Cleveland: The Heart of Rock ‘n’ Roll, and Walleye Fishing

Cleveland is known for a lot of things: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Cuyahoga River catching on fire back in the 1960s and a football team that can’t seem to draft a good quarterback.

If the word gets out, it will also be known for a great spring nighttime fishery for big walleyes.

So let’s get the word out.

Last year, on the evening of May 6, five of us aboard the 28-foot Pursuit that Capt. John Gribble runs for his DB Sportfishing Charters cruised into the placid waters of Lake Erie from the Cleveland Metropark’s 72nd Street ramp. I had been invited by Matt Hougan, a hardcore angler and former policeman, who now sells the wares of lure maker Pradco. He wanted to show me some of the new lures that were being produced for walleye anglers.

Chief among these was the Smithwick Rogue Perfect 10. Originally designed for bass casters, it has quickly grown a big fan base among Lake Erie trollers. It has joined the likes of Reef Runner RipSticks and Rapala Husky Jerks as a lure walleye anglers want. The Perfect 10 worked, but we also had success with Bandit’s Deep Walleyes and Shallow Walleyes and Cotton Cordell Walleye Stingers.

The sky was clear, but dense fog eventually rolled in before the sun sank. I noticed the radar showed freighters and a few other fishing boats long before we had to worry about meeting them in a “bad” way. Gribble was an experienced captain, so we were in good hands.

Gribble’s lure spread was five lines on either side of the boat. And they were taken to the side with planner boards. Some of the outside lines had jerkbaits, including the deep jerkbaits, and shallow- trolling minnows were on the lines closer to the boat.

With the sun sinking but still providing plenty of light at around 8:30 p.m., one of the planer boards swept back, and as the guest, I received the rod from mate Dan Nista. It felt like a good fish for all of the five seconds, and it stayed hooked. It had hit the Stinger.

A few minutes later, a second board went back, and Hougan was up. Nista then soon scooped a nice 9-pounder that had hit a deep walleye lure jerkbait in a coconut candy pattern.

It was a good start, and we anticipated that the action would continue—but Lake Erie proved fickle.

When it got dark, Gribble and Hougan reasoned that the fish, which were over the sonar screen, would move up higher in the water column so the crew switched over to all Perfect 10s and Shallow Walleye Bandits. Before each of the boards went back out, Nista and Zach McBride, the other fishing mate, attached a luminous light stick via rubber bands to each of them. The shallower spread didn’t improve our luck right away. Despite the sonar consistently displaying big hooks that had to be walleyes, it was almost two hours before we got our third hit and landed about a 4-pound “eater” walleye.

It was 10:30 now, and the city was brilliantly lit and the moon was rising. Apparently, the particular moon phase made the fish hungrier, as we did have consistent action for the next hour with five more bites, but only one fish. The walleyes were still lethargic about attacking the lures solidly. Finally, between 11:30 and midnight, Lake Erie produced action more in line with its reputation. We added three more to the cooler before calling it a night.

The setup
With five lines per side, Gribble stretches lures back farthest on the outside boards, with progressively shorter leads for lines closer to the boat. Shallower lures are usually put the farthest outside, because when a fish hits, it generally comes up in the water column and swings around behind the boat above the inside lines.

With the spread of Perfect 10s and Walleye Shallow Bandits, one side of the boat had its farthest lure stretched 85 feet behind the board. The next board closer to the boat had an 80-foot lead, and the next three lines were 60, 40 and 20. The other side was set to run more shallow overall, with the farthest two boards each pulling a lure 50 feet behind. The third board’s lure was 30 feet behind and the two closest boards each had a lure 20 feet behind.

Standard trolling speed at night is just 1.5 mph, maybe a couple of tenths faster or slower.

Even at night, walleyes can be selective about color, with variables such as moonlight and its phase, and the water clarity as big factors, although there are no set rules.

“It’s a day-to-day thing,” Hougan said, adding that lighter colors with more light and darker colors with less light are a good place to start. “You just have to change them after they haven’t taken a hit for a while until the fish tell you what they want.”

This May, you might just want to head to Cleveland and check out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—and trailer your boat along and harvest some nice big walleyes after the sun goes down.

Dave Mull, of Paw Paw, Mich., has spent his career communicating the outdoors experience and currently serves as the Digital Editor for MidWest Outdoors magazine and Television. He enjoys kayaking and fishing for anything that swims in the lakes and rivers of the Great Lakes states and beyond.