How A Walleye Expert Would Attack Your Lake

Are you tired of getting skunked by walleyes during the early part of the season? This expert is here to shorten your learning curve.

Pro angler Scott Fairbairn believes crankbaits will trigger walleyes to bite at any time of the season.
Photo by Tim Lesmeister

Scott Fairbairn is a well-known professional angler on the walleye tournament trail. He not only competes in the top levels of tournament angling, but he performs seminars, sharing his expertise with anglers who want to improve their skills on the water.

His credentials are impressive. He won the Professional Walleye Trail (PWT) Angler of the Year honors in 1998 by staging a tremendous come-from-behind victory and followed that with another PWT win in 2000. Fairbairn credits his consistently solid performance on the competitive angling circuit to a scientific approach to fishing that is fostered by his credentials as a fisheries biologist. His understanding of the walleye's seasonal behavior on a given body of water dramatically increases his odds of finding fish and knowing how they'll react to his presentation. Fortunately, Fairbairn is confident of his abilities, which makes him willing to share his knowledge with others.

As we creep closer to the "walleye opener" in many states, anglers have already started scratching their heads as they consider what their game plan will be when they can finally take to the water to chase their favorite fish. In locations where the walleyes are already fair game, many anglers are discovering that it's tough to pattern those early-season fish. According to Fairbairn, there are a few things to consider that can make a day on the water chasing walleyes during this early-season period a success.

"The most common mistake that anglers make on opener or during the early season," said Fairbairn, "is they pick the wrong lake. The lakes you want to target are the ones that have had some time to warm up. These are the shallower darker-water lakes where the walleyes are well over the spawn and have started actively feeding."

Anglers who take a scientific approach to fishing break up the early-season period into three periods. There is the spawning period, post-spawn and post-transition. Could there possibly be lakes in the Midwest where the walleyes are still spawning by mid-May?

"Oh sure," replied Fairbairn. "In the northern parts, there can be walleyes spawning that late. Those fish are tough to catch compared to the walleyes that are well out of that period. It's not that walleyes can't be caught during the spawn and early post-spawn. It's just that walleyes in transition are spread out and tougher to find and catch. For a better experience, choose your lake wisely, which means as far removed from the spawn as possible."

The problem is that some anglers have cabins on less-than-perfect early-season lakes. Some anglers just favor certain bodies of water because of their close proximity to their home base. Are these anglers just out of luck or is there a way for them to target these walleyes that are recuperating from the spawning ritual?

"People talk about recuperation," he said. "Post-spawn isn't as much about recuperation as it is about transitioning. Immediate post-spawn, which is right after the females have completed their spawning, these bigger fish almost immediately head to the locations where they will spend much of the summer. So that first week or so following spawn, those fish are in transition and moving. They're not feeding much, just moving and resting as they migrate to a particular location."

But can they be caught?

"If you're on a familiar lake and you aren't finding the walleyes where they usually are on opener, figure out where they're at in the transition and that will tell you where they're coming from or where they're going, too," said Fairbairn. "It will help you locate fish. You can figure those walleyes will be between where they spawned and possibly a large sandflat or a rockpile or a mudflat. They may already be on the flats, and you're fishing somewhere in between. It won't be a consistent bite, but they can be caught. You might get lucky and find them one day, but they'll be long gone the next, because these fish are moving. They're not holding."

Fairbairn used one of the Great Lakes as an example of finding walleyes that have just finished spawning and are on the move.

"On Lake Erie during the early season, there are a lot of fish there, and in the post-spawn you can be in their way," he said. "They're moving from the western spawning grounds into the eastern part of the basin, and we're just getting between them and picking them off. Even at that time of the year on Lake Erie, staying with those fish is tough. You might go out one day and find a school of big fish and the next day you go back out to the same location and those big fish are gone. They've moved on."

Now if you can pick your spot, consider once again Fairbairn's recommendation.

"Where you really want to be on opener or early season is where the walleyes are finished with the transition," he said. "That's why we anglers in the northern section of the country are always hoping for an early spring with a quick rise in water temperatures. I look for lakes that are shallow with stained water. These lakes warm up faster so they're the ones I target. Regardless of where I'm at, around the openers if I can find these conditions I know I will find walleyes."

So you find them. Then how do you catch them?

"The early-season patterns mean you're typically dealing with shallower fish," said Fairbairn. "Walleyes, in most systems, are in less than 20 feet of water. By midsummer, you have thermoclines, and baitfish that are seeking colder water, and this drives the schools of walleyes deeper. But around opener, which is late spring, you're looking for shallow feeding flats with emerging weeds. Weeds that are just starting to come up are really going to attract fish. It's hard to see the fish on the sonar, but you can pinpoint this vegetation, and that's always a good sign."

Anglers typically view walleyes as a structure-oriented species. Fairbairn cautions that this is not a good attitude for an early-season bite.

"The walleyes tend to be more flats oriented," he said. "Shallow flats especially. They may be near breaks, but the walleyes right now want shallower, warmer water. Most of these fish still haven't fully transitioned to the spots where they will be found in July. You're searching for the flat that's holding bait because of the weed growth.

"The reason the walleyes don't move all the way out to their summer haunts," he continue

d, "is because those spots don't have any baitfish on them yet. The walleyes are edging out to these spots, but they don't want to stray far from the forage. Your first dropoff out from the spawning grounds is a good indication of how far these fish will go. If there is a long, tapering bottom leading to that breakline, this is a good spot."

Fairbairn recommends techniques that are conducive to covering ground.

"The fish are scattered, so the top presentation is a bottom-bouncer and spinner setup," he said. "This is a great rig for covering ground and finding fish. I also like to troll crankbaits. You can cover a lot of that 8- to 10-foot depth range with a crankbait.


Anglers typically view walleyes as a structure-oriented species. Fairbairn cautions that this is not a good attitude for an early-season bite.
 

"Now be smart about this," Fairbairn continued. "If every time you get in front of the white house you're catching another fish, you're wasting too much time trolling that flat when all the fish are on one spot. Instead, you should take a jig or a live-bait rig and keep the bait in that small area."

A lot of anglers consider crankbaits a warm-weather technique. Not Fairbairn.

"Crankbaits will trigger walleyes to bite at any time of the year," he said. "The fish will bite them anytime, but early in the season when the water temperatures are cooler, you may not want to go very fast. A bite in July with crankbaits means a speed of 2 to 2.5 mph. Early in the season, your speeds should range from 1.4 mph to 1.8 mph. Two miles an hour would be pushing it. You have to move slower, but it is still a good search program to troll crankbaits."

As far as the spinner setup, Fairbairn says, "You're going to want to stick to smaller blades early in the season. No. 2 and No. 3 blades get the nod. I would say 80 to 90 percent of the time during the early-season openers I'm using a No. 3 Colorado blade and trolling at 1 mph with a 3/4- or 1-ounce bottom-bouncer. You want the weight to be less than a 45 degree angle at the side of the boat. Any more than that and the bottom-bouncer isn't working properly."

The early season can be a tough bite, but follow Fairbairn's solid advice and you'll be ahead of the learning curve.

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