By Steve Pollick
The best opportunity in years to renew, or begin, your acquaintance with drifting and casting for western Lake Erie walleye should occur in the next couple of weeks.
That is because Erie’s walleye numbers, something like 116 million, are at or near all-time highs, and because the basin’s famous – or infamous – mayfly hatch has not yet begun in earnest. Post-spawning fish are spent of energy, they are prowling for calories, and the mayfly feast has not yet begun. But once the “hatch” gets on with a vengeance, the fish quickly can grow so gill-full stuffed with emerging mayflies that they typically get lockjaw when it comes to proffered angler offerings.
Right now, drifters and casters are using time-tested “mayfly rigs,” a hybrid of the traditional weight-forward spinner and a worm harness to good effect, especially in western Lake Erie. That shallow basin, barely 30 feet deep at most, its reefs the greatest spawning-ground for walleye in the world, is eminently fishable with casting setups. Indeed, weight-forward spinners and worm harnesses and mayfly rigs were designed – “hatched” if you will – just with this fishery in mind over the last 60 years.
Nightcrawlers, a standby live bait, are used for dressing these rigs, but half of a “worm” will suffice for casting. My longtime fishing buddy, Steve Hathaway, and I proved as much just the other day, boxing a limit of chunky 17- to 19-inch ‘eyes in five hours southwest of the Islands. We actually sorted through about 36 fish, the rest undersized and quickly, carefully released for now but promising more good fishing in the years to come.
The sheepshead, white perch, and channel catfish – even a goby – didn’t count in that tally, but each fish, regardless of species, was fun to catch, keeper or not. We probably landed 70 to 75 fish overall in the our time on the lake. And we kept a couple cats for Hathaway’s buddy, Gene, who is said to make the best smoked catfish on Earth.
Mind you, these thoughts are not a slam on trolling, now by far the preferred method of sportfishing for walleye. Trolling indisputably is more productive in terms of catching walleye, including in deeper waters often unreachable by casting methods. But for anglers whose leanings are more traditional than technical, drifting and casting is the way to go.
For some anglers, it is more important to have rod and reel in hand, succeeding or failing by one’s personal experience and skill. Trollers clearly are skilled as well, but use the boat and electronics and an array of other gear and gadgets in a complex angling dance to hook fish. A boat-hooked walleye is simply wound in, lest it interfere with the trolling array astern. The trolling “kick” is in figuring out and executing the gadgetry involved, not in the mano-a-mano that comes with simple rod and reel.
I see and hear of plenty of trolled-up “hogs” now, Down East (in Erie’s central and eastern basins), this when I must satisfy myself with somewhat smaller fish remaining here in western Erie. So be it. Let me suffer. And if you are a skilled “rock picker,” who can tiptoe among the shallower rocky reefs and islands area of the western basin, and cast quietly just here and there. You might be surprised that not all of the hog walleye have moved East.
In any case, too often we have become conditioned to think that “trophy” big is the only thing, whether it be an 8-pound so-called Fish Ohio walleye or a massive 10-point Ohio Big Buck. My point is that any fish fairly caught, or any deer, fairly chased, is worthy of the angler and hunter.
If you are reading between the lines here, you probably have gathered that I am an old-time drifter and caster. True. Nearly 50 years of it is in my blood. I like finessing the fish, rod in hand, failing or winning directly. That’s me, that is my “program.” And now is my time. Color me happy.