By Jason Wright, Co-Host of Ultimate Outdoor Adventures TV
As mid-summer quickly approaches and farmers are prepping their combines for harvest, those of us that chase walleyes begin to sense just how limited our open water fishing can be in North Dakota. There are those that have already begun to store their long-rods, switching their focus from fishing to bowhunting. I often wonder if the cause of “early rod storage” is possibly because the late summer/early fall bite can oftentimes be tough. However, there are many of us that choose to hang on and persevere through the tough walleye bite that can occur – especially on Lake Sakakawea – during the latter part of August and early September prior to the fall “feeding frenzy.” It is safe to say that for some years the month of August can be phenomenal while for other years it’s just the opposite.
Now here is a scenario I have encountered on various late August/early September outings on Lake Sakakawea, and I think many of you can relate. You’re excited to get to your favorite spot on the lake more so because there are only a handful of trailers at the ramp. However, it’s one of “those” days on the water – you know the kind – a bit hot and quite muggy, and as the fishless morning continues your confidence in your chosen technique begins to melt like the ice in your cooler. You’re out in 25 – 35 feet of water, trolling over loads of fish that you know are walleyes – at least you are pretty sure – since this is the same area you caught them in last year not to mention last week. But today you’re wondering if your Lowrance is stuck on simulation because it is fish after fish on the screen. Frustration begins to take hold because not one of the perfect hooks moving across the screen is making any attempt at smashing your crankbaits. Maybe they are salmon! No, that can’t be since eventually one of them would take a crankbait. Pike? Nope, they too would sooner or later tear after a 400 Series Reef Runner; right? Skipjacks? Hope Not!
The situation doesn’t make sense. The water is warm, so the metabolism of these walleyes on the graph must be high meaning they should be “active” and feeding. The weather is stable; sunny and hot for the last few days. But your “400 Series Ripshad Reef Runners” trolled with lead core which simply slayed them last week and is always a great go-to setup this time of year is being unnoticed. The problem could very well be and most likely is something you can’t see. After over-analyzing the situation you begin to wonder if the abundance of baitfish hanging in the 30 – 50 foot range had caused an all-out free for all feeding frenzy the past few days. That’s it; they’re stuffed like sausages, lazy, lethargic and not in any mood to chase after a crankbait.
If you’re not following me, think of it this way: Many of us enjoy a mouth-watering holiday meal with family and friends, but we oftentimes over-eat, feeling lazy, tired and stuffed. Now if the ice cream truck was driving down the street, you most likely aren’t going to jump up and chase it down; right? But, if someone decided you should casually drive to Cherry Berry and sit down for a creamy cup of frozen yogurt you might be able to muster up enough energy to make that happen. Do you see where I am going with this?
My suggestion, based on my own experience, is if you run into a similar scenario while fishing Lake Sakakawea like my daughter Brynn and I did on a recent outing, offer those stuffed and lazy walleyes a little dessert that is attractive enough to get them to check it out and then strike.
I have found that a spinner rig trailing a fat juicy nightcrawler can make a fabulous after dinner meal even for an over-stuffed walleye. Another great tip that I have had great success with is rather than a live crawler try a Berkley Gulp!Alive! 7” Spinner Crawler which provides a rolling action walleyes can’t resist. However, some days I have found that less is more so I remove the bottom hook from my spinner harness and tip the remaining hook with a Berkley Gulp! Killer Crawler. If you haven’t tried either of the above Berkley Crawlers, they would be a wise purchase from Scheels. Give them a try, and you might be amazed at your success.
Several key factors make spinners and crawlers the best bet when nothing else works on suspended or bottom-hugging “dog day” late summer walleyes. First, a spinner is presented more slowly than a crankbait this time of year, meaning the fish don’t have to work very hard to chase it down. Second, that tempting nightcrawler is enough to make a walleye’s mouth water as it rolls through the water giving off an undeniable scent. Third, the vibration of the spinner blade quite possibly mimics that of a struggling baitfish triggering an innate behavior strike. And finally, the flash of a spinner will attract any fish in the area to it or at least get its attention, so even though you troll more slowly and cover less water; the strike attraction zone of the spinner is probably greater than with a faster moving crankbait. In other words, the fish can see this slow-moving, flashy thing from a long ways away and since it is going slowly, they will swim a fairly long way to investigate.
