February 27, 2023
By Keith Jackson
Few things excite Midwest anglers more than catching a large walleye, and the pre-spawn period often offers them their best chance at tangling with one. Fish have spent the winter moving little and fattening up on whatever prey swims by them. Now, as rising temperatures trigger their natural drive to reproduce, they move toward key spawning areas, feeding along the way.
The best pre-spawn walleye anglers know where these fish are headed and understand where fish will be at each stage of the process. When they do find walleyes near spawning grounds, these folks capitalize on opportunities with the right baits and presentations. Let’s examine where to find pre-spawn walleyes—beginning with winter holding areas and ending with spawning habitat—and how to catch them once you do.
When, exactly, walleyes begin their journey from overwintering areas to spawning grounds varies immensely, depending on geography, type of waterbody and weather among other factors. On many lakes that freeze, it can coincide with ice-out. On others, it may begin well before the ice leaves. Farther south, where lakes never freeze, this migration may begin as early as February. Way up north, it may be closer to June.
In parts of the region where ice is a prominent factor, rivers often provide the first action. This, again, is a result of higher water temperatures. Open water warms quicker if it doesn’t have an ice cap, and, because of their current, rivers lose ice more quickly than similarly frozen lakes. Because of this, you’ll often see rivers in later stages of the pre-spawn and spawning processes than area lakes.
A general rule for most waters is that you’ll find walleyes holding in deeper water, out of the current, positioned where there will be little stress and strife. Often—and this is especially true in rivers—they are inactive, feeding only when they feel the need or when an enticing bait lands right in front of their faces. In rivers, fish in a winter holding pattern pick areas that offer depth so that they can move up or down as conditions change. They also tend to hold in non-current areas because they allow fish to expend less energy.
On many natural lakes that freeze up, pre-spawn walleyes can often be found in or near those same places where ice anglers caught them beneath the ice. These include areas with significant changes in bottom contour, such as reefs, points and rocks. Johnnie Candle, a Devils Lake resident, guide and pro angler, feels that many early open-water anglers venture toward spawning areas too soon after ice-out.
“In a lake, the water doesn’t shoot up 15 degrees immediately after the ice leaves,” he says. “After the water warms into the upper 30s or low 40s, that is when you’ll find fish up against rocky points or along gravel banks.”
When rising temperatures do finally prompt walleyes to begin their spawning journey, anglers should identify prime spawning habitat and nearby staging areas. For spawning, walleyes generally look for areas with a rock or gravel substrate and, ideally, current that provides oxygenation.
Candle likes targeting the rocky points and gravel banks mentioned earlier, especially if they’re in an area with incoming water from a creek or drainage from snow melt. Often, that water is warmer than the lake, and it will draw fish early on. He adds that virtually all lakes have some form of current, even if it’s only slight.
Walleyes orient toward current when they spawn, so finding it is important. Inflowing creeks and rivers are obvious choices, but don’t overlook additional options. Pinch points where water movement is restricted are other such areas, as are bridge pillars or abutments. Wind-driven current attracts walleyes, so windswept shorelines can produce, too.
Minnesota pro angler Mark Courts similarly targets areas of current on natural lakes. The first places he checks when the spawn grows nearer are the mouths of rivers and creeks. Absent those, he heads toward rocky or gravelly banks, particularly those adjacent to flats but with some edge or water depth—at least 3 or 4 feet.
Ed Callaway, a guide on Stockton Lake, one of Missouri’s premier walleye fisheries, says that Stockton fish move shallow and stay shallow just ahead of the spawn. This big lake has two rivers feeding it (the Big and Little Sac rivers), and he says you’ll find walleyes spawning there in various feeder creeks and near the dam.
Candle says the same thing happens on the much larger Missouri River. On South Dakota’s Lake Oahe, spawning walleyes head upstream to where the dam in North Dakota stops them. Meanwhile, 231 miles south of Oahe’s headwaters, near Pierre, walleyes similarly spawn near that dam.
