Fisheries people working on Lake Erie (as well as thousands of fishermen) have learned that Erie walleyes are highly migratory. By late summer and into the fall, the large numbers of the fish that were swimming in the western portion of the lake in the spring and early summer are far to the east, in the central part of the Lake and farther, all the way to the eastern end of the lake by late summer.


Stickbaits are the lure of choice for most Eastern Basin walleye anglers. 


It was one of my most disappointing fishing trips ever. In two days we caught two fish; neither of them were the walleyes we’d hoped to catch. It wasn’t the weather; it was gorgeous. It wasn’t because we’d chosen to go to a lake with a poor walleye population, it was Lake Erie.

I attribute our poor performance to the ignorance of youth and an overall lack of understanding about the habits of walleyes in Lake Erie. Perhaps that’s a polite way of saying we were stupid. Actually, I was stupid since I was the guy who set up the trip.

The trip wasn’t a total loss. My fishing partners were two of my brothers and it’s always fun to do an away trip with family, but fun only goes so far since our menu was planned around a healthy supply of fresh fish.




It started at a mid-summer family gathering probably around 1990 or so, based on the boat we fished from on that trip. At the family picnic I regaled my younger brothers with the stories of the easy limits of walleye that had been pulled into my boat a couple months earlier when I’d been in the Port Clinton area to fish. 

One of them asked, “When are we going?” 

I thought, “Why not?” 

A few weeks later arrangements had been made, our coolers were packed and off we went. All went well, except for finding cooperative walleyes. So what happened?

Remember, the “modern” era of Lake Erie walleye fishing was less than a decade old back then, newly resurrected from being informally pronounced “dead” several years earlier. Now, I know exactly why we didn’t catch any walleyes on that late summer trip. We fished the same way as we’d fished back in June. We used the same lures and we fished the same areas.

In essence, we were making a mistake that couldn’t be overcome. We were fishing where there were no fish—at least no walleyes—especially no walleyes stupid enough to bite the same lures they were biting in late spring.


Stickbaits are the lure of choice for most Eastern Basin walleye anglers. 


We should have fished different spots. Way different spots—about a 225 miles east different spots. I learned that for myself about a quarter century later. Admittedly, others had learned it sooner than that.

Fisheries people working on Lake Erie (as well as thousands of fishermen) have learned that Erie walleyes are highly migratory. By late summer and into the fall, the large numbers of the fish that were swimming in the western portion of the lake in the spring and early summer are far to the east, in the central part of the Lake and farther, all the way to the eastern end of the lake by late summer.

I’d heard of this, read reports of this several times in the interim years, but
it never really hit home until I was in Dunkirk, New York sitting in the Clarion Hotel’s restaurant which overlooks the Dunkirk Harbor. I was dining with Craig Robbins, the “outdoor guy” who worked with the Chautauqua County Visitor’s Bureau. When Capt. Jim Steel walked in, Robbins spotted him and invited him to our table. Introductions were made and I learned the captain was a charter operator in Dunkirk. It wasn’t long until the question that’s posed anytime fishermen meet, “How’s fishing?”






“We caught 27 walleyes on our after-noon trip today,” Steel said.

“Wow,” I thought, and it boosted my anticipation for the agenda planned for me the next couple of days. My anticipation was well deserved. I’ve never-ever seen a cooler stuffed with walleyes of that size.

This trip was in 2015 and the huge—make that “stupendously huge”—2003 hatch of walleyes in Lake Erie were still alive and these twelve-year-old fish were at their peak, size-wise. I’m not talking, “stuffed-with-eggs” huge as they would be in the spring—pushing many of the fish into the double digits—but the fish were solid 26 to 30 inchers and if they were stuffed with anything it was emerald shiners, the major forage fish at the east end of Lake Erie.


The Dunkirk, NY harbor has been revitalized and offers all the amenities a visiting angler could want. 



Earlier I referred to “the modern era” of Lake Erie walleye fishing. Commercial over-exploitation in both the Canadian portion of Lake Erie and in each of the Lake Erie states after the invention and use of nylon gill nets after WWII nearly wiped out the walleye population in Lake Erie in the 1950s and 60s. One subspecies of walleye, the blue walleye or blue pike, as they were marketed, was exterminated completely.

A combination of industrial pollution and massive algae blooms created by agricultural and human waste further reduced the walleye potential in Lake Erie and, in fact, when the Cuyahoga River, which feeds into Lake Erie at Cleveland, repeatedly caught fire, it became a major impetus to the passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972.






