Spring walleye tactics: Use these tips to land more walleyes this spring

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By Jason Mitchell

At this time of year, a new season of optimism awaits. In many states, the inland walleye seasons open in May, but even in states where there is no closed walleye season, such as the Dakotas, the open-water season kicks off on many natural lakes and some reservoirs during the same time.

What has always amazed me is how patterns and locations can sometimes vary from year to year. No two years are quite the same. For example, from year to year ice-out dates are inconsistent, surface water temperatures can vary and seasonal weather patterns can be all over the board.

Looking back, I can remember one specific year when we could still get on the ice in early May. On the other side of the coin have been years when we were bundled up in boats, finding fish in March over 30 feet of water. Of course, there have also been times when we found fish shallow.

Nothing surprises me anymore but there is often a method to the madness. The following are a few of my observations that will hopefully help you find and catch more fish during the early season.

Deep fish factors

When we look at early season walleye fishing, much of the talk often revolves around finding fish using shallow water. Shallow water is warmer, and finding walleyes early in the year often revolves around water temperature. However, there is a big exception to this rule.

Traveling fish often run deep, and unstable weather, along with wicked cold fronts that crash water temperatures, will also send fish deep. Whenever environmental factors cause walleyes to move multiple miles, these fish often follow the deeper contours. Why? It’s simply because these deep routes provide the shortest distance for walleyes to travel.

During periods of frigid and brutal weather, don’t be afraid to look deep and fast forward to locations offshore that you wouldn’t expect to catch fish until much later in the season. Speaking from experience, it took me many years to learn that lesson.

A steady progression of rising water temperatures and stable weather typically means classic patterns unfold on many fisheries, and this predictable walleye behavior works in the angler’s favor.

It’s important to remember that each body of water has a unique personality. On some bodies of water, the norm might be walleyes relating to 15- to 20-foot gravel bars, while 50 miles away on a different body of water you might anticipate fish in 5 to 10 feet of water along emerging weed lines.

On big bodies of water, find bays and other protected pools of water that are warming up at a quicker rate. Look to see if wind is stacking warmer water along a shoreline. Big water often demands finding these pockets of warmer water, which can be challenging.

Because water temperature can be so important to early season success, a tried-and-true strategy is to focus on smaller, more protected bodies of water that are a step ahead in warming up than other nearby lakes or reservoirs. You can sometimes fast forward by a week or two into a walleye’s biological clock by shifting to smaller lakes.

As a rule of thumb, cold water is usually much more clear. As the water warms up or is churned up by wind, the water will develop some color. This stain in the water often coincides with water temperature. Too much wind can hurt some bites when the water becomes turbid from wave action, but some color or stain is usually good.

Look into the water with polarized glasses and gauge its visibility. A general rule of thumb I like to use for starting out on a lake is to double the depth that I can see. In other words, if I can see down to 5 feet, I start fishing in 10 feet of water.

This rule of thumb often gets me pretty close to the zone most of the time during stable weather, but, as I mentioned earlier, there are always exceptions, such as when wicked weather fronts crash water temperatures and send fish deep.

Location dictates presentation

Many anglers assume that they must fish slow and methodically early in the season. In fact, on many bodies of water, anglers will be slinging a rig or perhaps a jig as they fish for early season walleyes.

Don’t always assume that time of year or water temperatures should dictate the presentation. If fish are clumped on a small location or holding on a “spot on the spot,” it’s wise to use a surgical presentation like a jig or live-bait rig.

If fish are fanned out over large spots like channel edges or flats, however, don’t be afraid to troll crankbaits or even a spinner harness. The key to catching fish is matching up the presentation to the location so that you can efficiently fish through the spot.

Typically, on most fisheries there will be several patterns emerging, and this variety of location types and patterns is further exaggerated by the fact that when May arrives many walleyes are wrapping up their spawning activities. This means anglers can often target male walleyes that continue to linger in current and hard-bottom areas. At times, classic spawning locations such as bottle necks, riprap areas, and rubble or rock shorelines can hold male walleyes long after the females vacate these locations, sometimes for a month or even longer.

In reservoirs a population of walleyes can often be found deep as they follow the edges of old river channels. As the water temps continue to climb, post-spawn females will often slide up onto shallow sand flats to warm up.

Because these productive patterns and locations can often be a moving target, don’t get attached to just one pattern or type of location. Be flexible, and take samples of different locations and patterns until you get into the groove.

50 shades of gold

Because of the amount of distance some fish move or travel during the spring, there are different populations of fish living completely different lives on most of the areas top walleye fisheries. Some fish won’t travel far over their entire life, while some fish put on several hundred miles.

Another general rule to keep in mind is walleyes that have not been traveling great distances will have darker and more robust coloration, while walleyes that put on a lot of miles appear pale and washed out. Simply stated, fish with dark and robust colors have been hanging out in the same location while the paler fish are transition fish.

