Outsmarting Early Season Walleyes

May often blows in erratic, unpredictable weather conditions to the northern tier of the country. The key to taking walleyes this time of year is to approach each day with an open mind.

Early-season walleye fishing can be a feast-or-famine situation for the average angler and challenging, for sure, for even the most seasoned angler. And when my timing is just right and walleyes are preparing to spawn, the action will be fast and furious. Not only will I have plenty of filets for the pan, my odds of catching a trophy 'eye or two are excellent!

Small or large, deep or shallow, the best springtime walleye lakes are those that promise to be the most productive under the current weather and water conditions.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

However, long days on the water stand between successful spring fishing outings when cold fronts send water temperatures tumbling. That's what makes it tough for many anglers to consistently catch early-season walleyes.

I learned long ago as a fishing guide that I keep my walleye anglers happy when I don't pay too much attention to the calendar and how the fishing was last year. May often blows in erratic, unpredictable weather conditions to the northern tier of the country. Key to taking walleyes this time of year is to approach each day with an open mind. Oftentimes, I do well to break with tradition, fishing in different places than I did last year, and with different presentations.

Choosing the right lake is among the first decisions that help put early-season fish in the livewell. I'm not necessarily referring to a lake with a high walleye population. Rather, I'm looking for the lake that promises to be the most productive under the current weather and water conditions. Do I fish my favorite clear, deep-water lake, or do I move on down the road to a shallow stained-water lake? Am I looking for a meal, or am I looking to score with a trophy walleye? Answering these two questions -- and using the right presentation -- should increase my chances for a consistent catch. (Continued)

SMALL, SHALLOW LAKES
Because small, shallow lakes holding stained water warm quickly, I often choose these lakes first because spring fishing conditions can be weeks ahead of large, deep lakes. These lakes may not hold many trophy walleyes, but they can be counted on for a lot of spring fishing action.

But walleye spawning activity often wanes early in small lakes, leading fish activity -- and my fishing success -- to be at the mercy of the water temperature. If the water temperature rises after spawning and is holding around 50 degrees, both male and female walleyes will be on the feed. If the water temperature drops after spawning, walleyes won't move very far from the rock-and-gravel spawning areas if food is available.

The best rock-and-gravel areas will be points close to shallow, mucky bays. Mucky bays typically warm quickly and are among the first sites to experience weed growth. Before the start of any weed growth, baitfish will stack up on the edge of the bay and venture atop the point. Once weeds start to develop, baitfish will move into the bay. As weed growth intensifies, walleyes will move out to the edges. That's when a rock hump out from a shallow bay can be a potential hotspot.

A jig-and-minnow rig is the most effective presentation for walleyes that relate to these rock-and-gravel areas. They hold tight to the bottom and won't usually chase a crankbait or other artificial lures unless a warming weather pattern has the water temperature on the rise. Bring in the jigs and match the size of the jig to the water depth, using the lightest jig needed to get the jig down. This time of year, I'm often fishing in water less than 10 feet deep, and a 1/16-ounce leadhead jig is my first choice. I choose a 1/8-ounce jig when there is a chop on the water. Beyond that, it's simple: Tip the jig with a medium-sized minnow. In the upper Midwest, fathead minnows are readily available, and they are very durable when casting.

The color of the jighead can be very important, and there may be many days when only one color scores. I also have seen walleyes change color preference throughout the day, even when no change takes place in weather or water conditions. Go figure; that's fishing.

However, it's typical indeed that when the weather or water conditions change, so does the color of jig that's going to keep the walleye bite going. Expect orange, chartreuse, yellow and pink to be the most productive colors in stained water. If the water temperature is holding or on the rise, I tip the leadhead jig with a 3-inch twister-type soft-plastic jig body. Besides adding action with its curly-tail, the twister body also adds color to the presentation. Just like with the jighead, I experiment with different colors until I find the winning combination.

By late May or early June, many changes take place on shallow lakes -- emerging weeds being the most noticeable. Fresh weeds offer cover and food for a variety of newly hatched minnow species, along with small perch. In fact, a lake's forage fish can be restricted to spring's earliest weedy growth. Find the forage and schools of walleyes can't be too far behind.

With the exception of northern pike and muskies, walleyes will control the weeds. Use a mid-depth crankbait and rip it through the weedtops. Ripping a crankbait often brings strikes from the larger walleyes. The crankbait should just dig into the weeds and not dive too deep. Fiberglass crankbait rods in 6 1/2-foot lengths -- like the Lamiglas XCF 665 or XCF 705 -- are perfect for ripping lures through the weeds. The fiberglass rod is more forgiving than graphite models, and I'm much less likely to set the hook too quickly.

A variety of weed types can hold walleyes, but cabbage is the most desirable. Not only will it hold larger schools of walleyes, but also it is much easier to fish than other vegetation types. Both live and artificial baits are productive, and both have their place.

When looking for weed-based walleyes, a crankbait is hard to beat. I can run a crankbait both over the weeds and along a weedline. If walleyes are active, they will be feeding over the tops of the weeds. A shallow-running crankbait is perfect for this situation. Cast the crankbait and immediately start a slow, steady retrieve.

Once I locate walleyes with a crankbait, I fish the weedline with either a minnow or leech rigged on a small jighead fished under a slip-bobber. The slip-bobber presentation is deadly on both neutral and inactive walleyes. One tactic I use while guiding is to work the weedline with crankbaits, go fish another spot and return back to the weedline with slip-bobbers. By leaving and returning to the weedline, I give the fish a while to regroup.

CLEAR, DEEP

LAKES
Clear deep-water lakes deliver a totally different spring fishing scenario to walleye fishermen. Foremost, these lakes must be fished with a different perspective. These are lakes that produce both good numbers of walleyes, as well as the trophy fish that makes many outings remarkable. If spring "springs" late for the season, many anglers can catch really large fish. Toss in a cold front, however, and catching any walleyes at all can be extremely challenging.

After spawning, small walleyes move deep during the day and hold tight to rock points and humps. Early and late in the day, these same fish will move shallow and cruise the shorelines.

Deep lakes like these usually hold ciscoes as the prime walleye forage. A plain leadhead jig-and-minnow rig is the most reliable presentation. Top jighead colors are red, blue and chartreuse, attached to lines no heavier than 6-pound-test. I keep with the tactic of using the lightest possible jig. I avoid using 4-pound line because I'm dealing with walleyes that are in and over rocks, and I'm really expecting to nail a trophy 'eye! If the bite is really light, I will switch to fluorocarbon line because it is almost invisible under water.

Weeds are usually slow in coming on clear, deep lakes. However, if I find weeds of any kind, I'm confident I'll find active walleyes.

On one of my favorite deep-water lakes, I regularly catch walleyes from a small patch of cabbage that grows on the edge of a small bay. I rig a minnow under a slip-bobber and let it ride just over the top of the weeds. Each year, this small bay is among the first areas of the lake to sprout fresh weed growth.

* * *

I know nothing is cut in stone when fishing, especially when dealing with early-season walleyes.

That's why I don't rely on just one type of lake for spring walleye fishing. The more lakes I have in my plan of attack, the greater my odds for taking both numbers and trophies. It's key that I stay versatile and don't get hung up on one type of presentation. I bring along jigs, slip-bobbers and crankbaits in a variety or colors and sizes to up my odds of putting more fish in my boat.

And so can you!

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