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Article: Reading water color for more crankbait walleyes on Erie & St. Clair

by Mike Schlimgen 03 Feb 2022

When it comes to finding and catching walleyes on the great lakes and connecting waters, water color is one of the biggest factors.  This is true with jigging, trolling, etc.  However, it is absolutely critical when trolling, especially with crankbaits. 

If you have been trolling for walleyes for many years like I have, it is relatively easy to look at the water color and know if it looks right or not.  It is a bit tougher in low-light conditions (when its dark out, rainy or foggy, etc), however, there are still ways to figure this out.  Most of us look at our props (either the main motor or the trolling motor) and if we can see the prop, it is generally "clean-enough", however, if we can see them perfectly, like looking into a swimming pool, then it is likely "too-clean".  What we want is water that is stained, yet not too muddy.  For a newbie, this can be a huge challenge.    Therefore, I wanted to post a few pictures to help you know what water color you are looking for.    

"Too Muddy":

I will start on the muddy end of the spectrum.  The photo below was taken in the fall on Lake Erie, however, the same would apply to Lake St. Clair, etc.   Even though we did get one nice walleye, that was the only fish we caught that day.   We could not see our prop in this water and the visibility was less than 6 inches.  There are times when you can catch fish in water this muddy, however, it typically happens on sunny days (mid-day) and in relatively shallow water (usually less than 15 feet).   A good example of this would be the blade-bait bite near Turtle Island in the spring.    This water color would be typical for that type of bite.   However, for pulling crankbaits, I always prefer water with more clarity than this.   That said, if there is no cleaner water around (which was the case the day this picture was taken), then your best option is to select bright, obnoxious patterns, with high contrast and fish them within 3 feet of the bottom.    For example:  UFO, Holographic Candy Corn, Halloween, Pink Antifreeze Squirrel, Orange Peel, Lemon Drop, etc).


"Too Clean":

On the other end of the spectrum, it can be equally as difficult to find and catch walleyes in water that is crystal clear.    This happens quite often on Lake St. Clair, especially in the summer.   It can happen on Erie as well, however, it is generally less frequent.  To give you an example of what I consider "too-clean", take a look at the picture below:

The water in that picture had visibility of 3-4 feet, maybe more.   When the water is this clean on Lake St. Clair, we generally catch 5X as many smallies as we do walleyes.  When it is this clean on Erie, we don't usually catch much of anything.  The only exception would be fishing in the Central or Eastern basins, where the water is much deeper (50-70 FOW, fishing 30-40 feet down). 

If you can't find any stained water and are "forced" to fish water this clean, then I would choose the most natural baits you have, fish them really far from the boat and typically higher in the water column (top half is usually better).   For example, I might have my boards 100/150/200 feet from the boat in water like this (unless the boat traffic is bad).   Those distances are from the boat to the board, then add the lead length to that.  My most natural patterns would be (Nuclear Perch, Chrome Perch, Arkansas Shiner, Smokeshow Shad, Blue Ice Holographic,  J-Bart Minnow, Yoga Pants, Black Ice, etc).    

"Just Right":

Determining what water color is "just right" depends somewhat on the weather and light conditions that you have at that time.  On bright sunny days, we would normally want water that is more stained than we would on dark, cloudy days, or during low-light hours.  That said, I wanted to share a couple pictures of water that is "just right" for pulling crankbaits on Lake St Clair or Erie (in my opinion).   

The first photo was taken during April of 2021 on Lake Erie.  The second photo was taken in June of 2021, also on Lake Erie.  In general, there is typically less stain on Lake St. Clair (especially on the US side), so we might have to fish water that is a bit cleaner than in the pictures above.  Walleyes seem to prefer water that has that greenish-chalky look to it.  If you can find water that looks like this, you should have a very good day pulling crankbaits.  Most patterns will work in these conditions, however, some are better than others depending on the time of day and weather at that time.  When it is sunny, my favorite patterns are:  Chrome Perch, Translucent Antifreeze, Black & Gold Foil, Psycho Killer, Blue and Chartreuse Chrome, Chrome Citrus Shad, Naked Mahi Glitter, etc.      When it is cloudy (or low light), my favorite patterns are:  Smokeshow Shad, Nuclear Perch, Pimp Daddy Perch, Grave Digger, Glow Wonderbread, Neon Fruit Dots, Red Wing, Moonshine Shad, Sunrise Shad, etc.  

In my next article, I will cover how I go about finding the right water color, without driving all over the lake trying to locate it.     

See you on the water!   

#slimshadycustoms #lakeeriewalleyes #lakestclair

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