Don’t Overlook Lake Erie’s Western Basin After Mid-Summer Walleye Migration

By on August 14, 2015
Travis Hartman of the FishSens Pro Staff with a fall walleye pulled from Lake Erie on a crankbait (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Lake Erie’s western basin has earned its title of the “Walleye Capital of the World.” Spring, fall and winter turn the waters from Toledo to Huron into a trophy walleye playground for dedicated anglers from all over the Midwest and even farther, but what happens when Erie’s largest migratory walleye leave the warming waters of the western basin for cooler habitat in eastern Lake Erie and go even as far north as Lake Huron?

For some anglers, the hottest months are the time to start fishing for yellow perch, smallmouth bass or largemouth bass, or even to take some time to work on their boat or equipment in preparation for the return of the large walleye in September or October. What’s left for the rest of us is a much-less crowded western basin with plenty of walleye action that can heat up as much as the mid-summer temperatures do.

After the mayfly hatch ends in early July and water temperatures start climbing above 75 degrees, the younger, somewhat smaller walleye that are left in the western basin do something much different than their larger and older migratory relatives. Unlike the big fish that are seeking colder and deeper waters that are full of rainbow smelt, the younger walleye that choose to stay in the western basin move nearshore into shallower water and pursue schools of gizzard shad and emerald shiners.

While there are many potential locations to find and catch summer walleye in Erie’s western basin, the most common area is generally from just off the Davis Besse nuclear cooling tower and westward to the Toledo water intake, while heading as far north as West Sister Island. There are times that longer offshore runs can be made to the turnaround buoy of the Toledo shipping channel or farther north near Canadian waters just south of Middle Sister Island, but the best bite is often within a few miles of popular launching locations such as Turtle Creek, Ward’s Canal or Cooley Canal.

Ripshads and rippers are good crankbait options for mid-summer walleye. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Ripshads and rippers are good crankbait options for mid-summer walleye. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

The key to locating the right fish is to use your electronics and cruise the nearshore waters until you find a good mix of schools of baitfish and scattered walleye “hooks” on your sonar. Many times, fish will be in 15 to 22 feet of water, but don’t be afraid to look even closer to shore. The waters just off of Crane Creek often hold the best bite of the summer.

Because the water temperatures are high, the best way to trigger bites is to troll fast and cover water. My presentation of choice is small crankbaits such as Reef Runner ripshad 400s or deep little rippers trolled behind inline planer boards around 2 to 2.5 mph. Small shad or shiner-sized crankbaits are very effective and it seems like “matching the hatch,” so to speak, is critical this time of year. It certainly doesn’t mean that you should put your bigger crankbaits away as they will catch fish on some days, but smaller crankbaits are generally the best starting point.

Since most of the best bites are in less than 25 feet of water, you won’t need to struggle to get your baits really deep. I generally run my crankbaits behind the planer boards without any additional weight. The most common setups are anywhere from 50 to 110 feet of line between the planer board and the crankbait, which gets the ripshads and deep little rippers anywhere from 10 to 17 feet down in the water column.

Make sure you pay attention to the depth of the best walleye marks on your sonar and definitely adjust your crankbait depths relative to where you are marking fish and what lure running depths get your first few hits of the day. If you are trolling with 4 or 6 rods, you want to cover various depths and let the fish tell you where they are active in the water column.

Don’t get caught assuming that all the fish will be “small.” On Lake Erie, we are spoiled with opportunities to catch trophy fish if you are willing to follow the migratory schools, but occasional fish over 25 inches aren’t unheard of in the western basin during the summer. While most of the fish will range from 16 to 20 inches, it is common to hear of a few 7-pound-plus fish being caught mixed in with the smaller fish.

Let everyone else switch over to fishing for other species or trailer long distances to chase down more popular bites that everyone on the internet message boards are talking about. This is the time to grab your smaller crankbaits and go catch numbers of nearshore fish without many other boats in sight.

Top image: Travis Hartman with a walleye pulled from Lake Erie on a crankbait (Credit: Travis Hartman)

About Travis Hartman

FishSens pro Travis Hartman is a two-time WBSA Lake Erie Walleye Trail points champion and 2015 Cabela’s MWC World Walleye Championship qualifier. He has 21 top 10 finishes and is also a licensed charter captain.

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