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How to Find Those Wandering ‘Eyes

Check these spots in rivers and lakes for walleyes as they begin to disperse.

How to Find Those Wandering ‘Eyes

On impounded rivers, walleyes can be found in deep holes below dams following the spawn. Tempt them with vertical presentations of jig-and-plastic combos. Check these spots in rivers and lakes for post-spawn walleyes as they begin to disperse. (Photo by Jeff Knapp)

When asked about the most appealing aspect of walleye fishing, many anglers will respond with something about the fish’s quality as table fare. I’d counter that the species’ ability to adapt to many environments, thereby demanding the utmost in angler versatility for consistent success, is the walleye’s most compelling quality.

This adaptability is doubly apparent during springtime, when the fish have concluded spawning and are on the move. From rivers to dingy reservoirs to clear lakes, one must adjust tactics to keep up with the wandering walleye.

IMPOUNDED RIVERS

River fish by nature, walleyes are delightfully at home in flowing waters, including those impounded by dams—impoundments typically created for navigation and/or hydroelectric power generation. The pools created by such dams retain some qualities of a river, namely modest current.

Typically, a significant portion of the walleye population will be found near the discharge area of the dam as spawn-driven upriver “runs” are halted by the barrier. The habitat found here is conducive to spawning, as well. While warming water will eventually fuel a dispersal from tailrace areas, for the first month or so following the spawn a wealth of fish can still be found there.

Key areas to focus on include slack or low-current areas near the downriver side of a dam. Lock chambers and closed dam gates can create such spots. These areas can be restricted to boat traffic, so watch for buoys and signs warning of such. Even so, they present quality opportunities for shore anglers. The situation varies from dam to dam.

The downriver approach walls of lock chambers generally create slack-water areas beyond restricted areas and are a good bet for boat anglers. So is the first deep hole or two downriver of the dam. Some of the best areas feature rock bars or wing dams that break up the current.

Boat anglers can score on walleyes by casting or vertically jigging jig-and-minnow combinations, blade baits and jig-and-plastic combos. Concentrate efforts in the deeper pools during the day, then work shallower as the evening twilight approaches and ’eyes go on feeding sprees. The evening twilight is also tops for the shore-based or wading angler since movements to thinner water make the fish more accessible.

FREE-FLOWING RIVERS

Free-flowing rivers that retain their natural riffle-run-pool character often harbor good walleye numbers. Lacking barriers such as dams, however, can make the fish a bit more challenging to find.

Though walleyes are sometimes thought of as being docile, timid fish, the truth is they are topnotch predators. As natural rivers warm, expect to find walleyes feeding in and around riffles and runs that feature significant current, as this is where much of the food is found.

Various species of shiners, chubs, darters and dace, among others, use riffle areas as their feeding grounds, feasting on the buffet of tasty organisms carried by the current. Naturally, walleyes follow, completing another link in the food chain.

For the boat angler, a sound tactic is to drift with the current, firing cross-current casts out into the faster water. The sweet spot is often where the fast riffle joins the slightly deeper run.

Suspending hard jerkbaits in the 4- to 5-inch range—baits such as Rapala’s Husky Jerk, Bomber’s Suspending Long A and Yo-Zuri’s 3DB Jerkbait—catch the attention of feeding walleyes. Walleyes often respond better to a steadier retrieve, so resist the urge to imaprt much stop-and-go movement.

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Soft swimbaits also excel in this situation. Popular models include Storm’s WildEye Live Minnow and WildEye Swim Shad. These pre-rigged swimbaits, which feature a belly hook in addition to the classic single swimbait hook, are well-suited for catching ’eyes that zero-in on the lure in the faster current. Too, soft swimbaits allow the angler to control the depth at which they are fished simply by altering the rate of the retrieve.

A lot of high-potential water is missed during a drift since the boat is moving at a good clip, so it’s smart to make multiple passes to cover all areas. Riffles too shallow to be drifted in a boat provide good options for the shore/wade angler.

double walleyes
After the spawn, many of a reservoir’s larger females retreat to deep basins, where they gorge on pelagic baitfish. (Photo by Jeff Knapp)

LAKES AND RESERVOIRS

Shallow Bite

During the early part of the season, when water temperatures usually hover in the mid-50s, it’s common for a fair percentage of the walleye population to be in shallow water. This is particularly true on lakes with dingy water. The most productive areas will likely be close to spawning areas, so seek out bottom composition made up of gravel and smaller rocks, especially along what’s commonly the windswept portion of the lake. If emerging weed growth is present—submergent species such as milfoil, coontail and various pondweeds—so much the better.

Walleyes can be scattered at this time, gradually dispersing from the shallows where they spawned. Thus, a mobile approach that covers the water is often most productive. This includes trolling and controlled drifting.

