We pulled up on the base of a reef complex that stretches way out into Rainy Lake on the Minnesota side. Rocks were visible a few feet under the surface at the high points, but bottom was invisible through the stained water around the edges where depths reached 6 to 8 feet.
Pitching soft plastics on light jigs to the darker edges and troughs, we caught almost 40 walleyes before noon. Off in the distance, we could see a dozen boats working deeper water. As we neared the end of the last reef, we heard a hardy, “Hullo there.” I turned to see a walleye angler from the distant fleet backtrolling past over depths of 20 feet or more. I squinted at him in the bright midday sun.
“Hello,” I called. “Any luck?”
“Really slow this time of day,” he said. “We caught a couple at daybreak. It picks up again in the late afternoon. How about you? Any luck?”
“We’re fishing for smallmouths,” I said, which was true enough. “We caught a few.” Also true. We wished each other better luck and he trolled on by. We went back to catching walleyes that tried to wrench the rods out of our hands on the strike. He went back to subtle taps and missed hooksets until the sun began to set.
This occurs on the bays of Lake Michigan, the shorelines of Lake Erie, small lakes, large lakes and reservoirs across the Midwest. In May and well into June, walleyes crowd into shallow water with few anglers there to greet them. Sometimes the pattern centers on rocks, sometimes around developing weed beds, but the best early bite consistently takes place in less than 10 feet of water everywhere we go.
Shallow flats always have bait—especially in spring when solar energy accelerates the food chain. Plankton blooms fastest in skinny water, drawing minnows. Most of the minnows and young perch that walleyes hunt for are shallow when the water is still warming. Pike, muskies, largemouth and smallmouth bass, perch and other panfish can always be found near shallow rocks and weed beds at this point of the season.
From May through mid-June, walleyes and bass both tend to go gonzo in shallow water for a swimming jig tipped with a plastic grub or an action-tail worm in the 4- to 5-inch range. Another prime tactic this time of year is working a suspending jerkbait slowly with long pauses. Depending on the size of the predominant baitfish in the area, we might pitch smaller ones, like the Lucky Craft Pointer 78, or larger ones, like the Rapala HJ12 Husky Jerk. Shallow-diving suspending baits like those get down four to six feet. The key is pulling it to its running depth, pausing for a full 30 seconds, then barely twitching the bait. Slowly pull it a few feet forward and repeat the process.
Greg Bohn is a Wisconsin guide who puts clients on 10-pound walleyes like Christian Yelich hits baseballs—at a record pace. For Bohn, weeds are more than cover. They’re indicators, gauges, pointers and signs on his dashboard.
“I’m always excited anticipating how the weeds are going to be developed when the season opens in Wisconsin,” Bohn says. “Lakes can be frozen on the opener, and I’ve seen openers with weeds already 3 feet high. It’s a guessing game until you get out there and investigate.”
In a warm spring, all weeds are tall, and chances are good that walleyes will be in and around some variety of “cabbage.” What anglers commonly refer to as cabbage is mostly clasping-leaf pondweed. But most seasons start with a different weed, elodea, which is Bohn’s best early indicator.
“It takes time for some species to develop,” Bohn says. “So you have a growth line shallow right away, and it progresses deeper during that first month of the season until you find yourself fishing around different species at different depths in June than you did in May.
“Elodea is available right at ice-out,” he says. “It grows anywhere from a couple feet out to about 8 feet—sometimes even 10 feet deep. Find elodea and you’ll definitely find walleyes because it’s the only game in town. Perch are looking for weeds to spawn on most years when the only green weed existing early is elodea. Elodea grows to a height of 10 inches to a foot. It’s a great weed to start searching for early in 2- to 4-foot depths. Generally happens first in bays where the water warms up sooner than the lake.”
It’s a great weed to swim plastics over, too.
“There’s something about certain weed beds that draw big fish every year,” Bohn says. “One particular weed bed on a lake will continue pulling big fish at a certain point of the season all your life. The attraction? Sometimes it’s a steep drop along one edge into deeper water. Sometimes it’s boulders invading the weed edge. Sometimes it’s consistency of growth year-to-year. Could be they spent a lot of their young life there because the bed is close to spawning habitat. Little idiosyncrasies that make it attractive in ways we can’t see—that progression is the neatest thing to follow.”
