Get Ready for Pre-Spawn Walleyes

Good walleye fishing is just around the corner, but there's no need to wait. There are plenty of things you should be doing right now.

By Walt Tegtmeier

Open water.

Few words sound better to walleye anglers at this time of year. Once uttered, ice-out reports travel at light speed. Telephones ring and e-mails ensue among fish-deprived anglers across the Ice Belt. Spontaneous plans are made to hit the nearest open water and kick off another long-awaited walleye-fishing season.

Regardless of when your season begins, now is the perfect time to de-winterize - not just the boat but your equipment and fishing strategies, too.

Just as the boys of summer will soon be reporting to spring training, walleye anglers should do a little pre-season work themselves. It takes time to shake off the cobwebs and get out of the winter-walleye mode. The fish and the fishing will have changed by the time the ice clears. Therefore, it's wise to develop a solid pre-spawn strategy and make sure your equipment is up to the task of executing it.

Besides, there's no better way to pass the time until news of open water arrives. With your gear and game plan in order, you'll hit the water in excellent shape and ready for some of the year's biggest fish.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

In most cold-weather states, walleyes begin their pre-spawn rituals even before the ice clears. Their metabolisms gradually speed up with each lengthening day, and two key priorities emerge: finding food and finding suitable spawning grounds. By the time the ice clears, the fish are on the move toward spawning habitat, or possibly they're already there. And along that sometimes-lengthy road, they feed heavily in preparation for the rigors of spawning.

Locating hungry pre-spawn walleyes is simply a matter of identifying quality spawning habitat and any adjacent areas where the fish can stage and feed. Whenever they can, walleyes almost always prefer to spawn on some sort of gravel-laden substrate in relatively shallow water. Look for rock or gravel shorelines, points and bars, dams and riprap banks, wing dams, waterfalls and other natural or man-made obstructions. Sun and wave exposure are other important characteristics of good spawning habitat.

Ah, if it were only as easy as plying good-looking spawning grounds! Alas, during the pre-spawn, the fish may spend most of the day in some sort of staging area. Unfortunately, finding staging areas can be a tougher nut to crack. They often come in the form of the first major dropoff into deep water, a deep flat, the mouth of a creek or tributary, or a long point or bar extending into deeper water. If it's relatively deep structure nearest to shallow spawning structure, chances are good the walleyes will use it as a place to hang out and chow down before getting down to business. The key is to keep moving until you find fish, because not all walleyes will be traveling together or arriving on the scene at the same time.

Typically, walleyes with spawning on their minds will use the same early-season locations year after year. If you're a veteran of many pre-spawn outings, try to recall the locations and tactics with which you scored in previous years. Some anglers keep detailed logs with critical data like dates, water temperatures, depth, lure or bait used, trolling/retrieving speed, sometimes even precise GPS coordinates where early-season action took place. For others, it's all stored upstairs and can be retrieved on demand. Whatever the case, it helps to have a little history on your side.

In much of walleye country, rivers present the earliest opportunity for catching pre-spawn fish, and for many anglers it's the only option. Thankfully, walleyes that spawn in rivers are much more predictable than their lake and reservoir brethren.

Practically all of the fish that enter a river to spawn will deposit their eggs as far upstream as possible. Anything that impedes that upstream progress-and offers suitable spawning grounds close by-will naturally concentrate walleyes in large numbers prior to and during the spawn. Typically, smaller male fish will be the first to arrive at such locations, though the larger females can show up at any time. But again, not all the walleyes in a river system will migrate at the same pace. Downstream of prime spawning areas, the fish can be here today and gone tomorrow, but more will be passing through as the spawn approaches. If small males are the only fish showing up near the spawning grounds, keep moving downstream.

Proven pre-spawn river techniques are working a jig tipped with a minnow or soft plastic along eddies, back waters and other areas that break up the current, especially during high water. Shallow-running crankbaits and minnow baits are good alternates. Walleyes will still be sluggish in sub-40 degree water and won't go far to take a bait, so keep casts on the short side. Early-season walleye bites are notoriously light. With any of these lures, don't wait to set the hook, even on jigs tipped with live bait.

