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Walleye Fishing on Lake Erie

Angler holding a large Lake Erie walleye she caught.

Lake Erie has long been recognized as one of New York's premier walleye fisheries. Walleye are distributed widely in the lake and are available to anglers using a variety of techniques including trolling, drifting, or casting. About 60% of all angling effort is focused on walleye, making them the most sought-after fish in Lake Erie. Most walleye caught in Lake Erie are between 18 and 28 inches long and 4 and 8 pounds. However, trophy fish exceeding 30 inches and 10 pounds are boated with some regularity. Anglers can enjoy walleye fishing in the NY waters of Lake Erie from the 1st Saturday in May through March 15th and can harvest 6 fish per day with a minimum size of 15 inches. Most anglers fish from a boat but there are also a few opportunities to fish from shore. If you don't have a boat there are charter captains that offer daily trips from the major harbors. For anglers seeking an additional challenge, there are several walleye tournaments throughout the summer that draw thousands of participants.

The New York waters of Lake Erie have a thriving local population of walleye that are supported by several spawning stocks all along the New York shoreline. These local populations are especially important to springtime and nearshore fisheries. In addition to locally produced walleye, the large spawning stocks at the western end of the lake undergo an annual migration following spawning, with many fish making it all the way to New York. These migrants can number in the millions and tend to be larger older fish. New York's local walleye population along with migrants from the western portion of the lake combine to create a world class walleye fishery here in New York!

Spring

Spring offers some unique nearshore walleye fishing opportunities on Lake Erie. Spawning is mostly over when the season opens, but male walleye tend to linger on the spawning grounds, making nighttime trolling and casting in these areas very effective once water temperatures get into the 50's. The most popular areas for this type of fishing are the coastline between Dunkirk and Barcelona Harbors, and the Woodlawn coastline, favoring shoals and other areas with a rocky bottom. On calm nights in May and early June these areas can be found fairly easily as there are usually several boats trolling or casting. Stick baits trolled on a flat line in shallow water (8-12 feet), or casted from an anchored boat are popular choices. If you are new to this type of fishing it is a good idea to get there early to scope out any potential submerged hazards while it's still light. It is also important to remember that there may be several boats fishing in the dark in a relatively small area, so boating rules and general courtesy are a must.

Daytime trolling or bottom bouncing in spring can also be productive for post-spawn walleye. Bottom bouncing presents lures just above the bottom to keep the lure from becoming snagged while drifting or slow trolling (<1.2 mph) along. In May, anglers tend to focus their daytime efforts in about 30 to 40 feet of water by trolling deep diving stick baits, lead core lines with worm harnesses and stick baits, or bottom bouncing rigs. As warming waters in June push walleye a little deeper, Jet Divers or Dipsy Divers can be used to get lures deeper. The 50-foot depth contour is a good place to start.

Summer

Angler holding Lake Erie walleye.

Offshore Great Lakes trolling techniques are the preferred methods for walleye in the summer months. Anglers usually target walleye in 60 to 80 feet of water using lead core line, downriggers, Dipsy Divers, Jet Divers or other devices that can get your offering down to the desired depths. Walleye are not always on the bottom so it's a good idea to vary the depth of your lures until you start getting into fish. A good fish finder can be helpful for locating fish but is not essential. To run many lines some anglers use planer boards, which can make it easier to fish several lines by allowing lures to be fished farther from the boat.

Although not employed by many anglers in eastern Lake Erie, casting in relatively shallow areas with structure can also be effective during the summer months. Look for rock piles, humps, or drop offs in about 20 feet of water. Weighted inline spinners or jigs tipped with worms or minnows are good choices. Walleye come into these areas in search of food during low light conditions, so morning and evening are usually best. Bass, catfish, white bass and freshwater drum also inhabit these shallow areas so there is real potential to catch other species while walleye fishing.

Fall

Fishing effort for walleye slows down in the fall as favorable weather becomes scarce, but walleye fishing quality often stays strong. In many years walleye fishing in late September and October is definitely worth the trip. Lake Erie is a big lake that takes a long time to cool down in the fall. For that reason, fishing techniques that work in the summer, also tend to work in the fall. After water temperatures drop into the 50's F, walleye become more commonly encountered in nearshore rocky areas to feed prior to winter. Similar to the springtime, trolling or casting stickbaits and shadraps around any rocky areas at 20-30 foot depths can be very effective.

