If last year’s walleye fishing was below your expectations, maybe applying a few of these tips will help you up your score in the months ahead.
What better time is there than right now, when cold winds rattle the treetops along rivers and ice covers your favorite lakes, to renew your walleye wisdom? February is a perfect month to evaluate last year’s walleye expeditions, analyze what worked and didn’t work, and learn a few new tricks and tactics that should help improve your results for the coming fishing season.
Here are 25 tips I’ve learned from plying waters big and small, flowing and still, for more than 30 years, both on my own and with some of the top walleye experts on the water. Some of them you can use right now; others will be best applied later in spring, during the dog days of summer, or when maples turn crimson and gold along the water’s edge. Study these tactics and, I’m confident, you’ll learn a trick or two that will help you increase your catch of this tasty, challenging quarry.
1. In late winter or early spring, walleyes in many lakes make spawning runs up major tributaries. This occurs when the water rises into the lower reaches of the 40-degree range. Not all fish make these runs, but enough of them do to make them worth targeting. They may migrate for miles or just a few hundred yards, depending on the type of feeder stream they’re ascending. Sometimes rapids or dams will concentrate them on these runs, usually just slightly downstream from the obstruction and in calmer water.
Try bucktail or marabou jigs on these spring-run fish. White, yellow, chartreuse and pink are good colors; the proper sizes can range from 1/8 to 1/2 ounce, depending on the current and depth. Both plain jigs and those adorned with either a soft-plastic tail or a pork-rind strip are deadly. Cast the offering out and across or slightly upstream, let it sink near the bottom and reel back slowly and steadily with an occasional twitch or lift of the rod tip. If strikes are slow in coming, add half a night crawler or a live minnow as enticement.
2. One of the best ways to catch spawning-run walleyes is with a floating/diving thin minnow plug rigged with extra weight. Tie the lure onto an 18-inch leader off of a three-way swivel with a few split shot trailing on a short 6-inch dropper leader fastened to the third eyelet. Cast and retrieve this offering slowly and steadily near or just off the bottom. If you hang up, you’ll usually lose just the split shot and not your expensive lure.
3. Try a plain live minnow for spawning-run walleyes. Yes, jigs and plugs are fun to fish, but sometimes – particularly in clear, cold water – a plain live minnow is the way to go. Hook a 2- to 4-inch minnow through both lips from the bottom up on a size 1 to 4 hook and add a couple of split shot a foot or so up the line. Cast across and slightly upstream and allow the bait to settle near the bottom. When you think it’s close to bottom or it actually touches, begin a slow, pumping retrieve. Reel a turn or two, lift the rod and let it settle back down. Don’t expect dramatic strikes, but rather sudden extra weight on the line followed by a slow bucking as the walleye feels the hook and comes to life.
4. Crankbaits are great casting lures for walleyes in lakes and rivers, but you need to be aware of the different actions available. Lures with subtle action include Rapala Husky Jerks, Smithwick Rattlin’ Rogues, Bombers and similar models. Moderate action types would include brands such as the Excalibur Shad-R, Rapala Shad Rap and Rebel Shad-R. Even more extreme are those with aggressive actions such as the Rapala Risto Rap or Excalibur Fat Free Shad series.
Stock a variety of these different actions and several brands of each; then, experiment with them on any given day on the water. Watch for fish that follow your lure but don’t strike. Or switch to a different action when your combing of a prime piece of water doesn’t get results.
5. Normally, a slow, steady retrieve is best for casting crankbaits to walleyes. If that doesn’t work, though, try moderate and even fast retrieves. Also, experiment with the stop-and-go approach: Reel a few turns on the handle and suddenly stop. Wait several seconds; reel again. This jerky action is sometimes the key to a heavy catch.
6. Don’t ignore the shallows when fishing for walleyes. Fish up to 6 pounds or more can sometimes be found in water just a few feet deep, sometimes 2 feet or less. This is particularly likely in the spring as waters start to warm in backwater bays in lakes. Try areas with extended points, weedbeds, sunken timber, rockpiles and reefs.
