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Rockin' Walleye

By Steve Ryan - October 1, 2004
One of the easiest ways to catch late summer walleye is to fish mid-lake structure - in particular rock piles and reefs. Walleye relate to this structure from mid-summer to late fall. Reefs concentrate bait and provide land marks by which walleye navigate throughout the lake. The most difficult part of fishing rock piles and reefs is locating and marking them.

The number one source for information on a lake's bottom structure is a good contour map. If a contour map is available, get the map and study it. The best reefs are large and irregular in shape. The majority of their surface area should top out in 6-18 feet of water. While shallower and deeper rock structures will hold their share of walleye, they are more difficult to fish. On shallow water reefs, walleye tend to spook more easily and actively feed on top of the reef only under low light or windy conditions. Longer casts to this structure are required and trolling becomes less of an option. Deeper water reefs, which top out at twenty feet or more, are difficult to fish since one's options are limited to deep water jigging or using heavy bait rigs. With reefs that top out in the 6-18 foot range, the fishing options are endless as discussed below.

Since contour maps do not exist for many remote northern lakes, ask fellow anglers, bait shop or lodge owners for assistance in locating mid-lake structure. If these options fail, it's time to hit the water and start searching for that perfect rock structure. One should begin by studying the shoreline and other mid-lake structure such as islands and individual rocks that break the surface. Where there is one rock that reaches the surface, there are usually several others surrounding it that fall short. In addition, some of the best reefs are formed off the ends of islands. Islands are easy starting points for locating underwater structure. Finally, take what is given to you. If you see a marker buoy in the middle of the lake, check out the surrounding water with a depth finder. Once the rock pile or reef is located, the dissection begins. By using a quality locator with a G.P.S. unit and plotter, the parameters of the reef should be marked. Pay special attention to turns in the reef and secondary points or spines that extend off of the main reef. If the structure is a singular rock pile, mark the top of the rock pile and try to locate additional rock piles nearby.

Once you have found and mapped out that perfect walleye structure and have committed to fishing it from dawn to dusk, here are some fishing suggestions. During the early morning hours, walleye will relate to the top of the structure. Position your boat off the top of the reef and cast minnow shaped crankbaits, like Smithwick Suspending Rattlin' Rogues or Limited Rogues, across the top of the structure. Suspending baits are perfect for this presentation. Since they can be fished effectively on a steady retrieve and suspend while at rest, Rattlin' Rogues give walleye extra time to take a bite. If walleye are not on top of the reef, try drifting and jigging the fast breaking edge of the reef with a leech or large chub. Use the lightest line and jig that conditions permit. In most situations, a 1/8 to 1/4 ounce jig can be fished effectively on 8 lb. test line. By using a long high quality graphite rod, one can swim or drag a jig or bait rig across the rocks and feel the lightest tap of a walleye.

As morning wears on, try moving off of the structure and troll the gradual tapering break of the reef with deep diving crank baits. Good lure choices include Cotton Cordell's Walleye Divers and Grappler Shads in bright fluorescent colors. These baits have a wider wobbling action than minnow baits and are built to take the punishment of bouncing off the rocky bottom.

Troll these lures 150 feet behind the boat on no less than 10 lb. test line. During midday, wind direction is a key factor. Walleye will set up on the wind blown side of the reef - facing into the waves and waiting for forage to be pushed into them. Accordingly, it is more effective to troll with the wind to present one's lures in a more natural fashion. In addition, start your trolling passes by covering the deepest edge of the structure first and with each successive trolling pass, move shallower and shallower. A quality fish finder unit, with a G.P.S. and plotter, is an invaluable tool when fishing reefs. The entire reef can be marked on the unit with waypoints. In addition, one's trolling pattern and the location of hits can be marked on the plotter enabling one to repeat the exact same trolling pass - even after dark. Without a G.P.S. and plotter, numerous marker buoys should be used to map out the top and edge of the structure. To make it easier to identify the location of each hit, it is best to have several different colored marker buoys. One color to mark the top of the reef; a second color to mark the edge of the reef and a third color to mark the location of hits or unique characteristics of the structure.

As evening approaches, it is again time to fish shallower and on top of the structure. Try anchoring and using a slip bobber and a leech on a size 4 bait hook, set 18 inches above the bottom. For slip bobber fishing, two things are critical: (i) a lively bait and (ii) a long rod. Jumbo leeches are the most effective live bait option for late summer walleye. To keep leeches lively, the water should be kept cold and changed often. To get the most action from your leech, hook it just behind the suction cup. Place the necessary amount of split shots at least 18 inches above the hook and use a limp line, like Super Silver Thread in 6 lb. test, to allow the leech to swim freely.

The second critical item is a long rod. To be effective, the rod should be at least 7 feet in length. The extra length allows for longer casts and better hook sets. The rod should have a softer action tip that allows live bait to be cast at great distances without the need for extra weight. Companies like Lamiglas, which are more commonly associated with West coast salmon and trout fishing, make dozens of different rods which are perfectly suited for slip bobber and live bait fishing.

To increase your catch of evening walleye from the reef, pack a few lighted Lindy slip floats or attach glow sticks to your existing slip bobbers. It is often the case that walleye begin to feed heaviest right at or after dark. When a walleye takes the bobber down and the light disappears, give the fish a few seconds to swim with the bait. Reel down toward the bobber to take up any slack line, and then sweep the rod upward to set the hook. If multiple rods are allowed, try casting a crankbait to the shallowest spot on the reef while a jumbo leech suspends under a slip float just off the bottom.

Using the above techniques, a limit of walleye from the rocks should almost be guaranteed. Remember to pay special attention to where hits occur on the structure. Repeat successful patterns from one reef to the next, and prior to calling it a day, make sure you have the means to quickly locate the structure the next time out.

Author Steve Ryan
Steve Ryan
Steve Ryan is an outdoor writer and avid angler who enjoys targeting trophy fish throughout the Midwest and beyond.
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