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By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson
Savvy walleye anglers know how to connect with big walleyes on the Great
Balla would let out 90 feet of leadcore and 30 feet of 10-pound monofilament leader to get Rattlin' Rogues and Husky Jerks down to the walleyes.
"We caught some big fish that way," Balla said.But, conditions have changed in the past four or five years. Zebra mussels, which are filter feeders, arrived and cleaned the water. As word spread about the good fishing, more and more people took time from deer hunting to cash in on the walleye bonanza. As a result, Balla had to make some adjustments. He began traveling far to the south away from boat traffic and the clear, shallow water. He motored to breaks off
shoreline flats on the eastern shore and discovered lots of big hooks on his sonar screen. They signaled big schools of trophy fish below his Ranger from 28 to 40 feet down. Fish were suspended from 1-foot off the bottom to the top 10-feet of the water column.
Once those spots became popular, Balla and Byrne began exploring similar
breaks on the west side and found fish there, too. They tested breaklines on reefs on the west side all the way to the Cedar River and the Cedar River humps. They once caught 2 double headers. One double was comprised of a 26 inch and 28 inch walleyes, the other had a 27 and 28 inch fish.
The targeted depth now became 40 to 60 feet down over 50 to 80 feet of
water."It's a highway to the upper Bay where they stage during the winter,"
Balla said. "You're intercepting them."This is not a time for novices to learn how to handle the challenges of the Great Lakes. Water temperatures are usually in the mid 40s to the upper 30s, and hypothermia can be dangerous.
The way to set up your reel begins with a backing of 12-pound monofilament. Next, splice in three colors of leadcore, or 30 yards, on most rods. Put five colors on one rod to run deeper. Then add a 30 foot leader of 12-pound mono and a good-quality crankbait snap to each rod.
Try a variety of lures. Balla likes floating crankbaits in black with orange bellies, blues, metallics and rattle baits. Check with area bait shops to see what's working.The key is to troll at a crawl, just 0.8 to 1.2 mph. "Just enough to get
the crankbaits wobbling back and forth," Balla said.A GPS with a mapping program is critical. Not only will it trace trolling passes and mark spots where fish are caught, but a GPS also helps maintain exact speed and keeps the boat near the breaklines. If weather turns sour, you might need one to find your way back to the launch ramp, as well.Stay just outside the breaks over deeper water during the day. Look for subtle points and turns along the edge. Some points come up to nine feet."Those seem to concentrate fish," Balla said.
Use planer boards to move your baits out and away from the boat. You need a long, flexible, but stout rod to handle planer boards. St. Croix (Model # GT80M) makes an excellent rod that performs well yet stores easily. Vary the amount of leadcore line out to vary the depth of the baits.Balla lets out 1-1/2 colors on one to achieve a running depth of about 15 to 18 feet at his slow trolling speed. He uses that to run the break. the next rod will have three colors out and run down to about 27 feet. The next will have three colors out and an extra 90 to 100 feet to get 40 feet down. The rod with five colors of leadcore is used to reach the deepest water. Let out all of the leadcore plus 90 to 100 feet of mono.When one rod starts connecting with fish, adjust most rods to that same place in the water column. Leave one to test other depths. Run it deep
or shallow depending on the distance from the structure.Remember, leadcore is speed-sensitive. Go faster and lures rise because of water resistance, go slow and they run deeper. The action doesn't stop when the sun goes down. Fish rise up and move onto reefs to feed. The key is to find areas that still have healthy
Make certain the floor of your boat is clean to avoid tripping in the dark. Try wear a new Tazer 2 from Lindy in addition to having several light sources onboard. Attach glow sticks to planer boards, switch from leadcore to monofilament and run the same baits that worked during the day. But, run them just 5 to 13 feet down by letting out 25 to 50 feet of line. If the lures hang up on weeds, take in line or find a spot with less vegetation.
Move into the shallows and start fishing before sunset. Once, in that first 45 minutes of twilight, Balla and Byrne caught a 10 pounder, a 9.9, an 8.8 and an 8."As soon as the sun leaves the horizon, you'd better be ready," Balla said.
If the reef is a busy one with several boats, snap on deep-diving crankbaits and head to the edge in 20 to 30 feet of water. Fish will not tolerate too much fishing pressure. The other boats will push them to you.The strategy works on the Great Lakes anywhere walleyes migrate in fall. At Lake Erie where water is shallower and the breaks far more subtle, anglers like walleye pro Mark Brumbaugh use similar tactics to catch
trophy fish at night. Shore anglers catch limits of huge fish right off
the piers.Take out a map of your portion of the Great Lakes. Mark where fish spawn and where they spend their summers, and look for points and turns on the breaklines that walleyes will use as they migrate between the two. Then,
go hitch a ride on the walleye highway. You'll enjoy the ride.