and many other aquatic animals. Plant diversity and vegetation patchiness are among the most important walleye location factors.
Something I learned while guiding that remains overlooked today is working vegetation with a simple grass-guard jighead tipped with a small chub or dressed with a 2- to 3-inch softbait. Northland Tackle’s Weed-Weasel jig snakes beautifully through vegetation and is highly effective on walleyes in vegetation, as well as bass, crappies, or pike. Even today, members of the legendary Nisswa (Minnesota) Guides League lean heavily on this veg-based presentation and put good fish in the net each and every August day.
One sweet combo for piercing and canvassing vegetation is a 1/4-ounce Weed-Weasel dressed with a Z-Man Slim SwimZ, a dainty 21⁄2-inch paddletail swimmer. You can swap the SwimZ for other options, such as a Berkley Ripple Shad or Twitchtail Minnow, or Lunker City Fin-S Fish. It’s the Weed-Weasel that makes the thing go, snaking through leaves, climbing stalks, and momentarily hanging up on stems before shooting free. I like a subtle paddletail like the Slim SwimZ because of its super-soft yet tough ElaZtech construction. The little tail strums along like that of a runaway baitfish. You can fish clean through entire expanses of vegetation, which is nearly impossible to do without getting bit.
You can pitch it along weededges—often along drop-offs from 6 to 15 feet of water—or toss it about a cast-length into the growth. On pressured fish, I often employ the opposite approach, spot-locking atop a shallow flat, casting out past the drop-off and working back uphill. If you’re quiet, this approach can score lots of walleyes in short order.
On pressured fish, I like to slowly stitch the bait along bottom, using a fast-tip 6-foot 6-inch St. Croix Legend Tournament Walleye rod (LTWS66MLF) to pop the jig off temporary hang-ups. I load a Shimano Stradic FK 2500 with 8-pound Sufix Nanobraid and tie on a 10-foot leader of 6-pound-test Seaguar AbrazX fluorocarbon to guard against abrasion.
For the first dozen or so casts into a new area, I let the jig fall to bottom and commence a rapid swim-rip-pause swim-rip-pause retrieve. I work the 20- to 30-foot zone from the drop-off into the tallest pondweed with relatively rapid-fire retrieves. If you catch several fish in the vegetation and you believe more are there, switch to a less-aggressive stitching approach, perhaps also adding a live fathead minnow or medium-sized ribbon leech. It’s a similar approach to the one used by In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange and others who work a 3/8- or 1/2-ounce jig/paddletail swimbait combo aggressively, tagging a few fish per spot, before moving on to slower, more precise presentations. Overlooked as well, jig spinners such as Gopher Tackle’s Bait Spin or the Johnson Beetle Spin, dressed with a softbait, can be fine shallow-water walleye lures.
Walleyes in the Cabbage
The most potent means of extracting spooky shallow walleyes, particularly from vegetation, is a simple slipfloat rig. “When walleyes are in weeds, you’re silly not to fish a slipbobber,” says legendary walleye angler Bruce Samson who’s, won tournaments with a lively leech beneath a floating balsa cylinder.
“While wind is required to activate walleyes on rock and other shallow structure, calm water often shines for pitching bobbers in vegetation,” he says. “No wind means I can toss a bobber into a specific area and let the leech undulate between stalks without snagging. Let it sit for a few minutes and then reel it in 10 feet to canvass the next zone.
“A 6- to 12-foot point with plants growing 1 to 4 feet above bottom is a perfect area for working a bobber. In this scenario, a little wind ‘trolls’ the bobber for you, skimming the bait over the tops. Points indicate hard bottom and walleyes love hard bottom, which is also ideal substrate for large-leaf pondweed, the greatest walleye plant on earth.”
He presents a leech on a 1/32- or 1/16-ounce jighead, occasionally an 1/8-ouncer in heavier plant growth. He uses an 81⁄2-foot Fenwick steelhead rod and 6-pound-test Berkley Trilene XT or IronSilk, a slightly stiff line with tremendous abrasion resistance. A longer rod allows for easy line mending—keeping drag-loops off the water—and quickly removes slack line to sweep the hook home. The long, soft steelhead rod also minimizes shock to light line and small hooks.
“I prefer a float with a brass insert on the stem, which assures line passes freely without abrasion,” Samson says. “Larger through-stem bobbers are my favorites, including Northland Tackle’s Lite-Bite and Thill’s Pro Series. I don’t like bobbers with lead-weighted stems, because in wind, these sink on the upside of every wave, causing frustration and missed bites. In shallow water, these floats also won’t lay over on their side when the bait hits bottom. You want the float to indicate bottom—it’s like a remote depthfinder. The right float can show you the high spots on a point, which can be key walleye zones.”
