Tips For Tough-Times Walleyes

Be it on ice or in open water, not all walleye angling is a breeze. Three veterans of the sport share some tricks here that'll help you to overcome the next series of fishing obstacles. (February 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Unless they've drilled holes in solid water, many walleye anglers across the country will have found the winter of their discontent to have been a long one.

But now that March is approaching, faint signs on the weather map are beginning to indicate that Old Man Winter may soon start to relinquish his icy grip on the walleye belt. And with the slow but steady approach of spring, hope springs eternal that enjoyable fishing lies just around the corner for anglers now afflicted with a serious case of cabin fever.

So as walleye season begins to approach in your neck of the woods, how can you go about catching a limit of tasty 'eyes?

Well, not so fast, my fine fishing friend! Before you actually hit the water in search of some hard-fighting walleyes, some basic maintenance and safety issues need attending to.

But, hey, don't take my word for it -- ask Mike Gofron, the 2001 Mercury Professional Walleye Tournament Championship winner, and one of the all-time leading money-winners in the sport of professional walleye angling.

"It's something that I do every year prior to getting out on the water for the first time," he said. "We all want to get out there and just go fishing, but going through a checklist and a safety routine is really important. If you forget a key item while you're on dry land, that becomes critically important when you're out rolling on the water."

Gofron, the 2005 Johnsonville Brats Angler of the Year, advises anglers to start with the portion of their rig that will be tested first on the way to a favorite walleye lake or river -- the trailer. "What I do every year is make sure that my bearings are greased," he stated. "If there is a low tire on my trailer, I will not only fill it with air, but I will bring it down to a garage and have them check it out. The reason? Well, there's some reason that that air leaked out."

Once the trailer has received a once-over, the three-time winner on the In-Fisherman PWT tour moves his inspection on to his boat's motor package. "Make sure that you check your lower unit oil," said Gofron, who has also snagged 1999 Angler of the Year honors. "If there is a sign of oil in the prop area dripping on the lower part of the motor, I would take it to the local marine dealer." The Illinois pro added that such a symptom probably indicates a defect not in the expensive lower unit but rather in a comparatively cheap seal -- but an angler needs to be sure.

Now is also a good time to check the oil. "It's more important to change your oil out before you winterize the boat," Gofron offered, "but it never hurts to check it and change it if necessary going into spring."

As a pro angler, Gofron depends on his motor performing like a champ all year long, but especially during the stormy days of early spring. A visual check of the all-important propeller will go a long way towards ensuring that.

After checking the trailer, the motor and the prop, the PWT pro advises, anglers should continue their spring boat checkup by inspecting the boat's safety features, including U.S. Coast Guard-approved personal flotation devices.

"Make sure that you have all of your life jackets in the boat," Gofron said. "A life jacket is critical. If you go in the water, it's still very cold and if you go in, you'll only have a few minutes before hypothermia sets in."

The pro singled out one extremely important piece of equipment that must work properly for the walleye angler: a marine radio, either handheld or mounted in the boat. "Spring is a transition time from winter," Gofron said. "Big storms can blow up in a hurry at this time of the year, so it pays to watch the weather forecast so you know what to expect on a given day. And of course, keep the marine radio handy so that you can tune in and keep abreast of changing conditions."

Think that all this might be a bit much? Think again, said the longtime pro angler. "You can really take a pounding on the water during the early season," Gofron remarked. "Early spring storms have a way of really creating some rough conditions. I've seen waves from 4 to 9 feet during this time of the year. You can really find out how good your boat and your rain gear are. That's why pre-tournament preparation on your boat and safety gear is so important. If you get wet out there, it's very cold" -- not to mention potentially deadly.

Accordingly, Gofron, the 2004 ESPN Great Outdoors Games gold-medal winner, never leaves the boat ramp without a high-quality Gore-Tex rainsuit stowed away, relying on it both to help break the chilly spring winds and to keep him dry and warm all day long as his boat pounds through the early-season waves.