Most reservoir anglers, whether they fish for walleye or not, know that the fish show up at the dam en masse each spring. But how to consistently find reservoir walleyes prior to the spawn remains a relative mystery to many anglers.

Much like river walleyes, reservoir fish are known to log some serious miles to reach their spawning grounds. But rather than confronting several obstructions along the way, these walleyes typically face only one. That's one reason why dams comprise most, if not all, of a reservoir's spawning terrain. The other reason: rock or gravel shorelines.

The dam is only a reference point, however, as most pre-spawn fish will be staging somewhere near it, often in deep water. Start fishing where the main river channel hits the dam, and work your way out to the nearest deep structure. Often, the mouth of a cove near the dam can hold schools of staging pre-spawn walleyes. Humps surrounded by deep water are also known to be good walleye staging areas, as long as they're en route to the dam. Sometimes deep brush or sunken timber can produce as well, especially when present along a creek channel junction.

Probe the described areas with the old standby jig and minnow. Drifting works well if the wind is in your favor. Do whatever it takes to work the jig slowly yet still cover a lot of water. Live-bait rigs with minnows are the rule when the fish get really picky. Trolling shad-bodied crankbaits and long minnow baits can also be effective, plus that's the best way to go after suspended fish.

Natural Lakes These waters are usually the last to heat up, literally and figuratively. They're also where most anglers fish. In natural lakes the pre-spawn walleye puzzle is less complex than in rivers or reservoirs. Simply put, the fish move from deep water to shallow water as water temperatures climb.

Of course, those movements are directed toward gravel, rock, rubble or even sandy bottoms. Such areas are not always along the shoreline, either. A long gravel bar or shallow rock reef may exist several yards or more offshore. Areas that receive the prevailing wind and the most sunlight usually see the most activity from pre-spawn fish.

After locating the preferred spawning grounds, focus your efforts on fishing nearby structure in deeper water. The first or second dropoff between a spawning area and a deep winter hole is a good place to start. Other staging areas include the deep water around islands, steep shorelines and short points that drop off quickly. Any relatively deep structure near spawning habitat is worth checking.

Once staging fish are found, jig-and-minnow combinations will usually take the lion's share of the biters. At times, a plain hook with a big minnow behind a small split shot will be the ticket, especially for big fish. Either way, the presentation should be slow.

Walleye populations continually rise or fall due to a number of factors in their home waters. Whether you're looking for new water this year or targeting an old favorite, study the population samples and fishing prospects that are researched and published by most state fisheries departments. Most are available online or in print form, or both. These resources are good indicators of what to expect in the way of sizes and numbers of fish in a given body of water this year vs. previous years.

Say a popular local hotspot produced well last spring and summer. It may be that anglers took such a toll on the population that fewer fish showed up in sampling nets last fall. On the other hand, another water in your area may have undergone special slot limit regulations that scared off the crowds last year but promises to bear fruit this spring. Still another may have a healthy year-class of stocked fish that are due to reach legal sizes this season.

From year to year, population densities, size and distribution data may surprise a lot of anglers. It's free and valuable information that surprisingly few anglers utilize.

Before probing a new fishing location, try to obtain a good map of what lies beneath the surface. Look for and mark all potential spawning structure, as well as deep structure around which pre-spawn walleyes might stage. This helps you form a plan of attack and reduces the amount of time spent on unproductive water. It's amazing how different a lake, for example, looks on the water vs. paper. When you're out there fishing, pay close attention to what the sonar says. Align those depth and structural readings to the map, and you'll be on the way to finding hungry, staging fish.

Early-season outings are often preceded by spur-of-the-moment preparation. That's unfortunate, because never is attention to detail with your equipment more important. From boats to bottom-bouncers, trailers to tackle boxes, Murphy's Law has a unique way of enforcing itself during those first outings of the year.

