Many Wisconsin anglers have the first Saturday in May circled on their calendars. That’s because the date marks the Wisconsin walleye opener on most inland waters. Opening-day conditions can vary greatly from year to year and from one end of the state to the other. In the north, some lakes may just be losing their ice cover and spawning may just be starting. In the south, walleyes usually have finished spawning and have turned their attention to food.
Walleyes, more than most other species, move from one place to another both seasonally and on a daily basis. Understanding those movement patterns is the first step to successful walleye fishing. That’s especially true during the first few weeks of the season. The second step is to use a presentation that will trigger strikes given the time of year, time of day, and the weather and water conditions. Regardless of where you fish, you can count on finding cold water in early May, which means you’ll want to slow down and scale down your presentation.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
In the case of walleyes, “relocation, relocation, relocation” might be more accurate. In Wisconsin lakes and reservoirs, walleyes migrate from winter habitat to spawning areas and then to spring and summer habitat, all in a period of several weeks. Learn to identify each of those habitat types and when to expect walleyes to move from one to another and you should be able to catch them during the spawning period, when they move the farthest and their behavior changes the most.
By the time the Wisconsin walleye opener occurs, most walleyes have already moved to pre-spawn staging areas. These are usually areas of intermediate depth located very close to good spawning substrate. In deep lakes, walleyes often stage just off the main break between shallow flats and deep water. In shallow lakes and reservoirs, they may stage just outside weed flats, below subtle breaks of only a foot or so, in channels and off creek and river mouths.
In landlocked lakes, walleyes normally spawn on shallow rocks, rubble and gravel washed clean and aerated by wave action. That type of substrate is often found along shorelines, on mid-lake reefs and around islands. Walleyes also spawn on sand, submerged timber or even muck, if nothing better is available.
In reservoirs, lakes with tributaries or outlets, and lakes that are part of a chain of lakes, walleyes migrate as far as they have to in order to reach suitable spawning areas. They may go many miles upstream, downstream or through several lakes to find the gravel and rock structure they need.
TIMING THE SPAWNING RUN
Walleyes migrate to spawning areas several weeks before they actually spawn. On northern waters, this migration often takes place under the ice. Spawning begins when the water temperature reaches 42 degrees. Most spawning concludes by the time the water temperatures reach the low 50s.
Most walleye spawning takes place at night, but walleyes remain in staging areas during daylight hours throughout the spawning period and for several days thereafter before they disperse. Staging areas often hold great concentrations of walleyes, usually grouped by sex and size. The smaller males often remain close to spawning gravel, while larger females stay farther away in slightly deeper water.
An early spring can cause walleyes to begin their migration earlier than normal, while prolonged winter weather can push the entire process back a week or so. Year in and year out, however, the spawning run usually follows the same schedule within a few days, depending on the latitude of the lake in question. In southern Wisconsin, spawning normally is in full swing the first week of April. Farther north, spawning takes place in late April or early May.