Walleye and the High-Action Plug Bite by Mark Romanack (Fishing 411 TV)

In recent times crankbaits have ruled the roost on Lake Erie, and also on nearby Saginaw Bay. Population explosions fueled by back, to back, to back successful spawning year classes have both of these fisheries literally crawling with catchable fish.

walleye crankbait fishing lake erie great lakes plug

Walleye often T-bone high action plugs. It’s common for fish to be hooked on the front treble or to have the entire plug choked down their throat.

Natural reproduction can be a fleeting gift, but fortunately for those who enjoy targeting walleye, the fish Gods have shined brightly on these fisheries. To say recent fishing success for walleye on Erie and Saginaw Bay has been excellent is an understatement. Limit catches have been the norm and anglers who have historically targeted walleye using traditional methods like nightcrawler harnesses are putting away the “meat” in favor of trolling with less labor intensive crankbaits. 

TRADITIONAL CRANKBAITS

Crankbaits have always been a popular and productive choice on Erie and Saginaw Bay. In the past, most anglers have depended heavily on crankbaits early and also late in the year when the water temperature is cool to cold. Classic minnow/diver style crankbaits like the iconic Reef Runner 800 series, the Rapala Deep Husky Jerk 12 and the Bandit 5/8-ounce Deep Walleye have produced countless walleye over the years.

The walleye bite and sales of these cranks has been so good in recent years a host of manufacturers have introduced new crankbaits aimed at this market. Rapala recently released their Deep Husky Jerk 14 which is a larger version of the popular Deep Husky Jerk 12. Phantom Lures introduced two minnow divers including the Abyss and Boogey in several sizes and Reef Runner stepped up with their new RipShad 44 Magnum just to name a few.

It’s clear to see that anglers have discovered board trolling with crankbaits is the fast track to limit catches. It’s also becoming apparent that slow trolling or drifting using traditional live bait rigs is time consuming, messy and costly compared to trolling body baits. A lot of anglers have come to the conclusion that if crankbaits can consistently get the job done faster and with less effort, why fish anything else?

CRANKBAITS OF A DIFFERENT FLAVOR

Most anglers would agree that the three afore mentioned crankbaits dominate the trolling scene on both Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay. Slowly anglers are discovering there are other noteworthy baits worth exploring.

In the Western Basin of Lake Erie where white perch and white bass often get in the way of catching walleye, charter captains have quietly turned to a different class of crankbait to save the day. “When I was in high school and my college years, I worked as a first mate for several charters working out of the Western Basin,” says Jake Romanack, co-host of Fishing 411 TV. “As soon as the water temperature warmed up to about 60 degrees abundant populations of white bass and white perch feed so aggressively it becomes challenging to keep these non-target species off the lines long enough to catch walleyes! A typical Lake Erie walleye charter runs 12 to 15 lines and it wasn’t uncommon for every line to be dragging a white perch or silver bass!”

“You haven’t experienced frustration until you’ve worked the back of a charter boat in 85-degree heat, setting lines as fast as humanly possible only to catch a handful of walleye mixed into bucket loads of trash fish,” explains Romanack. “Increasing trolling speed and switching to high action crankbaits was the solution to this annual problem.”

mark romanack crankbait plug fishing bite depth finder fish finder

Sonar screen shots like this are common on Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay these days. Several successful year classes in a row have created world class walleye fishing opportunities on both of these Great Lakes fisheries. 

The only practical way to avoid silver bass and white perch is to troll fast enough to mitigate how many of these undesirable fish are caught while trolling for walleye. “Only a handful of crankbaits are up to the challenge when it comes to high speed trolling,” adds Romanack. “The problem is that charter captains stack so many lines per side of the boat, a bait has to run perfectly true in the water or adjoining lures will wander and foul each other.”

Back in the day, before Storm Lure Company was purchased by Rapala, the original 3/8-ounce Wiggle Wart was the bait of choice on Erie when the white bass and white perch became a problem. The original Wiggle Wart was a compact lure, with an aggressive action, they could tolerate faster trolling speeds than other crankbaits and they ran perfectly right out of the package. Countless Wiggle Warts were sold to Western Basin charter captains who depended heavily on these lures in late May and throughout June and early July.

Storm responded to this bonanza of sales by offering the Wiggle Wart in over 100 different color patterns! Not long after Storm sold out to Rapala, new molds were created for the Wiggle Wart and color options were dramatically reduced.

The resulting second generation of Wiggle Warts were noticeably different from the original models and simply didn’t work as well as their predecessors. Captains and others who tried the new generation of lures quickly lost faith.

Rapala eventually recognized the error in their ways and came back to market with an “original” Wiggle Wart, but by then the ship had sailed so to speak. For more than a decade charter captains and recreational anglers who owned the Wiggle Warts produced by Storm Lure Company muddled by with what lures they already owned. Not surprisingly, the value of these original Wiggle Warts has skyrocketed over the years. Select colors routinely sell on-line for $20.00 or more each, topping five times their original value!

A NEW CLASS OF WOBBLER

These days a new class of high action wobblers are finding success on Erie and Saginaw Bay. The Yakima Bait Company Mag Lip was designed by Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame angler Buzz Ramsey as a wobbling plug aimed at the salmon, steelhead and trout markets. The Mag Lip is a banana shaped lure that features a built-in “skip beat” action.

“It only took a few years and the Mag Lip was dominating plug sales among steelhead, salmon and trout fishermen on the West Coast,” says Buzz Ramsey. “Word about the Mag Lip and how many fish it catches quickly spread to the Great Lakes. The demand for more sizes and colors of Mag Lip soon reached a fever pace.”

Currently Mag Lip is available in seven different sizes and over four dozen different factory standard colors. Many retailers are also offering their own “custom color” options that continue to feed the growing demand.

