The '˜Eyes Have It
September 28, 2010
Gary Roach, who understands a walleye's early-season movements better than anyone, shares some of his secrets with you. (May 2008)
When Gary Roach launched his boat that early spring day, he thought there was a good chance walleyes would be biting. Roach has been a walleye guide, a competitive walleye fisherman and a fishing educator and author while still actively pursuing walleyes all over the country. When he has a feeling that the fishing will be good, odds are it will be.
His premonitions were spurred by the fact that the weather had been riding a stable high-pressure pattern for the past few days and was about to change as a slow-moving low-pressure front was heading toward him.
Roach understands walleyes' early-season movements better than anyone. He knows where the fish should be at any given time in the season. His main thought that day as he was sliding his big aluminum walleye boat into the water was to make sure he had his good rain gear packed where he could get to it quickly. He was sure the walleyes were going to be on the shallow points and big sandflats roaming in water depths of 6 to 12 feet. His plan was to tempt them with a jig and minnow.
According to Roach, walleyes are guided by two urges. One is reproduction that only affects these fish for a short period in early spring. The rest of the time, a walleye's location is dictated by its urge to eat. In the early season, the forage base tends to locate on shallow structure, so that's where Roach began his search.
Weather determines how aggressively walleyes feed. During stable weather, the fish will be in a neutral mode that reflects regular feeding throughout the day. Get a bait in front of a walleye in a neutral mood and you're likely to get a bite.
As a low-pressure or cold front pushes out a stable weather pattern, walleyes can become aggressive. Although it may seem to be a good time to be on the water as the front is approaching, the chances of being caught in rain, high winds or even lightning should also be considered. A good exit strategy is imperative when trying to position yourself on the cusp of an aggressive bite.
After the cold front digs in, walleyes display a negative feeding mode and that means using techniques that allow a bait or lure to trigger a reaction instead of an eating response. Cold fronts also drive walleyes into deeper sanctuaries where they hold tight to the bottom, so a slow finesse-driven presentation is necessary to generate a bite.
In lakes where walleyes actively spawn, males tend to spread out on shallow flats and points near rubble-bottomed areas where spawning took place. The females, typically the larger fish, migrate to the edges of nearby dropoffs to recuperate for a few days before transitioning to deeper structure. Since the shallower males will be active, anglers should target the shallow fish.
The lake Roach chose for this early-season period had a good population of reproducing walleyes. There were some bays where vegetation was emerging after winter's cold waters knocked it down. The main basin had diverse bottom features including mid-lake sunken islands, sandbars and rockpiles. There were some long, tapering points and wide, slow-dropping sandflats, and around much of the main basin, a rim of cabbage, coontail, curly-leafed pondweed and milfoil was beginning to emerge in 6 to 14 feet of water. Roach headed for the biggest sandflat on the lake.
The game plan for these early-season walleyes was to drift over the flat and cast a 1/8-ounce jig with a stand-up head tipped with a fathead minnow. If the wind began to pick up, it might be necessary to switch to a live-bait rig.
With walleyes spreading out on a large section of the bottom, it's imperative to cover plenty of water either by trolling or drifting. When trolling, drag a live-bait rig 50 to 70 feet away from the boat. In shallow water, a boat can spook fish, so keeping the bait some distance from the watercraft may ensure the minnow attracts some fish.
When drifting and casting, Roach makes long casts and lets the jig settle to the bottom. He retrieves by dragging the jig a couple of feet, popping the rod tip a few times to hop the jig before letting it rest, and then starting the process again.
Typically, anglers mark and hold a spot after they catch a fish. In most cases, that's exactly what they should do, but in the early season, with the fish spread out, staying in one spot may not result in walleyes.
Fishing a particular depth may also hinder success, since early-season walleyes are in a transition period and may be in water from a foot deep to the bottom of the deepest hole in the lake. Most of the active fish are in the mid-depths, so it's a good bet that slowly moving the boat over a flat with depths varying from 5 to 15 feet will get the bait past plenty of walleyes.
Another good approach for early-season walleyes is trolling shallow-diving crankbaits at night. This technique is so effective that on some lakes night trolling is restricted until the walleyes have made their transition into deeper water.
Night trolling is simple. Slowly pull a long, narrow-bodied, shallow-diving lure about 100 to 125 feet directly behind the boat using an S-trolling maneuver to strain multiple depths.
The first spot Roach worked was as productive as he thought it would be. About every fourth cast, a 12- to 18-inch walleye would pick up the jig. After a few drifts, Roach decided to find some bigger walleyes.
Switching over to a Roach Rig, a live-bait rig with an adjustable snell that he designed for Northland Tackle, Roach impaled a 4-inch shiner onto a No. 2 hook and sent it to the bottom.
Roach had moved to the base of a steep dropoff on the edge of a newly emerging weedline. He saw some signs of forage on his sonar in 22 feet of water and thought some bigger walleyes might be lying in the trough that would appreciate a squirming shiner.
That's one of Roach's tricks. He always uses lively bait. Whether it's a leech, night crawler or minnow, if the bait is not wiggling, squirming or swimming hard, it will be retired for fresher meat.
Roach got two bites in two passes, but each time he came up empty. The walleyes were biting soft, so he added a stinger hook -- a small treble hook attached to the rig and the tail end of the bait. If a walleye is biting short, the stinger will hook it.
The next time, Roach set the hook and caught a nice 26-inch walleye. It was the only big fish he caught in that sp
ot and although he spent the next couple of hours trying to target bigger fish, it was the last bite he got.
Roach likes a challenge, but he likes to catch fish. He proved that big walleyes can be caught in the early season; it just requires more effort and different techniques. If it's more action you crave, the shallows are where the biting walleyes are.
Some of Roach's early-season tricks depend on not spooking shallow fish, using fresh bait and covering plenty of ground.
Shallow fish may turn negative if you run over them with a noisy gas engine. To negate that possibility, Roach always uses electric motors when running shallow, even when trolling at night.
The fresh bait and covering ground aspects of early-season walleye fishing were discussed, but many anglers fail to understand how important these factors are.
If a minnow is tired and limp, the night crawler is all stretched out, or the leech is being dragged along, replacing the dead bait with some livelier meat often generates bites. In addition, make sure you are moving between depths and not wasting too much of time on one spot where you had a bite, because walleyes like to spread out.
If walleye anglers voted on the best time of year for fast action, it's likely the 'eyes would have it for the early season.