It's late summer, it's hot and the local walleye bite has become as tough as a sun-baked leech.
It's time to take a break from those small, limited bodies of water and think big. That's big as in lakes the size of states and that's big as in walleyes the size of paddles.
Not coincidentally, the two go together like spinners and crawlers. From Lake Erie and Saginaw Bay to Green Bay and the Bays de Noc, there are dozens of destinations where the fishing can be exceptional and the fish of a lifetime more than a remote possibility.
And best of all, it can be done from the relatively small boats many of use on our local lakes and rivers. You don't need a boat the size of the Queen Mary to safely navigate big water. Nor do you need major modifications or equipment upgrades to fool the fish that live there. Hundreds of anglers in boats ranging from 16 to 20 feet catch hundreds of walleyes and other species from lakes where they often can't see shore.
That's not to say anyone should ever play "chicken" with big water. Respect is healthy, and safety should always come first. There is no risk worth taking. A safe outing on big water begins at the boat landing or with a visit to the local Coast Guard station for a free safety inspection. Most of us already have what is required -- PFDs, fire extinguishers, a horn or whistle, bow and stern navigational lights and visual distress signals such as flares and flags. Some additional safety equipment isn't required by law, but is strongly recommended.
Foremost is a marine radio, which can save lives in the event of an emergency while also providing up-to-the-minute weather information.
For navigational purposes, it's wise to carry a compass and a global positioning unit. If the GPS fails, the compass can help you find your way back to shore in the event of reduced visibility.
Other items that can prove invaluable include a medical kit, blanket, bottled water, snacks, extra motor oil, a tool kit and an anchor with at least 100 feet of rope.
Now you are ready to consider whether or not to venture out, and how far you can go. First, choose the landing that is closest to the area you intend to fish. Sometimes, a 30-mile drive is rewarded with a fishing spot that's out of the wind.
Second, check the local marine weather forecast, which is available on your marine radio 24 hours a day.
If thunderstorms are imminent, stay on shore and wait until they pass. If they are forecast for later in the day, choose a fishing spot from which you can quickly return to the boat ramp or a safe harbor.
Sometimes, storms appear with little warning. Don't dally. One advantage of big water is that you can usually see them coming from a considerable distance and outrun them to shore.
When possible, fish with at least one other boat or in a group of boats in case you need assistance or the weather takes an unexpected turn. Fishing on big water nearly always involves navigating in waves to some degree.
Light winds tend to produce rolling waves that aren't much of a problem when going with them at moderate speeds.
As the waves grow larger, the trick is to increase the boat's speed while ascending the crest of the wave, then back off the throttle while descending the other side. Trim the motor up a little to keep the bow high enough to avoid spearing a wave on the downside.
Going against the waves is more dangerous. It requires the same speed adjustments, and it helps to take them at an angle so the driver can see what's coming. If you must turn, be sure to do so on the way down a wave rather than the way up.
If the waves keep getting larger or more violent, parallel them even more and criss-cross your way back. It will take more time, but it will be far safer. And if you don't think you can make it back to your point of origin, it never hurts to consider finding a safe harbor somewhere else until the weather blows over.
In all cases, avoid shallow water. Waves are always more violent in shallow water than deep water. Remember that six-foot waves over a six-foot reef mean there won't be any water left at the bottom of the wave. That's when boats get beached and swamped and lives are put in danger. Even when returning to harbor, slowing down suddenly can result in waves coming over the back of the boat. Safety should be part of your fishing game plan, too. When it's bumpy on the water, it's a good idea to designate a fish-fighting seat rather than having multiple people moving around the boat trying to maintain their balance.
A long-handled net is a wise investment. The less time the net person spends hanging over the back or side of the boat in waves, the better. Get the fish in the boat as quickly as possible.
With a little luck, your primary concerns on the water will be how to go about catching a few trophy walleyes.