"When you're on the water at this time of year, if you get wet, you're going to really get cold," Gofron said. "Spend a few extra dollars on this gear, because when you need it, it will more than pay for itself. If you have an inferior suit or don't have one at all, a good day of walleye fishing can turn into a miserable day of fishing real quick."

Having ridden as a media observer with Gofron in the year he snagged his PWT Championship, I can testify to the value of a rainsuit in a walleye boat. With a 1- to 3-foot chop on the Missouri River, a Gore-Tex rainsuit spelled the difference between a comfortable day on the water and a miserable day as the champ staked himself to a wire-to-wire lead on the first day of competition.

Having ridden as a media observer with pro walleye angler Mike Gofron in the year he snagged his PWT Championship, I can testify to the value of a rainsuit in a walleye boat.

A final safety tip from Gofron to early-spring walleye anglers: Have all equipment ready to go before the boat's ever launched; pre-tie all rods, jigs, spinners, and live-bait rigs on dry ground before hitting a favored walleye hole. "I've got my equipment ready when I get out there," he said. "It may seem warm on the shoreline, but out on the water, the water temperature is in the low-to-mid 40s. That's going to influence the air temperature as well. Add in some wind, and it is always colder on the water than on dry ground. Get everything ready on the shore or even at home before heading out."

Once you've got the boat and safety equipment issues ironed out, it's time to hit the water in search of early-spring walleyes.

When his attention actually turns

to fishing, Gofron will be on a quest to find some warmer water -- "warmer" being a relative concept. "You've got to look at the water temperature," he said. "That's very critical. Preferably, on an inland body of water, you want to look at the northern side of a lake. The sun will be on that water a little bit longer, so it's going to be a little bit warmer there. That will pull the baitfish in there and it will also pull in the walleyes."

Doug Burns, a former PWT veteran, once told me once that watching the thermometer is especially important during the early days of spring. "It keys everything in the springtime," he explained. "Their (the walleyes') strongest instinct in the spring is spawning, and the water temperature is key to that."

Look for potential spawning water that is in the 40- to 48-degree temperature range, said Burns, who also encourages anglers to search for the right bottom substrate to fish over. "You need an area with a hard bottom, preferably gravel or rubble with current," he offered. "The current can be either from a river or a windswept point where the wind is creating the current. Those are the areas that walleyes are going to use for spawning."

A final consideration for early-season walleye anglers: Simply use a little brainpower to figure out where the fish are and what they're doing on any given day.

Gofron agrees, pointing out that walleyes will typically spawn in water depths of 2 to 12 feet. "Ninety to 95 percent of the time, the walleyes are seeking hard bottoms and shallower rocky structures for their spawning efforts," he remarked. "They will spawn on weeds too."

Of course, while the period of the spawn is itself a great time to target walleyes, Gofron is of the opinion that it's also important for anglers to get on the water during the pre-spawn phase if at all possible. "When (the fish) do spawn, afterwards, the females will recoup for a few days, so the bite will be really tough," he said. "Actually, it will be pretty tough during the actual spawn."

According to Burns, all of this revolves around the circle of life that springtime's warming water initiates. "The other thing that happens with the warming water is the start of the food chain," he noted. "The plankton starts to bloom, the minnows follow the plankton, and the walleyes follow the minnows."

With that in mind, what about presentations to pre-spawn and spawning walleyes?

Burns will most often fish shallow at this time of the year with 1/8- to 1/4-ounce jigheads tipped with a Berkley Power Minnow. In darker water, he opts for brighter colors like a chartreuse shad, while in clearer water, he'll tend to use more natural colors like a rainbow/silver-flecked bait.

A key to any early-spring bait selection, Burns asserts, is to match a water body's natural baitfish at that time of the year. Those include leftover baitfish from last year such as minnows and young perch that aren't quite a year old yet. "In some lakes, like the natural pothole lakes of the Midwest, the bullheads are a key baitfish," he said. "Some people find that hard to believe, but they are."

