“Everything is a month behind this year” is a phrase I’ve heard a few times around the lake. Indeed, we’ve had a very cool (and wet) spring and despite last week’s heat wave the trend seems to want continue. It seems I’ve spent more time pumping water out of the back yard on weekends than fishing. The rain not only completely soaks things up making it impossible to get to my boat, but it also changes things dramatically on the river. We are now nearing August and I have yet to see the water near shore be completely clear. The shoreline normally looks like an aquarium in the summer. This year it’s tinted brown from runoff and has been that way pretty much since ice out. There is no doubt that walleye fishing has been slow. Is it because of the extra rain and cooler waters? I can’t be sure, but personally I think there is a correlation to be made. Typical patterns aren’t working and fish are finicky. However, as the old proverb goes, where there’s a will there’s a way. You can’t choose the weather, so when faced with adverse conditions, even over a very long period it’s important to adapt and change your game so that you can stay on fish with regularity. Besides, a huge part of the fun of fishing is unraveling the puzzle and feeling the utopia of success when you do figure things out. At least it is for me.
Allow me to resort to clichés for a minute. The turning point if you will, this season, was a fishless day. You see, fishless days irritate me to the very depths of my being. They are not part of my vocabulary. I spent hours that day searching for walleyes on structure that’s usually a walter magnet that time of year. When the fishless minutes turned into hours, instead of adapting, slowing things down, I kept fishing spot to spot, thinking that there HAD to be fish on the next one. Frustration got the better of me and I headed home, defeated, deflated, embarrassed…well you get the point. That night, I light a fire, sat back with a nice scotch and began to study the entire length of the lake on the map, east to west, prepping for redemption. I started eliminating water (and there was a lot to eliminate). I eventually concluded that fish could still be in post-spawn areas. As I was planning out a route, and starting point, I set up a few rods to troll shallow, a few to troll a little deeper and a couple more to jig with. I made sure that whether it be plugs, spinners, jigs, live bait you name it; If it’s been known by man to catch walleyes at some point in history it was going to be part of my arsenal the next morning. I started working one of the main feeder-rivers in our area and planned to make my way towards more typical summer patterns from there. I fished shallow, I fished deep, I jigged, trolled and despite it being another tough day, I had put 12 fish in the boat by the end of it and more importantly, I learned a very valuable lesson. Try everything.
By the end of that second day, I had found a few fish right in the feeder river, and then on the first flat adjacent to it, but nothing with size. I fooled 2 or 3 fish on spinners and some on plugs, but the jig bite ended up being the best producer in the colder water. From that day on I have been able to find a few fish here and there all summer using the same basic try everything techniques, and with some perseverance slowly but surely began to figure out the fish. One thing I’ve found to be particularly interesting is the variety of areas where I found fish in this season so far. I have caught and seen fish on my underwater camera from 8 feet deep all the way to 70 feet, including one day where I patterned fish in deep structure and caught them on jigs in 50 to 60 feet. For whatever reason, fish were deep for a while and eating at those depths. I started experimenting and found that a few details made a big difference. First off is jig size and type. I noticed that though bigger jigs got to the bottom in a hurry and allowed for good bottom contact in the current they didn’t get as many bites. I think it has to do with how it looks to a fish. The lighter the jig, the more natural your bait looks, but if you go too light, you have no control over it and that doesn’t work either. With proper boat control, I narrowed it down to a 1/2oz jig tipped with a gulp minnow or anything that looks like a 3-4 inch minnow. The key element in keeping the jig on bottom is staying as vertical as you can and being in control of the drift. In order to keep my boat from drifting too quickly or off of to the side of the structures I was fishing, I used a tandem of a drift sock attacked to the stern on a cable split used for water skiing and my bow-mount trolling motor. Man was I happy with the results. The combination of both gives me total control on both East-West drift speed and North-South variations. It really did make the difference. It’s interesting to note that this boat control technique also really helped me on a trip up to Cabonga Reservoir a few weeks later jigging for lake trout. But let’s save that story for another day for now.
One important thing to mention is that if you’re going to target deep fish and you want to release them, I’d recommend bringing them up very slowly and saving that bite for colder water conditions. I avoid fishing deep in the hot summer months when the surface temperature reaches 65+. When fish come up from that deep their swim bladder expands with air from the release of pressure. When release them with a bloated swim bladder they go belly up and eventually die. In warmer water the shock to the fish coming up can be too much. If you happen to have been an aquarium owner at some point, you’ll know that fish are very sensitive to temperature changes. . Subtle changes in temperature can be quite dramatic to them. Besides, once the surface temperature reaches 68 or more, it’s possible to find aggressive fish everywhere in much shallower areas.
I release most of my fish, and almost all of them in the warm water because I personally find they start tasting a little weedy. But in the spring and fall, I like to keep a few for my famous jigger fish-roll feast. If you live near Lancaster, or have visited the area, it’s likely you’ve met someone who claims to make the best fish-roll around. In fact, everyone around here thinks that, and I’m no different :).
At the end of the day, I’ve uncovered a new way to catch walleyes that works very well and I’ve learned a thing or two about fishing and about adapting. Even though I’ve moved back to the shallows now, the deep water jigging was certainly a nice change from usual tactics, a fun learning experience that yielded a few nice surprises too as you can see. Oh and for you bass fishermen out there, there are a few monster Smallies hanging out down there too… Until next time, Stay Outside!