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Early Season Trophies
By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson

Walleye fishermen after a trophy can’t snooze in springtime. The key is to be on one of the Great Lakes early in the year in time to catch huge females that every angler dreams about. Listen to walleye pro Jeff Taege while he describes a day he enjoyed with his father while pre-fishing for a Professional Walleye Trail event on Lake Erie; “It was two years ago. We were trolling crankbaits over 30 feet of water. The biting fish were 12 to 14 feet down. We got into them so thick, we couldn’t keep four boards in the water. Five or six were over 10.5 pounds, including one that weighed 13.9 pounds. That was a giant. It was my biggest fish ever.” “We had 40 fish all over 6.5 pounds that day. It was awesome and totally unbelievable.” Remember, this is a man who makes his living as a fishing guide and who competes in major tournaments. He’s seen a lot of good days on the water. But, the formula of spring plus the Great Lakes equals an experience to impress even the most seasoned of anglers. Great Lakes’ patterns early in the year play right into Taege’s strengths. The Rhinelander, Wisconsin man is known as a trolling expert. Trolling works best on the open-water walleyes that spawn on rock reefs in places like Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. The Great Lakes are expansive, and trolling allows him to cover more water faster in order to find the big females scattered off of spawning reefs where they wait to spawn at night or where they feed on suspended baitfish, like ciscoes, alewives and smelt, when spawning is done. “When you’re looking for trophy fish, you want to cover water fast,” Taege said. “You’re eliminating water and looking for those areas that hold big fish.” Trolling tactics also work to intercept big females that spawn in rivers which empty into the Great Lakes. The key to success on these lakes is to narrow your search.

Learn the spawning habits of the walleyes, and locate those areas, principally reefs, on maps. Males will be stacked on the reefs waiting for females to arrive. The places you’ll want to focus on are the deeper-water areas nearby where females stage before moving to the reefs and where they return afterward. Identify several likely spots. Walleyes are nomads. What you heard about their location yesterday may not mean a thing today. Plan to stay mobile. Once on the water, travel to each place you’ve pinpointed and look for bait fish on your sonar. Taege won’t wet a line until he sees some action on the screen. Then, and only then, he’ll put out lines. He starts with 8-foot telescoping St. Croix rods, which he says are perfect for rough seas and giant fish. Line counter reels are a must so you can duplicate success once you determine the action, profile, color and depth that works.

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Make sure you have exactly the same amount of line on each reel so the line counter measurements are the same from rod to rod. “Precision Trolling” gives dive curves for common lures based on the use of 10-pound line. Taege said stick with that diameter of line so the water resistance is the same as it was during tests for the book. You might get an estimate on how deep to run lures if you see large hooks that represent walleyes on the screen. Still, make sure you run other lures at different depths, including high in the water column where fish may be suspended too shallow to appear on your sonar. His favorite crankbait is the deep-diving Husky Jerk, especially if walleyes are keying on smelt or alewives. He likes the emerald shiner pattern or blue chrome or black chrome in clear water. He switches to firetiger or clown in stained water.
Ted Takasaki trolling for walleye Try several and change up often to single out the colors that are best on any given day. Switch to Shad Raps if walleyes in the livewell cough up shad. Taege will also add a nightcrawler to the back treble hook. Start at a fast pace, 2.2 to 2.5 mph. If that speed doesn’t trigger bites but your electronics say you’re on fish, slow down gradually to about 1.8 mph. Make S-turns to vary speeds. Outer boards are going faster, inner boards are going slower. Watch to see if walleyes signal a preference. Take time to enter a waypoint on the GPS every time a board goes back to signal a bite. You’ll soon have a “picture” of the size of the school. If the bites stop, Taege travels beyond the limit of the farthest icons in every direction until he relocates the school. Don’t overlook the fact some Great Lakes’ walleyes also spawn in feeder rivers. They migrate upstream as far as they can in places like the Fox River, which connects to Lake Michigan. Once stopped by an obstruction like a dam, they look for shallow hard-bottomed areas to lay their eggs. Typically, males will be up top while females hold in adjacent deeper holes during the day. As with the reefs, some will be feeding after spawning while others are waiting to move in shallow at night to reproduce. Taege often trolls three-way rigs in these rivers.

If working shallow, he’ll use a small one-quarter ounce jig on the bottom. More often, he’ll be trying to reach deeper fish in faster current so he’ll resort to a three or four ounce bell sinker on a five inch dropper. Sometimes, he uses even heavier weights in places like the swift Detroit River. His leader is usually 48 inches long. Where legal, he’ll tie two lures separated by 18 inches on each rig. He uses shallow running, floating crankbaits in number 5’s, 7’s and 9’s. Vary the colors between the two to give walleyes a choice. In stained water, try orange, firetiger and chartreuse. Stick with natural colors like blue, black, gold or silver in clear water. Taege adds reflector tape to the sides to give off more flash. Use your trolling motor or kicker motor to slide from side to side, forward and back, with the boat pointed upstream. “That’s really an effective way to clean out a hole,” he said. Taege also uses leadcore line to troll deeper graveled areas where big females move up to feed. He starts with two 10-1/2 foot St. Croix steelhead rods and two shorter rods of six feet or less. That allows him to separate lines and avoid tangles. He uses line counter reels with exactly the same amount of leadcore to allow precise duplication when he finds the exact distance which works best. For example, if he may troll in water 12 feet deep and discover 74 feet of line out connects with fish. He can quickly set the other rods to the same distance. He uses a leader of 14-pound braided line, unless the water is clear then he’ll switch to mono. He chooses Shad Raps for this technique. Lures on two rods grind the bottom. The other two are run just off the bottom. Go upstream at the pace of a slow walk. Some days, walleyes will take the lures when they are trolled downstream, he said. If so, go faster than the current in order to make the lures work correctly. Try the Great Lakes for early season trophies.


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