Fishing The Peak Of The Walleye Bite
September 24, 2010
Done with spawning, walleyes are putting on the feedbag. Here's how the pros catch 'em!
Serious walleye anglers in the Midwest zealously look forward to the period from early June through mid-July. It's the annual peak of the walleye bite. Done with spawning, walleyes are putting on the feedbag. They're tightly schooled, relating to structure and forage. And with water temperatures in the 60s, a walleye's metabolism is in high gear then too. Forage is abundant. Young-of-the-year baitfishes have hatched, and aquatic insect activity is peaking.
Walleyes like this are routine for walleye pro angler Mark Brumbaugh. When the bite is hot during early summer, he uses deep-diving crankbaits to search the edges of structure and weeds. Most times a shad pattern will be his first choice of color.
But this hot bite won't last forever. You'd better make hay while the sun shines!
SHAKE 'EM UP IN THE SHALLOWS
The most critical ingredient in successful walleye fishing is finding fish, and many walleye anglers don't think shallow enough, says walleye pro Mark Brumbaugh of Arcanum, Ohio.
Brumbaugh used that kind of thinking to win the 1995 Professional Walleye Tournament championship, the 1996 PWT tournament on Lake Oahe, and he's stood among the top-10 finishers in 14 other pro walleye-fishing tournaments. Success like that comes from making the most of your opportunities when the bite is hot.
"Walleyes in the shallows are going to be aggressive," Brumbaugh says. "When walleyes venture into shallow water it's for one thing: to eat."
Brumbaugh says individual lakes and rivers across the Midwest are going to require different fishing techniques, but good walleye anglers just about anywhere this time of year look shallow first.
"In the spring, start shallow with jigs and crankbaits and work the shoreline and then the mid-lake points and transition areas," Brumbaugh says. "Jigs are perfect for working extremely shallow water. With a 1/8-ounce or 1/4-ounce jig, I've caught walleyes in as shallow as a foot or two of water."
Look for walleyes to move shallow under the cover of darkness, on gloomy overcast days or when the water is stained. Once there, he adds, shallow-water walleyes are going to be aggressive.
"The fish are going to be active. The walleyes are in the skinny water because that's where the food is," Brumbaugh points out. "In the shallows, you're going to find minnows, crayfish, frogs and a host of other things walleyes can eat. They're not going to be real picky. I use a lot of (Berkley) Gulp! then in 3-inch fry, small worms and minnow imitations."
DROP BACK TO DEEP WATER
Brumbaugh says if the walleyes aren't in the real shallow water, it's time for Plan B -- looking for fish along the first dropoff out from shore or the weedline. The best way to locate fish and cover water, he says, is with crankbaits.
Most times a shad pattern will be his first choice of color. Brumbaugh says he's a big fan of Reef Runners and similar crankbaits that dive from 2 to 4 feet. He uses the trolling motor to cover water and work the edge of the dropoff and cover. If that doesn't work, he probes a bit deeper, pulling crankbaits that run 4 to 6 feet deep and retracing his steps if he thinks it's an area that holds fish.
Key to continued success is understanding all you can about the first fish you catch. That gives you a starting point, Brumbaugh says, especially the depth at which more fish are likely to be found and why. With that understood, you can formalize a game plan for the day, looking for similar areas that will hold fish.
ATTERNED FOR SUCCESS
Pro walleye angler Mike Gofron of Antioch, Illinois, carries a tournament record of 32 top-10 finishes on the PWT and is a two-time recipient of the tour's Angler of the Year and Top Gun awards. When asked about the patterns that produce the hottest walleye bite in June and early July, Gofron was quick to give some pointers.
"That time of year the water is going to be warm. When the water is warm, you're going to have more of a night crawler bite instead of minnows," he reveals.
Serious walleye anglers know what he's talking about. They refer to this factor as the "50-Degree Rule." Choose night crawlers or worms for bait when the water is 50 degrees or higher. When the water is cooler than 50 degrees, try minnows. But when the bite is really hot, Gofron adds, you don't need live baits at all.
Gofron also says a key ingredient for finding early-season walleyes is locating newly emergent weeds. Weedbeds are the dinner table for early-season walleyes because that's where one of their favorite foods -- shiners -- take up residence that time of year.
"I like to look for pockets in the weeds in 3 to 4 feet of water," he points out. "Walleyes are very aggressive when they're tucked in the weeds like this, so there's no need for live bait. I use Gulp! the majority of the time. I like to stick a leech, small worm or twistertail (pattern) on a jig and use a technique I call 'dipping' when the walleyes are tucked in the weeds."
Gofron says "dipping" is a lot like the flipping and pitching techniques bass anglers use. With about a rod's length of line pulled off the reel, he gently drops his jig into the weed openings as he quietly slips his boat along the weedlines with his trolling motor. A couple jiggles, a couple yo-yos, and he's on to the next pocket.
"If the fish are there, they'll be very aggressive and grab it. You don't have to spend much time in one spot," he says.
When the pockets in the weeds aren't producing, Gofron moves out to the outer edge of the weedbeds. Now, he's looking for cups or corners in the weedbeds where both baitfish and walleyes will gather. Water clarity is key.
"Polarized glasses are a great help for seeing these cups and points in the weeds," he suggests. "You really can't use your electronics to find them because you'll be on top of them before you know it, and walleyes positioned on the outside of the weeds are going to be much more spooky."
In fact, once Gofron spots a prime location using his glasses, he backs off and shuts off the trolling motor -- he even turns off his electronics -- before stealthily drifting into the spot. Usually he casts or pitches his bait from a distance. A Northland Gumball jig is among his favorite presentations.
"The Gumball jig has a bigger hook shank that leaves room for the bait and enough hook gap to ensure g
ood hookups," he points out.
What if the lake you're fishing doesn't have many weeds?
"Look for river mouths," Gofron says. "There's always some weeds off the mouth of the rivers, and I guarantee you that walleyes will spend at least three hours a day in the weeds. The weeds may be in extremely shallow water though, so the fish may not move into them until late evening or after dark, but they'll be there."
Bill St. Peter of Bay City, Michigan, has qualified for the PWT championship every year since he began fishing professionally in 1998. He grew up trolling for walleyes on Saginaw Bay, but he uses trolling techniques to catch walleyes on everything from western reservoirs to large, natural Midwest lakes.
"If nothing else, trolling is a good locating tool," St. Peter says. "Find the fish trolling, and you can then go back and use other techniques to catch 'em. But lots of tournaments are won by trolling."
St. Peter says trolling is ideally suited to a variety of walleye-fishing situations, with the possible exception of working jigs and other lures along steep banks and structure. Many times, though, prime-time walleyes can be found roaming the wide-open spaces and flats that you just can't cover effectively in any other way.
"Trolling is a great way to cover water, and you can troll with multiple rods," he points out. "You can pull a crankbait at the same time you're using a crawler harness, and you can troll faster when the bite is hot. I think you can induce an instructive, or reaction, bite more easily. The faster you go, the more water you're going to be able to cover."
St. Peter says multiple rods set for trolling also help walleye anglers cover more water. Long rods and planer boards add to the versatility in trolling left and right of the boat's path. Add deep-diving crankbaits, shallow-running stick baits, and 'crawler harnesses to the mix, and you've got the water column covered, he says.
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Early-summer walleye fishing is a great time of year to give just about any fishing technique a try. Take time this month to put the pros' tips to work for you!