Getting The Early Bite

Whether you're looking to fill the frying pan or catch a trophy, there's good early-season walleye fishing right now. (April 2008)

The author caught a respectable early-season walleye at Mille Lacs Lake.
Photo by Ron Hustvedt.

Catching early-season walleyes is just a matter of finding the windswept shoreline and casting slip-bobbers or slowly dragging jigs. That's all there is, right? Many anglers ask, "What's the need for talking about that oh-so-easy to pattern early-season walleye bite?"

Then there's always the great excuse about post-spawn walleyes being impossible to catch.

"Those big females are just too tired to eat," is a not too uncommon phrase uttered at boat landings. Another one is, "The females have sore gums, so they are on the bottom and not eating."

You won't hear any of that from walleye angling professionals Scott Fairbairn and Brett King, who drive around the country in search of what scientists call stizostedion vitreum.

After the spawn has wrapped up and walleye season opens, the big females get the heck out of the spawning grounds, while the males stick around hoping a few more females come around.

"If you are looking for fast-action and some walleyes just big enough to fill the frying pan, then you should fish near the spawning grounds," Fairbairn said.

But that's only true for the males.

"Those big females have begun to move to where they'll spend their summers and aren't anywhere near those spawning grounds. They don't bite where we fish for them because they are gone," he said.

Fairbairn said a really easy way to figure out where the big females are is to key in on where the walleye bite is hot during June and July.

"Most anglers don't fish those spots for at least another three weeks, but those big fish are heading out there and as the water warms, their metabolisms will only increase meaning they'll be more apt to bite," he said.

King said varied presentations should be used when chasing that bite.

"In my opinion, anglers get caught up in territorial and traditional techniques, when in reality a variety of presentations work very well, some better than what is otherwise popular," he said.

Walleye Spawning Habits
To better understand early-spring walleye fishing, an angler must have a thorough understanding of the walleye's habits this time of year. Water temperature is an issue throughout the year, but probably most important in the spring because of the spawn.

Typically, walleyes spawn over rock, rubble or gravel in areas where there's current from a river, inlet or shallows that receive ample wave action. Water depth of spawning grounds tends to run 1 to 6 feet deep.

Male walleyes move into the spawning grounds first almost immediately after ice-out. Some late ice-anglers looking for panfish in the shallows will actually catch some of these early arriving males. After the water warms to about 40 degrees, the larger females begin arriving with peak spawning occurring when water temperatures vary from 42 to 50 degrees.

The magic temperature for walleyes leaving their spawning grounds seems to be 50 degrees, according to fisheries biologists. In areas where the spawning grounds are immediately adjacent to deep water, the water is slower to warm and the walleyes stay close by. In areas where the spawning grounds are on a gentle sloping surface, the walleyes might head out pretty quickly because the water warms quickly.

Bryan "Beef" Sathre of Fathead Guide Service is one of the top guides in the upper Midwest and said water temperature is the first thing he pays attention to in the early season. It's not the only thing, however.

"I'm very happy when the water temperature is in the52- to 55-degree range, but there are other factors to consider, including time of day, wind direction and weather," Sathre said.

Choose Your Locatio
Sathre fishes in northern waters where the spawn typically occurs in late April, although it can still be going hot and heavy when walleye season opens in mid-May. He tends to focus on traditional areas, such as windswept shorelines.

"I also like to find the emerging green cabbage beds and other weeds that are holding baitfish." In either case, Sathre said his spring hotspots are similar to what he fishes in the summer.

Sound familiar?

Sathre keys on these areas because there are plenty of fish to be caught and most of his customers want a few fish to take home with them.

"Early-season fishing with customers who want to catch numbers means I'm never deeper than 9 feet of water and I like areas with a mixture of structure, weeds, sand, rock or mud," he said.

When customers want a big walleye, he slides out to the big boulders near a shoreline break in deeper water. These areas are the last stop before a big female heads across the lake basin for mid-lake structure

A favorite lake of Fairbairn's served as a perfect case study for this early-season walleye location phenomenon.

"For years and years, the reports were that walleyes wouldn't bite on the mid-lake structure of this lake until June. Then a few people started going out there only to catch some big walleyes," he said.

The numbers aren't in those locations, but quality is and that's why Fairbairn said anglers should consider what kind of fishing experience they want ahead of time.

"You can fish the dink hole and catch all you want, but in the early season, you really need to decide what your goal is before you head out onto the water or you'll be chasing them all over the lake," Fairbairn said.

Presentation Toolbox
What makes a lake a "slip-bobber" lake? Probably because many anglers use that technique and experience success. King said we all know we need to be versatile and try different techniques, but in the end we resort to the tactics and lures we've always used.

Approaching fishing that way isn't all bad, he said, but there is some spectacular fishing to be had with crankbaits on a slip-bobber lake and vice versa. The possibilities don't end there. Ju

st like you can't catch walleyes where you don't fish for them, you can catch walleyes with a lure you don't put in the water. That sounds cliché, but every angler is guilty of it.

"My suggestion is to use the Internet and find information about the traditional methods and use them, but don't be afraid to employ other methods you've used in other locations at different times of the year," he said.

John House is an avid walleye angler who is often one of the only ones throwing crankbaits in the early season when everyone else is relying heavily on live bait.

"If I'm on a big lake and it's windy, I'll troll the 3- to 4-foot break with short Rogues or Bombers when everyone else is using slip-bobbers," House said.

If the water is calmer, he brings out planer boards and covers more water along the shallow edges.

"I'll start trolling at 1.7 to 1.8 miles per hour and adjust it to 1.5 or two miles per hour," he said. Calm conditions require long-line trolling 150 feet behind the boat, while rough conditions require short trolling 50 feet out. House said he likes Rogues in natural perch-looking colors, while he likes black and silver Bombers

Sathre prefers to leave the crankbaits in the box until summer and stick with live-bait tactics in the early season.

"You can catch a lot of fish with crankbaits, but I've found that a majority of the time, early-season walleyes prefer a more subtle presentation that only live-bait rigging and jigging can provide," he said.

His favorite is a 1/4-ounce metallic silver or gold Fireball jig tipped with a shiner or fathead. He uses his electric trolling motor to keep the jig as close to the boat as possible and doesn't let out any more 6-pound-test monofilament than he needs. Slow-trolling at speeds less than seven-tenths of a mile with a sensitive rod makes for a deadly combination.

The rod is the biggest secret to this rig with shorter 6-foot medium or medium light rods like an Avid or Legend Elite being the key.

"I like my rods because they're more sensitive and have a ast tip but enough give so that when I set the hook, I get good solid hit," he said.

When walleyes are stacked up in a location, there isreally no escaping the slip-bobber. Sathre and House said the lighted bobber was the greatest invention for float loving anglers.

"Keep your presentation light with a No. 4 Gamma hook, some split-shot and back hook your minnow through the dorsal fin to give the minnow a lot of action," Sathre said.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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