By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson
North America is dotted with reservoirs and flowages. Their importance to angling cannot be overstated. In some states, like Illinois, they make up the vast majority of lakes.
Whether built to control floods, provide drinking water, cool nuclear power plants or provide transportation for the logging industry in the past, these impoundments host a variety of fish, including walleyes. In some, the walleyes were in the rivers before they were dammed. Walleyes are present in others thanks to extensive stocking efforts.
Walleyes in reservoirs act very much like their counterparts in natural lakes. But, differences do exist whether the fish were naturally present in the system or whether biologists stocked river-strain walleyes or lake-strain walleyes. Knowing the differences is critical for success, especially early in the year, said Tommy Skarlis, 40, of Waukon, Iowa.
As a two-time Ranger Cup Champion and 2004 Professional Walleye Trail Angler of the Year, Skarlis has seen reservoirs all over the Midwest and the South and he understands how to fish them and the rivers connected to them. “If you love fishing jigs or fishing shallow or both, reservoirs in spring are an excellent place to do that,” he said.
The first step is to do a little homework. Check in with the state Department of Natural Resources to see how the walleyes arrived in the reservoir. Were they already there when the dam was formed? If stocked, what strain of fish are they, river or lake?
Their genetic history will dictate how they act. Fish present in the rivers before the reservoirs were built will travel upstream into rivers and feeder streams until they reach the next dam or a natural barrier. Stocked river-strain fish will behave the same way, seeking out the current and traveling upstream to spawn. Their success will depend on whether appropriate habitat is available.
Lake-strain walleyes, on the other hand, don’t necessarily make the run into waterways emptying into the reservoir. They’re more likely found in creek arms off the main lake where they use hard-bottom wind-swept points. Look for spots likely to warm into the 40’s first. “The biggest key is to look for places where the channel swings close to the points. Focus on turns in the channel just before and just after the point where the channel makes contact with the point,” he said.
Whether river or lake, exactly where you find the fish determines what presentation to use.
Skarlis prefers two tactics to fishing spawning walleyes in rivers. One is slip jigging. The other is targeting shallow sand and gravel flats with jigs.
For slipping, Skarlis doesn’t agree with others who think the only good jig is a small jig. He normally stays with a three-eighths ounce jig in most cases. He’ll step up to a five-eighths ounce jig in stronger current. “If a guy is in current, he won’t catch fish if he can’t feel the bottom where the walleyes are,” Skarlis said.
His top choices are Fuzz-E-Grub jigs or Lindy Max Gap jigs dressed with a plastic trailer, such as a Thumpin’ Grub with a minnow or a scented Gulp without live bait. His favorite colors include high-vis chartreuse, orange, white or pearl.
He uses high-vis super lines, like flame-green 8-pound test with a three-pound diameter, to cut water resistance and help him line-watch to detect light bites.
He turns his boat into the current or the wind, lowers the bait to the bottom and uses his Minn Kota bow-mounted trolling motor to match current speed and keep the jig right below the boat. He targets bends, hard-bottom flats near deeper holes and eddies wherever you find them. In high water typical in spring, move toward the dams and look for slack water areas behind any natural or manmade obstructions. Find clearer water emptying into the main river from creeks or factory discharges.
Shallow fish can be spooked by boats overhead. Better to stay back and pitch small one-sixteenth or one-eighth-ounce jigs. In really stained water, he turns to Rattlin’ Max Gaps. Smaller Max Gaps which feature large hooks, shine for this purpose. Don’t forget the minnows. His favorite colors include bubblegum, parrot and watermelon. “But, you’re moving and grooving. If you’re sitting in one spot waiting to find the right color, you’re dying. You’re looking for that one active fish. It only takes one stupid one to give away the whole school,” he said.
He’ll still pitch jigs when going after lake-strain walleyes on points in the creek arms. Concentrate on spots with the wind blowing in on the point.
But, Skarlis also loves to cast crankbaits when he’s targeting shallow walleyes relating to brush piles, old weedbeds and other cover. He uses shallow running stick baits, like Dave’s Kaboom Shiners, a Reef Runner Lil’ Ripper or Frenzy Suspending Firestick. Cast it, twitch it, jerk it and let it float back up. Find a slow, jerky movement that triggers a strike. Try bumping it off a rock pile or a dock. “I get down and dirty and risk losing some baits. But, the rewards could be monstrous,” he said.
If fish are staged a little deeper off of hard-bottom points, he’ll turn to deeper-diving Reef Runner Rip Shads or Dave’s Kaboom Goodie Minnow or Ruff Guy. The slow side-to-side roll is what fish prefer in the cold water of spring as opposed to more lively baits used in summer. In cleaner water, he goes with metallics, pearl or white. He stays with fluorescent brighter perch or bluegill colors in stained or dirty water.
Skarlis also has turned on the “Headlights” from Headlightlures.com. The product uses fiber optics to collect available light to create the illusion of an iridescent fish eye. The glow also attracts fish from a wider range. He attaches the Headlights onto jigs, especially chartreuse Fuzz-E-Grubs. He also modifies lures by drilling holes to attach a Headlight. Be sure to glue the hole well.
Reservoirs offer fishing opportunities as well as challenges. Take advantage of what they have to offer.