River fires and the fact Gerald Ford (from Michigan, the “Great Lake State,”) was President at the time the congress was appropriating money to fund the CWA, ensured that projects to build, enlarge or upgrade sewage treatment facilities for Great Lakes cities was prioritized. It took time to plan and complete these improvements and then a few years more for the fish to respond to their improved living conditions. Still, in a surprisingly short time, by the early ‘80s, walleye numbers were rebounding and in another decade (and ever since), Lake Erie has deserved the title, World’s Best Walleye Lake.

Initially, the Western Basin was part of the lake first to feel the resurgence. The Detroit River, Maumee River and the reefs offshore of Port Clinton became and are still the major spawning sites for Lake Erie walleyes. Pre-spawn, post spawn and on through the spring months, the area was home to millions of walleyes and with an average offshore depth being 40 feet or less, fishing for them wasn’t particularly difficult and didn’t require much specialized gear.





As I said, that happens in the spring and as my sad tale at the beginning of this story hinted, things changed in summer’s heat. The walleyes migrated.

In small lakes (and compared to Lake Erie, every walleye lake is a small lake) fishermen knew the walleyes would move from shallow to deep or from one end of the lake to the other seasonally. But in most cases those moves were a few miles. Even if they moved into a river to spawn, they seldom moved upstream more than 15 or 20 miles.

The idea that walleyes would migrate seasonally from the west end of Lake Erie to the east end and back seemed preposterous. Salmon make long distance moves. Tuna and other species move hundreds of miles or more—not walleyes.


High speed worm harnesses like these from eyefish.com can be a great change of pace lure even in the heat of the summer. 


Roughly, a decade or so after the resurgence of Erie’s walleye population boomed in the Western Basin, walleyes numbers—and walleye fishing success—farther east, from Loraine to Cleveland, Cleveland to Erie, PA and from Erie to the east end of the lake seemed to make a resurgence, as well. Initially, it was thought that the increased numbers of walleyes in the central and eastern parts of Lake Erie were simply walleyes from the Western Basin colonizing other parts of the lake. To a degree, that was happening. But as more attention was given to walleye movements in Lake Erie, the discovery was made that a lot of the fish were truly migratory.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s as biologists and lake managers worked to cope with all that was happening in Lake Erie, one of the tools available was capturing walleyes in various areas and fitting them with a small numbered tag. It was the same strategy waterfowl biologists used to track ducks and geese from their nesting areas to the wintering grounds.

More recently walleyes are being tracked with a two-part system. Transmitters called acoustic tags (about the size of an AAA battery) are surgically implanted internally into the gut cavities of individual walleyes. Each tag emits a coded electronic impulse as the fish swims around the lake. These signals are picked up by stationary receivers positioned strategically in the lake. As a fish with an acoustic tag swims close to a receiver, its position is revealed and tallied.





When this program was started in 2016 the number of fish and the number of receivers were few, but even with low numbers, data was being generated. Now, the receiving stations are more numerous and many, many more walleyes with transmitter implants are swimming in Lake Erie and beyond. It’s now known Lake Erie’s walleyes roam all over Lake Erie, some move into Lake Huron and beyond—and back again.

Now, walleyes migrating the length of Lake Erie and back on an annual schedule is an accepted fact. Anglers making great catches in all parts of Lake Erie is also an accepted fact and codifying those facts was a whole lot more fun for me and other anglers than just compiling the data from the arrays of listening posts deployed around the lake.



Pinning down one “best spot” to fish on any of the Great Lakes is an impossible task. If an on-the-go angler wants to pick a place to go in the Eastern Basin of Lake Erie it’s both an easy and a tough choice. With a current estimate of 40 million walleyes in the lake there are no areas in the eastern basin where numbers of walleyes can’t be found and as the name “basin” implies, there aren’t any islands, reefs, channels or other features to concentrate walleyes in any one area. Summer and early autumn walleyes are suspended fish that basically roam the offshore waters in loose aggregations following bait schools, reacting to water temperatures and wind-driven currents.


Surgically tagged walleyes monitored by underwater receivers prove where and when Lake Erie’s walleye roam seasonally. 


So picking one area or which town or city as a destination is based as much on other factors as the availability of fish. I’ve targeted the waters off Chautauqua County, New York most often for my eastern basin outings and suggest that it’s a natural for both anglers wanting to schedule charters as well as those guys trailering boats.

Dunkirk is the largest lakefront community in the county, has the largest harbor, the most charter boats, as well as more choices of accommodations, I’ve stayed at the Clarion, right on the lake front, several times, but there are numerous other hotels. I’ve stayed at an AirBnB and have stayed at accommodations at nearby Chautauqua Lake a couple of times, as well.

