Troll Lake Erie structure for quality walleye and fewer boats

By on June 4, 2015
Happy Lake Erie anglers with early summer walleye caught trolling structure. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Open water fishing for large schools of walleye will give you as many frustrating days as it will good days, especially in the late spring and early summer when conditions change rapidly. When the water warms to around 60 degrees and open water schools of fish start putting the pedal down to head east, it’s time to troll structure.

This is my favorite time to start fishing some of the most predictable water on Lake Erie, and I would also argue that trolling structure is Lake Erie’s most underrated style of fishing.

There are a few reasons to head to structure, none the least of which are consistently catching larger fish, and even more importantly, encountering fewer boats. Leave the big packs of boats that are following each other around and trying to catch yesterday’s hot bite. For western basin anglers, there is nearly unlimited structure when you consider all the reefs, island shoreline and even mainland shoreline. Acre for acre, there are many more quality fish with fewer boats chasing them in places that most Erie anglers wouldn’t even consider wetting a line.

Structure fishing requires attention to detail, but if you systematically eliminate water you will find hungry, aggressive fish every day. I like to start in 10 to 15 feet of water. It’s important to have a good contour map on your GPS to make sure you are more efficient and to reduce the amount of tackle that you lose. If you’re consistently too shallow, you lose gear to snags. If you’re consistently too deep you don’t catch fish.

I will usually glue myself to 5 feet contour bands and set my weights and worm harnesses carefully. The shallow side of the boat will normally have 1 or 1.5 ounce inline weights and set 15 feet behind the planer boards. If I’m on a fairly sharp drop off I’ll use 2 ounce weights on the rods on the deeper side and run them 15 to 20 feet behind their planer boards assuming they are in deeper water. It even pays off at times to run a 4 ounce bottom bouncer off the deep corner of the boat without a planer board to keep adjusting depths and catch a few fish tight to the bottom.

Erie structure fish seem to like worm harnesses with gold blades with chartreuse beads. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Erie structure fish seem to like worm harnesses with gold blades with chartreuse beads. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

My approach is to hit all the key elements of the structure such as points, inside turns, rock piles or changes in slope of the drop off in each narrow band of depth. If I hit the best spots in 10 to 15 feet and don’t connect, then I’m going to do the same thing in 15 to 20 feet, and so on, out to around 30 feet. If nothing has panned out yet then it’s time for a troll in less than 10 feet of water.

Pay attention to wind direction and the potential impacts on current. If the wind-blown side of structure isn’t working, try the protected side, or an edge that the wind is blowing along instead of into. Erie has so much complex structure that you can quickly spot hop and find the right combination and depth. On days that don’t get too windy, the open water reefs away from the islands might be your best choice. On windy days you can find structure attached to island shorelines and tuck away from the wind to steal a limit on a day that is too windy for open water. After a season or two of learning the ropes, you’ll develop a milk run of key spots that rarely will disappoint.

Structure fishing is a game of consistency. Be exact with your amount of line out and pay attention to the exact depth you’re getting hits in. Put waypoints in on every hit to help narrow down exactly what is holding fish. Fine tune your speed (anything from 1.0 to 1.5 mph is normal) to repeat the proper running depth with your crawler harnesses. If you get a little too shallow, speed up to avoid snags. If you get a little deeper than you planned, slow down a few tenths to drop your weights closer to the bottom. On those windy days where you’re out of the waves along a shoreline, use a single trolling bag rigged on the wind-blown side of the boat to improve your boat control and allow you to stay glued to contours when the wind has other plans.

I keep harness colors very simple. Structure fish are aggressive, and on Erie they really seem to like gold blades with chartreuse beads. Throw in some fluorescent greens along with some purple or orange accents and you’re ready to go.

Structure trolling is extremely enjoyable, especially when your fish are consistently a better grade than the average western basin fish after the schools of big fish have been gone for weeks. Throw in the fact that you’ll most likely see far fewer boats around you and the day just got even more enjoyable. If you go the extra few miles and head up north to Canadian waters you might even forget that you’re on Lake Erie when you only see a few other boats all day and they weren’t even close to you.

Top image: Happy Lake Erie anglers with early summer walleye caught trolling structure. (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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