Published February 2005

Every year it happens.  Like the inexorable ticking of a clock, the days grow longer, two minutes by two minutes.  And as they do, Lake Erie walleye eggs and milt begin to mature and hormones trigger off behavior patterns that have changed little over thousands of years. 

The fish begin staging south of Green Island, north of such reefs as Clinton and Cone, between North Bass and Niagara, and off the tip of Catawba Island, all deep water spots.  Then the huge, loose schools and smaller pods begin a slow, measured movement toward the western end of the lake. 

Some of those schools head toward reefs like Toussaint and Niagara, others favor flats, beach areas, and rockpiles, and more seek out the Sandusky and Maumee rivers, but they all move and as they do, offer opportunities for the first serious walleye catches of the year.  And some of the fish caught will be BIG ones.

It’s tough fishing.  Some years the ice lingers long, and anglers will often perform the dangerous trick of walking their boat over thin ice to open water.  Other years the ice leaves early, and launch ramps in western Lake Erie are free and ready for use.  Whatever the weather, once boats can be launched, it’s going to be cold.  Lake water won’t be much above 33 degrees, snow and high winds are always possible, and ice chunks will be floating here and there.  Which means anglers had best dress warmly and carry plenty of hot coffee.  But the fish have no choice and will move, whatever the weather.  All that’s necessary is to find and then catch them.

The finding most days isn’t difficult.  At the beginning of the migration, look for them in the deep water spots listed above.  As it progresses, they’ll move into shallower water and schools will swim west, many of them passing the tip of Catawba Island.  They might be a half mile offshore, or a mile or several, and depending on when you’re able to go, most could be north of the island, or west and south.

So, one good tactic is to launch at Catawba Island State Park and head a mile or two due west.  Then anchor if necessary, or drift if winds are gentle and drifting is possible.  With a fish locator, pinpointing schools and pods is easy, but lacking this basic gear most anglers anchor and fish one spot for 15 minutes then move and move again.  Drifters just keep going, maybe working deeper or more shallow on each drift.

Anglers will basically be using ice fishing techniques at this time of year, and that means jigging just off bottom with spoons and jigs.  Good choices are Swedish Pimples, jigging Rapalas, Snakey Spoons, Hopkins Spoons, and Crocodiles.  Those who prefer straight jigs should try those with twister tails, soft flaring maribou, or tinsel tails.  Either way, it’s best to bait all three hooks of spoons or the single hook of jigs with emerald shiners.  The minnows bouncing up and down add both eye appeal and flavor to any lure.

Keep in mind that early fish are very cold and therefore very sluggish.  A fast moving jig won’t attract them, so keep it slow and make jigs easy up and down, rather than fast and jerky.  Strikes might be serious hits, but much more often they’ll be gentle tugs or maybe just a touch of extra weight on the line as a fish clamps down.  So, use a sensitive rod, 6-10 pound test line, and take action at any difference in the lure.

Once actual spawning begins, many fishermen head for various flats and work off the beach areas, rock piles, and near such reefs as Niagara, Toussaint, Crib and Locust Point Reef.  Jigging spoons and Rapalas might still work, but better choices are bottom bumpers and very small spinners like the May fly types with nightcrawlers.  Whatever your choice, remember to keep offerings near bottom, move shallow and deep until you find some willing to feed, and keep it slow.  Tough fishing, but a 10 pounder is worth some effort.

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