May 15, 2021
Note: This article was featured in the Midwest edition of May's Game & Fish Magazine. How to subscribe
The wind coming off Green Bay is cold in May. Water temperatures usually range from 41 degrees on the main body to 54 in the back ends of small bays. Offsetting the chill, however, is the hot fishing available as walleyes of all sizes gather on shallow flats in the area’s bays and harbors.
These fish—and other predators—congregate here in pursuit of small baitfish, which are themselves drawn to the shallower, warmer water. In a decade of fishing these same flats specifically for smallmouth in May, I’ve had astounding walleye days, including many where I’ve caught some truly large fish.
A similar phenomenon occurs in shallow water on inland lakes as well. Fish can generally be found in depths of 4 to 10 feet all over the Midwest where light winds blow into shore and create a shallow food chain. When winds are light, surface waters warmed by the sun are pushed into large pockets, which draw baitfish, smallmouths, walleyes and other predators. Meanwhile, strong winds stir up deeper, colder water and create calm areas on the leeward side of bays, points and islands.
While often big—especially on Green Bay—these shallow-water walleyes can be a little lethargic in the cold water. In my experience, this means they rarely chase quick presentations with crankbaits or heavy jigs. Instead, a slow pull-and-stop retrieve and tediously long pauses with baits that suspend perfectly are what yield constant rod-bending action. One bait in particular satisfies this need: the suspending jerkbait.
Walleyes finish spawning right after ice-out up north—earlier south of the ice belt. By May, post-spawn doldrums are long gone. Ravenous ’eyes are on the prowl for the largest bait concentrations, and they almost always find them shallow.
On big lakes, large bays are the key areas. Because bays are somewhat enclosed, wind strength is subdued from at least three directions. While the warmest waters are usually found in small bays, canals and man-made harbors, don’t ignore deeper water entirely. Walleyes like having some depth nearby when the weather goes sideways, so look for these types of shallow water somewhat adjacent to deep water.
On midsize and smaller lakes, walleyes might be found along any shoreline where light wind blows directly into shore. Watch the temperature readout on the sonar unit. Find the warmest water, and then focus efforts there.
Strong winds blowing into any shoreline concentrate walleyes in summer. This is not true in spring. However, in any season, wind history is key.
Light winds blowing into the same spots for three days or more can create a swirling, frenzied mayhem of bait and teeth, especially during stable weather. In those conditions, a steady barometer reading can signal the best fishing of the year.
With strong spring winds, look for calm areas where solar energy has a chance to warm the water. Plankton populations increase faster there, which draws baitfish. Walleyes follow.
Substrates don’t really matter. The hot bite can happen on rock, gravel, sand and even silt or muck. Food is what matters. Baitfish gather where plankton blows into shore or proliferates fastest. After a long winter, they seek warmth as much as food.
"The system works best when you have some wind blowing in on a shallow flat," says walleye fishing legend Al Lindner. "It’s great when you can put the wind at your back and launch suspending baits a long ways. Walleyes follow for long distances. Long casts not only cover more water but give you more time to trigger a strike."
Suspending baits become even more deadly on walleyes when paired with equipment that permits long casts and enhances feel. To achieve the distance Lindner refers to, spool up with a braided line. I like 8-pound Berkley FireLine, which really breaks at about 14 pounds but is five times thinner than mono of that strength. It’s also coated and forgiving when tying on fluorocarbon leaders with back-to-back uni knots.
In general, braid is highly beneficial as a main line for spring walleyes. Braids are thin and have little stretch, which improves casting distance, aids triggering ability, enhances hook-setting power and adds a little depth to your presentation. Because braids are thinner but opaque, they also render leaders that are less visible to walleyes than fluorocarbon or monofilament ones. And braid heightens feel, as well, which is crucial given the subtle tapping strikes of spring walleyes. As far as presentation is concerned when using braid, you know the lure is moving the same distance as the rod tip with each twitch, snap or pull of the rod.
An 8- to 10-pound Seaguar fluoro leader, meanwhile, adds stealth with a modicum of stretch. Where walleyes often tip the scales to 8 pounds or more, I want a leader that’s at least 5 feet long. But, in general, a 3-foot leader is more than enough for stealth.
A 7-foot, medium-light-power rod like the Elliott Rods ES7ML-F is right for cold water, subtle retrieves and smaller lures. A 7 1/2-foot medium-power rod like the Elliott Rods ES76M-F with a moderate action is optimum for longer sweeps, better lure control and better hook-setting power with larger baits. Elliott Rods have Syncork handles, which are 30 percent lighter and more sensitive than cork, providing better feel.
Combine the longer rod with a slightly oversized spinning reel for added casting distance. Generally, a 2500 or 3000 series reel is just about right. Slightly larger spools release fewer coils, producing less friction.
SLOW, SHORT AND SUBTLE
The right retrieve in cold water (less than 50 degrees) is slow and subtle. You want short pulls and long pauses. As the water warms, the classic retrieve is the sweep-pause, which requires that slightly longer rod.
Some suspending baits, like the Rapala RipStop, flit like a dragon’s tongue—slick, slithery, quick to respond with crazy action. This is not desirable in cold water. Early versions like No. 10 or 12 Rapala Husky Jerks and Smithwick Suspending Rogues—two of the first minnow baits designed to suspend on the pause—fool many shallow walleyes in spring because the action is subdued. It’s hard to make these lures “dance.” Which is good, because walleyes won’t dance in 45-degree water.
In cold water, make a long cast, pull the lure down to its running depth and pause. Twitch it slightly and pause again. Then pull it slowly for 2 feet—just fast enough to feel the lure begin to wobble. Pause for 30 seconds and twitch the lure again. Repeat all the way to the boat and watch behind the lure for followers. Be sure to wear polarized glasses to help you see fish.
As the water warms to over 50 degrees, Lucky Craft Pointers produce, but Rapala Shadow Raps and Megabass OneTens start to shine as well. Cast the lure out, pull it down, feed a little slack during the pause and then snap the rod tip forward, turning the lure sideways. Snap it three times to “walk the dog” and pause. Pauses don’t have to be as long in warming water.
Modify the force of the snap and it ultimately becomes possible to dance the lure in place 6 feet under the surface. Try that with mono and, at the end of a long cast, the lure barely moves due to line stretch. Follow that with a long, sideways sweep, moving the lure about 4 feet. Pause and repeat back to the boat, again looking for followers.
Let the lure sit while reeling up the slack and returning the rod tip to the starting position—straight out in front with the tip pointing down. Experiment with the length of the pause. Sometimes it’s a few seconds, other times it takes 30 seconds or longer before reluctant biters close on the lure and take it.
The shallow-water jerkbait bite can be incredibly productive on spring walleyes in colder water. Find a flat with water warmer than surrounding areas, cast your jerkbait with the wind as far as you can and then pull it to running depth. Pause. Twitch. Set the hook on any light taps that feel right.