7. If the shallows don’t produce, head for deeper water. Look for primary and secondary points that jut out into deep water and also humps, underwater islands, rock bars and dropoffs. Steep breaks or sudden depth changes near a channel are hotspots for jumbo walleyes in summer and fall. Use sonar to locate these prime holding spots.
8. Trolling, where allowed, is a valuable tactic as well as a learning tool. Whether you’re just getting into walleye fishing or are checking out a new lake, trolling’s a great way to teach yourself about the water you’re on and, while you’re at it, to catch a few fish. This method puts your bait down deep in the productive strike zone almost continuously, upping the odds of finding fish and drawing a strike. Study a good topographic map and use a depthfinder as you troll to stay over good structure and, ideally, baitfish or game fish as well. Work a contour line or troll in a lazy-S pattern near the edge of points, reefs, dropoffs or rip currents, keeping the plug constantly wiggling through the level at which you think you may find fish.
Simply trolling a crankbait on a flat line will take many a fish. Good choices include the Bomber Model A, Storm Wiggle Wart and Hot ‘n’ Tot, Rapala Shad Rap, Rebel D.D. Shad, Lindy Deep Baitfish and Cordell Wally Diver.
9. If walleyes are in shallow water and skittish, use a side-planer board to carry a crankbait, spoon or jig 40 to 80 feet away from the noise and shadow of the boat. These planers also let you probe a wider swath, with some lures running directly behind the boat on flat lines while others are carried off to the side with the planers.
10. For deep midsummer and early-fall walleyes, few techniques can top trolling with downriggers. With these devices you can set your lure exactly at the depth you want it to run, depending on where the structure, baitfish or game fish will be seen to show up on the sonar. Attach the lure 10 to 40 feet behind the cannonball if fish are aggressive; run them 50 to 100 feet behind the lead ball if they’re tentative and skittish.
At times walleyes are finicky biters and won’t snap releases well. If this proves a problem, switch to thin rubber bands. Simply half-hitch one end on the downrigger cable or a snap-swivel just up from the ball and attach the other end to the line. Use fat-bodied plugs or, better yet, long thin-minnow plugs such as Storm ThunderSticks, Bomber Long A’s, Smithwick Rogues, Rapalas, Rebels, Cordell Red Fins and Lindy Shadlings. Green, orange, blue and chartreuse are good colors.
11. When fish are deeper than 15 feet, consider vertical-jigging. Position your boat directly over the structure or a spot where you’ve pinpointed game fish or baitfish on the sonar. Lower a spoon or jig to the depth that fish are holding, or slightly above that; then, begin pumping the rod tip up and down anywhere from 6 to 24 inches. Be sure to lower the rod tip just fast enough so that the lure falls freely, but no slack forms in the line. Strikes will often come on the drop, and if too much slack gets in the line, you won’t be able to detect the subtle hits or set the hook quickly enough.
12. A variety of lures will work well for vertical-jigging, but some of the best are jigs and spoons. If strikes are slow in coming, try adding a pork-rind dressing, a soft-plastic curlytail or a live bait such as a piece of a worm or live minnow.
13. On spring and summer nights, walleyes often head to the shallows after sunset. Try wading, fishing from the bank or using a small, quiet boat to cast for these skittish fish. A thin-minnow plug from 4 to 6 inches in length is best, but shallow-diving crankbaits can also produce well. Cast and retrieve these slowly and steadily over shallow points, reefs, humps, and the edges of islands. And hang onto your rod! Some real brutes roam the thin water under cover of darkness.
14. For daytime summer walleye fishing, key in on these favored types of structure: reefs, primary and secondary points, humps, rock bars, flooded timber and depressions in the main lake. Also pay attention to inlets and outlets where the current can attract baitfish and walleyes.
15. Walleyes love weeds such as coontail, sand grass and cabbage. They can hide in the vegetation and ambush minnows swimming nearby. Weedlines with a sharply-defined edge are the best of all. Position your boat parallel to the break and cast your lure so it runs right next to the vegetation. Fish will lie along this edge and lunge out to grab passing baitfish – or your offering. If the aquatic weeds lie several feet below the surface, you can also cast shallow-running crankbaits or spoons right over top and work them back so they run above the weeds, nicking the plants occasionally. Fish will surge up out of the salad and smash your offering from below.
