Finding New-Water Walleyes Fast by Matt Straw

Lake Erie Lake Huron Michigan Walleye Fishing

When looking for walleyes on new water, where do you begin?

Walleye guide and renaissance angler Tony Roach simply clears his mind, opens his eyes, and adds up the usual variables.

“Never go anywhere thinking you know where the fish will be,” he says.

walleye fishing great lakes

“Preconceived notions get you into trouble,” Roach added.

“If you believe you know where walleyes are on new water, you spend too much time trying to prove yourself right. Check every theory quickly, efficiently, and move on. When you’re beating a dead horse, the quicker you admit it the better off you’ll be.”

Roach refuses to ordain any method or tactic for finding fish fast on new water.

“If you go to new water thinking you know how you’re going to catch them,” he says, “it’s as bad as thinking you know where to look before hitting the water.”

Roach may follow some simple rules that help him find fish faster, but he lets on-the water observations provide the primary clues. No matter how illogical the choices of the fish may seem to us, his methods for finding them fast are beautifully logical. 

Seasons

Time of year is an overriding factor when locating any species of fish.

“Pick a season,” Roach says. “The entire year can be seen as a cycle returning to that point. From the spawn through late spring, walleyes are moving toward summer habitat, taking advantage of the concentrations of baitfish drawn to the warmest water in the shallows until temperatures reach to 60°F or so, using ever deeper weedlines as they show up. Late summer finds walleyes gradually moving toward fall habitat, and so on. In summer and fall, walleyes are constantly moving into and toward main-lake basins and structures where they spend the winter, but in fall and winter they also begin moving back toward those shallows and tributaries where they spawn. If you know how walleyes relate to temperature regimes and baitfish movements during each season, you can immediately eliminate 70% of the water.”

Stocked Vs Natural

“The forage base is the biggest thing for me, but you have to start breaking it down at multiple levels,” Roach said. “As a general rule, walleyes in stocked lakes relate to weedlines. I can’t tell you how many stocked lakes I’ve been to with beautiful structure that’s completely devoid of walleyes. On every stocked lake that I’ve ever visited, they roam weedlines all season. Naturally-reproducing fish are more likely to use structure and to suspend.”

walleye fishing great lakesRoach theorizes that baitfish species that relate to weeds are the easiest for stocked fish to take advantage of. It makes sense. Stocked fish have no genetic history in the water they find themselves in—no understanding of their place in the predator-prey relationships of this brave new aquatic world they find themselves in. Weeds instantly provide cover and ambush points.

“Relationships with pelagic species like ciscoes, smelt, alewives, and shad are a little more complicated,” Roach said, implying walleyes need to be born into those relationships, and hunt with familial groups that track those forage species from structure through open water and back to become proficient at it.

“I’m prepared on stocked lakes to fish paddle-tail worms behind spinners, pulling them through cabbage tops. Great to pull them with boards if the weed tops are deep enough, but you have to stay above the height of the weeds. Paddle tails work best for rigging, but soft jerk shads and minnow shapes work great when pitching weed-guard jigs with braided line, ripping up as soon as it touches a weed. I call it power jigging, and I use it a lot in new water because it covers areas quickly. I’m prepared in bigger lakes with natural reproduction to look at structure and basins, hunting for baitfish concentrations and hatches. I spend a lot more time on my graph on those lakes.”

Picture The Forage Base

Stocked or not, Roach investigates the forage base before visiting a new lake, attempting to create the most complete picture he can of all the possible patterns. That means taking inventory of the forage populations—which ones dominate and which ones are secondary.

 walleye fishing great lakes

Pulling down reports from state biologists, calling them on the phone, calling tackle shops, and just talking to anglers at the landing puts that piece of the puzzle in place before the hull touches that new water.

“It provides a good starting point,” Roach said. “Look where you would expect to find the most populous baitfish in the system. If perch make up the bulk of the biomass, start around major weed beds and basin flats surrounding off-shore humps. If the cisco or smelt populations are highest, start around classic structure like major points, reefs, and islands, then scan surrounding open water for suspended food chains. 

“People often say that’s not an option on their water. Some lakes have so many healthy populations of different baitfish, walleyes spread into too many patterns,”

Roach added. “In that case, I troll. With too many forage options to narrow down, trolling gets you to the fish faster and keeps a line in the water while you observe and cover options.”

Follow The Wind

Immediate walleye location in any lake, river, or reservoir is tied directly to current and wind. “After nailing down the forage base, I go where the wind has been blowing in,” Roach said. “Wind and current play such a big factor. Those dynamics move plankton to baitfish and baitfish to predators.”

Wind history is easy to track these days by calling up any of the many on-line weather services.

Punch in the town closest to the areas you want to fish. Start at least three days before going to new water, pay strict attention to wind direction, and start circling areas on the map where the wind is cracking directly into points and other structures.

“I always look at both the front and backside of weed beds and structure, relative to wind direction,” Roach said. “Wind shifts can come in an instant. When it happens, if all the fish are on the north end of a structure they can move to the south end within minutes. They seem to know all the bait is going to shift to that windward side.”

walleye fishing great lakes

Graph First

Finally on the water, Roach keeps the rods strapped down. “I spend lots of time graphing before wetting lines in new water,” Roach said. “I’m looking for life—pods of bait, insect hatches, and squads of big ‘hooks.’ If abundance is everywhere or nowhere, I troll. The idea is,  ‘How can I find fish fastest?’ In those scenarios, it’s trolling.”

“Graphing” doesn’t really describe the activity. Call it “instrumentation.”