“It has taken a few years, but walleye anglers have finally discovered that Mag Lip is deadly effective when trolling at high speeds and in warm water conditions,” says Captain Eric Hirzel of Erie Gold Walleye Charters. “I first used the 3.5 size of Mag Lip on spring salmon trolling trips at Lake Michigan. I was so impressed with the Mag Lip, I started using the 3.5 and 3.0 sizes on my Lake Erie walleye charters.”

Mag Lip is the perfect niche lure for a number of reasons. Each lure is perfectly tuned and runs true right out of the package. Mag Lip features a wide wobble, loud rattle and aggressive action, but these baits can also tolerate trolling speeds up to 4.0 MPH without blowing out. The “skip beat” or hunting action of the Mag Lip generates explosive strikes and these baits come in a host of productive color options.

“Most of the factory colors on Mag Lip are admittedly trout and salmon colors,” says Jake Romanack of Fishing 411 TV. “Our staff has worked closely with Yakima Bait to introduce several new “walleye specific” colors that are going to be popular on Erie and Saginaw Bay. “Our crew has had had the opportunity to fish these new colors in the spring and summer of 2019 and they are lights out for walleye. Our favorites include Metallic Silver Clown, Metallic Silver FireTiger, Metallic Gold/Black Red Lip and Rosemary.”

Other factory standard colors that produce consistent results on walleye include Metallic Silver Rainbow Trout, Mad Man, Grinch, Double Trouble, Metallic Gold/Flame, Keeper, Metallic Perch and Metallic Gold Green Pirate.

“The first thing I noticed about Mag Lip is fish T-bone them,” says Captain Hirzel. “When walleye hit most crankbaits they tend to be hooked on the back hook. With the Mag Lip a majority of the fish are hooked on the front treble or they have the bait right down their throat.”

Buzz Ramsey says that it’s the unique hunting action of the Mag Lip that causes fish to react with explosive strikes. “Most crankbaits have a rhythmic and consistent action,” says Ramsey “Crankbaits with a hunting action tease fish into biting. Think of it like playing with a cat using a ball and string. Eventually the cat can’t stand it anymore and pounces. The same thing happens when fishing with Mag Lip.”

Mag Lip has great action at a wide variety of speeds, but the skip beat action is more distinctive at faster trolling speeds. “On Lake Erie we did best trolling 3.5 Mag Lip at between 2.2 and 3.0 MPH,” says Jake Romanack who recently filmed a TV episode focusing on the virtues of high action crankbaits. “Walleye pounded the Mag Lip and it was a struggle just to keep our legal number of lines in the water!”

 mark romanack crankbait plug fishing bite

In late spring and throughout the summer months walleye aggressively attack crankbaits. Traditional minnow/diver style lures still produce, but speeding up and using wide wobbling plugs adds a whole new dimension to the Great Lakes trolling game. Jake Romanack of Fishing 411 TV caught this Erie walleye while filming a TV episode for the Sportsman Channel. 

OTHER HIGH ACTION BAITS TO PONDER

A number of other high action wobblers are finding favor with spring and summer walleye trollers. A few of the baits that deliver consistent walleye success include the Storm ¼-ounce Hot ’n Tot, the Storm Rattle Tot, the Worden’s ½-ounce Fat Wiggler, the Cotton Cordell Wiggle-O 3/8 ounce and the Luhr Jensen Kwik Fish K9X and K11X models. All of these lures are compact in shape and feature aggressive actions that can be trolled effectively at speeds ranging from 2.0 to 3.5 MPH. 

SHAD PROFILE CRANKBAITS

The crankbait trolling success on Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay has also spawned renewed interest in shad style crankbaits. “We’ve notice that in recent years the walleye we catch have more and more perch, round goby, gizzard shad, white perch and even immature walleye in their stomachs,” says Scott Stecher of Reef Runner Tackle. “The population of slender emerald shiners walleye have traditionally targeted are getting picked over, forcing walleye to find other forage sources.”

Shad profile baits like the new Reef Runner RipShad 44 Mag are answering this new demand for crankbait designs that better replicate alternative forage species. Reef Runner isn’t the only company that has taken notice of this trend. The Berkley Flicker Shad No. 9, Walleye Nation Creations Shaky Shad 7, Salmo Freediver 9, Livingston Lures BFS90, Bagley Balsa Shad 8 and Deep Diving Shad DDS are other large profile shad baits that are striving to match the hatch on Erie and Saginaw Bay.

Shad profile baits have the advantage of closely replicating forage species walleye are being forced to seek out. Also, shad baits troll nicely at a wide range of speeds making them useful for both cold water and warm water trolling applications.

mark romanack crankbait plug fishing bite

The author holds a Western Basin walleye that hit a 3.5 Mag Lip in the new Metallic Silver Clown color pattern. In response to demand, Yakima Bait Company has recently introduced several new “walleye specific” colors for anglers targeting walleye in Great Lakes waters and beyond.

THE FINAL WORD

The good news is that walleye populations on Lake Erie and also Saginaw Bay are at epic levels. The future looks bright for both these fisheries despite heavy year around fishing pressure.

Crankbait trolling is obviously not the only way anglers can catch walleye on these Great Lakes fisheries, but it’s clear that no other fishing method is as consistently productive as board trolling with crankbaits.

It’s true that just three popular minnow/diver style crankbaits got the ball rolling on Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay, but these days a host of other crankbait styles and models are delivering impressive catches. For those who haven’t tried high action plugs and shad baits, in the late spring and throughout the summer when water temperatures are warm, it’s hard to beat these loud and proud crankbaits.

- written by Mark Romanack (Fishing 411 TV)



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