Buck Perry, the father of structure fishing, defines deep water as anything deeper than 10 feet. But, big Western reservoirs like those on the Missouri River chain add new meaning to Perry’s definition.
Fishermen may think of deep as 20-, 30- or even 35 feet in other areas of the nation. But Western anglers know deep water may mean 65-, 70- or even 80 feet in places where water reaches that far down over long points stretching to the channel.
The walleyes are there. The key is to understand the behavior of baitfish and the relationship of walleyes to their food.
In places such as Lake Oahe, walleyes feed mainly on smelt and ciscoes. Unlike other baitfish that suspend to roam open water at certain times of year, smelt and ciscoes hug structures such as long points, or the edges of flats or sunken islands. And, those can be very deep at times.
Big reservoirs such as lakes’ Oahe and Sakakawea in the Dakotas and Fort Peck in Montana have so much structure they may confuse a walleye angler at first. However, cut the task down to size. Visit several bait shops to learn what part of the reservoir is producing the best fish. Don’t always depend on what areas were good last year or even last week. Productive depths depend on water levels. Those can change month-to-month on a reservoir.
Once on the water in the general area where fish have been caught recently, map the structure before you fish. Find several points and track them all the way to the channel. Some may reach 100 feet from land while others may reach 400 feet.
Whatever proves longest, travel a 10-mile stretch of the reservoir at a distance from land. Use your GPS to mark anytime you travel over another point. Keep an eye on the sonar screen for telltale signs of walleyes.
Travel back to the longest points and move from shallow to deep water looking for walleyes or baitfish. It’s likely you will see scattered fish, then a bigger concentration, then more scattered fish. Focus on the depth where the most marks are.
You’ll have several places to start and an idea of a depth to target when you’re done.
Baitcasting gear and 12-pound test TUF Line Tournament 8 braided line are an excellent combination for this technique. Use a bottom bouncer with enough weight to go all the way to the bottom. Use a 6-foot leader of 10- to 12-pound test fluorocarbon line.
A key component of this deep tactic is the choice of bait. Use creek chubs. They mimic smelt, are extremely active, and big walleyes love them. Choose lively 5- to 7-inch chubs. Their frantic movement will telegraph when big walleyes are nearby.
An electric trolling motor will allow you to move slowly over the structure. If you are moving too fast, stick with a 1-ounce bottom bouncer even in deep water to force you to creep along to maintain contact with the bottom. If winds are blowing, use a drift sock to slow your boat.
Rig two rods the same way. Hold the shorter one of 7 feet and a longer one of 8 feet and more as a dead stick. Fish both from different sides of the boat to avoid tangling with your partner.
Note the depth when you connect. The productive depth could be a range of just a few feet. Travel to another point and fish that same range when action slows.
‘Fizz’ a Fish
Keep in mind that a fish caught from these depths undergo great stress as they are reeled to the surface. Reel slowly to let the fish adjust. Still, a fish you want to release may need to be “fizzed” first or it will struggle helplessly on the surface. It needs to get the air out of it so it can swim deeper.
Here’s how to “fizz” a fish:
With the fish in the livewell, count three scales to either side of the anus and then five scales toward the head. Use a cattle inoculation needle or a hypodermic needle about 1- to 1-1/2 inches long to carefully lift the scale and insert the needle at a 45-degree angle until the first air bubble appears. Gently hold the fish until the bubbles cease. Do not force them out.
The process could take as much as 20 seconds for a large walleye. Let the fish recuperate in your live well if it’s of legal length. If not, release it immediately.
Give yourself time to try this technique. Many anglers see fish way down below, but few try to fish them. The deep walleyes can be all yours!
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