Every species we target, to varying degrees, spends time feeding, traveling or resting well above the bottom. Muskie, panfish, whitefish and even channel cat fishermen have learned to exploit this in recent years. For walleye, targeting suspended fish has always been a productive approach. A big misconception is that this behaviour only occurs in huge, clear bodies of water with tons of suspended forage. This simply isn’t the case. From the mussel-filtered waters of Lake Ontario to small, dark lakes in the north, you can usually find walleye ‘out there,’ and catch them using methods that often have nothing to do with touching bottom. Suspended fish are available all season and generally get less attention than their buddies on classic structures. Sound good?
‘Suspended’ doesn’t automatically mean that fish are schooled half way down on your sonar screen in the deepest part of the lake. Walleye will gather at variety of levels for a variety of reasons. Fish can hold five or six feet off bottom just as easily as five or six feet below the surface. Finding the most consistent depth level is where it all starts. From there, address the best way to deliver your presentation.
A number of techniques work for suspended fish depending on where they’re hovering, the water temperature, what speed is required and so on. Less aggressive fish hanging over rough bottom can be perfect targets for drop-shots, 3-way rigs, vertical jigging and even slip bobbers. In late summer on Georgian Bay, it’s very common to find groups of walleye six to eight feet above humps in twenty five to forty feet of water. Electronics are critical to achieving the right level for your presentation. Floating crawler harnesses on extra long 3-way droppers and vertical jigging are both excellent. One of the keys is slow, precise boat control and being able to see your offering slightly above the walleye, on your sonar display.
By late fall, walleye can suspend much higher, sometimes over water that’s over one hundred feet deep. Methodical trolling passes using flatlines, planer boards, leadcore line and downriggers can all be used. Crank and minnowbaits are the dominant lure style at this time, but spinner rigs and spoons take fish, too. Walleye gorge-feeding on smelts, alewives, herring or perch are dialed into vibration, sound and flash. Keeping baits at or above the fish zone works here just as it does closer to bottom, at other times of the year. Being visually disconnected from the bottom (and sometimes even shoreline markers) means mapping your path with GPS. You instantly have the option of re-tracing hot runs or prospecting out into fresh water. Trolling systems like this aren’t just for big bodies of water. You can hunt down some very big walleye on smaller, ‘cottage-type’ water using them, too.
Experimentation and flexibility are what make successful suspended outings. Once you’ve located fish, work them over at a range of levels with different set-ups at different speeds. If you’re unsure where to look, check open water areas close to the structures you already fish. Walleye will hang off these spots, moving onto them at various points during day and night. You can catch these wanderers, and some of them are awfully big.