About ten years ago several teams started to really excel in some of the biggest bass events across Northwestern Ontario’s Sunset Country Region. Jim Lindner, Alex Keszler, Ted Stewner and John Guzej were all placing very high in events on Lake of the Woods, Shoal Lake and particularly Rainy Lake. What was the secret? They were all targeting suspended smallmouths. These were the biggest fish in the system and these guys all figured out how to catch them.
The reason that smallmouths were showing up in the middle of the lake or “out to sea” as we referred to it, was because of a massive population of smelt that invaded all of these lakes. In the years that followed, the smelt populations eventually crashed and their numbers remain relatively low today compared to where they were a decade ago. (Just so everybody knows, smelt are an invasive species in our Northwest Ontario waters)
What finding these smallmouths suspended away from structure told us was that there were probably even more walleyes out there than bass. At first, walleye catches were considered incidental, then over time we realized that there were significant populations of walleyes “out to sea”, particularly during the summer months and some of the biggest fish in the lake are found in these groups.
TARGETING SUSPENDED WALLEYE; THE KEYS
The reason that this phenomenon occurs in my opinion has a great deal to do with the thermocline. In the summer, a definite thermocline is created in our lakes, especially the big lakes. It’s in this zone where water temperature changes significantly, though oxygen is still plentiful. Below the thermocline, oxygen levels can be very low. You can sometimes see it on your sonar, evident by “clutter” that will show up on your unit in a line at a specific depth. Other times you know where the thermocline is in the water column based on where massive schools of bait are being seen on a consistent basis. Usually you are not going to find a lot of fish below the thermocline and on our lakes in Northwest Ontario you seldom will see the thermocline below about 30 feet, unless there is a string of hot, calm days, which will cause the thermocline to drop deeper. When we get a string of cool, windy days during the summer, the thermocline will actually rise in the water column and this is when the best “suspended” bite will occur.
Another rule to follow when looking for fish is to always try to stay close to structure. I feel like suspended walleyes, bass and pike all relate to structure and tend to stay within range of it. As well, I feel like these fish, walleyes in particular, will suspend at the level that they leave the structure. For example, if you are near a hump that tops off at 15 feet, there is a good chance that walleyes will suspend in 15 feet around this structure. I hope that makes sense. Bass do the same thing. There are two tactics that have been the most productive for me to catch suspended walleyes, moping and trolling.
Jim and Bill Lindner won the Fort Frances Canadian Bass Championship two years in a row (2004, 2005) using a technique that they named “moping”. It involves hanging a jig tipped with a soft plastic minnow underneath the boat at the level just above where the fish are at and just holding it still until a fish cracks it. You want to keep the bait above the fish. This is key to the system.
Eventually the word got out on how these guys were catching these fish and other anglers began experiencing success catching suspended fish using this technique. As the smelt populations decreased there were fewer bass out roaming but the walleye numbers seemed to only get stronger. Or we just catch more of them because they are not competing for our baits with smallmouths?
Moping is hard for some anglers to figure out because most folks want to move their rod and jig their bait. The key to this technique is to hold the bait as still as possible. When a fish bites it, they just about rip the rod out of your hand. Anglers need to understand that the waters where this technique works are clear and these fish can see your bait from a lot farther away than you think they can.
Typically we’re hanging our baits 10-15 feet below the boat and many times we’ll start on top of a good piece of structure, then drift off of it, keeping our baits at the same level.
Finally, the last key to the system is to use a heavy ¼ or 3/8 oz jig, which keeps the bait below the boat and from moving around a whole lot. The Northland Slurp Jig has a realistic, minnow head and a great keeper for holding your plastic on the shank of the hook. Usually I try to keep my bait underneath my sonar transducer as well so that I can watch where most of the fish are in the water column and for fish taking a run at my bait and then be ready when they strike.
Trolling remains a good tactic for finding and catching suspended fish as well. Match crankbaits that get down to the level that you’re seeing fish on your electronics and troll them around structure that you feel holds fish. Another overlooked bait for trolling are five and six inch soft swimbaits. I have caught fish on pre-rigged swimbaits and swimbaits that I put onto a ½ or ¾ jighead. Big walleyes LOVE these big swimbaits! You need to use these heavy jig heads to get the baits down in the water column and to give them the correct action. It’s all about keeping an open mind when looking for suspended fish, but understand that on most lakes, especially our big lakes in Northwest Ontario, walleyes get off the bottom and suspend, chasing school of smelt and cisco. It’s up to you to figure out where they are and how to catch them. n Jeff Gustafson is an outdoor writer, television show host, competitive tournament angler and guide who lives on the shores of Lake of the Woods. You can find him online at gussyoutdoors.com