While it’s true that local knowledge of a fishery is usually tough to beat for filling your live well, at times a fresh set of eyes can see opportunities to improve upon tried-and-true angling techniques.
Case in point: Downriggers have been used to target deep-water walleyes on Lake Erie for decades, and while modifications to standard downrigger methods have certainly surfaced over time, anglers are still often frustrated by walleyes that simply won’t strike.
When Great Lakes walleyes are aggressive, seemingly everyone on the lake is catching them using a wide variety of techniques. When walleyes are negative, it’s difficult for even the best big-water anglers to scratch up a fish or two. But it’s those neutral fish, the ones that will strike if a lure is presented in exactly the right way, that can make or break a day on the water.
The Rest of the Story
Brothers Alan and Brian Heft are not local Lake Erie walleye guides. They didn’t grow up on the shores of the big lake, and they aren’t nationally known tournament anglers with closets full of trophies and large cardboard checks.
Alan has worked for 28 years as a biologist with Maryland DNR’s Inland Fisheries Division with a specific focus on coldwater species such as brook trout. His older brother, Brian, is the park manager at Smith Mountain Lake State Park in Virginia. Knowing only these basic facts you might assume it’d be nearly impossible for the brothers to be dialed in on Lake Erie walleye fishing, but you’d be wrong.
For the rest of the story, we need to go back nearly 30 years to the small central-Minnesota town of Walker, Minnesota, which sits on the shores of well-known walleye factory Leech Lake. Here, Alan and Brian began working as fishing instructors for In-Fisherman founders Al and Ron Lindner at a place called Camp Fish. While anyone under the age of 40 has likely never heard of it, say the words “Camp Fish” to diehard anglers 50 and older and they’ll likely raise their eyebrows.
You see, Camp Fish operated when In-Fisherman magazine and TV dominated the multi-species fishing scene in the 1980s and ’90s. Back then, the list of its masthead editors read like a who’s who in the fishing industry. And Camp Fish, while it was primarily a fishing camp where youth ages 8-17 came for classroom and on-the-water instruction, it also hosted adult sessions focused specifically on walleyes, bass, or muskies.
During these species-specific workshops, other well-known anglers from across the country—guys such as Gary Roach and Roland Martin—gathered at Camp Fish to teach and discuss the latest fishing techniques.
Alan Heft worked as lead instructor for Camp Fish in 1986 and ’87, and Brian served as one of more than two dozen other instructors/guides in 1986. Each day the brothers conducted seminars on topics ranging from limnology to fishing electronics, with at least five hours of guiding time per day. Of course, during days off, all of the instructors, who came from across the country, fished nearby lakes. It was during this time of living on the water and comparing notes with topnotch anglers from coast to coast that Alan and Brian sharpened their skills as multi-species anglers.
Fast-forward to 2005 when Alan began driving four hours from his home in Maryland to target big walleyes on Lake Erie. He was joined by a friend, George Stepanovich, who grew up next to the Heft brothers. In 2007 Brian joined the pair, and ever since the three anglers have spent 10 to 15 days per summer in pursuit of Lake Erie walleyes.
Alan, Brian, and George don’t have big-water boats. Because these anglers fish lakes of various sizes near their homes for a wide variety of species, they have 16.5-foot aluminum boats with 50-hp and 60-hp outboards. For trolling on Lake Erie, each boat is rigged with two Cannon manual downriggers and several rod holders.
“Generally, we launch and fish from the west side of Erie, Pennsylvania, to the small town of North East,” said Brian.
“There are several ramps along that stretch, and we’ll drop in our boats wherever the walleyes are biting. We’ll run out to 10 miles or so on a good day, but we have to watch the forecast closely because of our small boats. Usually, we’re fishing six miles out or closer, in 45-60 feet. Erie is generally shallow, and wind-driven waves kick up pretty fast and will change directions just as fast. We’ve been out wanting to make just one last trolling pass and had to reel up and leave in a hurry because six-foot waves were following us.”
The trio has certainly experienced fantastic fish-catching days on Lake Erie, but it was during one of the slower days that they discovered “popping” walleyes.
“In all honesty,” Brian said, “we discovered this system out of boredom. In some areas we’d be trolling through huge schools of walleyes. The depthfinder screen was filled with fish on the bottom, those suspended 10 feet off the bottom, and everywhere in between. And they wouldn’t hit anything, even if we moved the downrigger ball up or down. One time we just tried something different to trigger a strike.”
