Fishing the Great Lakes in April

by: Mark Martin

Before the walleye season starts on most inland waters, the options are anything but in abundance. But the abundance of the only option‹the only game in town‹is one of sheer plenitude. We're talking about the Great Lakes, from Michigan to Erie and beyond, where the waters around the river mouths are with few exceptions open year-round.

Which is why there's no time like the present to hit the couple of miles around the rivers and the reefs and adjacent depths where walleyes congregate in April. When covering water is at a premium and baitfish are in Great Lakes abundance‹which is the rule, not the exception‹trolling is the ticket not only to put a bait in front of more predators but to stand out from the crowd of smelt, alewives and gizzard shad. This is where the big ones live, often suspended over open water, feeding both day and night. For numbers, there¹s always the opportunity to hit the reefs with jigs and mop up on smaller males. Seems to me the options are surprisingly varied for time when, for all intents and purposes, nothing else is doing. Well, then again, not in my books

Daytime Doings
In my early years, fishing with my grandfather and father around the Muskegon Lake river mouth, in Michigan, we caught monster walleyes trolling near the beach and around the pier heads. The pattern still holds true, but since then I've found even greater numbers within a two-mile radius of the river mouth. So it is from the Muskegon to Erie's Maumee.

During the day, I start looking with electronics for bait and trolling for suspended fish that may be down 10 to 25 feet. Most of the time you'll see the bait, but unless the walleyes are highly concentrated, you'll seldom see
fish. Still, I put my lines out so my crankbaits are running atop the schools of bait, since predators such as walleyes tend to look up, not down, when pursuing prey. When I spot a blob of bait on my Lowrance unit, which also has GPS capabilities, I punch in a waypoint or an icon for future reference.   

As I'm trolling I'll often identify four or five key schools of bait and then troll between them. Sometimes only one or two of the schools are holding walleyes. You have to cover water to find out.

Speed control and the proper lures are key to connecting. I troll with my Mercury 15-horsepower four-stroke kicker, which will push my big Lund 2025 at a slow crawl. My favorite speed during the daytime is about 1.5 mph. At this pace, I get solid action out of Rapala - Deep Husky Jerks, slim minnow baits that achieve excellent depth and have a light wobble that triggers fish in cold water. If I can't get the suspended fish going, or if I mark some big arcs near bottom, I'll switch over to leadcore to get the cranks within a foot or two of bottom. But you have to watch the locator and pay close attention to the depth.

The beauty of leadcore is that if the bottom rises, you simply speed up and the line lifts above the hump or ledge. When you get past it, count to 30 and then slow down. Leadcore will sink back into the walleye's range.

On Erie, principles stay the same with bait and speed control, but I'll
often troll the edges of reefs where the big females suspend. Planer boards are incredibly important to spread lines to the side, where fish scoot out when the boat goes over them. The walleyes simply move right into the path of the lures. 

For running small cranks, check out Church Tackle's new TX-6, about the size of a deck of playing cards. Boost up to the more sizable TX-12's with deeper, harder-diving crankbaits. In serious wind, the TX-24, with its accompanying ballast, rides the waves no problem. In the popular areas of Erie off Niagara Reef or the Besse Davis Power Plant, I find most fish in the top 15 feet of the water column over 30-plus feet of water, which I reach with less than 50 feet of line behind the Church boards.

Sometimes it's best to go especially slow, right around 1.0 mph. Such was the case when I took third in the 1999 In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail event out of Port Clinton. And while April's cold waters might be a little early for a crankbait with more wobble such as the Rapala Tail Dancer, the new balsa lures provide more a touch more side-to-side movement to set your offering apart from the hordes of baitfish.

While the pinnacles of the reefs aren t the place to be for big fish, they're the deal for hordes of males that congregate there, waiting for the hens to move in. Again, keep an eye on your electronics, and when you see fish, get a jig down into them. 

Almost anything goes if it's a leadhead with a minnow, but I side with Northland Fire-Balls or Whistler jigs, with their propellers, for added flash and hum. A little trick around a lot of small, aggressive walleyes is to put two minnows on the hook‹the first one right side up, the second one upside down. This way, if one walleye filches your minnow, there¹s another on the hook in case the same fish comes back or another one moves in. The best depths I've found are from eight to 15 feet.

After Hours
At night, the waters come alive with even more monsters, which feed under the cover of darkness. The same trolling techniques are the way to go, the prime technique to move from one baitfish pod to another, but it's important to make some adjustments. The reason: The fish do, too.

In darkness, walleyes tend to move higher in the water column, up into the top 10 feet. Now is the time to switch from the gas kicker to a powerful trolling motor that has quality batteries and will ease along at 1.0 mph. My Motor Guide 109-pound thrust bowmount saps little juice from dependable Trojan batteries. Now I can troll all night long with plenty of power. When I have tried trolling with the gas motor, I've caught fish the first few passes and had them turn off because of the noise. With the electric, I keep catching them.  To work up higher toward the surface, I switch to No. 13 Original Rapalas on 20-pound Berkley FireLine. Three No. 7 split shots a few feet above it will get you down to 12 or 13 feet with 120 feet of line out. Remove a split shot or let out less line to move higher. I very seldom use planer boards at night, but if you must, keep small boards close to the boat, just beyond your other rods, to prevent congestion and bottlenecks with other trollers. Another reason to go without boards is the ability to pump the Rapala forward and drop it back,a key trigger

Slowly ease he rod forward about 18 inches and drop it back on a tight line. I do this about 20 or 30 times a minute. Keep it gentle, otherwise you'll pull the lure away from too many walleyes, which miss when the bait has too much erratic action.

April is indeed a month of feast or famine. While it's feast on the big
water, where seasons are open and walleyes prowling and nailing crankbaits, it's famine on inland systems where most species are out of season. In other words, everything's doing on the Great Lakes. Now is the time to make your move.

 

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