Finally, spring has begun to make its appearance. Southern latitudes may have experienced spring weather since the beginning of March, but further north, beyond the Canadian border, most places are still frozen in winter’s icy grip, though only for a short while longer. Up north, spring open-water fishing won’t begin until mid-May, while southern anglers have been launching boats since the end of February, if not all year. Even with differences in timing, many strategies that consistently catch our favorite fish work north and south.
Where Are The Walleyes?
Walleyes are one of the most sought after fish species in North America. Marble Eyes are challenging critters, they can grow to large proportions and are one of the best eating freshwater fish anywhere. Walleyes can be found in lakes, rivers and reservoirs as far south as Mississippi and Alabama, throughout the Midwest states, and as far north as the Yukon Territories in Canada.
No matter where they are found, walleyes must abide by their natural life cycle. In spring, spawning is the most important portion of this cycle. As with many creatures, walleye reproduction is practiced in yearly migrations. Rivers and tributaries are the keys to consistently finding prespawn and post-spawn walleyes.
Walleye, like salmon, return to their spawning beds every year. Before spawning begins, when water surface temperatures reach 45 to 50 degrees and the length of daylight is extended, walleyes stage near the entrances to spawning tributaries. This staging usually happens a month or more before spawning takes place. Anglers can take advantage of this staging period for some fantastic walleye catches.
Up north, ice anglers may find walleye within a few hundred yards to a mile from a spawning river. Jigging with large minnows, in 10 to 20 feet of water in staging areas, is a productive technique for tempting early spring walleyes. Anglers should move around until an accumulation of fish is found. Keep an eye on your electronics and experiment with jig size and color.
In the south, where boat access is possible, the same system applies. Walleyes will stage near spawning areas, actively feeding until they begin to move into the tributary. Shore anglers also experience fantastic catches at the mouths of rivers if they are there at the right time.
Whether in the south or north, presentations should be slow to motionless. Remember, water temperatures are cold, which significantly slows the walleye metabolism, making them incapable of chasing a fast-moving lure.
When walleyes begin to move into the rivers, so must you. In my experience, the largest female walleyes move earliest. They tend to find the best spots to wait until spawning conditions are right, then they move slowly upstream. Look for deeper, slower water and eddies. Once you have found likely areas, fish them vertically with jigs or three-way rigs.
Smaller male walleyes are much more active and spend a good portion of time in shallower water. Areas near gravel bars and other prime spawning areas can attract hundreds of fish. If you want to catch lots of smaller walleyes, look shallow near these spawning sights. Be sure to try the bottom of rapids or falls. Male walleyes sit close by, waiting for bits of food or wounded baitfish to float past.
Here is one technique I use to catch hundreds of walleyes each spring below rapids. First, use plastics. They are tough and short-biting walleye can’t tear them off. I can make thousands of casts with them and catch tons of fish before having to change baits. By using plastics, such as twisters and Flukes, you can keep your line in the water longer and keep your hands out of a cold bait bucket! Last spring my fishing partner and I caught more than 150 walleyes in an afternoon by tossing plastics below some rapids. We didn’t catch any really big fish, but we caught a fish on nearly every other cast.
Once spawning has completed, walleyes will slowly move out of the tributaries and into the main lake. They often stop along the way, normally at the nearest structure that holds food. Search nearby weed beds, flats and eddies for post-spawn walleye. Don’t expect to catch the big girls. They often have lockjaw just after spawning. A trophy-sized female will start feeding again in a week or so following the spawn.
Spring is Green, Northern Pike Green That Is
Northern pike are the kings of the northland. Northerns must have cool- to cold-water environments to thrive, particularly large pike. The fact that they often spawn prior to ice out is pretty strong proof. If you’re after big pike, there’s no better time to be on the water.
Ice anglers often find northerns staging for the spawn around the beginning of March. In large northern lakes, where pike flourish, pike hunters usually start ice fishing near spawning areas. Spawning beds are found in weedy, marshy, shallow bays in the northwest section of a lake. If a small feeder creek or shallow stream pours into a spawning bay, the spot is even better. These areas warm the earliest and provide the first abundant prey for prespawn and post-spawn pike to feed on. Many pike wrap-up spawning before the ice is out so by the time the boats can be launched, anglers are attempting to hook post-spawn fish.
When I find a bay that carries pike, I often can confirm their presence very quickly. The fish are shallow and often sun themselves on the bottom. I can always see them, sometimes by the dozens, laying on the bottom or cruising the weed line. If I pass too close, a pike will dart away, leaving a puff of “smoke” or stirred-up bottom. It always pays to move into a bay slowly and, most importantly, quietly. Shut off the outboard motor and drift into the bay or use a trolling motor.
Timing is everything, and the best time to be in these big weedy bays is on calm, warm and clear days. Spring pike fishing is great for the angler who doesn’t like getting up early. Fish usually don’t become active until late in the morning. Early risers should enjoy early morning walleye or smallmouth fishing, then go after the big pike later in the day.
“Sight fishing” for early spring northern pike is much easier and more effective with polarized sunglasses. When a hot pike hole is found, polaroids provide the opportunity to see the fish long before they strike. Plus, it’s a real blast seeing these beasts assail your offerings.
I often work a number of lures until the pike tell me what they want. In the spring, slow presentations are the most productive. Start with four-to-five inch spoons or large jerkbaits. Personally, I use 5- to 7-inch suspending baits the most. On bright days, throw a bright color first.
If tossing slow, wobbling spoons or jerkbaits without success, try “dead baiting.” Dead baiting can be a real day-saver if pike are persnickety. A dead bait is just a large dead baitfish rigged under a float, cast out to a likely area and just left motionless. It isn’t a whole lot of fun at first, but when you see a trophy pike slowly slide up to your bait, believe me, your blood turns to ice.