In Burns' view, getting the size of the baitfish right is vital. "In the spring, the baitfish is left over from last year, so they're big," he observed. "A lot of times people think it's spring, and the water is cold, so they tend to downsize their baits. But that's just the opposite of what is happening in the water, since these baitfish are last year's fish. Some of the Power Minnows that I use in the spring are as long as 4 inches."

As for Gofron, an angler with 32 Top 10 PWT finishes to his credit, early springtime presentation ideas start with fishing at a slower-than-usual pace. "The water is colder and the fish aren't as aggressive," he said. "I'll also be trying some vertical-jigging and some spinners. I'll be trying night crawlers and minnows on the jigs at times, and I'll be trolling the spinners with the night crawlers."

After the spawn occurs, however, Gofron adjusts his presentation and speed to put walleyes in the boat. Take, for instance, the way that he often targets Lake Erie walleyes at such times: "They'll be recouping over the mud in depths of 30 to 35 feet. Until the fish become more active, I'll be trolling live bait or jigging. The jigs will be right on the bottom after I see the fish on the graph. I'll get over them and actually catch them. If I'm trolling spinners, that will be more in the upper portion of the water column. With the spinners, I'm covering more of an area to locate active fish."

Of course, active fish are going to be around baitfish, so that will heavily influence Gofron's daily walleye search. "I'll make sure that there is baitfish there with them," he said. "Sometime during the day, those fish are going to turn on. I'll move around and look for an active part of the school within a mile or two. I'll make a note of what time of the day those fish are biting and are more active.

"In the early morning, if I catch a fish, it's likely to be a bonus fish and it will likely be in some of the shallower, warmer waters. Later in the day, I'll move out a little deeper and that's typically where the more active fish will be."

How does Gofron find such a combination of baitfish and active walleyes? With good electronics -- that's how! He'll watch his graph closely, looking not only for the fish's general location but also for their orientation while feeding to schools of baitfish. "I'll try to run my baits a foot or two above the schools of baitfish," he explained. "Typically, a fish will feed up. And they'll tend to be more aggressive when they look up and see something come by."

What type of baits will he rely on?

"The types of cranks that I'll be using will be (deep-diving Rapala Husky Jerks)," Gofron once told me. "I'll also use a 5, a 7, or a 9 Tail-Dancer. I'll try all three sizes. Those are the baits that I will probably be starting off with. I'll be fishing over 32 feet of water with the baits actually moving through depths of 8 to 24 feet. I'll be covering the whole water column until I actually get a pattern going."

Keep in mind that when the water's dingy, Gofron may feel it necessary to switch from crankbaits to live bait. "They don't see the baits as well, but the live bait is going to offer more attraction to them when water clarity is an issue," he noted.

A final consideration for early-season walleye anglers: Simply use a little brainpower to figure out where the fish are and what they are doing on any given day. "The weather, the mood of the fish, the water temperature -- all of those will play a factor," Gofron said. The problem, of course, is that after a long winter spent oiling reels and watching snowflakes fall, anglers may need a little while to shake off the off-season mental rust.

PWT veteran Darryl Christensen told me a few seasons back that such mental sharpness is almost always what separates the best walleye anglers from the rest of the pack. A keenly honed mental edge is, like a valued tool that you keep tucked away in your tackle box, somethi

ng that you'll always need, especially early in the year.

"The mental challenge is what I enjoy -- making good decisions," Christensen said. "Heck, anybody can catch fish (and be successful at times) -- there are 56 million people that fish. But it comes down to the mental game on this level."

And whether you're an aspiring walleye angling pro or simply a weekend warrior chomping at the bit to get on the water, that's good advice to heed as you safely hit the water this spring looking for that first limit of 2007 walleyes.

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