Experienced walleye anglers know that to catch walleyes consistently, they must fish in different places and alter their methods according to the time of year. Walleyes, more than most other species, move from one place to another both seasonally and on a daily basis. Understanding these movement patterns is the first step to successful walleye fishing. This is especially true during the first few weeks of open-water fishing, the so-called “early” season. The second step is to use a presentation that will trigger strikes given the time of year, time of day and weather and water conditions.
Location, Location, Location
Especially in the early part of the season, walleye are constantly on the move, and river tailwaters are good places to check.
In the case of walleyes, “relocation, relocation, relocation” might be more accurate. In lakes and reservoirs, walleyes migrate from winter habitat to spawning areas and then to spring and summer habitat, all in a period of several weeks. Learn to identify each of these habitat types and when to expect walleyes to move from one to another and you should be able to catch them during the month or so when they move the farthest and their behavior changes the most.
In winter, walleyes usually hang out in deep water with adequate oxygen near shallow weed flats, reefs and shorelines and make occasional evening forays to the shallows to feed. By the time the fishing season opens (or, in the case of waters that are open year round, by the time most anglers start fishing), most walleyes have already moved to prespawn staging areas. These are usually areas of intermediate depth located very close to good spawning substrate. In deep lakes, walleyes often stage just off the main break between shallow flats and deep water. In shallow lakes and reservoirs, they may stage just outside weed flats, below subtle breaks of only a foot or so, in channels and off creek and river mouths.
In landlocked natural lakes (those with no major tributaries, outlets or channels that connect to other lakes or rivers), walleyes normally spawn on shallow rocks, rubble and gravel washed clean and aerated by wave action. This type of substrate is often found along shorelines, on midlake reefs and around islands. Walleyes will also spawn on sand, submerged timber or even muck, if nothing better is available.
In reservoirs, natural lakes with tributaries or outlets, and lakes that are part of a chain of lakes, walleyes migrate as far as they have to in order to reach suitable spawning areas. They may go many miles upstream, downstream or through several lakes to find the gravel and rock structure they need. In river systems that consist of several dams and reservoirs, walleyes usually migrate upstream until they reach a dam that impedes their progress. They then either spawn right below the dam or drop back downstream and spawn where there is suitable rock and gravel.
Timing The Spawning Run
Walleyes migrate to spawning areas several weeks before they actually spawn. On northern waters, this migration often takes place under the ice. Spawning begins when the water temperature reaches 42 degrees F. Most spawning activity concludes by the time the water temperature reaches the low 50s.
Most walleye spawning takes place at night, but the fish remain in staging areas during daylight hours during the spawning period and for several days after before they disperse. Staging areas often hold great concentrations of walleyes, usually grouped by sex and size. Smaller males are often found close to spawning gravel, while larger females stay farther away in slightly deeper water.
An early spring can cause walleyes to begin their migration earlier than normal, while prolonged winter weather can push the entire process back a week or so. Year-in and year-out, however, the spawning run usually follows the same schedule within a few days, depending on the latitude of the lake in question. In southern Wisconsin, spawning is normally in full swing the first week of April. Farther north, in northern Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan, spawning takes place in late April or early May, while farther
In early spring the action may be best in the afternoon, when the sun has had a chance to warm up the water.
south and in the West, spawning occurs earlier.
Walleyes are often sluggish during the prespawn period, when water temperatures are in the 30s. Slow, deliberate presentations work best now. Action, while slow all day, may be best during the afternoon, when the water has had a chance to warm up slightly. A lead-head jig tipped with a small minnow is a good bait choice. Anchor or use a trolling motor to stay over a staging area where you have marked fish and work a jig-and-minnow vertically with a short lift/drop, lift/drop action or drag it slowly across the bottom. Inactive walleyes usually take a bait as it drops. Rather than a decisive strike, you may simply feel a weight when you lift your rod. If so, hold it steady for a moment. If the weight begins to move, set the hook.
If there is a light breeze blowing in the right direction, you can drift over staging areas with a bottom-bouncer and a floating jig head or plain hook tipped with a minnow. Again, set the hook when you feel a resistance that moves.
When fishing staging areas from shore, cast a jig out to deep water and crawl it slowly back to you. You may lose a few jigs, but this is a good way to cover an area thoroughly.
In reservoirs, start below a dam or inlet mouth and work deep water thoroughly with a jig and minnow. If this doesn’t produce fish, gradually move downstream, probing shallow bars, eddies and backwaters. Shallow, submerged wood is often very productive now, as the dark wood absorbs the sun’s heat and warms up the surrounding water. Shallow-running crankbaits often take good fish in timber.
Vary lure color and size until you find what the fish want. If they stop hitting or if the weather or water clarity change, try a different size or color. Generally, use smaller, brighter baits in colder water; fluorescent colors in dark water; natural colors in clear water.
Fishing During The Spawn
Daytime action often drops off sharply once walleyes begin to spawn. Night fishing in shallow spawning areas (where legal) can be very productive, though. Try long-line trolling over gravel bars, shoreline points, reefs and weed flats with floating minnow baits, like a Rapala or ThunderStick. Use a zig-zag trolling pattern to give baits an erratic action that often triggers strikes. On reservoirs, use side-planer boards to troll shallow-running baits along shoreline riprap.
If you fish during the day, work staging areas carefully with a lightweight jig tipped with a small minnow or plastic tail. If all you catch are small, aggressive males, move around and keep jigging until you locate a group of females. On several April outings on the Wisconsin River between Lake Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Dells dam, walleye pro Scott Hill and I caught and released female walleyes ranging from 6 to 10 pounds. We caught them in shallow water in riffles and near submerged wood by casting Slo-Poke jigs tipped with chartreuse shad tails.
After the spawn, walleye will again be spread out so anglers need to cover a lot of water.
After spawning, walleyes scatter and feed voraciously during a brief transition period before they move to summer habitat. During the transition, they may be just about anywhere there is food. They often move into very shallow water because it is warmer and because they find hatching insects and young perch and other baitfish there. Since they are rarely as concentrated now as during the spawning period or when they school up again in summer, you’ll take one here, one there, so it’s best to move around and cover a lot of water. Trolling or casting shallow-running crankbaits over shallow mud flats, gravel bars, rock piles, points and emerging weeds will take fish both day and night during the transition.
Walleye fishing in early spring can be a feast-or-famine proposition. With a little effort, you can discover when and where they stage, spawn and move after spawning. Then catching them is just a matter of giving them what they want.