Fishing from Shore

Lake Erie's shoreline offers only limited shore and pier fishing opportunities for walleye. The best time to try it is after dark and during the spring or autumn when water temperatures are in the 50's F. Casting crankbaits from break walls and jetty's during this time produces best results.

Walleye Fishing Techniques

Bottom Bouncing

Worm harness lures used for walleye fishing.
Worm harness lures

Bottom bouncing is a productive tactic when walleye are holding close to the bottom, typically in May and early June on Lake Erie. To rig, tie your main line directly to a "bottom bouncer" (lead weight on a 10 to 12-inch rigid wire). From the bottom bouncer arm's snap swivel, run a 4 to 7-foot monofilament or fluorocarbon leader line to lure. For rigs using pencil or bell sinkers, tie main line to a three-way swivel. From another swivel eye, run a 4 to 7-foot leader line to lure. From third swivel eye, run an 8 to 10-inch monofilament drop-line to sinker. Make sure any drop or leader lines are of lighter weight than the main line, to avoid losing an entire rig if a sinker or lure becomes snagged on bottom. The weight of your sinker will vary depending on the depth of water you are fishing, but 1 ounce of weight per 10 foot of water is a good starting point.

Check your lure action in water and then drop rig to the bottom under light tension. The amount of line you let out will vary depending on how heavy your weight is and the speed at which you are trolling. The key to bottom bouncing is for the weight to tick bottom every few seconds, rather than dragging on bottom. Once you've found bottom, either reel up slack or let line out until you find the desired tick. Worm harnesses are the go-to lure to pair with a bottom bouncer rig on Lake Erie, however shallow-diving stickbaits can also be productive. Bottom bouncing can be done with rod in hand, or set in rod holders.

Lead Core

As the name implies, lead core is a fishing line with a lead core that is encased in a dacron or nylon sheath. Lead core makes it possible to fish lighter lures at deeper depths with just the weight of the line. Lead core line typically comes in a 100-yard spool and has a color change every ten yards. You will often hear anglers referring to having "X" colors out. A general rule of thumb is five feet of depth for every color of lead core out. For example, five colors (50 yd) will take your lure to a depth of 25 feet. Lake Erie anglers typically troll lead core with stickbaits at 1.5 to 2.5 mph, and worm harnesses at 0.8 to 2.0 mph. Lead core lines can be run straight off the stern or paired with planer boards. Use a levelwind reel with capacity for 100 yards lead core line, at least 100 yards of backing (30 lb. braided line) and your leader (30 to 50 ft fluorocarbon). An 8 to 10.5-foot downrigger rod works well for lead core.

Divers

Diver devices used to take lures to depth when trolling.
Divers

Dipsy Divers and Jet Divers are in-line devices that get your lure down to depth when trolling. Each diver comes with a handy depth chart showing amount of line to let out to reach desired depth. Jet Divers are generally depth specific, diving between 10 to 50 feet, depending on jet size. Dipsy Divers come in four sizes, with dive range depths of up to 20 to 100 feet, depending on size. Dipsys are directional divers with an adjustable weighted keel, allowing them to plane to port, starboard or directly behind the boat. This helps to spread multiple lines out while avoiding tangles. A diver is triggered when a fish strikes the attached lure, so you're only fighting the fish on the retrieve and not the diver.

A typical Lake Erie diver setup is a trolling rod paired with a level wind line-counter reel with braided line. A line-counter reel allows you to set out the exact amount of line needed to achieve desired depth, while braided line is used for its non-stretch feature. Tie the main line directly to the top swivel of the diver, and run a 5 to 7-foot monofilament or fluorocarbon leader from diver's bottom swivel to lure. Diver setups with worm harnesses, stickbaits and spoons work well for Lake Erie walleye.

Jigging

Jigging is one of the top techniques for early season walleye when waters are still cold. Anglers typically drift on light wind or anchor/spot-lock and jig over breaks of rocky points or reefs. Top walleye jigging lures for Lake Erie include lipless crankbaits, hard-bodied jigging minnows, blade baits and jig heads tipped with a minnow or nightcrawler. These lures can be jigged vertically or can be cast away from the boat and jigged back to cover a larger area. Although jigging is a more common practice in May, it can be effective all season if you can find schools of walleye congregated on rocky structure.