If a reel performed poorly at the end of last season, you can bet it will be in even worse shape in the cold early-season air. Examine your arsenal and give each reel's moving parts a fresh coat of oil or grease. Did you forget about that broken rod tip suffered last fall? Fix or replace it now. The first day of open water is not the time to remember it.

It's always smart to start the season with fresh line, yet in the haste to get on the water many walleye anglers fail to re-spool. With pre-spawn action sometimes limited to a few good bites a day, it pays to have healthy line in your corner. Those few bites will often be from hefty female fish, and the $7 filler spool is a small price to pay for keeping them hooked.

Equal in importance to optimum line strength is performance. Spinning reel memory can cause delicate early-season walleye bites to come and go without notice, thanks to slack coils of stale line dulling the strike. Don't throw last year's line to this year's fish, as the saying goes.

Most anglers have the next step covered, that being the restocking and organizing of tackle boxes. Still, there may be a strange breed of angler out there who doesn't spend the winter purchasing, organizing and re-organizing tackle. For the early season, anyway, make sure jigheads are present in sufficient quantities and color options, and from 1/16- to 3/8-ounce in weight and in lime, pink and fluorescent orange color combinations - plus any local favorites. Have plenty of bait rigs and bottom-bouncers ready and organized, too. And make sure the crankbait box isn't missing any proven producers.

Of perhaps greater importance than tackle are boat, motor and trailer. Chances are they haven't seen the road or water for three to four months. (Better hope winterization rituals were performed last fall!)

Start with the engine. Take off the cowling, remove and replace old spark plugs, and check all wires and connections. If the motor has an oil reservoir, pump out the old and put in some fresh oil. The same goes for lower unit oil. Ideally, the gas tank is nearly empty, and whatever fuel left was treated with fuel stabilizer.

After hooking up the hose and flusher system, spray a carburetor cleaner into the intake and fire up the ignition. Let it run for a spell, which will burn out the fuel stabilizer and prepare the tank for fresh gas on your way to the lake. Kicker outboards should receive the same attention.

Moving on to the trailer, begin by checking the wheel hubs and putting fresh grease into the bearings. If possible, jack up the axle at each end to make sure each wheel spins smoothly and on an even plane. Also examine rear gaskets for any cracking or loss of grease. Then brush the leaf springs with mineral spirits. Check the coupling and winch hardware for rust or malfunction and apply WD-40 to all moving parts. Tires have probably deflated since autumn, so return them - spare included - to their optimum pressure.

If you fish from a partner's boat, offer to help him with these de-winterizing tasks.

The next item of business is the boat itself, and all the fishing accessories on board.

I hope those trolling motor batteries weren't left below deck all winter! In any case, brush away any corrosion at the terminals and check the condition of the wires at each connection. Then put a fresh charge on both the trolling and starting batteries well in advance of the season's maiden voyage. That way if one or more batteries don't hold a full charge for several days, they can be replaced before you hit the water.

Make a point to start the fishing year off with clean, well-functioning livewells and baitwells

. Clear all in-take and overflow pipes, valves and filters of any fish scales and other obstructions that tend to pile up over the season. Then wash the walls with a non-toxic cleaner, rinse with fresh water and drain the wells completely.

If sonar, GPS and other electronics were removed for the winter (always a smart move), make sure they work when reattached to the boat. For trolling motor- and transom-mounted transducers, place a 5-gallon bucket of water underneath and check what the unit reads.

Finish the pre-season equipment drill by double-checking that fire extinguishers, PFDs and other safety equipment are all on board and functional. Boating accidents are real possibilities, but more likely are run-ins with the water patrol. In either case, be prepared.

Whew! That's a lot to think about and to do before a guy can kick off a new walleye season. True, but imagine how your favorite ball club would perform on Opening Day without going through a little spring training? Early-season success is no accident. It boils down to being ready to play once the game is finally on. So get the jump on the fish - and the guys at the ramp - by preparing your mind and your gear right now.

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