Bill Hilts Jr.
The change, moving the opening day of the zander season to May 1st, makes the decision-making process a bit more difficult if you are both a turkey hunter and a walleye fisherman. May Day would normally begin with the hunt for bearded eaters. If it had stayed that way in previous years, the zander season would have opened on May 7th this year. That changed on April 1st.
Of course, other activities in May can take up valuable outdoor recreation time. Bass fishing on Lake Erie is in full swing; Lake Ontario salmon and trout action gets better every day (with the big Lake Ontario Counties Trout and Salmon Derby starting May 6); Trout fishing on the lower Niagara River is still strong from boat and shore; and inland lakes like Chautauqua and many of the Finger Lakes turn up as the waters continue to warm. What should an athlete (or an athlete) do?
If sleep (or work) isn’t a big factor, you can get up early to hunt turkey, come home by midday for a nap, and then head out for nighttime walleye fishing when the action is at its peak in May. In a perfect outdoor world, maybe you can make it. Tagging turkeys early gives you more time to spend as much time outdoors as possible hunting different species of fish.
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My first experience of night walleye fishing on Lake Erie was last year thanks to Cheektowaga’s Bob Rustowicz and Lancaster’s Todd Wojciechowski. We had tried several times to meet up for a trip in 2020, but Cvoid-19 and the weather got in the way.
His call came in May 2021 as promised and we made plans to fish out of the Point Breeze area of Lake Erie. I had fished night walleye on other waters but never on Lake Erie. Rustowicz said the planets would align and it would be a perfect night.
“We never fish past midnight, but there’s a good chance we’ll finish much earlier,” Rustowicz said. “It should be Prime tonight.”
When we met “Woj” he was working on the big motor of his 18ft tracker. I wondered if that was a good sign. Maybe one of the planets fell out of alignment.
Rustowicz had borrowed the boat earlier in the week and the engine had worked perfectly. In fact, due to another issue, he used it to troll as slowly as possible. When he got to his fishing destination, he couldn’t find the remote control for the bow-mounted trolling motor. He shouted “Woy”.
“Where’s the remote control for the trolling motor?”
There was silence on the other end of the line for a few seconds.
“On the dashboard of my truck,” Woj said. “Maybe I should leave it in the boat.”
Rustowicz was already on the lake that night and they were able to catch fish despite their motor disabilities.
Rustowicz had no worries on our evening adventure. “Todd can fix anything!” And he did. In 10 minutes we were on our way to Lake Erie as the sun started to set.
As Wojciechowski backed the boat into the lake, the sun dropped spectacularly below the horizon. By the time we went to Evans Bar to try and catch some walleye, the sun had set – leaving behind a beautiful ‘purple haze’. Another omen? Of course they forgot the music.
Lake Erie is without a doubt the walleye capital of the world. It is estimated that there are nearly 76 million eyes 2 years old and older in this Great Lake.
“We’re going to be fishing rocky areas and focusing on 6-12 foot water,” Rustowicz said. “You can catch walleye from Smokes Creek (near Buffalo) to the Pennsylvania Line, but we chose that spot because there will be less boat pressure.”
Clear skies and a calm sea brought out a few boats, but the most amazing thing is that four kayakers were fishing alongside us, taking advantage of the calm conditions. And they also caught fish.
“The zander like to hide behind the big rocks when they are out for feed and ambush bait,” said Wojciechowski. “We will be using stickbaits like Husky Jerks, Chatter Raps, Rapalas and Smithwick Elite 8 Rogues.”
Anything that is a shallow dive lure should work.
Knowing how far back the bait is is important to ensure a consistent presentation. Wojciechowski uses the new Okuma Convector Low Profile line counter reels, which have a high speed of 6.3 to 1. The rods are the Okuma Kokanee 7½ft sticks which offer a great feel. Rod and reel were in our hands as we cruised back and forth across the bar.
“We’re trying to keep the speed between 1.5 and 2.2 mph,” Rustowicz said. “The baits are 60 to 100 feet back depending on what the bottom terrain calls for. When you hit the bottom, pick up your rod or bring in some line. When you reach the bottom, check your bait for weeds and make sure it’s clean.
Weeding a three hook lure can be a little tricky…in the dark. However, we all wore headlamps to ensure the sharp baits didn’t catch more than one fish.
It was about an hour when Wojciechowski noticed something was wrong with the trolling motor.
“My trolling motor is losing power,” he said. “I think one of the batteries is dead. Those were new batteries!”
Shining a light into the battery compartment, he could see that one of the wires was disconnected. Battery power didn’t last long. We soon had to start the big engine and troll as slowly as possible with this power source. We were able to get the speed down to just 2.3 mph one-way, which wasn’t bad. However, the fish were finicky. We had four or five hits with no fish to show for our efforts.
Finally, a few hours later, we met our first fish. Rustowicz broke the ice, followed by Wojciechowski with a pair. The hot bait was the Smithwick Elite 8 Rogue in blue. It was approaching midnight. Yes, it was getting late and we were talking about packing. Most of the other boats in the area were already gone.
Woj gave me the Smithwick lure and almost immediately I had a hit. Success and dinner for the table. We opted for another pass. I met another, this one bigger fish. It was easily the biggest of the night and it was a fitting end to a worthwhile first Lake Erie experience.
Bob and Todd apologized. “Sorry the fishing was off. We’ll have to get you out again when the fishing is better.” We caught five fish. The evening was anything but a loss.
There was one downside. I didn’t get home until 2 o’clock. I haven’t seen these hands on the clock in this position for a long time. I’m an early bed and early riser type now. In fact, a few days later I was up at 2:30am for a turkey hunt. I think it’s all relative, a small price to pay to experience nature.
The zander and turkey season is open again.
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