By Dr. Jason Halfen
Conventional wisdom calls for walleyes to be found in cool, shallow water during spring and fall, and lurking in deeper water during the heat of summer and the dead of winter. However, this binary distribution of walleye locations is far too simplistic; indeed, modern electronics and contemporary presentations have worked in tandem to reveal walleyes living in unexpected places, as well as untapped opportunities to target and catch them.
On many lakes, walleyes can be found in shallow weeds for nearly the entirety of the open water period. From the time that the first green shoots begin to emerge from the bottom until the last leafy cabbage weeds turn brown and decay, walleyes will be prowling weedbeds – and for one reason: forage. Minnows, small panfish, larval insects, and more: a veritable buffet of walleye-sustaining life abounds among the weeds, and as we all know, predators are never far from their prey.
I first learned this lesson on late summer trips to some of the classic walleye factories in central Minnesota: clear lakes brimming with deep water structure, places where the time-honored technique of live bait rigging originated more than 50 years ago. We could pick off a small walleye here, and another one there, dragging leeches around deep breaklines, but when we slipped into the weedy bays to chase bass, even under the heat of the August sun, we would also encounter walleyes – big walleyes – all the time.
Fast forward twenty years, and this singular truth remains: if I find weeds, I also find walleyes. On lakes with good water clarity and weed growth that extends down to 15 feet or beyond, those weeds hold walleyes – especially in the thick stuff. On very stained lakes, where dark water color or high nutrient loads limit vegetation to the extreme shallows – 5 feet or less – walleyes will be in there, too.
An excellent way to begin building confidence in this weed walleye pattern is not necessarily with a rod and reel, but instead with your electronics. Recognize first that active, feeding walleyes will relate to the weededge – where weed growth stops, or more frequently, regions where tall weeds, like cabbage or milfoil, give way to shorter greenery. These transitions are easy to find with sonar or high-frequency imaging techniques. Now, rather than casting a lure, lower an underwater camera instead.
An Aqua-Vu HD10i PRO underwater camera, equipped with a trolling fin to stabilize the camera when underway, is my primary tool when searching vegetation for fish. While weedbed walleyes may be missed by sonar, they can’t escape the gaze of my Aqua-Vu’s high-definition optics. Midday is a great time to look for these fish; they may not be actively feeding, but they’ll be out, swimming around, revealing their presence to the camera. Drop waypoints on those pods, because they won’t be far away when their prime feeding windows open up.
Once I’ve identified key fish-holding areas with my Aqua-Vu camera, I use a trio of techniques that are proven weed walleye producers to start flipping them into the boat. During the early hours of the day, I like to cover water by pulling spinners tipped with leeches. This presentation starts with a single-hook spinner rig tied on 12-15 lb Seaguar AbrazX 100 % fluorocarbon. This line features enhanced abrasion resistance, which ensures that the rotating spinner clevis won’t weaken the line. I tie my spinners to lengths of three to four feet, and then attach them to my 20 lb test Seaguar Smackdown main line using a high-quality SPRO swivel. On the main line in front of the swivel, I use a ¼ oz bullet sinker – the type favored by bass anglers for weedless soft plastic presentations – and a large bead to protect the braid-to-swivel knot.
I use a long, sensitive spinning rod for pulling spinners – a 7’6” St. Croix Legend Tournament Walleye MLXF rod is my favorite – equipped with a 2500-series spinning reel. While moving through those walleye-infested waypoints, I make a long cast behind the boat and maintain a boat speed of 1.2-1.5 mph using my bow-mount trolling motor. I want my spinner to tickle the weedtops and slither through the taller stalks, triggering bites in the salad.
When the morning gives way to the midday doldrums, I pivot to a finesse technique applied specifically to prime walleye-holding areas: now is my time to Ned Rig. If you’ve kept up with developments in the bass fishing world, then you’re familiar with the popularity and extreme effectiveness of this technique – and it works just as well for walleyes! For typical walleye-rich vegetation that is 8-15 feet deep, I use a Z-Man Finesse TRD in Molting Craw or Mud Minnow. Soft baits from Z-Man are made from a proprietary, non-toxic and buoyant material called ElaZtech which is supple yet incredibly tough – fish simply can’t rip or tear it. When dealing with toothy walleyes, and the ever-present members the Esox clan, ElaZtech baits save me both time and money by dramatically reducing the number of times I need to re-rig with a fresh soft plastic. I pin my Finesse TRD’s on a 1/10 oz Finesse ShroomZ jig, purpose-designed by Z-Man as the optimal partner for ElaZtech baits.
When I Ned Rig for walleyes, I use an 18” Seaguar AbrazX leader, connected with a SPRO swivel to 20 lb Seaguar Smackdown main line. The ultra-tight weave of Smackdown dramatically enhances my casting distance, allowing me to position the boat far away from midday walleyes and still saturate their weedy backyard with repeated casts. When pitching jigs to the weeds, I like a slightly shorter rod with a little more backbone than I use for pulling spinners. The 7’ St Croix Legend Tournament Walleye medium power-moderate action rod is not only terrific for weed walleyes, but can also manage the beefy bass and hard-charging pike and muskies that you’ll invariably encounter in the same areas.
Finally, as the afternoon sun gives way to the long shadows of evening, I switch back to a coverage technique, but this time favoring a faster, hard-bait trolling presentation. Water temperatures have reached their apex at this time of the day, and peak temperatures demand peak speeds to trigger bites. LIVETARGET Yellow Perch and Rainbow Smelt jerkbaits are excellent choices for burning along weed edges. These lures not only feature ultra-realistic color patterns and anatomical features, but are also fine-tuned to run true at the 3+ mph trolling speeds that I use in late summer. I run these baits on braid (no leader is required) and clip them on with a cross-lock snap.
Summer weedline trolling is a short-line technique, so traditional trolling gear, like linecounter reels, is generally not required. I use a 7’2” St. Croix Legend Tournament Bass casting rod with medium power and moderate action for this technique, rigged with a no-frills casting reel spooled with 30 lb Seaguar Smackdown. With my boat propelled by its kicker motor at speeds of 2.8-3.5 mph, I run my baits tight to the weedline, occasionally grabbing some greenery and then popping it quickly off with a snap of the rod tip. This erratic action is a great bite trigger, much like you’d experience when deflecting a crankbait off rocks or timber.
The heat of August is no time to give up on waldo. Find key fish-holding areas with help from an Aqua-Vu high definition camera system, and then head back to that salad bar for a hearty helping of late summer weed walleyes!
About the author
Dr. Jason Halfen owns and operates The Technological Angler, dedicated to teaching anglers to leverage modern technology to find and catch more fish. Let your learning begin at http://www.technologicalangler.com