Hearty souls make late-season haul

Fishermen find treasure trove of walleye on quiet, calm Lake Erie

Bryan Johnson of Oregon with two large walleyes he caught during a late November fishing spree off Niagara reef in Lake Erie.
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.”

Con­tact Blade out­doors ed­i­tor

Matt Mar­key at:


or 419-724-6068.