Shallow-water bites can be found when the wind blows and the water stains, but walleyes are more likely to gang up around deep-water reefs and humps that come up to 20 or 30 feet and extended shoals that attract baitfish. When structure isn't an option, temperature breaks in the water column can attract baitfish and, in turn, walleyes to certain areas that are basically in the middle of nowhere.
Quality electronics, like the Lowrance X-19 unit, show not only baitfish and the predators around them, but will actually show temperature changes because of the density variations they cause in the water. The presence of other boats can be your best locator. Schools of late-summer walleyes can be huge, and local anglers and charter captains tend to know where they are.
If it's in your budget, hire a charter captain for a half-day or day to get a better idea about location, presentations and color patterns.
Once you find them, the emphasis is on making a subtle presentation. Big water tends to be clear water as the summer wears on, and the biggest fish in an area are always the spookiest. A quiet kicker motor like my Mercury 9.9 h.p. four-stroke is one of several advantages an angler can employ.
Two primary presentations come into play -- stickbaits and spinner rigs tipped with crawlers. Both work well at times and both can be fished at virtually any depth. Since these walleyes are usually feeding on forage above them in the water column, make sure your baits pass over and not under them. I like to use a pair of manual downriggers to help locate the most active fish. After experimenting with shorter leads, I've settled on long leaders of 150 feet or so behind them. It does make a difference.
By adding stackers to the downrigger cables, you can run multiple lines at different depths off the same downrigger. One advantage of downriggers is that you can see on your electronics exactly where the cannonballs are running in the water column and make quick adjustments when fish appear at different depths.
When I determine the depth for the day, I use other means to get additional baits into the strike zone. Luhr Jensen's Dipsey Divers are a great way to take a lure out away from the boat and down in the water column. As with the downriggers, I prefer long leads. I use a 30- to 35-foot section of 17- to 20-pound Berkley Trilene as a leader and 10-foot Abu Garcia Workhorse rods that have the backbone to stand up to the torque that comes with trolling Dipseys. When I get fish a fish on, I reel the Dipsey up close to the rod tip, then hand-line the fish the rest of the way.
Other options include snap weights, keel sinkers or segmented lead-core line when the fish aren't too deep and weights of more than four or five ounces aren't required. Line-counter reels help the angler duplicate effective combinations.
These presentations are used in conjunction with Off-Shore planer boards which are another way to get lures out away from the boat. The largest fish often come on the boards that are farthest from the noise of the boat. Light-biting fish can be a fact of life by July and August. Many times, I've had them grab hold of the lure and just swim along with the boat. The only way I've been able to detect them is from a slightly different angle on one of my downrigger cables.
Sometimes, you can entice more aggressive bites by speeding up. That might mean changing crankbait styles or going to a willow-leaf spinner rig rather than an Indiana or Colorado style of blade. Or, it might mean shifting the kicker into neutral now and then and letting crankbaits suspend or spinner rigs flutter a few feet.
When the waves get big, I like to shut down the kicker and let the wind carry me silently along. If necessary, I'll use a drift sock to slow down the boat. In these situations, dead rods can be used effectively in combination with downriggers and dipseys.
Some of the most memorable days I've had fishing for walleyes have occurred on the Great Lakes. I'm talking about big numbers of big fish. If you haven't ventured into the wide-open spaces, give it a try. Chances are, the fishing will put a smile on your face.
Editor's note: John Kolinski is the Professional Walleye Trail's 2002 Angler of the Year and a 12-time championship qualifier during eight years as a pro angler on the PWT, RCL and Masters Walleye Circuits. His articles can be read in many Midwestern outdoor publications and at several web sites. Kolinski is sponsored by Triton Boats, Mercury Motors, Lowrance Electronics, Normark/Storm Lures, MinnKota, Lindy Legendary Tackle, Flambeau, Tempress Rod Holders, Off-Shore Planer Boards, Berkley Trilene, Optima Batteries, and Panther.