This “something different” is grabbing the downrigger rod from the rod holder and manually popping the release. “Popping the lure to trigger a strike came from watching the depth finder,” Brian recalled. “We were seeing so many hooks and wondering what we could do differently. One day I remembered an instance when we were getting ready to quit fishing. We were still marking fish, but they wouldn’t hit, and it was time to go. With the boat maintaining our usual trolling speed (1.7-2.2 mph), I popped the release like we always do when bringing in our lines. After I reeled in the slack line, I gave the lure a twitch and a walleye smashed it. At the time I thought it was a fluke, but during later trips, we decided to give the popping trick a try. And it worked.”
According to the Heft brothers, after you pop the line from the release, you wind up slack in the line. Next, you pump the rod sharply, similar to jigging.
“When you trip the release, it causes the lure to change its action,” Brian said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s a stickbait or a worm harness with a spinner. At that point in time when you pop it, the immediate slack line causes the lure to change its action. A stickbait might stop wiggling. The blade on worm harness might stop spinning, then start up again and change speed. And sometimes that’s enough to trigger a strike. You know, a fish could be following the lure, or perhaps it’s a competition thing between a couple of walleyes, and one of them makes a move because it wants to get the bait first. When the lure stops, I suppose it looks like injured prey, so it’s an easy meal.”
The walleye in one of the photographs was caught on Lake Erie during late August and measured 29.5 inches and weighed 10.5 pounds. Brian caught the fish on a worm harness by using the popping technique. “I got that walleye just off the bottom,” Brian remembered. “We were watching the depthfinder and saw the hook, and I was going to check the worm harness anyway, so I popped the release. I gave the rod one small jerk. Nothing. I pumped it a second time and she hit.”
“One of the coolest things about this technique,” said Alan, “is that every now and then you can actually see the hook on the depthfinder start moving up after you pop the lure. It works especially well when the walleyes are right on or just above the bottom, which typically indicates they are neutral. When Lake Erie walleyes are on the feed, they’re typically up off the bottom.
“That said,” Alan continued, “we’ve also had success doing this for trophy walleyes in open water, especially in the area around North East, where big fish will suspend 35-50 feet down over 70-110 feet of water. In this area there aren’t tons of fish, but those that are there are pigs.
We usually mark only a single fish or two, but popping the rigger when you see these marks can trigger a 28-inch or larger walleye when you’ll get nothing on the Dipsy Divers or downriggers if you just keep trolling. Overall, this method on neutral fish will turn an okay or even slow day into limits and a couple of big fish. And for whatever reason, this technique seems to target big fish.
I’d say over the years we’ve caught close to half of all the 28-inch or larger fish on the popping method. And the hooking percentage after popping the lure is probably 95 percent. If you get a hit, you’ll catch the fish.”
Of course, the downside to this technique is if nothing hits the lure, then the anglers have to wind in the line and also retrieve the downrigger ball from 45-60 feet. Then they have to reset the line in the release and lower the ball and lure back down to the desired depth. “I wish we had electric Cannons instead of manual ones,” Brian said, “and at some point, we’ll buy some. Even though it’s not difficult to crank up the ball a few times, doing it over and over again gets a little old. I know this for a fact: If we had electric Cannon downriggers, it’d make the decision of whether to try the popping trick a whole lot easier.”
When it comes to rods, reels, lines and lures, the Hefts keep it simple. They prefer standard fiberglass downrigger rods and baitcasting reels spooled with 15-pound-test mono. They attach a 6-foot-long 12-pound-test fluorocarbon leader via a small swivel, then attach their lures with a tiny snap, which makes it faster to experiment with different lure sizes and colors.
Regardless of whether they’re trolling with a worm harness or a stickbait, they leave 40 feet of line from release to lure to ensure fish aren’t spooked by the downrigger ball in Erie’s clear water. Depending on boat speed and depth, they can usually spot the 8- or 10-pound downrigger ball on the depth finder.
“One thing we’ve been doing lately with good success is using standard downrigger releases with thin rubber bands designed specifically for trolling,” Brian advised. “You don’t have to worry about how deep you’re burying the line in a release. We wrap the rubber band around the line, put one end through the other, pull it tight, then place the end of the rubber band at least halfway into the release. When a fish strikes or if we decide to try popping, the rubber band breaks easily at a very consistent pressure.”
So how often does popping walleyes work? “On average we catch 40 percent of our walleyes by using the trick,” Brian said. “Of course, on any given day if you give popping a try once or twice an hour and it works, then you’ll try it more often. And if your overall catch rate increases, then you’ll continue using it. The bottom line is, if we’re seeing a lot of walleyes but not getting a lot of bites, we’ll try it.”
The next time you’re marking a lot of deep-water walleyes but not getting many strikes, try the popping method. Like Alan, Brian and George, it might change the way you use downriggers forever.
- written by Dave Mass