Sometime during the latter 1970s, I was casting my favorite stick bait, a Rapala Mag. 13, at the Kinzua Dam tailwaters, downstream from the boat ramp. Outflow from the dam was about 8,000 cfs. About a half-dozen other anglers were there that night, leaving little room to move around since the better spots were occupied. I had one of them, by a particular culvert.
Among all of the anglers there, including my fishing partner and I, no more than a couple of walleye had been caught. My partner, not a tailwaters regular who really understood the potential, had become bored and he was no longer fishing.
That is when I got my only hit of the night. After a few seconds I knew I had a big fish, but I did not know how big, nor did I know whether it was a walleye or a muskie until it had fought for several minutes and I had slowly worked it closer to shore where it rolled at the surface. Then I could see that it was a huge walleye.
"What is it?" my fishing partner asked.
"A decent muskie," I replied, not wanting to let anyone know the truth.
Then in a loud whisper I told him, "It's a huge walleye. Give me the net, quickly!"
He decided to make a joke of the matter.
"Aw, you don't need the net for that."
By this time the monstrous walleye was within range of my long-handled net. But my fishing partner refused to hand me the net. This went on for at least 15 seconds, then the walleye was gone.
How big was it?
I had seen 15-pound walleye, and it was clearly bigger than any of those. I had seen a 20-pound walleye, and the fish I lost was a few inches longer. Of course anyone can say I am full of crap, and I would not blame them, but I lost what to this day would still be a state record walleye. Maybe a world record walleye. None of the tailwaters regulars, those guys who fished there all winter, all night, several nights every week, for years, had any doubt that such a fish was there.
That memory haunts me. But I am not telling you this to share the misery that memory causes me. I tell you to convince anyone who wants to catch huge walleye that winter is the time to do it, if you can call the weather we have been enjoying this year winter.
Through the decades since that experience, the anglers who fish the tailwaters regularly during winter have rolled over several times. Some of the originals have died, some have moved away. Others, maybe they have finally become disgusted with coming so close to a record walleye so many times without ever getting it. I fish the tail waters no more than a half-dozen times each winter lately, and the anglers I run into there act as though I am an intruder. Some truly believe they invented winter walleye fishing at the Kinzua tailwaters. In a way they did, or at least they reinvented it.
There are no deep, dark secrets to catching big walleye during winter. You just have to be there, and not even necessarily at the Kinzua tailwaters, using one of a few basic fishing methods.
One angler who I figure was the best for several years, though not when the original bunch was there, told me that his favorite tactic was casting Jointed Rapala Minnows. He preferred silver with a blue back, or gold with a red back.
No lure came even close to the popularity of Rapala Minnows, although there were differences in opinion about the size, color, whether it was jointed, or whether it was a sinking model. My favorite has always been the Rapala Mag. 13, but they have not been made for several years. I still have a couple.
Casting twister-type leadhead jigs has been a favorite method of some very good winter walleye anglers I have known. One used very light bucktail jigs. A favorite jig pattern was tied to my line during some of my best nights.
That favorite jig pattern has brown bucktail on the bottom, chartreuse/yellow on the top, and red calf tail at the throat.
One of the closest things to being a secret is using very light leadheads. I use mostly 1/8 ounce or 1/16 ounce. Some guys use 1/32 ounce.
The only other terminal rig that is commonly used in northwest Pennsylvania, at least to my knowledge, is a live minnow, preferably a chub or a shiner, fished either on a jig or on a plain hook. The main reason I might use a minnow on a jig would be when the minnow is small.