In calm conditions, he weights his floats by adding split shot a foot above the jighead until the float’s stem just protrudes above the surface. In strong wind, he uses slightly less shot. “A jighead is much better than a plain hook,” he adds. “Leeches nearly always ball up around a plain, weightless hook, but trail horizontally and undulate naturally on a jighead. Jigs with long-shank hooks, such as a Northland RZ Jig, are better than short-shank versions. And at times, the attractor of a Northland Thumper Jig or other bladed jig score 10 bites to every one on a plain jig.
“As soon as you hook a fish, your partner needs to reel in, net the fish, and immediately cast his rig back to the exact spot the fish bit. You can’t believe how many fish you can catch in quick succession this way. Often, walleyes in vegetation feed competitively, and when your float goes down, there’s likely more walleyes waiting.”
Trolling for Walleyes
On the other side of the presentation spectrum, dramatic alterations in lure speed and direction can produce exceptional bites amid profusions of baitfish and warm water. About 10 years ago, while avoiding a power-boater’s attempt to mow down my planer boards, I accidentally discovered that rapidly accelerating from 2 to 7 mph caused my boards and baits to surge ahead like rockets, triggering a 29-inch walleye. I wrote an article on that tactic called “Turbo Trolling” for In-Fisherman in 2007. Rapid jolts of acceleration to your lures often work so well it’s hard to believe. You can turbo-troll with stable crankbaits like a Rapala Shad Rap or Storm Hot ‘N Tot—anything that tracks true up to 5 to 7 mph.
The same principle can apply to lure direction. Minnesota guide Tony Roach knows many walleyes follow trolled lures without biting. It’s why for the past several seasons, he and other anglers have taken turbo-trolling in a different direction, literally, using wandering crankbaits like Rapala Scatter Raps and new wave spinner blade rigs to inject his trolling passes with a multi-directional punch—accelerating and random side-to-side jukes and jives equal big bites on difficult days.
“For the last several summers, I’ve spent a lot of time pulling shortline spinners behind 1/2- and 3/4-ounce bullet sinkers through cabbage,” Roach says. “At midday, we’ll pull onto a big weedflat and drop Trokar Revolve hooks and Mack’s Smile Blades 50 or 60 feet back and start ‘mowing the lawn.’”
For Roach, it’s often a numbers game, trolling 1.2 to 1.6 mph over vegetated points and flats, usually near a drop-off. “The Revolve hook gives the bait a fast, erratic flip-flop action and gets the tail of a ‘crawler or softbait kicking.”
While Mustad debuted the first “Slow Death” style hook at least five years ago, he says few recreational anglers he fishes with have enough confidence in these erratic rigs to consistently rely on them. That’s a mistake, Roach says, as he believes these dynamic spinner rigs are very effective.
Most recently, he dressed his revolving hooks with softbaits, including various paddletail swimbaits and lures like Northland Tackle’s Impulse Ringworm. He’s also begun to experiment with Smile Blades, a non-metallic, pliable spinner shaped like a heart.
Mack’s Lure was perhaps the first to offer a revolving, smile-bladed rig. Their Smile Spindrift Walleye & Trout Rig has become the biggest trend in spinner-rigging, particularly on Dakota and western reservoirs. The unique blade shape accentuates lure action, giving the hook an exaggerated kick-out motion, while the blade wobbles and wanders subtly in different directions. The Smile Blade also works at slower speeds than classic metallic blades, allowing for abrupt speed changes without sacrificing thump or flash. Mack’s Smile Rig employs a VMC Spindrift hook, a revolving, bent-shank bait hook with a built-in swivel that alleviates potential line twist.
Don’t think these spinner rigs won’t work equally well on rock and sand in reservoirs or in deep lake basins. This is fertile ground for a method most fish haven’t seen. One of the most potentially exciting new options I’ve been experimenting with is casting big spoons and softbaits to schools of suspended baitfish.
For years, anglers have trolled cranks across deep flats where walleyes forage on open-water ciscoes, smelt, and shad. Casting big rubber baits for suspended muskies has resulted in enough big walleyes now to make the this worthy of closer study. These past two years from July through October, these “accidental” open-water walleyes have been 25-plus inchers. More time dedicated to casting spoons like a 6-inch Williams Whitefish 90, Sebile Onduspoon, or Nichols Flutter Spoon should be worth it.
Drive around open basins, dropping waypoints on the biggest bait balls, especially those within 20 feet of the surface. Go back, drop the trolling motor, quietly putter around the perimeter of the bait and fire long casts. Let the big spoon flutter and flash, calling fish from all directions. The only difference between a ball of bait on your sonar screen and a big boulder on a point is obvious—the former attracts fish, moves, and offers walleyes something good to eat.
This article first appeared in In-Fisherman. Cory Schmidt, is an avid walleye angler, often experimenting with and reporting on novel tactics.