April 26, 2018
By Steven Johnson
Fishing for spring walleyes can provide some of the best action of the year. Here are some tactics sure to boost your catch.
"Let's try to catch some by trolling crankbaits," a buddy said as he twisted a jig hook from a walleye's mouth and then slipped the fish back into the lake.
Normally fishermen change strategies when whatever they have been doing isn't working — or at least isn't working as well as they think it should.
Such was far from the case. It was early in the season, and it seemed like every walleye in the lake was stacked along the first major break into the main basin and feeding. We'd already caught fish on Lindy rigs dragged along the break and by jigging with minnow-tipped jigs.
The "getting" was good, and we simply wanted the fun of catching the fish another way.
Spring commonly brings on some of the best walleye fishing of the year, and fish can be caught many ways.
Walleyes have finished spawning and are focused on feeding, with much of their forage, including baitfish of various sorts and crawfish, holding shallow and in predictable locations.
Because rivers and lakes haven't heated up for the summer, the walleyes find the temperatures they prefer and good dissolved oxygen levels throughout the water column, again allowing them to spend time in relatively shallow water.
Now is the time when walleyes are in all the places where it seems like fish should be:
- At the mouths of creeks
- Atop prominent points
- Over developing weedbeds
- In little cuts in cattail banks
- Around rockpiles
- Along main breaks from shallow flats and so forth
In whatever river or lake you fish, identify primary structure and cover features that are relatively shallow, provide ambush positions for predators, and provide plentiful forage, and you should be on track to find walleyes.
Now let's look at some of the best techniques for catching those early season fish.
A major reason why walleyes spend a lot of time over points, along weed edges, and around other shallow structure and cover early in the fishing season is that a lot of the small fish they most like to eat congregate in shallow water at the same time.
Since crankbaits are mostly designed to imitate baitfish, it's not surprising that they work so well at this time of year. Although casting doesn't keep the lure in the strike zone, nor cover water in the same way as trolling does, it allows for precise presentations around specific cover that cannot be worked efficiently by trolling.
When walleyes are feeding close to cattails, holding over the shallow parts of points or ambushing prey from boulders near the shoreline or in stream inlets, casting a crankbait allows you to reach those fish and to make repeated presentations from different angles.
Casting also allows you to be highly intentional and targeted with presentation variances by pausing the bait, speeding the retrieve slightly or twitching the rod tip as the lure hits a key zone to trigger a strike from a fish that might be watching or even following the lure.
Experiment both with minnow-style lures and deep-bodied crankbaits, seeking to match the length and general shape of prevalent baitfish, if possible. Pay attention to running depths and prioritize baits that will kick bottom a bit but not drag, or ones that barely catch the tops of the weeds if you are working your lure over vegetation.
Trolling crankbaits, which allows you to find active fish and to work entire zones, is simple early in the year because no downriggers, lead-core lines, divers or other add-ons are needed to put lures in the strike zone.
Walleyes spend enough time sufficiently shallow now that you can select lures that naturally run the depth you want, let them back behind the boat, and go. No add-ons also means using lighter fishing gear, which adds fun to every catch.
As with casting, primary selection criteria are running depth and a shape and size that match prevalent forage. Those things determined, you'll most likely want to experiment with colors and with baits that have different wobbles or make different rattling sounds. Also vary trolling speeds and the amount of line you put out.
An excellent spring trolling strategy is to troll directly over a break with shallow baits running atop the flat, and deeper baits just off the break.
Trolling along the edges of weedlines with shallow crankbaits swimming over submerged vegetation and slightly deeper baits swimming just outside the weedlines can also be effective. At dusk and dawn, troll over the shallow end of points and work the pockets on both sides of points, as walleyes commonly move up onto these areas to feed during prime times.
Walleyes commonly relate to hard structure during the spring, and a jig allows you to effectively work bottom contours. A jig also provides a bit slower action and more subtlety than a crankbait, and at times making presentations more deliberate can be essential for getting fish to bite.
A simple ballhead jig or sparse hair jig tipped with either a nightcrawler or a whole minnow tends to work better than a high-action grub or swimbait this time of year. The ideal weight is the lightest jig you can effectively cast and hold on bottom as you work down a slope.
Cattail bank edges, the upper ends of points, rockpiles and channel swing transition areas are examples of areas that lend themselves to a jig-casting approach.
Cast tight to the bank or high on the structure, let the jig fall to the bottom, and then work the lure down the slope with lifts and drops. Lift the jig gently and keep the line semi-tight when it falls to create a pendulum effect.
Jig bites are often light, so pay careful attention, and know that walleyes often will take the offering slowly and carefully. When you feel a bite, give the fish a bit of line so that it doesn't detect you. After a few seconds tighten the line slowly. If you feel any hint of the fish once the line is tight, set the hook with a slight snap of your wrist.
Jigs sometimes need to be fished vertically, with repeated lifts and drops so they stay in the strike zone. A jigging presentation commonly comes into play through the middle of the day, when the fish sometimes slide farther down points and off the edges of breaks into a bit deeper water.
It also works very well for finding fish in rivers. In a river, drift close to a current seam or over the edges of gravel bars, lifting and dropping a minnow-tipped jig as you go. Alternatively, hold the boat in an eddy, very close to where the current sweeps past, and jig straight up and down.
Jigging isn't only for jigs, by the way. When walleyes are atop a point or straddling a break and feeding on fish, it's tough to top the effectiveness of dropping a shiny, heavy spoon to the bottom and snapping and dropping the rod tip so the spoon darts up and flutters down, all the while staying in the walleyes' dining room.
For jigs or spoons, pay extra attention when your offering is dropping as that is when most strikes occur. Spoon strikes are typically sharp, and the fish commonly hook themselves. Jig strikes often just feel mushy, or you notice that the jig just doesn't drop as far.