Both types of fish can be targeted, patterned and caught, but having a grasp on what these fish are doing can make you much more efficient.

Note that on some fisheries the fish are constantly roaming, moving and on the go. As a result, these walleyes are typically pale. Each body of water also has its own characteristics, as some lakes produce green and gold walleyes, whereas other fish look almost black depending on the water body they call home. On many fisheries, however, you will have what many would consider a normal-looking walleye, and then there are much paler fish.

Some anglers believe that shallow fish have a darker complexion and deeper fish get pale and that this difference in color is a result of sun penetration. My personal belief is that this change in color is caused by stress. You can take a dark-colored walleye and put it in your live well with the lid open and the fish will often lighten up in color within an hour, a change primarily caused by stress.

River fish

For many walleye anglers across the upper Midwest, some of the first open-water walleye fishing opportunities occur each year on river systems. While each river system is unique, river walleyes will follow some of the same general rules regardless of where they swim. For example, how walleyes relate to current and set up on current seams is somewhat universal.

When fishing rivers, look for the “right” water color. Incoming tributaries and culverts are prime locations for finding spring walleyes on river systems. This incoming current is often warmer, and there are often washout holes, channels and current seams where fish can rest.

Water color, however, is the trump card. High water can cause turbidity in the water and can also contain a lot of debris. Some incoming tributaries have more turbidity than others after a rapid snow melt or rain. In some cases, you might have to move upstream from the incoming tributary because the water is too dirty.

One easy tip is using your prop to gauge water clarity. If you can see your prop, the fish won’t have any problem finding your presentation. If you can only see a few inches into the water, spend a good part of your day looking for cleaner water, as it will produce better fishing when rivers get too murky or muddy in most places.

Go soft

Soft Plastics and hair usually outperform bait during this time of year. We all know a jig and minnow catches a lot of spring walleyes, but soft plastics and hair can catch even more fish.

As your jig sweeps by fish in the current, they don’t have as much time to react to or scrutinize your presentation. The added durability is part of what makes both classic bucktail-hair jigs and soft plastics so effective.

When you miss a fish with a jig and minnow and the fish steals the minnow, you’re done. You must rehook the bait, and that results in dead time when your presentation isn’t effective or even in the water. Soft plastics, bucktail-hair jigs or marabou jigs keep you in the water longer. For moderate current, Kalin’s Sizmic Grubs work well while a slimmer and more streamlined profile, such as the Kalin’s Jerk Minnow JR, work better in stronger current.

There are situations, however, when minnows are needed, and it typically coincides with tough-bite conditions and slower current. I’d bet that much of the time we find most fish close to the current seam where aggressive fish are in the faster water and the rest of the fish are close to the seam.

When slipping the current, the old mantra was to keep the boat the same speed as the jig getting swept down river, allowing you to keep your line vertical. However, it can be downright amazing how river fish can respond to different presentations. Dragging jigs upstream or downstream can be downright deadly, and what is amazing is that dragging can often put fish in the boat when traditional slipping presentations that keep the jig right below the boat don’t work.

These dragging tactics shine in less than 10 feet of water where there is moderate to slow current. For dragging downstream, lighten up the jig and give it a good cast upstream. Let the current carry your boat downstream with the jig dragging behind the boat. If you can’t keep the jig upstream, you don’t have enough weight.

The other method is slowly dragging the jig upstream. Again, simply cast behind the boat and use your trolling motor to crawl upstream. You typically want the jig to occasionally tick bottom.

We all know how good river holes and deep channels can be, but deep holes are often where walleyes hang out during the winter. As the water warms up, walleyes start swimming against current and moving through the system, and these fish will often use much shallower current seams and breaks.

Some of the biggest fish each spring are routinely caught out of shallow water along riprap, clam beds and sand bars where there is less than 10 feet of water. In fact we catch many big walleyes on rivers each spring in less than 3 feet of water. Not only will you catch these shallow fish by pitching or casting jigs, but you will also just cover much more water with each cast.

About the Author: Jason Mitchell earned a reputation as a top walleye guide on Devils Lake, N.D. Today he produces Jason Mitchell Outdoors, which airs on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Midwest. For more information, go to jasonmitchelloutdoors.com.

As the air and water temps keep climbing, spring walleye action will continually pick up. Here are Jason Mitchell’s top tips for catching more spring walleyes. Photo by Jason Mitchell Outdoors
In current, using soft plastics in place of live bait can make anglers much more efficient. Pictured is the deadly Kalin’s Sizmic Paddle Shad, the meal ticket for big walleye. Photo by Jason Mitchell Outdoors
On big bodies of water, find bays and other protected pools of water that are warming up at a quicker rate. Look to see if wind is stacking warmer water along a shoreline. Springtime success on big water often demands finding these pockets of warmer water, which can be challenging. Photo by Jason Mitchell Outdoors