Dealing with suspended open-water walleyes

Most of the time, if you keep your bait near the bottom, you
will have it riding in the walleye strike zone. But there are times
when walleye suspend off the bottom. Sometimes they’re searching
for a water temperature they prefer. Other times they may suspend
because there is not sufficient oxygen in the depths. But most of
the time, when walleyes are suspended off bottom, it is because
food exists there.

Here in the north country, many of our best walleye lakes have
excellent populations of cisco (tullibee). Except for a brief fling
in the fall, these nomadic fish spend most of their life roaming
the open water basins of our larger walleye lakes. Walleyes, and
especially big walleyes, are very fond of cisco. The walleyes
follow the schools of cisco.

Often, if you watch your depthfinder while cruising open water
basins, you will encounter a cloud of baitfish out in the middle of
nowhere. These are likely cisco. If you slow down and take a closer
look, you should notice some bigger hooks mixed in with the cisco,
or more commonly lurking just below the baitfish. These are
walleyes and northern pike and sometimes muskie. These fish can be
caught.

The most efficient method I have found for catching these fish
is to troll through them while long-lining plugs that will dive
deep enough to run just above the depth at which the walleyes are
suspended.

Walleyes, which are dogging the cisco schools are accustomed to
attacking from below, so you want to make sure that your lure is
running above the walleye, not beneath them. I’ve had walleyes come
up more than 20 feet to smash a lure trolled over their heads, but
I keep my lures running about five feet over the top of them. This
demands that you run the right crankbait on the right line and let
out the correct amount of line. It sounds more difficult than it
really is.

Mark Romanack, a friend of mine from Michigan, has taken the
guesswork out of all of this with his excellent book “Precision
Trolling.” If you are serious about catching suspended walleyes,
this book should be your first purchase. The book is available at
most major sporting good stores. With this book in your boat, you
eliminate much of the guesswork when it comes to wondering how deep
a particular lure is running.

For example, let’s say that you have spotted a big school of
cisco suspended at 22 feet over about 80 feet of water. You can see
walleye lurking at about 28 feet. This means that you want your
lure to run at somewhere between 22 and 25 feet. You choose a
Berkley Frenzy Magnum Diver and tie it to your 10-pound test line.
Flip the book open to Page 30 and there on the chart for the Frenzy
Magnum Diver you will see that you need to let out 92 feet of line
to reach the 22-foot depth and 112 feet to gain another two feet,
which puts the lure at 24 feet.

As you can see, this is precision work, so you will need some
way to determine how much line you have out. You can do this
several different ways. The most accurate is to use a reel with a
line counter. I’ve used line counter reels from both Cabela’s and
Daiwa and both have performed flawlessly. Simply push a button on
the line counter to reset to zero and start letting out the lure.
When the line counter gets to the desired number, engage the reel.
It’s that simple.

There also are add-on line counters, which you attach to your
rod. I have not used one, but they are a less expensive option than
the line counter reels and would probably do the job for you.
Another option is to use color-coded line designed for trolling.
The color of the line changes every 10 feet so you can easily keep
track of how much line you have out. Or you can take a permanent
marker and simply make an easy-to-see mark on your own line every
10 feet.

I’ve had my best luck on these suspended walleye when pulling
long, slender plugs in chrome, silver, silver/green or silver/blue
colors. My favorites are the Reef Runner Deep Diver, which hits 20
feet with a mere 80 feet of line out, the Deep Thunderstick, which
hits the 20-foot mark with only 90 feet of line, the Luhr Jensen
Fingerling (1 ounce), 20 feet with only 70 feet of line and the
Powerdive, also from Luhr Jensen, which does about the same. But
when it comes to dive curve, the Bomber Model 26A hits the 20-foot
mark in a very tidy 55 feet.

Not all suspended walleyes will be found hovering beneath
schools of cisco. On lakes with mid-lake reefs or humps, or in the
case of Mille Lacs mud flats, walleyes will often suspend in open
water off the reef when not feeding. Very often you will find them
suspended at the same depth at which the reef tops out.

So for instance, if the reef tops out at 23 feet, you will often
see schools of walleyes suspended at about 23 feet well off of the
reef. These fish can be caught by the same methods we just
discussed, but I have never found them to be as willing to strike
as those fish associated with schools of cisco. This makes perfect
sense, since the reef fish have done their feeding up on the reef
and are now pulled off it to rest until the next feeding period,
while walleyes which are hounding schools of cisco are always on
the lookout for that one cisco that falters and provides an easy
target.

Another way of getting the lure down to a precise depth is to
use a downrigger. I’ve got nothing against this method of fishing,
but I have found that it is not for me personally. When it comes to
walleye fishing, I want to be hanging onto the rod when the fish
smacks my lure. That’s a big part of the adrenaline rush, and the
fun. And after all, that is why I fish.

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