Keeping it simple for Lake Erie walleyes
Lake Erie continues to be one of the best places to be for walleye in the entire world. With an estimated population of nearly 100 million fish, there are plenty to catch. For Capt. Ryan O’Neill of Orchard Park, his attitude for catching these fish is a philosophy that has been handed down from his mentors – keep it simple.
As we met at the Safe Harbor launch ramp in Buffalo at 5:15 a.m., O’Neill was all business. He wanted to get to his spot where he had been catching fish consistently along the U.S.-Canadian boundary starting in 54 feet of water. Because he keeps his rods in sleeves in the rod locker of his Lund Alaskan – with sinkers attached – he can deploy quickly. Within 5 minutes, he can have six rods in the water, and he is fishing. Not on this day though. Walleyes are active and we have two fish in the boat before we can get everything set up. I notice that there is not another boat around … yet.
His 7 and 7-1/2-foot rods all have bait-cast reels on them, and each rod and reel combination have a tried-and-true method of fishing that has been working for decades for local anglers seeking walleyes – the 3-way rig. That same rig will also work for bass in Lake Erie, salmon and trout in the lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario, and other species at different times of the year in a wide variety of waters.
“My true mentors were Art Roland of Lackawanna and my Uncle Lou Reiner of Buffalo,” says O’Neill as he watches his electronics to locate bait, fish and follows his marks from previous trips. It is not long before we hit a fish and the live well is turned on. “Light line bottom bouncing is a lot of fun, and it is also very effective.”
The 3-way rig uses a pencil lead off the bottom eye of a 3-way swivel to maintain contact with the bottom. The distance is about a foot long, using heavier line than elsewhere. Off the front rods, he was using 4 ounces of lead; off the back rods he was using 3 ounces. He attached the back rods to Church in-line planer boards to spread his worm harness offerings out.
Off the trailing eye of the 3-way swivel he attaches a 6-foot leader of 10-pound test fluorocarbon line. In the middle of that leader is a barrel swivel to help with the line twist of the spinning harnesses. He is using green and copper No. 4 Colorado blades to start out and switches to perch-colored blade when things slow a bit. Silver-black is another blade combo that catches some fish.
His Garmin fish finder is a touch-screen unit that he is constantly working. He is finding many of the fish buried into the lake floor and his bottom bouncing is triggering strikes. Other boats are starting to arrive all around us. This seems to be the best direction to catch fish heading toward Buffalo, giving him the best, most consistent speed of 1.3-1.5 miles per hour. When we stop catching fish, we pick up and run back to where we started. He marked his Lowrance plotter every time he caught a fish so he can duplicate his exact fishing location, if other boats do not get in the way.
Once again, we fail to get all the rods in the water before a walleye hits his harness. His smaller boat at 20-foot, 10 inches allows him to maneuver quickly, especially when he finds a smaller school of fish and he wants to try and stay on them the best he can. His boat also serves a dual purpose as the name of his business implies – Buffalo Wings Waterfowl. He will also hunt sea ducks and divers in the fall and winter out of this same boat.
With the increased number of boats arriving, we decide to try a different spot rather than run back. It’s always good to have other spots to fish. Sheepshead (freshwater drum) are more prevalent at the new spot, but we do catch some bigger walleyes up to 7 pounds. One of the sheepsheads tip the scales at nearly 15 pounds. It puts up a great fight, and quickly released to provide a good fight for someone else.
When it is time to head in, all the walleyes in the livewell are cut to allow them to bleed out. It makes for much easier (and cleaner) filleting at the fish cleaning station. Waiting until the last minute also allows for the fish to be as fresh as possible. The rods are all slipped back into their sleeves to allow for a quick start the next day. O’Neill keeps it simple all the way around, from start to finish. If you would like to contact him, give him a call at 716-704-3006. He also loves to bass fish early in the season, as well as trout fish in the lower Niagara River in addition to waterfowl hunt.