Bryan Johnson of Oregon with two large walleyes he caught during a late November fishing spree off Niagara reef in Lake Erie.
Lake Erie is usually a very lonely place for a fisherman when the air has a sharp bite to it, the deer hunters are headed for the woods, and the calendar says it’s nearly December.
But not this year.
When it comes to late fall fishing on the big lake, the hearty are sometimes rewarded. We experienced that very phenomena recently.
Hard core angler Bryan Johnson from Oregon and Toledo-based pro Ross Robertson both hit the walleye jackpot. It was a run of extremes — big fish, lots of ’em, and very few boats.
Johnson was making a run in the direction of the Lake Erie islands about 10 days ago when he noticed something irregular on his electronic fish finder.
“There they were,” said Johnson, who was a bit north of Niagara Reef when images suddenly filled his screen. “I ran into a wall of fish.”
Using Reef Runners, primarily the Pink Lemonade, Bare Naked, and Cranberry Crush models, Johnson found a slow troll seduced these walleye behemoths, that ranged from three to 10 pounds.
After a first-crack bonanza that produced a limit catch of fat walleyes, Johnson went back the next day, and the next, and the next — for eight days in a row. Twice he went solo, since none of his usual fishing buddies were available.
The results were the same — limit catches of fish up to 10 pounds.
“That area was full of fish, and most times there was not another boat in sight,” he said. “I don’t know if we hit the fall migration just right, or what, but the fish were in there thick and feeding like crazy. Those eight days were out of this world.”
Johnson was working in about 30 feet of “off-colored” water and picking fish up about 15-to-20 feet deep. He had his rigs set 40-to-60 feet back and found that 1.5 miles per hour seemed to be the ideal trolling speed.
Johnson trailered his 19-foot Alumacraft and launched it out of Wild Wings Marina each time. He saw just a half-dozen trailers in the boat launch parking lot on the busiest day. When the haze was thin, Johnson could make out a distant cluster of boats off Catawba and another group around A-can, but not an angling soul anwhere near to where he was getting into the big ones.
“You never see Lake Erie that calm for that many days in a row, in November, but I couldn’t figure out where all of the fishermen were,” Johnson said.
Most of the fish Johnson caught had already gorged themselves on shad — one that he filleted had 20 shad in its craw — yet they were still running down the baits and wanting more.
“In almost 40 years of chasing walleyes on Lake Erie, I have never had a run of days like this,” Johnson said.
Robertson reported that most persistent anglers who endured the bad weather and tough fishing of early fall, but kept at it, found that their persistence really paid off.
He called it “redemption.” The post-Hurricane Sandy fishing was dynamite.
“Maybe we needed that hurricane to clean out our system,” Robertson said. “The result was 50 fish or more per day, almost every day for two weeks.”
The walleyes Robertson encountered ranged from two pounds up to a prize that went 13 pounds, 3 ounces, “with a pile of double-digit size fish reaching the boat.”
Robertson was using a variety of stickbaits, but had the most success with Husky Jerks and Reef Runner Ripsticks. The preferred color seemed to change almost daily, but Robertson said a trolling speed from 1.2 mph to 1.6 mph was the most productive, with each day having its own optimum speed.
“I’ve seen a particular speed make a huge difference in the catch rate,” Robertson said. “I think a lot of this is due to the weird currents we have been seeing. This also has made the direction you go really important.”
Robertson, who was tutored by legendary walleye angler Jim Fofrich and has spent nearly two decades studying Lake Erie’s secrets, said he believes that the big walleyes prefer library-level quiet. He avoids the crowds and uses an electric trolling motor, when the conditions allow.
“Both the catch rate and the bigger fish show that they like it quiet,” Robertson said. “Getting away from the traffic also made a huge difference in order to get the really big girls. I'm not sure why everyone always likes to pile on top of each other, but I promise you it makes a difference.”
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