Early-Season Walleye Tips

According to expert Mark Courts, not only is your timing important, but you also need to thoroughly understand your target lake's characteristics and how walleyes relate to that structure. Here's how he goes about it.

Mark Courts says there are plenty of spots to catch walleyes on any given lake, river or reservoir. You just have to know where to look. Photo by Tim Lesmeister.

"Every lake has its own set of characteristics, and you need to understand what they are if you're going to be successful," said pro walleye angler Mark Courts. "Timing is important, too. You take a few things into consideration and then set up a game plan."

Asked to define lake characteristics, Courts stressed that you must keep the evaluation of a lake fairly simple and stick to the time-tested techniques.

"Some lakes are shallow, some are deep," he said. "Some have lots of vegetation, some none. You might be on a river where moving water is a factor or you might be on a small natural lake where all the walleyes are stocked. These characteristics, and others, help you define where the walleyes will be, and then you just have to use the right technique."

Asked to provide examples, Courts chooses sand flats to begin.

"On lakes where you might find big sand flats, walleyes will be spread out all over the top of that sand in May," he explained. "It's a post-spawn transition where the male walleyes stay and feed near the spots where they recently spawned."

Courts recommended only one technique for targeting the sand flats: the live-bait rig.

"The rig is by far the best option for shallow sand," Courts said. "I like to fish minnows, especially shiners or red-tailed chubs, and if I can find a dropoff in 5 to 9 feet of water, I know where those walleyes will be."

The distance between the weight and the bait is dictated by another characteristic of the body of water, that being water clarity.

"I've discovered that some lakes, and it's always the ones with clear water, require 6 to 8 feet between the hook and the sinker," Courts said. "Now on a lake or river where the water is stained, 30 inches would be a lot of space between the weight and the bait."

Occasionally, anglers will find the walleyes grouped up on a spot on the sand. When that happens, Courts switches to a jig.

"I just tip the jig with a minnow and drag it across the bottom right through the walleyes," he said. "Use a jig with a stand-up head and let it rest occasionally. This will actually trigger bites when you start the jig moving again."

On lakes where vegetation is prevalent, Courts said newly emerging weeds can be a real walleye magnet. Courts does stress that the best weedflats are those near a hard-bottomed region where the walleyes spawned earlier.

"You can't beat the vegetation during the low-light periods (early in the season)," Courts said. "The weeds are not well established, so you can cast a crankbait and pull it right over the tops. The walleyes are sitting in the cabbage, coontail, milfoil and grasses, but they'll shoot out to grab a crankbait."

Courts' favorite crankbaits for the early-veggie characteristic are Rattlin' Rogues, the No. 11 Rapala, the long-bodied Frenzy and the X-Rap 14. All of these lures are shallower divers with the long, tapered body.

"During mornings and evenings in the vegetation, you're more likely to catch lots of walleyes on these crankbaits," Courts said. "During midday, your best bet if the walleyes are in the weeds is with a weedless jig tipped with a plastic trailer."

Courts prefers a plastic trailer on the jighead because live bait is ripped off the hook too easily. His favorite trailer is the Berkley Gulp Minnow and the Power Worm.

Courts' favorite location for early-season walleyes is a sand or rubble point, especially if it drops off sharply on the sides.

"Walleyes will be roaming in water just a couple of feet deep on the cobblestone and rubble points when the light is low in the mornings and evenings," Courts said. "This is where you tie on a shallow-diving crankbait and make long casts to the fish. It's amazing how shallow those walleyes are, but they're there."

As the sun rises higher and the light penetration pushes the walleyes deeper on the points, Courts turns to a jig.

"The walleyes you find on the points are going to be the males, so they're going to be aggressive," he said. "Unless the weather has slowed the bite, you can get by with a plastic trailer when going after the walleyes that are in deeper water on the points."

If the walleye bite does slow down because of foul weather conditions, Courts will shift to a stationary approach where he anchors outside the deep edge of the point and uses a slip-bobber. "Cold fronts will push the walleyes to the deep edge of the dropoff and they won't be as aggressive, but they will take a leech if it's dangled in front of them long enough," he said.

If your early-season lake has shoreline rock or shallow rockpiles here and there, Courts said you're in luck. "Those walleyes that recently spawned in those rocks will hang there for awhile before transitioning into deeper water," he said. "It's the perfect spot to cast or troll crankbaits."

Courts explained his trolling setup for shallow rocks. "I have two 12-foot rods that I put out on each side of the boat. That gives me quite a spread between the two outside lures. Then I use two 7-foot rods off each back corner of the boat. This way I'm covering about 30 feet of structure."

There's a rule of thumb that says when trolling crankbaits over rocks it's imperative that the lure occasionally tick the bottom. "I agree with that," Courts said. "My favorite lures for trolling shallow rocks are the No. 5 and No. 7 ShadRaps and the medium-diving Husky Jerk. I make sure my inside line is occasionally bumping a rock here and there while the others may be above the bottom just a little bit. If it's a sharper-tapering bottom, I'll run the No. 5s on the inside and the No. 7s on the outside, and they might all be kissing the bottom occasionally."

For anglers fishing rivers in May, Courts recommends keying on the mouths of feeder creeks. "River or reservoir," Courts said, "if you have feeder creeks coming in, you'll have walleyes at the mouth. You might have a lot of company there, too, but work around the boats and you'll find plenty of walleyes."

When blocking a drift isn't a factor, Courts likes to anchor right in front of the incoming feeder creek and cast a slip-bobber or jig. "I use a jig under a bobber as well," Courts said, "and let the current move the bobber and the minnow-tipped jig right through the walleyes. The bobber creates a nice strike indicator so you can see immediately when those walleyes grab the bait."

When there are other boats working the mouths of the feeder creeks and anchoring would be a rude option, Courts will slip with the current and use a live-bait rig with a shiner or red-tailed chub. "Everyone else is jigging," Courts said, "and I'm using a live-bait rig with a short snell and a heavy sinker. You can keep the sinker just off the bottom so you don't get snagged and run the minnow right over the top of the walleyes. You get a lot of bites doing this, and it always amazes me that everyone else on the river is jigging and no one is rigging when it works so well."

You should expect plenty of company when the walleye season starts. Anglers are taking advantage of the fact the walleyes are beginning to display aggressive tendencies, and every excuse is used to gain some time on the water. "Since the walleyes are shallower during this time, expect some movement to occur in spots where there is a lot of fishing pressure," Courts said. "The walleye movement might not be to deeper water as you might expect. Those walleyes might move shallower."

Courts described an early-season trip where a flotilla of boats was back trolling along the 11-foot dropoff, and it wasn't long before no one was getting bites.

"It was just too much -- all those sinkers cutting up the bottom -- and it pushed the walleyes up into the shallow rocks," he said. "I started casting a Rattlin' Rouge up to the rocks in just a couple feet of water and started catching some nice fish. You know what happened? Some of the trollers in deeper water saw this and tried to back troll over the shallow rocks. It not only killed my bite, but a few props got bent as well."

This highlights the importance of using the tactics that work. If the other anglers would have cast crankbaits like Courts was doing, they could have all capitalized on the walleyes in the shallow rocks.

"I got over it quickly and moved to another productive spot," Courts said. "That's the beauty of fishing. There are always plenty of good spots on a lake, river or reservoir. You just have to know where to look."

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