SPRING WALLEYES: KEY LOCATIONS AND STRATEGIES FOR SUCCESS
By: Nick Lindner
Why is spring walleye fishing awesome?
First of all, it feels great to be back in the boat again. Our augers are all packed up and the long rods are tuned and ready to go. The weather is getting warmer and some of the best walleye fishing of the season has arrived.
For those of you that love fishing shallow, this is probably your favorite time of year. Personally, I love combing the shallows in search of wandering post-spawn walleyes. It’s an active style of fishing that keeps me engaged and excited all day long.
Most of the anglers that don’t have success with spring walleyes are generally fishing too deep. It’s no secret that fish are quite shallow this time of year, but many walleye guys just can’t seem to steer themselves away from the deeper structure.
The more you understand the seasonal movements of the fish you’re chasing, the better you’ll be able to stay on the bite. Walleyes spawn quite early in the year, typically when water temperatures are in the mid 40’s. The exact number is going to vary from lake-to-lake, of course, but it will generally be somewhere between 44-48F.
One of the big keys to finding walleyes in the spring is knowing where they spawned just a few weeks before. This tends to be on some form of shallow water rock or gravel, and when I say “shallow”, I’m talking 3-6 feet of water. Depending on the lake (or area of the lake) you’re fishing, walleyes will either spawn on main lake shorelines or in feeder rivers and creeks.
Walleyes tend to go back to their old spawning grounds year after year, so once you figure out where they’re dumping their eggs, you’ll have some valuable information you can rely on for years to come.
Here’s a couple graphics that will help you understand how walleyes move from their spawning grounds, to their post-spawn areas, and finally to their summer haunts:
Look for shallow water structure between those spawning grounds and some of your favorite main lake summertime spots. These in-between areas may contain rock or emerging vegetation. The fish can be found throughout these mid-depth food shelfs, though they may be relating to the structure differently based on their mood.
What does that mean?
When fish are in a positive mood, they tend to spend their time up on top of structure, actively hunting for food. Horizontal presentation can be extremely effective in these situations because they cover water quickly and trigger strikes from walleyes that are looking to bite.
When fish are in a less favorable mood, they begin relating to the stair-step contour changes on the edges of structure. When they are inactive like this, you need to slow down and tempt them with subtle vertical presentations. Zero in on their location by idling over the break and marking them on your electronics.
Sometimes, you can forecast the activity levels of the fish before you hit the water. If weather conditions have been steady and seasonably appropriate, there’s a good chance you’re going to run into some hungry walleyes.
If nighttime temperatures were below freezing the night before and water temperatures drop a few degrees, the fish are likely going to be in a negative mood.
That said, you can’t lean too hard on any assumptions once you’re on the water. The weather might be great, but the fish may be sluggish and holding tight on the breaks. You need to have an open mind every time you wet a line.
But what do you do when you finally know where they’re living?
Most anglers tend to target spring walleyes with a classic jig and minnow presentation. And while this is an effective way to get bit, don’t let yourself become a one-trick pony. Some of our best days on the water this time of year have been casting a variety of artificial baits.
Here are a few lure categories we like to use when we’re out on the hunt for spring walleyes:
Swimbaits are extremely versatile in that you can fish them very fast and cover water, but you can also slow way down and get bites from less active walleyes. Use a lighter 1/8 oz jig head when the water temperatures are still quite cold or when the fish are inactive. Upsize from there as the water continues to warm throughout the spring, both 1/4 oz and 3/8 oz jigs work great.
We typically use 4″ paddle tail swimbaits for this presentation. You can even downsize to 3″ when fish are being really finicky. A 3″ paddle tail paired with a 1/8 oz jig head is a killer finesse presentation when the water is cold in spring.
The easiest way to fish this bait is with a slow, steady swimming retrieve with some intermittent pumps mixed in here and there. It’s a great presentation for fan-casting around your boat. Swimbaits are easy to fish and they get bit.
Northland RZ Jig
VMC Moon Eye Jig
Keitech Swing Impact
Northland Impluse Core Swimbait
Big Bite Jerk Minnow
Jerkbaits are another great lure for covering water during the spring. Fish them with a slow pull-and-pause retrieve when the water temperatures are cold this time of year. When the fish are active, you can move these baits along pretty quickly, but when the water is still frigid and the fish are lethargic, you’ll want to take it nice and slow — with slower pulls and longer pauses.
You want the lure running a foot or so off the bottom, so make sure to choose your baits accordingly. If you’re fishing in 4 to 8 feet of water, use a shallow running jerkbait with a diving depth that keeps it just off bottom. If you’re fishing out deeper, make sure to select a deep diver or even a sinking jerkbait like the Shadow Rap. Walleyes are typically pretty tight to the bottom this time of year, so it’s important that your bait is in their strike zone.
Bagley Rumble B
Rapala Shadow Rap
Rapala Shadow Rap Shad
Shad-shaped crankbaits have been a mainstay for cold water walleye anglers for a LONG time. Fish them the same way you would fish jerkbaits in these conditions: slow pulls paired with intermittent pauses. The primary difference is that you’re bumping the bottom with crankbaits. Speed up your retrieve as water temperatures continue to climb throughout the spring.
Cranks can really shine when you’re fishing over rocks and rip rap that may otherwise cause snags when you’re using jigs or other falling baits. They can also be fished faster than swimbaits and jerkbaits generally speaking, which allows you to cover water more quickly.
One thing to keep in mind is that crankbaits can be difficult to cast, because they are often quite light and can blow around in the wind. To get the bait a long distance away from the boat, use light braided line with a four foot fluorocarbon leader (8-pound test).
Rapala Shad Rap
Bagley Balsa Shad
Berkley Flicker Shad
Lipless crankbaits can be absolutely dynamite, especially later in the spring when water temperatures are higher and you can fish them fast and aggressively. They are excellent tools for triggering hungry walleyes that are ready to eat.
The retrieve is fairly straightforward. Cast the bait out and let it sink down to the bottom. Rip it up and let it sink back down on a slack line. Continue this all the way back to the boat. The strike will typically come when the bait is in free fall or when it’s on the bottom, which means you aren’t likely to feel the bite until the next time you attempt to rip the bait off the bottom.
Bagley Rattlin’ B
Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap
Northland Rippin’ Shad
Rapala Rippin’ Rap
This is the most popular presentation for spring walleyes. It’s not always the most efficient way to catch them, but sometimes it’s the deal, plain and simple. It’s hard to beat meat when the bite gets tough.
This time of year, shiner minnows are king. High demand can make it tough to get your hands on them during the weekend, so make sure to plan ahead! Jig weight will vary from 1/16 oz to 3/8 oz depending on the mood of the fish. Drop speed can be huge with this presentation, so make sure to read the bite throughout the day. If you can get away with a heavier jig, go for it, but if the bite is tough, you may need to downsize to a smaller jig. This will force you to fish a lot slower.
Make sure you’re casting the bait as far away from the boat as possible. Many walleye anglers like a drift-and-drag style of fishing, but getting the bait away from the boat can be important this time of year. The boat can scare walleyes when you’re fishing up in shallow water.
Northland Fire-Ball Jig
Northland RZ Jig
Ultimately, the preference of the fish will determine your lure choice. One day might be a swimbait day, the next might be a jerkbait day. You never know, you might go out a few days later and not catch a single fish on either of those presentations.
Have a few of these lures tied up and test them throughout the day. You won’t know if they are willing to bite it until you toss it out there and see for yourself.