Charter captains on the Great Lakes don’t waste much time testing every new lure that hits the market. They know the two or three best baits for trolling for walleyes and that’s that. Don’t even bring a new lure to the party.
So, when a lure crashes in from nowhere to enter the ranks of elite Lake Erie walleye baits, the old timers get a little upset. Solid belief systems are shaken. Old confidences are questioned.
It happened last fall in the Central Basin. The Smithwick Perfect 10 Rogue counted coup on walleye and topped the performance of every hardbait competitor, old and new.
“By season’s end a lot of captains had all but abandoned the traditional trolling lures they’ve used for years,” says angler Matt Hougan.
If Hougan gets exuberant over the success of the Perfect 10, he has good reason. As a salesman for Smithwick, Cotton Cordell, Bomber and other fishing companies, he represented the companies as first-time sponsor for the Fall Brawl, a popular month-long walleye event in Erie’s Central Basin, which stretches roughly from Huron to Cleveland.
Hougan fished the first evening of the 2013 Fall Brawl, and his boat captain rigged up with traditional Erie trolling lures. Hougan always finds this situation a little awkward, but captains use what has worked in the past and what they feel gives their anglers the best shot at catching big walleyes. After fishing for nearly an hour without a strike, however, he asked the captain if they could give “one of my baits” a chance.
No doubt the crew expected Hougan to pull a Cordell Wally Diver or a bait from the Bomber Long A series from his bag. But the sight of several Smithwick Perfect 10 Rogues sparked another thought.
“I had brought them with me, but the truth is I hadn’t fished a Perfect 10 yet,” recalls Hougan. “It was a ‘bass bait’ (that had gained some acclaim during the 2013 Bassmaster Classic). I didn’t know if it would work, but I had a hunch it would.”
Prior night patterns had found fish feeding in the upper third of the 30- to 38-foot water column. The captain set the bait exactly as he had the others, 10 to 15 feet behind a side-planer board.
He had barely set the rod in the holder when it buckled. Minutes later, a walleye weighing nearly seven pounds came over the gunwale.
The first fish proved to be no accident when they went to reset the line.
“Another fish took it before we could get the rod set,” says Hougan. “Immediately, everyone on board was asking if I had any more Perfect 10s.”
He had a few customer samples, and each saw serious use that evening.
“There we were, cutting tags off and tying them on more rods,” he laughs, recalling how quickly the crew had volunteered to get his baits walleye-ready. “We had started out with all competitors’ baits, but by the end of the night we were running all Perfect 10s.”
Word spread through the tournament ranks that night, and it continued to spread. Within a couple of weeks, almost everyone Hougan talked to was pulling the new jerkbait.
So you don’t think this is just a salesman’s story created to add money to his bottom line instead of adding fish to yours, outdoor writer and tackle shop owner Craig Lewis lends credibility to Hougan’s account. Lewis owns Erie Outfitters tackle shop and Internet sales operation in the Ohio community of Sheffield Lake. Lake Erie walleye hunters form a large part of his customer base.
“These guys know what works, and the most-popular lures for the area haven’t changed much in a few years,” said Lewis. “This year, though, the Perfect 10 fired off and stayed hot throughout the fall season. It was really a dominant bait.”
And, with some veteran Erie trollers claiming the Perfect 10 outfished other baits by margins of five- and six-to-one, the word is getting out.
Why did the Perfect 10 dominate Erie walleyes this fall? Only the fish know for sure, but the Erie think tank largely credits three attributes:
Veteran Erie anglers know that walleye color preferences do not always align with the forage base. About half the colors of the Perfect 10 Rogue line-up are subtle, transparent baitfish generalizations. The rest feature reflective sides that produce bright baitfish flashes when in motion.
“All of the colors are selling, but the best by far has been Lemon Lime Crush,” says Lewis. “After that, it’s a tie between Clown and what marketing calls ‘Lady.’ The Emerald Shiner actually is a good perch imitation for us because of its color patterns.”
Other colors with a reported following are Table Rock Gold, Juice and Ayu. Reports are that the most productive color patterns for daytime trolling are just as effective at night.
At night, walleye tend to suspend higher in the water column, and a standard side-planer set-up with the bait running 10 to 15 feet behind the board seems to keep the Perfect 10 right where they want it.
When sunlight drives fish deeper, however, trollers add 1 1/2-ounce in-line weights about 6 feet in front of the bait and extend the line between board and bait 35 to 55 feet.
Many of Erie’s walleye watchers regard last fall’s performance by the Perfect 10 as a mere dress rehearsal for the big show that lies ahead. Historically, early spring walleye patterns pick up where they left off at early ice. That bodes well for the Perfect 10’s spring debut in the “West” come March and April.
“It will be lights out when folks in the Western Basin figure it out,” Hougan said. “A lot of the guys who fish the Central Basin also fish the Western Basin, which is where the fish concentrate in early spring. I’m sure other guys will figure out what they are using.”
Bigger yet could be the bait’s prospects this summer after precision-minded trollers have calculated the Perfect 10 Rogue’s depth dynamics.
“The guys who fish walleye here are all about the Dive Charts,” explains Hougan. “They have trolling down to a science, and they know precisely how deep they can get any particular bait to run with a given line test, weight, attractor and other variables.”
He also predicts that by summer, charter captains and Weekend Warriors alike will be trolling Perfect 10s in 55-foot depths.
“We’re pretty sure this is not just a cold water phenomenon,” says Hougan. “We’ll have to see. But if you have a bait that outfishes the competition in cold water and in warm water alike, you’re golden!”