I mention Chautauqua Lake specifically because when I make away trips I often choose places where there are “blow-day" options. I’m not much for pinochle, so if the evil winds are blowing whitecaps on Lake Erie (Lake Michigan, Huron or any of the other lakes) it’s nice to know there’s an inland lake reasonably close where my fishing partners and I can go. I’ve caught walleyes, bass and muskies in Chautauqua Lake on past trips.





West of Dunkirk is Barcelona Harbor in the town of Westfield and in the east part of the county you can find launch areas and mooring spots in Irving. Each of these towns and facilities are a bit smaller than Dunkirk.

If you go to the Barcelona Harbor, check out When Pigs Fly BBQ. At Irving, hit Cabana Sam’s Sunset Grill for some lakeside fun, drinks and food.



The walleyes are there, so how can you catch them? Location is important, both where on the lake to fish and where in the lake to position the lures.

Chautauqua County walleyes can be found offshore from a couple of miles out to the Canadian border—mostly swimming in loose schools. I’ve never seen packs of boats like those that form up in the Western Basin. Still, you’ll sometimes see a few boats in an area and those guys are likely there for a reason. Don’t crowd them, but heading that way wouldn’t be a bad tactic.

The best days I’ve had however have been when we would pick-off a few fish in an area, punch in a waypoint and give that area a bit more attention. One of those spots can put a third of a limit, half sometimes a full cooler on the back deck of your boat. Remember the proven maxim, “Don’t leave fish to find fish.” 


Many anglers rely on subsurface speed and temp probes to pinpoint their lure presentations. 


The second “location” to keep in mind is depth. The walleyes migrate to the Eastern Basin for two reasons—deeper, cooler water and plentiful forage base—primarily emerald shiners. The shiners like cooler temperatures; but more important, the shiners feed on zooplankton and the thermocline is a plankton-rich zone. Follow the food, find the fish.

Top drawer sonars can reliably spot the ‘cline some of the time. Many anglers in the area rely on FishHawk (or other brands) of speed and depth probes to locate the temperature break and set their lures accordingly. Long lead cores, copper wire rigs and weighted steel line set-ups pulled wide with inline planer boards or mast and ski systems are top producers, followed by diving planers and downrigged lines. Get those lures down to the fish.



Matching the hatch is a proven tactic and nothing looks more like an emerald shiner than a stickbait. Long A Bombers, Rattlin’ Rogues and a local favorite, Reno Rockers in natural patterns are all work horses. These brands are all noted for being speed tolerant and I learned that’s important.





Even though walleyes can be loosely grouped, it’s not like they are in tight schools and it’s plain common sense that an angler is going to cover more water at higher speeds. When in “search” mode, trying to find one of those loose aggrega-tions of fish, faster speeds means quicker finds—as long as the walleyes are willing to bite the lures at those speeds.

Good news! Since the fish are basically “picking” the temperature they want to be swimming in by moving a bit higher or lower in the water column, they aren’t finicky about chasing down a high-speed lure. These aren’t sluggish fish either with slowed metabolism from being in cold water or languishing in temperatures above their comfort zone. Don’t be afraid to troll north of 3 mph when the goal is to get to the next fish quickly.






After my last trip, I found an alternative to stickbaits, even at these higher speeds. I was fishing with T.J. Yeltzen who splits his time between operating Reel Time charters out of Snow’s Marina in Irving, NY and his work as a staff member at EyeFish.com, makers of single and double blade worm harnesses built specifically for Lake Erie fishing. These American made harnesses feature a weighted eye-spot inserted on each blade.

The eye spot looks good but Capt. T.J. explained the position of the eye gives both their Colorado blades and willow leaf harnesses the ability to be run at speeds above 2.5 mph. Then we went on to prove it by trolling a spread which included both styles. The lake was rough enough we could only troll downwind and speed control was impossible. The walleyes didn’t seem to care.

I didn’t care, either. I’d followed the migration to eastern Lake Erie to catch walleyes, not to be concerned if we’d find success only by nailing the critical speed or having to change lures a couple dozen times to find a working pattern. The walleyes are there, they are happy and hungry. I you want to get one final walleye trip before the kids head back to school, the weather cools down and autumn cold fronts start their annual parade, plan a trip to Chautauqua County.





Back to blog


Greta article on the walleye in the central basin of Lake Erie, how about one on the eastern part of Lake Erie

Richard Ludchen

Greetings ,are you the same Mike Schoonveld that worked at Willow Slough?

Al Hevezi

There are plenty of resident fish in the west end of Erie all year long, it’s a matter of finding them, not always easy, not always hard.

Augustus Voulgares

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.