Fall walleye on Lake Erie: Crankbait trolling tips from FishSens Pro Travis Hartman

By on October 15, 2014
Travis Hartman of the FishSens Pro Staff with a fall walleye pulled from Lake Erie on a crankbait (Credit: Travis Hartman)

There is no doubt that the best way to catch huge Great Lakes walleye in the fall is to troll crankbaits in open water. On Lake Erie, fall walleye crankbait trolling starts heating up in late September and continues to get better all the way into December, as long as the weather allows it to. Generally, the best area is between the Bass Islands and Lorain, with the open water off of Ohio’s Huron River producing the best action in most years.

Trolling crankbaits is traditionally the best choice because large adult walleye congregate around huge schools of gizzard shad, and to a lesser extent emerald shiners, and begin feeding to prepare for winter and the following spring spawning season. During the best fall walleye fishing, you’ll catch walleye from 8 to 12 pounds, and most of them will already be packed with shad prior to eating your crankbait.

During these feeding binges they readily hit large minnow-imitating crankbaits such as Reef Runner deep divers, ripsticks and skinny sticks; Rapala husky jerks (both Down Deep and shallow models); Smithwick rogues (deep divers and shallow); and even muskie sized baits such as the Musky Mania Li’l Ernies.

It would be easy to obsess over crankbait color, but quite honestly that’s more for us to enjoy than to actually catch more fish. I’m guilty: I have too many crankbaits. But keep your color choices simple. Put baits into color groups and pay attention to the basic groups that are getting hits. I generally group them into white-based baits, clear baits, metallic baits and dark baits. The best baits for Lake Erie have combinations of chartreuse, pink, purple and orange. Don’t waste time over-analyzing which dot pattern or what specific element is getting the hits. Start switching to baits similar to what is working and worry more about your location and your lures’ depth instead of color.

Assorted crankbait styles and colors from Hartman's collection (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Crankbaits come in many angler-attracting colors, but Hartman says to focus more on their depth and location. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Sonar: What to look for

The key is to use your sonar to find the best mix of bait with walleye-sized hooks lurking around them. If you start fishing in the heart of a huge school of bait, you’ll struggle to catch walleye and will even snag shad because there are too many of them. But if you get too far away from the bait you won’t find many actively feeding fish.

Believe it or not, you can also find too many walleye. If your sonar shows large walleye sized hooks literally stacked on top of each other from top to bottom, you’ve most likely found schooled up fish that aren’t feeding. You’re looking for tightly grouped “balls” of bait fish, with large individual hooks spread around the bait. These fish are actively feeding and are the easiest to catch. You’ll often find these conditions on the outer edge of large schools of bait.

The top sonar image shows too many walleye "hooks" without any bait. In the center, shows hooks scattered around bait in the middle of the water column and the bottom-right corner. The final image shows schools at the top of the column and walleye at the bottom that will move up into the bait as the day progresses. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

The top sonar image shows too many walleye “hooks” without any bait. In the center, hooks are scattered around bait in the middle of the water column and the bottom-right corner. The final image shows schools at the top of the column and walleye at the bottom that will move up into the bait as the day progresses. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Ideally, you’ll find feeding walleye in the “right” water color for catching them. The best case scenario is water that you can see the propeller of your big motor with it trimmed all the way down. You don’t want it to be gin clear, but if you can’t see your propeller it is probably too stained. On Lake Erie, a green or white tint is ideal. The more brown the water is, the worse the fishing conditions are.

Lure depth and boat speed

Once you’ve nailed down the best area it’s time to start putting your crankbaits in the feeding zone. Whether you’re fishing 25 feet of water nearshore, or you’ve found open water fish in 45 feet of water, the strike zone is generally 5 to 18 feet down from the surface. Spread your baits within that zone until you figure out the best depth. Make sure you keep at least one lure in the top 5 to 8 feet of water. You don’t want to miss feeding activity up near the surface, as the most aggressive fish could be high enough that you aren’t even marking them with your sonar. Put at least a few of your baits 10 to 15 feet down. This tends to be the most consistent zone. Finish off your spread with at least a bait or two at 15 feet or deeper.

The best lure depth will often change throughout the day, generally starting in the middle of the water column and then moving shallower as the day progresses. While it makes sense to move more lures to the depth that is getting bites, you still want to keep other baits outside the best zone since it will inevitably move around.

Your best trolling speed will usually be from 1.5 to 1.8 mph, but experiment up to about 2.2 mph early in the season. When the water temp drops into the low 40s later on, slow down to the 1.0 to 1.3 mph range. Speed can be a major trigger, so play around with turns and speed changes and pay attention when you get hits. Fine tuning your speed will go a long way towards improving your results.

The fishing can be great on Lake Erie, but the sights aren't bad either. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

The fishing can be great on Lake Erie, but the sights aren’t bad either. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Fall walleye trolling on Lake Erie and other Great Lakes can be spectacular. It has given me my single largest walleye to date, and produced some of the most memorable trips of my fishing career. Learn how to use your sonar to find the right walleye and then zero in on their crankbait preferences and you’ll create your own fall memories that will bring you back for more year after year.

Travis Hartman’s gear for fall Lake Erie walleye on crankbaits

  • Rods: 8.5-foot telescoping graphite trolling rod (Abu Garcia Vendetta line counter rod)
  • Reels: Line counter trolling reel (Shimano Tekota line counter)
  • Line: 10- to 16-pound test monofilament (Sunline 16 pound test)
  • Terminal tackle: Cross lock snap, no swivel.  If a swivel is desired use a 4- to 6-foot leader between the swivel and the snap.
  • In-line planer boards (Offshore Tackle inline boards)

Top image: Travis Hartman of the FishSens Pro Staff with a fall 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.

5 Comments

  1. Ruslan

    November 1, 2015 at 8:53 am

    Hi I wanted to ask witch location is best to fish at night for walleye in Lake Erie , thanx

    • Travis

      November 2, 2015 at 8:20 pm

      A lot of night fishing on Lake Erie takes place in 8 to 15′ of water between Vermilion and Cedar Point. Late in the season before ice up Cleveland harbor can be really good for big fish at night. Other good areas include Marblehead, Catawba, and the shorelines around the islands (Bass Islands and Kelleys Island).

  2. Jason B

    November 16, 2015 at 8:41 pm

    question as a shore fisherman From Cleveland Ohio, I have always wondered how does trolling speed translate to retrieval speed? Also, is there a such thing as shore colors and boat colors? no one from shore seems tou use any purple and pinks at all and that has always deterred me from buying cranks in that color. and last but not least, are the shorter shad body style cranks less effective during the fall and winter? it seems like if its not a husky jerk, smithwick P10, or a Bomber shore fishermen don’t throw it.

    • Travis

      November 17, 2015 at 8:28 pm

      I don’t know that it would be easy to directly correlate trolling speed to retrieve speed, but I would try different retrieves until I found the right one each night. Try constant retrieves, pulls and pauses, quick rips follow by long pauses, etc. They will tell you what they want. I would not be afraid to use purples, pinks, and chartreuse. Lake Erie is Lake Erie, and I catch fish trolling along the shoreline at night in the fall with those colors. I believe the longer baits are better in the fall because they are more similar to the size of the shad, smelt and shiners that they are eating. By late fall they are looking for larger prey.

  3. Jim Nickeson

    September 20, 2016 at 10:10 pm

    I am interested in fall fishing for walleye. Do you guide on boats other than yours or what way do you prefer? I am interested in trying for a larger walleye if possible, not looking for meat just a wall hanger. I am a couple days drive from western end of Lake Erie.

    Thanks for reply

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