16. Many factors figure into where you’ll find walleyes. The presence of baitfish is certainly one of them, but all things being equal, you’ll do best over sandy, gravel or rock bottoms rather than muddy ones.
17. Drift-fishing with a live-bait rig and slip-sinker is one of the most consistent ways of all for catching walleyes. Tie a size 4 to 8 hook to a 24- to 60-inch 4- to 8-pound test leader, and then attach it to a barrel swivel. Thread an egg or Lindy sinker on the main line from the rod with a bead above and below it; then, attach it to the barrel swivel. Use a live minnow, crawfish, leech or night crawler.
To improve this rig, use a floating jighead for the bait instead of a plain hook. This keeps the offering up off the bottom so that it’s less likely to hang up and is more visible to the quarry. The extra color and bulk of the jig also adds to the attractiveness of the live bait offering. Another way to suspend night crawlers off the bottom is to use a worm blower (syringe) to inject air into the bait.
Be sure to adjust the size of the weight according to the speed you’re drifting at and the depth of the water. You want the bait to stay on or just above the bottom. One-eighth to 1-ounce sizes are typically best. When a fish grabs the offering, feed line for several seconds and set the hook. Try sunken islands, reefs, bars, points, weedbed edges and sharp river channel dropoffs for this productive fishing method.
18. Maintain precise boat control when drift-fishing. If you drift too fast, your bait will lift off the bottom. Even if you use enough weight to keep it there, it may be moving too fast to appeal to finicky walleyes. A speed of about 5 to 10 mph is about right for a good drift.
If winds are too strong, use an electric motor to slow the drift. Back-trolling may be required. This means running your motor with the boat pointed backward, the idea being to slow your progress and allow more precise boat control. Walleyes generally want the bait just barely moving past them, and this offers the perfect way to present it in that slow, tempting manner.
19. Try slip-bobber rigs when walleyes are positioned near or on a reef, point, gravel bar or other structure but are proving finicky about taking a bottom rig.
This setup consists of bobber, hook and split shot. The only difference between this rig and a basic float rig is that a bobber stop is tied or slipped on the line and adjusted to block the free-moving float when it slides up to the appropriate position for the depth you want to fish. When walleyes are deeper than 5 or 6 feet, this is the only efficient way to cast and use a float. Try leeches, night crawlers and minnows. They all work great with slip-bobber riggings.
20. Choose your bait according to the season. Minnows are productive at any time of year. In summer, go with night crawlers or leeches. In fall, minnows, especially large ones, are the best choice for attracting and catching hungry walleyes.
21. Color can sometimes be important in lure choice – and sometimes it’s insignificant. To cover your bets, be sure to stock your favorite lures in a variety of hues. Always carry a few lures in bright fluorescent colors. Those are particularly good in murky water.
22. Don’t shun windy days for walleye fishing. Wind helps to move your boat along if you want to try drift-fishing. It also oxygenates the water and pushes baitfish schools into tight groups, enabling the predatory walleyes to ambush them. Look for walleyes actually feeding out on windswept points, bars and reefs, and on the windward side of the lake.
23. Trolling speed is critical when going after walleyes. At times these fish will nail a fast-moving bait, but they usually want it creeping along. Add a trolling plate to your motor, drag a bucket from a rope, or turn the boat backwards and run the motor in reverse to present your lure slowly enough if necessary.
24. A good rod for jig-fishing walleyes should be about 5 1/2 to 6 1/2 feet long and stiff in action. You want some flexibility in the tip, so you won’t throw off the bait that’s often used to tip the jig, but plenty of backbone in the rest of the rod for setting the hook. Medium- or medium-heavy-action rods are best for this fishing.
25. Keep a marker buoy handy when drift-fishing or trolling for walleyes. Chances are good that more fish are holding where you hooked that last one. Drop the buoy over immediately when you get a strike; then you can drift or troll through that same area again.