Shallow Thinking For Early-Season 'Eyes

Most walleye anglers fish too deep on lakes before serious summer arrives. If you follow this guide's tactics, you'll boat more fish this spring. (May 2007)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

Catching walleyes from May until the arrival of serious summer is pretty straightforward. You just have to fish where walleyes are feeding when Wally and Wanda are in the mood to eat. This will invariably be in the top 6 feet of the water column during periods of low light. Fish are cold-blooded creatures. They are wired to eat the easiest meal available while expending the least amount of energy, and avoiding being eaten by the next predator up the food chain.

The reason the Creator endowed Stizostedium vitreum with those opaque, bulbous eyeballs is to make the survival process of eating easier under low-light conditions when the forage base can be easily silhouetted and ambushed after being herded to a pinch point like a rocky wall or shallower water found along the shore or on top of a reef. This usually occurs on the windblown part of the lake where the food that the walleye forage base is eating is blown to, mainly because of little ability to fight natural factors like wind and current.

Next to the spawning ritual the walleyes just got done dealing with, the strongest life force driving 'eye movement and activity is the predator/prey relationship. Between now and the arrival of serious summer when lakes begin to stratify and there are numerous feeding options in the ecosystem, the walleye's daily feeding drama will likely play out fairly close to where spawning occurred.

In lakes fed by inlets in which walleyes make upstream spawning runs, the first place to look is along the first breakline out from shore. On this part of our planet, most natural lake inlets are on the north side of the lake where the angle of the spring sun warms the water quicker. Seasonal change also tends to bring a prevailing west or southwest wind under stable weather conditions. This creates wave action that pushes the zooplankton that the walleye forage base is feeding on toward the northern shoreline as well.

Current influx from the inlet is also a force to consider. Odds are walleyes aren't the only finny critters that move up into the creek to spawn. Walleye food makes the upstream trip as well, which is one more reason for Wally and Wanda to cruise fairly close from where the feeder stream's influence mixes quietly with the lake.

This walleye pattern hasn't changed a bit in natural lakes since God created walleyes. But the ministrations of mankind over the past century or so have created flowages and countless manmade lakes and reservoirs where native walleye populations have been augmented by stocking of hatchery-reared fry and fingerlings. The primordial walleye wiring is still in place in stocked fish. These 'eyes will try to seek out rocky-rubble bottom areas, ideally close to some kind of current to at least go through the motions of spawning when water temperatures warm to about 45 to 48 degrees. The closest thing they may be able to find that approximates this kind of habitat could be riprap along a manmade dam, or the transition zone beyond where the sand ends out from an artificial sandy beach.

Between now and early June, the water temperatures shouldn't warm much beyond 65 degrees. After walleyes spawn -- or at least make spawning attempts -- you'll find them close to where the food is but especially in less than 12 feet of water. This could be around artificial structure like fish cribs or natural cover like the branches of a fallen tree along the shoreline. The forage base could also be hiding amongst larger rocks along the edges of a natural reef, or tucked into any available weed growth.

Weeds are always a good place to go looking for May walleyes. On lakes where weed growth is minimal, the attraction of this foliage is enhanced in spades. Looking for walleyes in a lake with one weedbed is like looking for a cop in a city with one donut shop. A similar dilemma is faced by walleyes, because the forage base has been decimated over the winter. Minnows are in short supply because young-of-the-year baitfish aren't in the system yet, and those that are still around are schooled in survival.

Crawfish could be the easiest meal. Walleyes on a mudflat? The water will be warmer here than over a sandy bottom, and if crawfish are plentiful, the walleyes will be nearby. Mud bottoms can also hold baitfish forage like bloodworms. This kind of sediment is also more conducive to weed growth than rocky/rubble or sandy bottoms. This kind of habitat can also foster insect hatches. A walleye will probably swim right past a jumbo leech under a slip-bobber to eat a little marabou crappie jig that looks like a shadfly if a recent insect hatch has made shadflies the easiest available food.

This insect hatch will also be coming off back in a shallow, marshy area -- not in classic, rocky "walleye water." Why would any walleye be swimming back in water better suited for pike and frogs when there is an island with gravel and bigger rocks just a quarter-mile away? Because the walleyes are going to go where the easiest meal can be found!

Make no mistake, you want to start looking for fish on classic structure like a windblown rocky-rubble flat, reef top or area with influence from some kind of current flow. A slackwater pocket out from where a 36-inch galvanized drain tube moves water between lakes isn't exactly classic walleye water, but if food is there, walleyes won't be far away!

Necked-down areas that are either natural or manmade like bridges with an earthen roadbed on either side -- or that 36-inch drain tube -- are always good places to look for walleyes if there is significant water on either side of this barrier, even with no current driven by an inlet or outlet stream. Prevailing wind over a day or two can actually stack water up on the windward side of the barrier. When the wind subsides or changes direction, the law of gravity takes over and the water flows back to whence it came. This creates current that draws in baitfish looking for an easy meal. Of course, the next link in the food chain is skulking in close proximity.

Although my guiding business pays the bills, I still love getting my string stretched just for fun. There are a bunch of places close to home where I can park the truck and walk down to a drain tube or bridge on a warm May evening or cool pre-dawn morning with a spinning rod and a small shallow-running crankbait, and catch a couple of walleyes with little company from other anglers.

As noted at the beginning of this article, catching walleyes now is fairly straightforward: Put something in front of 'em where walleyes are feeding when they want to eat -- essentially targeting the top 6 feet of the water column during periods of low light.

Here is where 35 years of marriage has

made me a better fishing guide. Experience from the longevity of this holy union has taught me that my wife is always right, or at least it's easier to attempt fulfilling her heart's desire than to tell her the request is somewhere between obtuse and ridiculous. Most clients -- or my wife -- don't want to join me or reward a short walk from the truck to catch walleyes on a No. 5 Shad Rap by a drain tube at 4 a.m. They want a boat ride, perhaps the opportunity to work on a tan and still catch walleyes. The fact that walleyes will be about as eager to feed as it is easy to build a laundry chute running from a bedroom on the top floor at one end of a tri-level house to the opposite end of the basement is my problem. Fortunately, catching walleyes during "banker's hours" is easier than requests for extreme engineering dictated by a spouse.

The predator/prey relationship is still the major key to consistent success. Walleyes may not be up there cruising among the baitfish in 5 feet of water at midday, but they won't be far away. You still want to target water less than 12 feet deep. In ultraclear water, maybe go as deep as 20 feet. When not actively feeding during stable weather conditions, walleyes in lakes tend to slide just a little deeper, usually just down from the transition breakline. The breakline is where you'll find them when it is time to eat, either vertically along a steeply breaking shoreline or several hundred yards away on a slowly sloping flat.

A minnow, half-crawler or leech presented on a 1/16- to 1/32-ounce slow-falling jig can be deadly. Controlled drifts using slightly heavier jigs fished just off the bottom along that 10- to 12-foot contour -- or the first deep-water breakline -- will produce, too. Trolling or casting this contour with small crankbaits can also be effective, especially when you vary the speed these lures track through the water.

Try some shallow thinking for walleyes this spring. You'll quickly figure out why 'eyes have been missing your boat all these years.

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