By Ted Peck
Early-season walleyes are great fantasy builders for those who dream about buying a checkered flannel shirt, strapping on a fillet knife and calling themselves a fishing guide.
Location is more than half the battle when it comes to consistently boating walleyes. And right now you can use that fillet knife to carve away most of the water over 10 feet deep while poring over a topographic map of a chosen lake. If anyone is still within arm’s reach and willing to share your boat after this display, locate the lake’s major inlet and stab the map with great flair, announcing, “We’re gonna start right here!”
Shortly after ice-out, walleyes stage near inlets, moving up into these feeder arms to spawn when water temperatures reach the mid-40s. Sometimes they’ll locate desirable spawning habitat on rocky rubble shoreline or similar bottom around islands for this imperative annual migration in the lake itself. Exactly where these fish decide to attempt procreation can vary. But you can bet your tattered fishing hat that a substantial portion of the lake’s walleye population is near entry points and in less than 10 feet of water right now. And it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking a natural walleye lake or water where these fish have been stocked – walleyes are walleyes wherever they swim.
A close second to procreation on the walleye’s priority list is food, with a somewhat limited forage base available for their consideration until insect hatches start to occur and young-of-year baitfish become part of the food matrix. Walleyes aren’t the only fish species drawn by warming water and inlets with the spawning urge. Baitfish have the same spawning needs, making it easy for these myopic predators to pin lunch in the shallows. We’re talking the walleye equivalent of a “couch potato” in a comfortable chair with a bag of chips, a cold drink and the NFL on the big-screen TV: why move elsewhere? With fairly limited light penetration and tolerable water temperatures, all habitat parameters are met, with little need to change location until the forage base begins to scatter with weed growth and warming temperatures.
There will be some relocation between now and early June, most of which is driven by weather conditions that affect the lake’s finned biomass. We’re in a period of seasonal change. That means cold fronts and windy days. Walleyes take advantage of the wind by moving to the windward side of rocky-rubble habitat, where baitfish are pushed and even more vulnerable.
Weather will also drive the kind of habitat that walleyes will relate to. These predators like to tuck in the shadows of larger boulders when the lake is calm and the sky is bright, moving to bowling-ball- to softball-sized rocks when there is a little “walleye chop” on the water, and even smaller aggregate when the winds they are a howlin’. One rule of thumb you can pass on as walleye wisdom is “The harder the wind blows, the shallower walleyes move.”
Of course, all of this movement is relative and is driven by the location of the baitfish. Understanding the predator/prey relationship is the single most important component of being a consistently successful walleye angler. Part of this endeavor is understanding how lake characteristics drive the movement of both predators and prey. Those rocks we’re talking about aren’t laid out on the lake bottom like you’ll see in bins at the landscape supply store. There are areas of transition where bigger rocks meld into smaller ones and smaller stones become sand or hard bottom. These transition zones are where you can indulge in your fishing-guide fantasy.
Transition zones are important clues to walleye location throughout the year. Right now they are mostly rocks, old creek channels and wood near shallower water. In a few weeks, more transition zones will develop with weeds and changes in weed types as well.
Walleyes spend a lot of time locating in areas where they can expend the least amount of effort to move after food, or better yet, in areas where they can let the food come to them. The definition of “successful predator” is a critter that can take in the most food with the least effort expended. For walleyes this often means feeding during low-light periods. Walleyes are lazy feeders by design – no point in chasing minnows at 4 p.m. when you can just cruise up a little shallower and open your mouth to eat at 9 p.m.
Using a powerful spotlight, where legal, is a great way to locate schools of walleyes at night in shallow water in lakes where there is more than 5 feet of visibility. Often you’ll see their eyes glaring back at you from waters less than 3 feet deep. Winds usually lay down about dusk. Target points and shorelines that have experienced recent wind action. Walleyes will likely be nearby.
Once you find ‘em, back off a long cast and throw stick baits, making a steady retrieve. In clear lakes, silver and gold are usually good colors. In off-colored waters, fire-tiger, orange and white hues generally work better. A steady retrieve of a Rapala or similar lure is easier for walleyes to locate than you animating the lure. Plastic grubs are also effective when casting to fish in an active feeding presentation, as are in-line spinners like the venerable Mepps. The walleye fishing fraternity has pretty much overlooked in-line spinners for night-bite walleyes in recent years. There are still times when they outfish all other artificial lures, especially at night, just like they did 30 years ago when I bought my first checkered flannel shirt and strapped on a fillet knife. Anchoring up and fishing a lighted slip-bobber with a minnow hooked under the dorsal fin is even more productive, once you find active fish.
Of course, the jig-and-minnow is by far the most consistent producer of early-season walleyes ever developed. Since you should be targeting less than 10 feet of water, you’ll only need 1/16- to 1/8-ounce jigs, maybe up to 1/4-ounce weight at the most. Slow-falling jigs are usually better than the basic ballhead jig, with the Lindy Timb’r Rock jig tailor-made for pitching to walleyes relating to shallow rocks.
With stable weather conditions, post-spawn early-season walleyes are generally in a neutral to active feeding mood. If this is the case, thread the jig hook through the minnow’s mouth and out just in front of the dorsal fin. You’ll lose less bait than lip-hooking and will catch just as many fish. Most of the time, shiners, fatheads, small red-tailed chubs and little suckers come close enough to approximating the forage base for walleyes to find them appealing.
Since we are in a period of seasonal change – and cold fronts are a fact of life – there will be times when you need to slow the presentation down considerably to find success, even when in close proximity to great
numbers of fish. Tougher conditions early in the season also call for the basic jig-and-minnow, forgetting any kind of plastic tail. And you always want to have a selection of bucktail jigs in the boat, which are sometimes better fished without any bait.
Lindy Rigs are great to employ when the fish gods aren’t on your side. Soft, floating jigheads can be a good option. A plain hook – especially a red hook – tipped with a minnow also works. And there are times when adding a single red or orange 5mm bead above the plain hook is what it takes for consistent success.
When live-bait rigging, one of the most critical components is the length of your leader. As a general rule the clearer the water, the longer your leader length, somewhere between 18 inches and 8 feet. It’s easier to start long and then shorten the leader up if necessary. How do you determine a good starting point for leader length? Stick your rod tip in the water and add a foot to the length of the leader past where the rod tip disappears.
For effective weight on the Lindy Rig, figure roughly double the jig weight it takes to get in front of fish. A walking sinker or the Lindy No-Snagg sinker will minimize hangups.
If you’re in the right location, one or more of these techniques will surely work on early-season walleyes. But if the bite is still tough, tip back the brim of your tattered fishin’ hat, work up a good scowl and dig around in the pocket of that checkered flannel shirt for a little paper bag containing split shot, some No. 6 red bait hooks and a few red beads. Peg the shot about 18 inches up the line, add a red bead for effect and bait up. Sometimes the simplest approach is the best. You should be able to outfish a buddy who is using a $6 crankbait and $200 rod. Before long, the flannel shirt and fillet knife will feel mighty comfortable. Then you can get serious about building a guide’s persona. Try two different colored tennis shoes. You’ll get bigger tips!
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