Find, Catch Skinny-Water Walleyes
March 27, 2017
These expert fishing tips can help you catch walleyes while they are shallow.
By Joe Albert
Ask a cross-section of fishermen what comes to mind when they think of walleye fishing, and the majority of them likely will mention live-bait rigs tipped with leeches, minnows or nightcrawlers, deep water and back-trolling.
Some of them might also mention jigs and live bait, or jigs and plastics, the latter becoming an increasingly more important part of anglers' game plans. And while those all are legitimate ways and traditional places to catch Ol' Marble Eyes, anglers who don't venture outside of their comfort zones — especially during the spring when the water still is cold — could miss out on some tremendous opportunities to catch fish.
In some cases, walleye fishing in the spring is more reminiscent of shallow-water bass fishing.
For anglers who are used to methodically pulling live-bait rigs along weedlines and offshore structure, targeting and catching walleyes in water that in some cases is less than a foot deep seems counterintuitive. But anglers who can break out of their traditional molds and time things right can enjoy some high-quality walleye action during the earliest parts of the season.
THE WALLEYE ANNUAL CYCLE
In some instances, walleyes begin heading for their shallow spawning areas even before the calendar turns to spring. In other cases, they migrate there in the early part of spring. Either way, male walleyes swim for the shallows first, generally making the movement as soon as the ice is off the lake and the water temperature is a few degrees above freezing. Females arrive after the males. Spawning takes place in water ranging from about 1 to 6 feet deep, over hard substrates such as gravel, rock or rubble, between which the eggs fall so they're protected from predation by smaller fish. Windswept areas, or those with natural current, are best because they keep the eggs well aerated and act to remove sediment that might otherwise prevent them from hatching. In lakes, for example, it's not uncommon to see walleyes moving up tiny waterways to spawn. At the same time, some walleyes don't leave the lake, instead dropping their eggs over shallow shoals, for example.
Even in the same body of water, not all walleyes spawn at the same time. Spawning reaches its peak when the water is between about 42 and 50 degrees so even as some walleyes are done spawning, others will just be starting. While neither male nor female walleyes guard their eggs, females tend to vacate spawning areas before males, which may hang around for several weeks. Females move relatively quickly to the deep-water areas where they will spend the summer. Those areas may not be far from the spawning grounds. Meanwhile, the male walleyes remain shallow and feed on whatever forage is available. Some of the most common menu items for these fish are perch and shiners, which are drawn to the shallows to feed on newly emerging food sources.
NIGHTTIME IS THE RIGHT TIME FOR WALLEYE FISHING
Just like at most other times of year, some of the best fishing for spring walleyes occurs after the sun has set and most fishermen have left the lake. While walleyes remain shallow throughout the day, especially if it's cloudy or windy, they are more active and less spooky under the cover of darkness. If they're shallow during the day, anglers can find them really shallow when the moon is the only source of light.
For that reason, the playing field is level for all fishermen, even those who don't have boats. Fishermen who can find shoreline access to the areas that hold walleyes in the spring often can experience as much success, or more, than boat anglers. The reason is simple: Whereas boat fishermen have to contend with making too much noise — a distinct possibility when trying to operate in the dark — shore fishermen may be better able to conceal their presence. Still, even shore-bound anglers should be cognizant of approaching and fishing as quietly as possible.
Crankbaits are a good initial choice for shore anglers, who can use them as search baits and as baits to learn more about the bottom. When they catch a fish or two, or snag weeds, anglers can cast a minnow beneath a slip-bobber rig and fish the area more thoroughly. Given that shallow-water walleyes tend to feed heavily after dark, it doesn't take long for anglers to determine if there are active fish in the area. Just like boat fishermen, shore anglers should move around until they find fish that are willing to bite. Walleyes tend to use the same spots every spring, and so once anglers find a good area, chances are they can repeat their success year after year.
While spawning areas may be almost anywhere in a given body of water, anglers should prioritize hard-bottomed areas along northern and eastern shorelines, since they receive the most direct sunlight during the day, thereby warming the water more quickly. Focus on hard-bottomed flats rather than portions of the shoreline that drop off rapidly. Anglers also can find early season walleyes in tributaries or other small areas off the main body of water, but be sure to check the state fishing regulations. Many regulatory agencies close the areas to fishing while the walleye spawn and its immediate aftermath are under way.
When it comes to actually locating fishing spots, many fishermen have to reprogram their brains, or at least suspend their hardwired beliefs about how walleyes are supposed to be caught. During and just after the spawn, it isn't uncommon to see walleyes in water so shallow that their dorsal fins or tails will cause ripples on the water's surface. Some fishermen will see them and refuse to believe they're made by walleyes, mentally confining the fish to deep water away from light.
