Hogs. Toads. Donkeys. Pigs. Whatever name you prefer, these are the fish you really want to catch. Quantity fills the freezer, but trophies earn the bragging rights. This series is dedicated to the pursuit of the true heavyweights across all species. The meat eaters. So set your drag and sharpen your hooks as we lament the most common reasons trophy walleyes elude the net.
I have charter clients call me all the time and say something to this effect: “We don’t care about numbers. We want to catch big walleyes.” Much of that attitude, I’ve learned, stems from the notion that if we’re not catching big walleyes, we can easily pivot and go back to bailing 15-inchers. Unfortunately, that’s just not the way it works.
Catching giant walleyes isn’t much different than shooting trophy bucks. If your goal is to bag a stud, you’ve got to fish and hunt where studs live and, generally speaking, that’s not in the high boat traffic areas with large numbers of smaller fish. To put it in perspective, the Ohio state record walleye was caught on the bottom of a deep basin by a guy targeting yellow perch with light gear. The IGFA world record walleye was caught in a flooded creek that required a sneak boat to access. Like huge bucks, huge walleyes think differently, behave differently, and require more dedication and planning.
Location is one part of the equation. Timing is the other. Giant walleyes aren’t dumb, but if there are two times of year when their guard is down the most, it’s in early spring during pre-spawn, and late fall when it’s time to fatten up for winter. The latter is the period I consider the “rut” of walleye fishing.
So, let’s say you’ve broken away from the herd to troll shallow flats during pre-spawn. Perhaps you’ve launched after dark in early November to cast at the inshore reefs when the daytime weekenders are home on the couch. Being in the right place gets the bite, but converting it to the walleye of a lifetime in the boat is on you. Here are some of the most common screw-ups in this department, and how you can avoid falling victim to any of them.
Patience is a virtue many of us don’t have. And nobody suddenly becomes more patient when there’s a 10-plus on the line. But the best anglers know patience is mandatory, not just to get the right bite, but to get the fish that delivered the right bite into the boat. If there’s one thing I scold charter clients about most often, it’s reeling in a big walleye too quickly.
More often than not, giant walleyes swim right to the boat once they’re hooked. It’s not until they get close that they’ll make a couple hard runs and ramp up the heavy head shakes. This is where most big fish are lost.
Donkeys wait for you to make a mistake and then they capitalize. From beginning to end, slow and steady wins the big walleye race. Keep a bend in the rod and reel at a nice, even pace. That’s all you have to do. There’s never a need to waive the rod around like a Jedi light saber. Walleyes aren’t tuna, so you never need to pump the rod. Anything besides slow and steady can introduce slack into your line, and slack allows the hooks to fall or shake out during those last-minute bursts of energy.
Rig the Game
I understand that walleyes don’t exactly have a reputation for fighting like bull redfish, but the big girls will give you one or two good runs. Many anglers not used to hooking heavyweights are caught off guard by them, and those final jolts often expose the weakest link in their chain: bargain-basement terminal tackle.
Too many walleye anglers aren’t willing to spend a little more money on quality snaps, swivels, and hooks. Furthermore, most aren’t regularly checking hooks to make sure they’re sharp and haven’t had their points rolled from banging off hard structure. A lot of big fish are lost as a result of simple laziness. As an example, when a small stinger hook gets bent out, replace it. Don’t just bend in back into shape. If you do, now all you have is a weakened hook and I promise the next a big fish that latches onto it will bend it right back out again for you.
Buying quality fishing line is equally important to stocking well-made terminal tackle. But even if you pony up for the good stuff, you need to be checking regularly for frays. One tiny weak spot in expensive braid or fluorocarbon is all it takes to create heartache.
Stick to the Issue
Many walleye anglers gravitate to rods that are rated “medium-power” and have a fast action. While most might consider this a great “all-around” rod, I don’t believe there’s such a thing as the perfect stick for all your walleye fishing needs. In the case of a medium-power, fast-action rod, it might be great if you’re using monofilament. Mono has stretch, which can help absorb some of the shock a stiffer, faster rod doesn’t absorb. But now if you switched to braid—which has hardly any stretch—on that same rod, you might find that hooks are pulling.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use braid, but it means that all your tackle works as a system, so if you’re opting for braid, you might also want to opt for a rod that has a slower or more moderate action to compensate for the line’s lack of stretch. For presentations like bobber fishing, trolling, or pitching jigs, don’t be afraid to use a rod longer than 7 feet, as the extra length also provides more cushion when using braid.
The bottom line is, make sure all your gear is harmonized, working together like a well-oiled machine. Take the time to tailor your rod, reel, and line to how and where you’re fishing. Generally speaking, if you’re overgunned and fishing outfits that are too heavy, you’re going to get fewer bites; go too light and, well, you’re less likely to get that dream fish in the net.
The netting of a big walleye has put strain on many friendships. In some extreme cases, I’ve seen it put marriages on the rocks. On my boat, I am the only one allowed to net a fish, and during the handful of times that policy was violated by clients, we quickly learned why that policy was put in place.
First off, most anglers buy a net that’s too small for really big walleyes, usually because they’re not catching really big walleyes very often. But when a giant is boat side, a small net forces you to thread the needle. Nets with small hoops typically have shallow bags as well. My advice? Buy the biggest net with the longest handle that you can wield smoothly. For more than 20 years I’ve used a salmon net with a nine-foot handle for walleyes, and I promise you it has saved my butt more times than I can count. Thing is, even the perfect net can’t help you if you don’t remember a few rules.
Always net a fish headfirst. That’s number one. Second, never put the bag in the water unless the fish will be in it in less than one second. A net hitting the water too soon can easily spook a walleye close to the boat. Likewise, you want to avoid chasing the fish around with the net at all costs, because the longer the net is in the water, the more likely it is to bump the fish or wrap your line, which leads to a trophy swimming back to the bottom instead of into that bag.
Trust me, there are many other factors that can contribute to a dream walleye slipping from your grasp, but the truth is, most of them are unforeseeable or tied to simple bad luck. Those things are going to happen, but if you’re prepared to tangle with a monster before you leave the dock, if you understand the basics of executing a successful plan from bite to bag, you’re a step ahead of minor hiccups becoming major problems.
Featured image by Joe Cermele.