Roach has all screens up, using GPS to create a grid while looking at surface temperatures, traditional sonar, and side-finders. “I spend a few minutes on a city-block sized piece of structure,” Roach said.  “People overlook the very tops and very bottoms of structure and weedbeds, especially in late summer. I try not to assume where the fish will be, looking from the top all the way down, but if I can’t see bait I start moving off into the basin in ever-widening circles.”

Roach creates a grid over the basin, “just looking,” watching GPS tracks to keep the circles far enough apart to let the side finder work its magic.

“Our minds tell us to spend time thoroughly searching structure because that’s what we’ve been taught. We feel like a needle in a haystck out on the basin, so I speed up to 6 mph, scanning everything I can, looking for baitfish and hatches, monitoring surface temps, noting thermoclines, scanning structure, hunting for drop-offs, looking for cuts, and watching wind direction. Positions and attitudes of the fish tell me how to proceed from there.”

If walleyes appear in tight groups suspended, or scattered and suspended, it suggests lead core trolling.

“To cover water fast, I troll,” Roach said. “If they’re in tight pockets on one particular point, totally keying on structure, I pitch jigs or cranks. I even anchor up in that situation. If everybody’s drifting the point, they’re off fish more than on them. I stay on them using the bow-mount trolling motor or by anchoring up when walleyes are really tight and concentrated on small spots.

“When fish are scattered on bottom on structure, I pull spinners. And where water temps are conducive, I always want to move fast by three-way rigging—faster than most people might do it. If all the fish are on bottom, uniformly associated with an edge, boat positioning becomes the key factor—especially if it’s a big piece of structure. If walleyes are concentrated but picky, I mighty slow down and give them something they haven’t seen with the new Northland Butterfly Blade rig tipped with a leech or minnow. If walleyes are scattered but in pods, I power jig through them quick, pick up and go to the next pod, picking off the most active fish from each pod."

walleye fishing great lakes

“Every good angler knows there’s a clicking point,” Roach said. “Everything clicks when you find baitfish concentrations attended by big hooks in locations, depths, and attitudes that suggest the prime method to you. Where are the biggest concentrations, where is the biggest ball of baitfish, where is the insect hatch? After determining that, the best way to catch walleyes is the only primary concern left. To arrive at that clicking point, graph first.”

Surface Temperatures

“I always look at surface temp,” Roach said. “It determines presentation and speed. It tells me how fast I can push the limit of power fishing, speed trolling, or just fishing fast in general. And it provides clues about where the fish will be.”

In spring, fish are going to be shallow in all environments. “Say the water is in the mid to upper 40s—baitfish are all shallow,” Roach said. “Even in a river, the water is high in spring and both walleyes and baitfish relate to shorelines rather than mid-channel areas in that situation.”

walleye lures rapala jigging rap jig fish

Top: Northland Mimic Minnow Jig and Northland Impulse  Paddle Tail Minnow  Bottom: Rapala Jigging Rapala

As summer approaches, Roach starts looking for emerging weed beds. “From 55°F to 60°F, I see big migrations of walleyes from those bays to weed beds in mid-lake areas, from channels and shoreline areas to main-lake cabbage beds and structure.

Midsummer starts for walleyes as the temperatures climb toward 70°F, and I’ll be looking for mid-lake humps and reefs. Insects are emerging, and that will drive baitfish and walleye migrations to different but fairly predictable basin areas with softer bottoms.

“When the surface tops 70°F, I start looking deeper and fishing faster, never using live bait, and really speeding up presentation—often power jigging with plastics or size #5 and #7 Jigging Rapalas. I’m always prepared to fish presentations that cover water fast—especially trolling, power jigging, or pitching cranks to size up a fishery quicker.”

But Roach begins on new water hunting with the eyes in his head as well as the electronic ones attached to the boat. “The majority of my time is spent looking,” he said. “No information is bad, no discussion in the parking lot is worthless.” Time is always short on new water, and the pieces are all in a pile. Roach can help anybody slap that puzzle together in record time.

jigging trolling walleye fishing rapala lures great lakes

POWER-SEARCH TROLLING PRESENTATIONS Top to bottom—Rapala Shad Rap RS, Rapala Original Floating Minnow,  Rapala Husky Jerk, Northland Butterfly Blade Rigs

Power Jigging

The Tony Roach Power-Jigging method is similar to Snap Jigging and Rip Jigging, but it’s designed for pitching as opposed to a backtrolling approach. It’s a technique that works equally well (with different baits) for big trout, pike, muskies, and bass.

Braided line in the 10- to 15-pound range is key, providing better response, feel, distance, and hook-setting power. A small barrel swivel is attached to keep line twist to a minimum, with an 18-inch, 8- to 10-pound fluorocarbon leader between swivel and jig.

Roach uses a Tony-Roach Signature Wright McGill Power Jigging Rod to pitch ¼- to ¾-ounce Northland Mimic Minnow or Northland Slurp Riggin’ Jigs coupled with Impulse Paddle Tail Minnows. He follows the jig down with his rod tip and the moment it touches weeds or bottom he rips it up about 3 feet and repeats, never letting the jig rest. This covers water fast along the edges of structure and weeds, and Roach uses it to immediately go after any big fish he marks with sonar in basin areas. Jigs and plastics give way to Rapala Jigging Raps and Northland Puppet Minnows as the water warms.

He moves fast—10  mph or better—looking for active targets appearing off bottom on sonar then quickly stops, pitches back to them and power jigs through the bubble trail.

Just one way Roach boils big water down to puddles. 

matt straw walleye fishing

- written by Matt Straw (pictured above)



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