There's plenty of time as the water warms and the season progresses to focus on deep-water walleyes, although some anglers make a habitat of catching them in relatively shallow water all season long. But this isn't that time. Fishermen who can locate walleyes in shallow water generally have pretty good odds of being able to hook a few of them. In addition to looking for big, slow-tapering flats that extend out from the shoreline, fishermen can further home in on a walleye sweet spot by finding pieces of cover that are especially attractive. In many bodies of water, that means wood or weeds. The latter are especially important in piecing together a successful trip.
Walleyes aren't attracted to vegetation, per se, but instead to everything it provides. As shallow vegetation begins to green up in the spring, it produces oxygen. An entire food chain erupts, drawing minnows and other small fish to eat at the buffet. Walleyes and other game fish aren't far behind.
It's never a good idea to blare music, stomp around, or talk loudly when targeting walleyes. A stealthy approach is even more vital when fishing in water that's shallow enough that almost any human could stand on the bottom without having to hold their breath. Sounds from above already are amplified in the water so if fishermen go clanging and banging around the shallows, the walleyes either won't stick around, or they won't be interested in biting. Heavy winds and rain roil the water and allow anglers to get away with making more noise, but no matter the conditions it pays to be quiet.
One of the easiest ways to stay quiet is to stay as far away as possible and make long casts to an area. As such, long fishing rods and thin fishing line are key components of an early season walleye arsenal. In clearwater situations, which are common during spring when the water is cold, it's not uncommon for veteran walleye anglers to spool up with 4-pound fishing line. While launching lures from long distances can dampen the feeling of a bite, for many anglers it's a worthwhile tradeoff, given that spooling with heavier line and being in closer proximity to the fish oftentimes results in fewer bites in the first place.
While walleyes' location in and of itself can be a complicating factor for the reasons described, it's also true that once anglers locate likely areas and commit to staying a safe distance away from them, they have a good number of tools at their disposal.
Casting a jig and piece of live bait or plastic trailer is a tried-and-true method for catching walleyes in all depths of water. The beauty of jigs is they can be crawled slowly — painfully slowly, at times — across the bottom, or retrieved through the water column so they more closely mimic a fleeing baitfish. They can be hopped along the bottom or allowed to sit in one spot for an extended period of time, the live bait or plastic trailer moving subtly just above the bottom. For that reason, some anglers swear by standup jighead designs, while others prefer traditional round heads. Likely a more important factor is the weight of the jighead. Generally speaking, the smaller the better in the early spring. A jighead that weighs 1/32 ounce isn't too small, and there's seldom a need to tie on anything bigger than 1/8 ounce. A good rule of thumb is to use only as heavy a jig as is necessary to maintain contact with the bottom.
It's not easy to cast such light jigs, but it is possible with long rods — 7 feet or longer — and small-diameter fishing lines. Choice of trailer comes down to personal preference, with many fishermen in the spring opting for live minnows. However, anglers who spend a lot of time flinging jigs and minnows also tend to spend a lot of time re-baiting after minnows fly off on the cast. For that reason — and because plastics these days can be just as effective or even more effective than live bait — many fishermen choose to thread grubs or other plastic trailers onto their jigs. When it comes to retrieves, experimentation is the name of the game. While it's tough to say exactly what walleyes will prefer on a given day — or even during a given hour — a good strategy is to begin retrieving with small hops and progress from there. When the fish show a preference for a given retrieve, replicate it until the bite slows.
Another option for fishing with jigs is to troll them, keeping in mind they must be far behind the boat. In this situation, an electric trolling motor is the best bet, but even then anglers need to let out a lot of line — 100 feet or so — to reduce the likelihood the fish will be spooked and unwilling to bite. Trolling is an especially good option when anglers are trying to pinpoint fish locations on large flats. Some anglers troll crankbaits in that situation, too, opting for subtle baits such as the Rapala Shad Rap or Original Floating Minnow, which should be trolled along the bottom or just deep enough to tick the top of vegetation.
Once fish are located, some anglers remain committed to jigs, casting them to the fish-holding area. Others opt for a method whereby they can suspend a minnow or other piece of live bait right in front of the fish. That's a situation that calls for a slip-bobber, which allows anglers to hold the bait generally in place at a pre-determined depth, although wind could blow it around. Simpler is often better. A plain No. 4 or 6 hook a few inches below a split shot or two is all that's necessary. Hook a minnow through its tail to complete what's a natural-looking presentation.