The dog-day walleye scenario takes place to some extent anywhere you find walleyes and baitfish or other food, such as insect larvae that are not relating to structure, although, I feel it is most common to encounter these “middle-of-nowhere” walleyes in larger reservoirs such as Lake Sakakawea or Lake Oahe where they are roaming large flats. But, this doesn’t mean that this late summer presentation won’t work on your favorite lake since it has more to do with the time of year and the abundance of baitfish or other abundant food.
No one spinner blade seems to work best in this situation, but rather try to match spinner size to the size of fish that dominates the lake. If I am targeting 18 – 22 inch fish (or smaller based on my most recent outings), then I usually choose a No. 2 or No. 3 spinner blade. If the walleyes that I am targeting are much bigger, then I might choose a No. 6 spinner blade. I have found that the Colorado and Indiana style blades tend to work better – for me personally – than some of the other styles, possibly because the wider blade produces more vibration than some of the other shapes. Other blade styles that I have had success using are the chopper and hatchet style blades. These offer different vibrations than more traditional blades and can trigger bites from walleyes that would otherwise ignore your offerings.
As far as colors are concerned, I usually recommend beginning with the age-old rule which is the hammered silver and gold metallic blades work best in clear water and then go with more fluorescent colors when fishing stained water. But remember these are just guidelines to help you get started and, then you can experiment to see what works for you; or maybe let the walleyes decide since we know they don’t really follow our rules. There are many cool colors and finishes on the market today when it comes to spinner blades and one of my favorite combinations is the holographic/metallic combination since you get the best of both – color and flash. These blades are also responsible for winning various walleye tournaments the past few years and are becoming more and more popular amongst fishermen.
I choose to tie my own spinner harnesses so I can decide the length and pound test of the leader as well as the style and quality of hooks. I begin with a 4 – 6 foot piece of 10# Berkley Vanish fluorocarbon monofilament and then snell two Eagle Claw Style L183 #4 hooks approximately two inches apart, add six 5mm colored beads a quick change clevis and then tie a loop at the end which is needed to attach to a snap swivel. I use the winter months – during a period of cabin fever – to tie my spinner harnesses and then wrap them around a Tackle Buddy Spinner Holder which keeps them from getting tangled. I store all my snelled rigs and spinners in a small plastic container so that I’m not digging through a bunch of boxes in order to find what I need when I am on the water.
Taking the spinner and bait to the fish depends on where in the water column they are. A very effective and efficient weighting system for trolling open water spinners is the use of snap weights. Using the Snap Weight option, clip one of these to the line 50 feet in front of the spinner, let out another 50 feet of line. By varying the weight (1/2 once to 3 ounces), you can vary your depth. This works best if the fish are suspended 3 – 6 feet off the bottom and when utilizing planers boards to spread out your lines this can be a very effective and overlooked practice. Another weighting system which is most commonly used is to attach the spinner to a bottom bouncer which enables you to better target bottom hugging walleyes. I usually begin with a 1¼ ounce bottom bouncer and then adjust my weight depending on the depth of water I am targeting. Some anglers, myself included, even go a step further and paint the lead part – acting as an attractant – of the bottom bouncer, and there is no doubt this can make a difference. Both methods can be very effective in targeting and catching late summertime walleyes…sometimes the spinners pulled behind snap weights get more bites, sometimes it’s the ones attached to the bottom bouncer. Again, it may take a little experimentation to determine what’s going to work best on any given day.
Using in-line planer boards to take the spinners out to the side of the boat increases the amount of water you can cover especially when targeting roaming walleyes on large flats. By putting lighter weights on the outside lines and heavier weights inside, you can probe different depths until you find the set-up that catches fish and fewer tangles will occur this way too.
So with the remaining opportunities this summer – prior to the fall bite – try “spinning” those late summer lazy walleyes with a slow-moving spinner and a tasty nightcrawler. Changing your normal tactics this time of year just might turn your “dog-day” outing into a more positive fishing experience. This technique is also a great way to introduce and/or take a young person fishing since it is not unusual to catch a variety of species and there is always some type of action.