By: Ryan Buddie

Soon the ice will be melting and open water will be just a boat ramp away. On Lake Erie, this means pre-spawn walleye will be roaming the flats of Lake Erie’s Western Basin to fatten up before the spring spawn. Prior to the spawn, which occurs the first week or two of April, comes a chance to catch the trophy walleye of a lifetime. Multiple 10+ pound fish a day is very common.

Schools of bait fish typically roam the mud flats surrounding the reef complex on Lake Erie known as the “Can Area.” This is where we find the pre-spawn walleyes fattening up before they move onto the reefs in early April. A great way to target these fish is slow trolling four to six inch stick baits near the surface.

The aggressive fish seem to congregate near the surface, so it is important to work your baits in the top five to ten feet of the water column. Shallow diving stick baits such as the Reef Runner Rip Stick, Rapala Husky Jerk, Smithwick Rogues and Perfect 10s are top choices.

Focus on the base colors of the baits, with chartreuses, pinks, silvers, golds and whites being top choices to have in your arsenal. Start with a variety, and let the fish tell you what they want on a particular day.

In order to be successful, proper equipment is a must. You will need good medium action trolling rods with line counter reels. I use a high quality, 8 foot 6 inch medium action Abu Garcia Vendetta rod with an Alphamar line counter reel. The line counter enables you to determine the length of line let out and hence determine the depth your baits are running. The longer the lead of line out, the deeper the bait is running. Once you develop a pattern that works, you will be able to duplicate it with the line counters. Typical leads this time of year with the shallow baits are 20-50 feet of line before you hook on a planer board. Planer boards are a must for this type of fishing due to the close proximity to the surface that you are fishing. The planer board enables you to spread multiple lines out and avoid spooking fish with the boat. I prefer an in-line planer board such as Off Shore Tackles OR12 due to the fact that it performs so well at slow speeds and is very efficient. Big boards with a mast planer board system can also be effective.

With water temperatures in the mid 30s to low 40s, fish can be quite sluggish. This means slower trolling speeds in the .8mph – 1.4mph range is required to get strikes. Watch your lure in the water before you set it out, it should be just barely wobbling. Common tactics to slow your boat down to these speeds are trolling bags, electric motors, and kickers. Performing “S turns” while trolling causes your baits to speed up and slow down during the troll. This helps you determine what speed to troll at; if a fish hits on an inside turn with the board slowed down, you may want to slow the boat down and vice versa. Because the boat is moving so slow, it is necessary to crank your drags down, and reel down hard on the fish the instant you get a strike. The speed of the boat moving forward is simply not enough power to set the hook as it is with other trolling methods. Once the fish is hooked, back off the drag and ease in the fish as you normally would. Razor sharp hooks are critical to getting a good hook set.

Ice out walleye seek out the warmest water they can find. The problem with this is that the muddy water typically warms faster than the clean water. If the water is too muddy, less than 6 inches visibility, the fish simply can’t find your bait. This is why it is important to key in on transitions from the muddy, brown water to the off color green. These transitions change daily so be sure to monitor satellite images online and go in search mode watching the water color on a daily basis. If you can just barely see the cavitation plate on your motor and you are marking fish on your electronics, its game time.

Remember, these fish are just about to spawn and sustain our resource for the year to come. If you have a choice, practice catch and release with the bigger females full of eggs and keep the solid males for table fare. Snap a picture of your trophy, send her on her way, and enjoy the best time of the year to catch monster Lake Erie walleyes!

If you are interested in booking a trip for monster spring walleyes, contact Ryan with Buddie Charters at 440-666-3265 or view his website at