Walleyes are attracted to peak growths of different species of weeds as they develop, but other conditions might determine how walleyes use weeds.
“Walleyes come in and out of weeds a lot,” Bohn says. “They react immediately to a change in the chop or a change in the light around weeds. Look for them where the deep edge is shaded. And look for them where the wind is blowing into a weed bed. Wind will push walleyes much shallower.”
Bohn uses a 7-foot-1-inch, medium-power, fast-action G. Loomis BSR8524 with 10-pound Stren Magnathin to pitch plastics to walleyes early
“Soft jerks in minnow shapes work in 55- to 75-degree water,” he says. “Kalin’s and Berkley grubs excel. Paddle-tail minnows and small swimbaits—a lot of plastics work, but I have my best luck in really warm water with 3-, 4- and 5-inch action tails that resemble leeches and crawlers in the water. Ring worms and grubs can be hot.”
Bohn often relies on leeches early in the season. Fishing with Al Lindner years ago on Minnesota’s Leech Lake, we pitched 1/16-ounce jigs tipped with fatheads on 4-pound mono to developing weed beds in the weeks following the opener. But in recent years, I’ve started the season pitching plastics around rocks instead.
Rock reefs and rock piles that top out at 2 to 6 feet hold walleyes early on, especially where the wind is blowing in and the deep edge is shaded. Isolated boulders and boulder fields, where shade is always available, can be key spots. Even a light chop can drive walleyes into 2 or 3 feet of water, but 5- to 8-foot depths typically hold more fish.
Lindner showed me how much fun it is to fish walleyes on 4-pound line, so I’ve adapted my gear accordingly. Rods include the 8-foot St. Croix Avid AVS80MLM2 and the 7-foot-9-inch Elliott Rods ES79L-F, designed by Gregg Thorne. Long, light-power shock absorbers like those send casts a mile with 4-pound Maxima Ultragreen and consistently wrestle in big ’eyes. Braids work, but mono resists sinking, allowing you to slow the presentation.
Our most productive baits are ring worms, grubs and soft swimbaits. Hair jigs—bunny strips, marabou, bucktails and fox-hair jigs—can be deadly, too. Colors should be natural in clear water, imitating perch, baby bass or emerald shiners. Watermelon or green pumpkin worms and grubs are highly effective there. In cloudy water, walleyes tend to trigger for chartreuse fire tails, green metal flake or both.
Make long casts past the dark, shaded edges of reefs, rock piles and boulders. Allow the jig to drop to the bottom or just above and begin reeling. The retrieve should be extremely slow. If the jig drags on bottom, speed up. If it never touches bottom, slow down. The same tactic works around developing weed beds. Strikes can feel like a little tap or an aggressive, rod-bending jolt.
Ramps might be crazy places on the opener, but boats tend to head way out there. Chances are good the shallows will be unattended. No finicky, half-hearted bites. No waiting for low-light periods. Just day-long, rod-bending encounters with hungry walleyes.
Ring worms, grubsand soft swimbaits—like the 3 3/4-inch Bio Bait’s DNA Swimbait (above, top), 5-inch Kalin’s Lunker Grub (middle) and 4-inch Case Plastics Ring Worm (bottom)—catch walleyes all summer long. Early in the season, present them on 1/16- to 3/32-ounce mushroom-style jigheads like the VMC Half-Moon Jig (bottom) and the Hard Hat Jigs Dead Bolt (middle). Later in the summer, move to deep weed edges and deeper rocks with 1/8- to 1/4-ounce versions.
Walleyes can’t seem to leave the VMC Moon Eye Jig (top) alone. It has the classic appeal of huge eyes on each side of the head. The Moon Eye is versatile, working equally well with live bait. It’s a great choice for pitching minnows in spring.
If pitching minnows, have a few varieties along—shiners, fatheads and chubs in the 1 1/2- to 3-inch range. Drop minnows to the bottom to struggle against the jig then swim-hop them gently, pausing on the bottom, and repeat all the way back to the boat. Retrieve plastics slowly and steadily near the bottom.For more info on these plastics and jigheads, check out Bio Bait, Case Plastics, Kalin’s, VMC and Hard Hat Jigs.