To find the best success on rivers, lakes and reservoirs, anglers must look at where walleyes are headed and determine some of the logical staging areas adjacent to prime spawning grounds. These can be nearby drop-offs into deeper water, a deep flat, a creek mouth or a lengthy point extending out into deeper water. Basically, you’re looking for spots near shallower spawning areas that offer both a decent supply of food and access to deeper water. Changes in weather conditions—and, in turn, water temperatures—can either push fish forward to spawning habitat or send them back to staging spots.
As the season progresses and water temperatures rise, though, fish move shallower and closer to spawning grounds. They’ll become more active at night or in periods of low light, and once the spawn begins, most walleye activity occurs at night.
Of course, finding the fish is only half the battle; you need to catch them, too. This means presenting the right lure or bait in the right place at the right time.
Walleyes and jigging go together like eggs and bacon, and never is this truer than in the pre-spawn. Aside from when fishing for scattered fish in big lakes like Erie, a jig paired with live bait or a soft plastic is an excellent choice for most pre-spawn fishing. Generally speaking, a slow approach will be the best option. Water temperatures are often frigid in the pre-spawn period, and the metabolism—and aggressiveness—of fish is similarly cool. Fish are a little lethargic, and a slower retrieve or jigging stroke often produces, whereas a fast one may not.
With jigging, picking the right jig weight is critical, and this is often a balancing act in which you give up one thing to gain another. Ideally, you pick the lightest jig you can cast that will reach the bottom, the place where you’re likely to find walleyes. You can cast a heavy jig farther, but it will crash to the bottom much faster than a lighter jig. A light jig, meanwhile, may be harder to cast. It will also take longer to sink, and in current it might swim a bit on the way down, which is a good thing.
Dressing the jig is more a matter of preference than anything else. A simple rig is a jig head with a minnow or half a crawler. However, because color can also play a role in earning bites, soft plastics excel now too. If you go the plastics route, play around with colors until you find what fish want. Having said that, pearl, chartreuse or orange can all be good colors. White is another standby, especially in winter or in lakes or rivers where shad are a forage fish.
Scent is another important consideration. You can add it to your bait, use a scented plastic or simply use live bait. Candle doesn’t like dipping his hand into the cold water of a bait bucket when air temperatures are in the 30s or below, so he often prefers scented plastics like Berkley’s PowerBait and Gulp! products, as well as Z-Man’s Scented Curly TailZ and PaddlerZ. He also employs the tried-and-true Mr. Twister grub and Strike King’s Rage Tail Grub.
Another option to consider is a hair jig. While hair and marabou jigs have been around longer than soft plastics, VMC’s introduction of several new hair jigs is getting some traction in the walleye world. Tip a jig with a minnow or half a crawler, and you have a treat that walleyes find hard to resist. While VMC’s Twitchin’ Jig series is designed for salmon fishing, it’s equally useful for big pre-spawn ’eyes.
While jigs rightfully get the most play, other techniques can certainly produce. One of the more overlooked comes from the bass-fishing world: the drop shot. With the drop-shot rig, a hook is tied on the leader, with a long tag of leader left hanging below. Add a weight to the tag end and thread a soft plastic or bait on the hook. Vary the length of the tag based on how high walleyes are holding above bottom, and you end up with a freely-moving lure swimming at the proper depth. It’s like a floating jig fished on a short leader, another pre-spawn approach that can work.
In larger lakes, trolling slowly can be quite productive for covering lots of water. Your best lure options are generally a floating minnow plug, like the Rapala Original Floater, or a spinner of some kind. Spinners with plastic blades are the more logical choice because they can spin at much slower speeds than metal blades. Two of the more effective options are Northland’s Butterfly Blade and Mack’s Lure Smile Blade. As the water warms, hard jerkbaits and crankbaits come into play. Callaway likes a jerkbait fished with long pauses near the end of the day. Courts likes Berkley’s Hit Stick and small Flicker Shads fished along gravel, rock or even sand banks.
THE CHASE BEGINS
Late winter and early spring are exciting times for walleye addicts. These fish come alive as the ice goes out and water temperatures tick up toward the 40-degree mark. In some places, pre-spawn walleye fishing is how many officially ring in the start of the open-water season. Dedicated anglers willing to endure chilly weather boat some true giants each year. You can too. Just pin down where walleyes are in their spawning journey and put the right presentation in front of their noses.