As serious walleye chasers know, big pig ’eyes often “sprout wings”, soar off bottom and suspend during the summer. Because of the phenomenon’s (supposed) complexities, however, many anglers still have a difficult time recognizing and taking advantage of it.
Fortunately, suspension occurs in response to triggers you can easily predict. These catalysts begin and end with feeding. Simply put, the sustenance chase is a controlling factor that is always top priority, except maybe during spawning. As such, knowing what a walleye is making its living off of at any given time helps reveal exactly where it’ll be and when it will suspend.
Throughout the walleye belt swim many and varied bait species; their unique characteristics have a direct effect on where you’ll find feeding ’eyes and how they’ll suspend. Top forage includes minnows like shiners and baitfish like perch, smelt, shad, alewives, whitefish and ciscoes. Lake type and species availability determines what bait receives most of the walleyes’ unwanted attention.
Knowing the predominant forage type and how it reacts in a body of water is the key to patterning high-riding walleyes. For example, perch tend to hold tight to bottom in unstratified waters, but move up when conditions are right, such as during periods of heavy insect hatches.
The thickest bug barrages coincide with flat, dead-calm, sunny days. String two or three days like this in a row and perch ride higher—between about halfway down and the bottom—to intercept the bugs. Walleyes follow.
On the other hand, a fast-moving cold front can shut down these hatches, pushing perch back to bottom, taking hungry walleyes with them.
You might think it would be easy, then, to pattern a fishery with a predominantly perch forage base. However, another factor, secondary forage, throws a wrench in the works.
“There’s always more than one forage type in any body of water and they can effect how many walleyes suspend and when,” says pro Scott Fairbairn. “On Mille Lacs Lake in central Minnesota, for example, the major forage base is perch, but there are also whitefish and tulibees, species that spend much of their lives suspended.”
According to Fairbairn, there’s a crucial and often overlooked difference between “preferred” and “predominant.”
“Preferred forage is what walleyes want—predominant is just what’s most available,” he says. “On Mille Lacs, the whitefish and tulibees are preferred, and they’re why a certain number of walleyes will always be right there with them.
“Whitefish and tulibees tend to ride higher than perch, but move up and down at the drop of a hat,” he says.
Targeting fish chasing preferred forage might not be practical in many cases, especially if the species is relatively limited. In that case, Fairbairn says it’s smarter to work the numbers and stick with a pattern that puts you in contact with the largest groups of fish.
The multiple forage factor is why he and other top pros always run a “hedge rod” when trolling suspended ’eyes—one rig set to run higher or lower than the rest. “You never know when you’re going to run into catchable fish that are outside the expected depth range. Running one bait way up high or down on bottom will help keep you from missing something important.”
Saginaw Bay in Michigan is another dynamic walleye fishery with more than one dominant forage type. The species walleyes key on there depends greatly on timing and location.
“The inner bay is loaded with gizzard shad, which ride high,” Fairbairn says. “I’ll look for them holding in the upper third of the water column and I’ll fish right up to the surface under certain conditions. The shad move particularly high when it’s flat, dead calm, and that’s why you’ll often catch Saginaw walleyes 10 feet down and less, even under a bright, midday sky.”
Perch are also in the inner bay, but they hang out on deeper gravel-covered humps scattered over the bottom. “They’re why you’ll find big schools of walleyes clinging to the bottom when you get close to structure,” he says.
In the outer bay alewives enter the mix. They suspend, but are hard to pin down because they’ll range from the surface to the bottom. “That’s why you’ll sometimes catch high-riding, alewife-eating fish on crankbaits one day, and then have to fish bouncers and spinners on bottom to catch the same walleyes the next day.”
To help narrow down where in the water column the alewives are holding—and thus determine if he’ll find suspended walleyes—Fairbairn sizes up the weather. “When the wind blows and waves start crashing, alewives move up as high as they can go and the walleyes will go with them, even breaking the surface occasionally as they get caught up in chasing bait.”
Of course, the “forage factor” for a given water can change drastically, and what was once a lead pipe cinch may not be now. For example, walleye pro Rick Olson has been competing in tournaments on Lake Erie for over 13 years and has seen things change dramatically.
“When we first started fishing Erie just about all of the big fish were suspended. We’d work mile-long schools suspended over deep water—that’s where every tournament was won. Lately, though, we’ve found far fewer fish riding high and a lot more hugging bottom.”
According to Olson, the period since the heyday of huge suspended schools has seen two other major changes: an increase in water clarity and the rise of exotic gobies.
“Now the water can be gin clear. You can actually see bottom in 20 to 25 feet of water,” he says. “This seems to have pushed the forage closer to the bottom. Also, gobies stick to bottom and we know walleyes are foraging on them.”
Fellow pro Danny Plautz agrees and says similar factors have also changed Saginaw Bay. “Zebra mussels and the gobies have definitely had an effect. We’re not running into the big suspended schools we used to,” he says. “In fact, one of my hottest presentations has been a spinner-and-nightcrawler combination with a custom-painted, goby-colored blade trolled near bottom.”
Smelt throw another curve. They are preferred walleye forage, but they also have unique needs that separate them from other species—both bait and ’eyes. These distinctions include a preference for lower water temperatures. They spend most of their lives suspended, and during summer, set up just above the thermocline. Walleyes stage just over them, waiting for smelt to make the fatal mistake of rising a little too much.
If you can accurately place your baits in the water column, this phenomenon works to your advantage because it really bunches up fish. You can zero in on a narrow band and concentrate your efforts, which greatly increases your efficiency.
Plautz knows this well. He fishes Rainy Lake in northern Minnesota every August and has found tons of big walleyes suspended. “In the past, we always caught good fish off deeper points and rock humps, but then I noticed tons of big arcs on my graph every time I moved over deep water,” he says. “I finally put cranks down and pounded the walleyes, and they averaged a lot bigger than the reef fish. The walleyes were holding just over the thermocline and were puking up smelt when we brought them in the boat.”
The keys to capitalizing on this pattern are using high-quality electronics and learning to interpret them. You need to be able to see a well-developed thermocline and spot schools of bait and predators hanging out nearby.
When you can do this, the ball is in your court to place baits at the correct spot in the water column, just above the thermocline.
The most efficient method for running down and nailing ’eyes suspended at any depth is trolling cranks, spinner-and-’crawler combinations or even spoons. Use depth charts to determine the exact running depths of certain lures with specific lines and weights to dial in your presentation.
The job of finding and catching suspended walleyes isn’t always simple, but by building an understanding of why and when it happens, you give yourself the tools necessary to pattern big ’eyes all summer long.