By John Hageman
Fisheries biologists who are responsible for managing Lake Erie’s walleyes estimate that due to several years of favorable recruitment, there are approximately 116 million catchable walleyes thriving in the lake this season. As the 2019 hatch enters the fishery next year, these already impressive numbers are expected to expand further to 151 million next season.
With these huge numbers, more Western Basin anglers are returning to the use of old school techniques of casting baited lures to catch walleyes again like they remember doing during the earlier walleye boom period of the 1980s.
The most popular casting rigs that are now being used are versions of a Carolina Rig, a short spinner harness used behind an in-line egg sinker. These are being cleverly marketed locally as a hatch-matching Mayfly Rig.
However, many of the vintage weight-forward lures taking up space on many garage shelves are perfectly capable of catching walleyes now, just as they did 35 years ago.
In fact, a scan of eBay shows brisk trading underway for vintage American-made weight-forward spinners as anglers look for ways to restock their tackle boxes with familiar lures that they used during the last walleye bonanza and not settle for the knock-offs now being offered in their place.
For those who were not around back then, weight-forward spinners have lead “heads” of various shapes and weights molded onto the front of a wire shaft, followed by a clevis/spinner, colored beads, and a single trailing hook off the back end.
In addition to the vibration generated by the spinner blade, a wide selection of painted head and bead colors allows visibility in nearly any shade of water and light conditions.
Lures such as Erie Dearie, Big John, Tom’s Tiny Teaser, Parrish Pea, Crooked Eye, Hot’N Tot Pygmy, and other weight-forward spinners dominated the fishing scene along with Hildebrandt’s unique twin-spin (gold and silver) Nugget.
Anglers repeatedly cast them and learned to “fish the swing” and use “countdown” techniques to catch daily limits that were in some seasons set at 10 fish per day.
Despite the proven effectiveness of trolling that was made plainly evident during some of the first national fishing tournaments held locally, many anglers feel that the fishing experience is more personal when having a rod in hand instead of pulling a rod from a rack when a walleye grabs a trolled lure.
A couple of technological updates make casting these lures much more effective than what was available as standard practices in the ’80s.
One huge improvement is the much better resolution and more widespread ownership of electronic fish finders. It is now possible to reliably locate schools of suspected walleyes and position the boat upwind of them to allow drift fishing through an actively feeding school.
Most of the walleye tournament style vessels that are now popular are equipped with programmable electric trolling motors. On days when the wind is too light, instead of resorting to trolling, they can provide an artificial drift in a chosen direction and maximize contact with walleye schools.
Commercially made drift socks tethered to a boat cleat can help slow down the drifting speed much better than the old school method of using a bucket when winds push the craft too fast.
The casting techniques using weight-forward spinners have remained the same, however. Anglers should cast their lures 45 degrees upwind from the bow or stern of the boat. Then, allow the lure to sink at the rate of 1 to 11⁄2 feet per second, depending upon its weight, to the depth that fish are being seen on the fish finder (countdown technique).
Expect the greatest number of strikes when the drifting boat changes the line angle and causes the lure to make a sharp turn toward the angler (fishing the swing).
Useful tricks to establish fish preferences include experimenting with lure retrieve speeds or using some pauses to trigger bites.
With the number of lures having accumulated in tackle boxes over time, there are many oldies but goodies that could be pressed into service to catch some of the walleyes now present in these good old days of Lake Erie walleye fishing.