In a good bay, pike will come and go all day long, so don’t leave if the fishing slows. If you just can’t resist leaving the spot to try another, always return later.
One last tip: Light equipment just won’t do the job. Characteristically, the largest pike in the lake will be feeding in shallow bays. Ultralight rod and reel combos or even medium-action equipment won’t stand up to these water wolves. Use longer rods (7 to 10 feet) and heavy casting reels spooled with 20- to 40-pound test lines for this type of fishing.
Keep in mind that as the season progresses and the water warms up, the largest pike move out to deeper and cooler water. An avid trophy pike angler has only a couple of weeks after ice out to try and tackle these monsters in the shallows.
No matter were you fish for bronzebacks, a few things are consistent north and south. In very early spring, or just after ice out, smallmouth remain in deep water but make short vertical forays onto shallow reefs, humps, rock piles and points. As the sunlight penetrates and warms the water, the fish become more active. Slow vertical presentations are necessary to entice lethargic bass.
Last spring, a client and I were fishing for smallmouth on the day the ice went out. I wasn’t positive what I should do to get my patron on the fish. I thought shallow bays near spawning areas would be a good place to start. I was horribly wrong. Smaller male northern pike gobbled up a fortune in tackle before I grudgingly left to try somewhere else. Next, we tried the points adjoining the shallow bay. Only larger were pike there. We had fun catching a few of these big girls but our goal was smallmouth.
I finally thought to try the same spots that I had fished late the previous fall. We struck gold, or bronze, I should say. The smallmouth were still near their wintering holes but were moving up onto nearby structure to feed. They weren’t crushing our tube jigs, like they do in summer, just subtle strikes barely twitched our lines. Sluggish vertical presentation was the key to catching the bass.
The point of this story is that smallmouth bass tend to move when they have to, en masse. One would think that we would have caught a few “early birds” near spawning areas. We didn’t. By the numbers of fish we caught on the offshore humps and rock piles, we have to conclude that the majority of smallmouth bass had to be congregated in the offshore areas until conditions warranted a move closer to spawning areas. The bass were inactive and unwilling to chase a bait, so slow vertical jigging worked best.
Smaller, minnow-imitating plastics are my favorite go-to baits in early spring. Particularly tube jigs. I always say to my clients, “Any color will work well as long as it is silver.” Gray tube jigs with silver flecks, in 2- or 3-inch sizes, are my favorites.
Whether you’re fishing north or south, smallmouth will act the same way during the spring season. Water temperature and moon phases are the only factors that change the exact timing in which the bronzebacks respond to their reproductive urges. Here again is a recurring theme: in the very early spring, timing is everything. Smallmouth bass react as the season progresses.
Springs Are Made of Steel
Steelhead (migratory rainbow trout) are one of the most challenging species of fish to consistently catch. Steelhead are as finicky as walleye, fight as rigorously as smallmouth bass and can break a fishing line as effortlessly as a northern pike. All these things, and having to battle these fish with light line in rushing water, can really test an angler’s skills.
Steelhead run up cold-water rivers every spring and fall to spawn. During the spring run, again, timing is everything. Get out on the river too early and the fish will not have started the run, too late and the rivers will be roaring torrents of melted snow; far too fast and deep to fish effectively.
Keep an eye on your favorite rivers and be there when the conditions are right.
Start early and try different areas of the river. I like to start near an obstacle that slows the fish on their migration. Waterfalls, rapids, boulders and logs are great obstacles and resting areas for steelhead. Many anglers also start fishing the river mouths early in the season. This can be very productive as the fish may be staging in these areas.
Rigged roe bags are many steelheader’s bait of choice in the early spring. Use a 12- to18-inch leader of 6-pound test fluorocarbon line. Tie on a small #6 steelhead or walleye hook. Bait up with a roe bag, which you can tie yourself or buy at a bait shop. When tying the rig to the mainline, use a small swivel. I like to have a 6-inch piece of monofilament line tied on the swivel. This tail is used for weighting the rig with split shot. If the weights gets snagged, the whole rig won’t be lost if it breaks off. Small jigs will also work well when paired with roe bags. You may lose a lot of them in snags but if it works, try them.
Presentations have to be as natural as possible. Your offerings must slowly tumble along the bottom, not as fast as the current or so slow the bait doesn’t look natural. Experiment by adding or removing split shot from the tailing mono line or change the size until the proper presentation is achieved.
Be prepared on every cast. The weight is always in contact with the bottom and often feels like a bite. I always set the hook whenever I think I feel a hit, even if it is just bottom. “Better Set Than Sorry,” should be your mantra while steelheading.
Steelhead are subtle biters so stay focused, watch your line and your rod tip. Use long, soft- action rods, particularly in fast moving waters. Longer rods act as shock absorbers and will save avoidable break-offs. Light line, 6 to 8-pound test, is all you will need. Using heavier line lessens the chance of fooling a brute spring steelie.
Abundant Opportunities, Added Responsibility
Spring is a fantastic season for angling. Nothing feels greater than standing on the riverbank or in the boat for the first time since the snow fell. Anglers must bridle their enthusiasm at this time of year. Many fish species are extremely vulnerable to angling prior to the spawn. It’s very easy to get carried away during a fantastic bite. All the shallow, hungry, aggressive and grouped fish are acting upon their natural instincts in the spring. Reproduction is the most important function in the life of a fish, and they take it seriously.
Spawning fish throw all caution out the window when attempting to complete their mission. As a sportsman always consider this: the largest fish are often females. They must feed to nourish their developing eggs and to survive the riggers of spawning. When you catch one, release her quickly and carefully. Spring is a time for new life and renewal, let the fish complete their duties and eternally treasure nature’s gifts.