North and South Dakota’s walleye season is easy to keep up with; it never closes. You can actually fish for (and hopefully catch) walleye all year long and April is the perfect time for getting on open water and trying your luck. Actually; luck has little to do with it and is more a matter of understanding where the fish are and just how active they might be.
Humminbird Pro and professional angler Johnnie Candle of Devil’s Lake, ND has spent countless days finding and catching walleyes on western reservoirs and shares with the readers some of his extensive knowledge. Candle on location: “Here on Lake on Oahe April means there is open water somewhere and includes the upper reaches of the reservoir which is more like a river here on down to the lake where the river widens out and slows down a bit. Fish can be just about anywhere but typically they start out in the lake and then migrate upstream as water temperatures and current levels increase. That includes the river above Bismark and as far as fifty or sixty miles south down to the Mobridge area. There is a ton of fish that winter there but come spring and the warming temps walleyes will start migrating upstream where they’ll finally end up on their spawning grounds, get their job done, and then head back to the lake. If you know where to look you can follow the migration and stay on the hottest bite which can all last a month or more.”
Finding suitable spawning areas is the biggest key to finding early season fish and Johnnie has a trick up his sleeve to help narrow it down. Johnnie on the shortcut: “The Humminbird 1198c on the dash of my boat has Side Imaging which provides a huge advantage over conventional depth finders and allows me to scan a shoreline and identify the hard bottom areas quickly and efficiently. With Side Imaging you can scan out to 250’ and identify bottom type, depth changes and breaks, as well as fish. I’ll usually stick with the 100’ range and display it across the screen which produces more definition and I can actually draw out the rocks and boulders which is simply amazing. Most of what you’re looking at is sand which shows up as dull grey or amber but the hard bottom like rocks and rubble will be a bright white and if I see enough of it I’ll drop a waypoint on it and come back later to fish it. What I’m looking for is a several stretches in a given area that run at least twenty yards in length or more. The small patches really don’t attract that many fish and more is definitely better.”
Techniques for catching fish can vary a bit and depends on the given conditions. Candle’s plan of attack: “What I do depends on how shallow the fish are holding and a lot of that depends on water levels and current. A lot of current can push fish in tighter behind current breaks and is when they are less likely to be found out in deeper water and when I’m more apt pitch or drag jigs. Light current can mean deeper fish that are more spread out and when I might use a trolling technique like pulling crankbaits on Fireline or leadcore.
Fish inside four feet of water have to be pitched because a boat in that shallow will spook too many fish. I’ll point the nose of the boat upstream and drop the Terrova in and use it to slowly slide downstream while I work the rocks with a light jig. If I pick up a fish; I’ll hit the anchor function of the electric motor which takes over automatically and holds the boat in one place allowing me to really work an area over before moving on. I’ll use an 1/8 or ¼ ounce Knuckle Ball jig tipped with a plastic trailer like a 3” Gulp Emerald Shiner and pitch it up shallow and work it very slowly back to the boat while trying to feel when it gets picked up. When I get deeper than four feet I like to use a straight up and down vertical approach which includes setting the speed on the Terrova to match the current and use a controlled drift downstream while lifting and dropping the jig on the bottom. I’ll use the same jig and plastic trailer but use a heavier jig depending on the current and will use just enough to stick with the bottom.”
Other great shallow water pitching baits include Northland Tackles Fireball Jig and the Thumper Jig tipped with a plastic body like the new Impulse 3” Smelt Minnow. The Thumper Jig has a built in spinner that creates extra flash and vibration and has been superhot on reservoir walleyes in the spring. The new plastics are now so good that you can bring the real thing along if you want but really isn’t necessary. Spinning gear is also a must for pitching and vertical jigging light jigs and a rod with a light tip and good feel can mean more fish hooked and landed. The Omen 6’3”medium action rod from 13fishing is perfect for the technique and has a superfast tip that provides incredible feel. Feel is going to help you tell the difference between pulling into a rock or the subtle tap of a walleye picking it up and the extra fast tip is going to allow for more solid hook sets and is when the fun really begins.
Deeper fish can be readily picked off by slowly trolling the right crankbait and Johnnie starts with Fireline but will go to leadcore if he has to. Candle on cranking it up: “I like to use a Berkley Flicker Shad with Fireline and troll along current breaks or seams and head upstream just fast enough to keep the bait working. If I’m tolling through deeper water like down to 18’ or so I’ll go to leadcore which gets the lure down more quickly and gives me better control. In either case trolling cranks is an efficient method to cover water and on any given day might be the best way to put fish in the boat.”
It’s all there including the fish and the opportunity. A trip to a big reservoir out west can be the perfect way to get the open water season started. Good days can be absolutely incredible while the tough ones are usually still pretty darn good. See you on the water.