Conquering early season walleyes can be a formidable task, and has sent many an angler home disappointed as well as empty handed. The thing is, it doesn’t have to be that way, and success is often just a short distance away. The key is keeping an open mind, and reacting to the given conditions.
The first consideration is where walleyes can be expected to be found, and what kind of mood they might be in. The common factor among early season walleyes, wherever they are, is shallow water. From lakes to reservoirs, walleyes can be found relating to shallow water structure, early in the open water season. Good shallow fish attracting structure, includes rocks, weeds, timber, as well as sand flats and breaks, depending on what’s available.
From ice out until late spring, and even in to early summer, walleyes can be found living and loafing in relatively shallow water. One of the first things on their little minds, after a lake has finally shed it’s last layer of ice, is getting on with the annual spawning ritual. Incoming creeks and rivers are the first to see any major spawning run, and can accelerate the spawning season by three weeks or more. Creeks and rivers are the first areas to warm up, and the main reason for the early action.
Rocky shorelines are the nest area to see spawning activity, followed by offshore reefs and bars. From the time the first walleyes show up in an incoming creek, until the last fish complete their duties on a deeper offshore reef, three or four weeks may have passed. The thing to keep in mind is that groups of fish can be found in all different phases of the spawning cycle, at the same time.
One of the keys to early season success is finding the areas that hold the largest, and most active schools of fish. With the shallow water fact having been established, it gets down to just exactly which shallow areas to key on. Everything being equal, look for areas that may be warmer than the rest, even if it’s only a degree or two. That would suggest northern most shorelines, as they receive the largest benefit of a warming sun.
Another key is wind, which can pile up warmer surface waters on the windward side of the lake. The mouths of incoming creeks and rivers are another place to look, and can attract plenty of early season ’eyes. Another adjustment is going as light as possible with your presentations, especially when it comes to rigging and jigging. For example; A few years back I was pre-fishing for an upcoming tournament on Mille Lacs Lake, in Central Minnesota, as well as over a hundred other competitors, to be held in mid May. The going had been a little rough for most of the field, except for one guy who was knocking the fish dead, and he was doing it with a pretty big audience. That guy was none other than Mark Leadens, from Elk River, Minnesota. Those that saw wanted to know, but Mark wasn’t telling anyone, except me.
Mark was working a gravel patch in the middle of a sand flat, and was rigging with leeches, like everyone else. The difference was a couple of small adjustments he made in his live bait rig, that the rest of the crowd hadn’t picked up on. The biggest difference was the size and type of weight he was using, which was nothing more than a 1/16 ounce barrel sinker. Mark was also using a long snell, in the six to eight foot range, and was long lining the rig forty to fifty feet behind the boat, as he slowly trolled along with the electric motor. The light weight allowed him to get out plenty of line, without it dropping into the rocks and becoming snagged. The rig also made for more fish hooked, as they were less apt to feel any resistance and spit the bait. Going as light as you can, whenever you find fish shallow, is never, ever, a bad idea.
Another highly effective method for yanking walleyes from shallow water, is light lining jigs. The method includes trolling or casting a small jig tipped with a leech, minnow, crawler, or plastic twister tail. The lighter you can go, and still be effective, the better. Much like the Leaden’s light weight rig, small jigs can be trolled, or cast, through the same snag infested areas, with a minimal amount of hang ups. Jigs in the 1/16 to 1/32 ounce sizes are the ticket. The key is using just barely enough weight to keep the bait in the zone, and in front of the fish. This method will also allow you to keep the bait a good distance from the boat, which can be a big advantage when dealing with walleyes that tend to be more than a little spooky. When casting a light jig, you’ll have to exercise a little patience, as it’s going to take a lot more time to get to the bottom. The most important thing is getting to the bottom. If a heavy wind is keeping you off the bottom and out of the zone, you’ll have to go up in size. A 1/4, 3/8, or even a 1/2 ounce jig may be in order.
The good news is that a heavy wind may negate the need to stay with the super light presentation, as walleyes can become much more brave, and approachable, under the cover of a little wave action. See you on the water.
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