By Bernie Barringer
What’s the secret to big walleye fishing?
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From shiners to sheepshead, and alewives to shad, large schools of baitfish inhabit the vast open water of our natural lakes and reservoirs. It should be no surprise that walleyes follow the food into the open water and feast on these pelagic balls of bait.
In summer, large, loosely-grouped schools of big walleyes are suspended in open water, hunting these baitfish. While anglers pick away at small walleyes around the points, rock piles and weed lines, hungrier specimens are almost untouched for the majority of the year, which allows them to get big. In some cases, really big.
How Big? Professional angler Tommy Skarlis knows about big walleye fishing. In fact he owns the record for the largest catch in any professional walleye tournament. Over a three-day tournament at Lake Erie, he brought his limit of five walleyes to the scales each day. Those 15 walleyes weighed a total of 138 pounds. Don’t bother to reach for a calculator, I already figured it out for you… that’s an impressive average of 9.2 pounds each!
How to Catch Them. How he caught those walleyes might be of interest to you. He caught them by trolling with planer boards, a technique that has been popular on Lake Erie for the better part of two decades. Because this technique is so effective, it has exploded in popularity on smaller natural lakes, reservoirs and even rivers during the last decade.
The Bait and the Structure Are the Same. Many walleye anglers are structure oriented, and that’s with good cause, but in many lakes and reservoirs, these suspended fish get really big because few people are targeting them. “The structure is the bait,” Skarlis told me. “You find the schools of baitfish and you will find walleyes relating to them.”
How to Fish Planer Boards. Skarlis starts out by spreading the planer boards out and combing the depths. By varying the length of line behind the boards he can control how deep the baits dive, and he also uses different baits that run at different depths. He normally starts out running four lines, two on each side of the boat, putting baits at 5, 10, 15 and 20 feet or near the bottom. When he gets a bite, he begins to adjust the other lines until he has a pattern figured out. “Walleyes tend to feed up, so don’t be afraid to start high and work your way down.”
The Advantages of Planer Boards:
- One of the significant advantages of walleye fishing with planer boards is the ability to catch fish that are either shallow or well up in the water column. If you are trolling a bait behind your boat and the walleyes are only five feet down, the boat will spook the fish so you aren’t going to catch very many, particularly in clear water. Where do the spooked fish go? Why right off to the side of course, and that’s where your planer board is running your bait.
- The same is true of fishing in shallow water. Walleyes often come up on shallow flats to feed and chase baitfish. Crankbaits or spinners attached to planer boards spread out your lines, covering more water, and anything that is spooked by the boat motor running directly over them moves right off to the side and runs smack into your bait. Perfect.
- Skarlis has another trick up his sleeve when it comes to fishing with planer boards. “Too many people just troll in a straight line. That’s boring. I mix it up a little, making S-curves and driving erratically. As you turn, the baits on the outside of the turn speed up and dive deeper, while the ones on the inside slow down and rise a little. You’d be surprised how often this little variation triggers a bite.”
When he catches a fish or marks a pod of them on his sonar, he hits a marker on the GPS. Soon a pattern begins to develop. “The fish are there for a reason,” he says, “and they will be there a while, you need to be able to go right back to those same spots.”
In that Lake Erie tournament a lot of anglers were catching fish and bringing in big limits, but Skarlis dialed them in better. “I found that there were fish to be caught at many depths, but it seemed like the biggest fish consistently came from 11-12 feet below the surface,” he said. “But I have often seen big walleyes only five feet below the surface. There is really no way to catch these fish that’s even close to as effective as planer boards. It’s like turning your little push lawnmower into a big double deck rider, you can really spread out and cover a lot of water.”
Is walleye fishing with planer boards for you? If you have a boat, you can find fish with planer boards and they are likely to be bigger fish than you are catching elsewhere because other fishermen aren’t targeting them. A set of four Off Shore OR-12 boards and the rod holders to attach to your boat will run you a little upwards of $200. That’s a small investment to make that will pay off in more and bigger walleyes.
Bernie Barringer is a lifelong angler who has competed in professional walleye tournaments. He enjoys fishing for all species and writing about his experiences for many outdoor magazines.
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