In this scenario (for daytime fishing) consider depths from around 8 to perhaps 12 feet. These are ideal depths to cover with shad-imitating crankbaits such as number 5 and 7 Rapala Shad Raps, and 2 1/2-inch Cordell Wally Divers. Baitfish are smaller during the early spring; therefore, smaller crankbaits tend to be more effective. Add a heavy split shot or two to when trolling over depths of 10 to 12 feet.

In the cool water of the early season, slower trolling speeds of 1.5 to 1.75 mph usually produce best. Line-counter reels make it easy to track line let-out and replicate success when it is achieved.

Breezy days—and it’s usually windy during early spring—add controlled drifting to the mix. Position the boat upwind of the targeted area and drift over it while training a jig-and-minnow combo.

Early spring often includes some great nighttime bites. Target the same general areas, but move shallower—roughly 4 to 6 feet deep. Shallow-running Shad Raps and minnow baits are tops. Hand-hold rods when trolling at night so you can detect when hooks become fouled. Spinning rigs (as opposed to traditional level-wind trolling outfits) allow you to quickly clear hooks and then fire back a cast to resume fishing.

LAKES AND RESERVOIRS

Mid-Depth Bite

As water temperatures reach the low- to mid-60s there is often a noticeable shift in walleye location to slightly deeper water. This is especially true on clearer lakes and reservoirs that feature submerged weeds that extend into 10- to 15-foot depths.

Walleyes will still be somewhat scattered. A mobile approach that covers water is often best, with crawler harnesses leading the way. Crawler harnesses, also called spinner rigs, employ a two-hook, 4- to 5-foot snell that’s typically baited with a nightcrawler. The leading portion of the rig features a spinner and a few beads. It’s a classic combination of lure and live bait that accounts for thousands of walleyes nationwide each year.

Structure edges, soft-to-hard bottom transitions, weed edges and stump fields all are fair game for a spinner rig. When the rig is fished behind a bottom-bouncer sinker, the presentation can be kept close to the boat. The rule of thumb is to fish a weight heavy enough to maintain about a 45-degree angle of the line to the water while slowly trolling .8 to 1.25 mph. My partners and I fish heavy, 3-ounce bottom bouncers in 15 feet of water. This keeps the line much more vertical, allowing for a more precise presentation when working the spinner around outside weed edges.

Let out just enough line that the sinker ticks bottom only occasionally. Despite the name, the sinker should not consistently bounce along the bottom. Spinner rigs and bottom bouncers perform better when rods are placed in holders. Soft-action rods allow fish to “hang” themselves before the rod is removed from the holder, resulting in more landed fish.

Walleye
When water temps hit the low 60s, walleyes often disperse throughout the mid-depths of clear-water lakes and reservoirs. Cover lots of water by trolling crawler harnesses. (Photo by Jeff Knapp)

LAKES AND RESERVOIRS

Deep-Basin Bite

In many lakes and reservoirs, a portion of the walleye population moves to deeper basins not long after the spawn, especially the larger females. It’s typically the smaller males that remain in the shallows. The presence of pelagic baitfish such as gizzard shad and alewives increase the odds of connecting with spring walleyes over deeper basins.

It’s often necessary to stay close to the bottom to trigger these early- to mid-spring walleyes, which is where lead-core line comes in. Lead-core line—comprising a thin lead filament encased in a nylon sheath—permits precise placement of crankbaits.

Lead-core line is relatively thick in diameter, requiring larger trolling reels. Though the line is color-coded every 10 yards, using a line-counter reel will greatly increase accuracy. Short 5- to 6-foot rods can be fished close to the boat, while 7 1/2- to 8-footers place lines away from the boat, minimizing tangles.

It’s fairly easy to fish lead-core line, as long as you pay close attention to your lines in the water. First, slowly pay out line until the lure starts bumping bottom. Then, recover line 5 feet at a time until it’s no longer doing so. Adjust for depth changes by taking in line or letting out more. The most successful lead-core trollers constantly tweak line let-out to keep the lure in the zone. Be aware, too, that you can get some nasty tangles fishing lead-core. Keep boat turns subtle. Troll with the wind when it’s blowing hard. And try to keep boat speed consistent. Speeding up will elevate lures; slowing down will allow them to sink.

Use at least a 5-foot leader of monofilament or fluorocarbon line to separate lead-core and lure—much longer in clear water. Any number of minnow- or shad-imitating lures can be effective. Be willing to experiment with lure profile and color, watch the sonar to fish areas showing baitfish and gamefish targets you suspect are walleyes and rework areas that produce bites.

Finally, keep in mind the nomadic nature of walleyes, as well as the potential for different populations to be doing different things based on food sources and available habitat. It’s all part of walleye fishing, and it’s what makes it at once challenging and satisfying.




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