Anglers across the northern tier of states can’t wait for ice-out, as this unofficial holiday signals the beginning of open-water walleye fishing. Ice-out generally coincides with the spawning run, so walleyes are on the move. Find them, and you can usually catch them because walleyes are often willing to bite regardless of where they are in their spawning cycle.
Make no mistake: Walleye fishing before and during the spawning run is a different game from summer fishing. In lakes or rivers, you will often find the fish in or near very shallow water. In rivers, walleyes may migrate many miles upstream to spawn. In most lakes, they head for gravel bars and rocky shorelines. Learn a few techniques for locating and approaching them, and you should catch your share.
In rivers, walleyes will be in one place today, somewhere else tomorrow. The smaller males move upstream first, followed later by the larger females. Males often go as far upstream as possible in winter and wait for females to arrive, while females tend to hang downstream of spawning areas until their eggs ripen. When that happens, they make one last upstream rush, lay their eggs and start heading back downstream almost immediately.
Big egg-laden females will move upstream well behind male walleyes, so check the areas downstream of potential spawning sites first.
Most river walleyes spawn on rock and gravel substrate, often in the form of riprap placed to stop bank erosion and give added support to bridge abutments. In a few rivers, such as the Wolf River in east-central Wisconsin, walleyes spawn in marshes and flooded timber in backwater areas. Regardless of where they spawn, the best spring walleye action occurs downstream of spawning sites.
Look for eddies, backwaters and other calmer spots, especially during high water. Work these areas slowly with jigs tipped with minnows or plastics. Walleyes may be sluggish in cold water and they are not likely to go far to take a bait. If all you catch are smaller males, move downstream a few yards or more and try again. Keep moving downstream until you start catching larger fish.
On some rivers, large females will hold a mile or more downstream of spawning areas in warmer, shallow water until they are ready to spawn. Most anglers fish deep water immediately below a dam, where they may catch dozens of small males in a short time. Farther downstream, however, you can catch larger females in shallow riffles and backwaters where they seek out warmer water. Work these areas with shallow-running crankbaits or swimming jigs tipped with plastic tails.
Dams themselves are popular places for spring walleye action because they stop the upstream movement of fish and concentrate them in great numbers. Regardless of the river, you’ll find walleyes below a dam in spring. As actual spawning time draws near, the bigger female walleyes will move right up to the dam tailrace and any shallow gravel bars just downstream of a dam.
No wonder northern anglers look forward to ice-out!
Some dams can be fished from shore or by wading. Others require a boat. Depending on water conditions, the best action usually occurs in side currents, eddies and backwaters close to shore or near islands, rocks and other structure that breaks up the current flow. Walleyes don’t want to fight fast current, so they’ll take advantage of anything that slows it down.
As a rule, pre-spawn walleyes hug bottom as they swim upstream. Post-spawn walleyes often swim at mid-depth or near the surface as they head downstream, so use shallow-running baits at this time. A technique that often produces on post-spawn walleyes, especially at night, is to anchor in midstream and let shallow-running crankbaits swing in the current downstream of the boat.
In lakes, walleyes usually spawn on rock, gravel, weeds or wood in very shallow water. In the weeks prior to spawning, they move to staging areas located in deeper water near spawning substrate. Depending on the depth of the lake, this may be off the main break between shallows and deep water, just outside weed flats, or in river channels and mouths. Walleyes hold in these areas until the shallows warm up to the low 40s, when spawning takes place.
During this pre-spawn period, you can often catch walleyes by working a jig and minnow down the break line and in holding water. The colder the water, the lighter the bite. Sluggish walleyes sometimes pick up a bait and start to swim slowly, so you don’t really feel a “hit.” Let a fish run for a few seconds before you set the hook. If you keep missing fish, add a small treble “stinger” hook to the main jig hook. You can buy these pre-tied to a short length of monofilament. Hook the treble in the minnow’s tail and set the hook as soon as you feel a pick-up.
Weather isn't a huge factor, as long as there's open water. The author took this 10-pounder in an April snowstorm.
In reservoirs and lakes with a lot of submerged wood, walleyes seek this out for cover and warmth, because wood absorbs heat and warms the surrounding water. Fish right “in the sticks” with weedless jigs tipped with plastic tails or small minnows.
Once spawning begins, walleyes remain in staging areas during daylight hours and move up onto spawning structure at night. Smaller males stay close to spawning gravel, while females usually remain in deeper water. Daytime fishing usually slows down now, but you can still entice fish into biting on smaller jigs and minnows. If you catch nothing but small fish, slide out to the next break and try again.
Some anglers catch big females at night by flat-line trolling shallow-running crankbaits as close to shore as possible in spawning areas. As you cross gravel bars and flats, steer a zigzag pattern to cover more area and cause the bait to speed up and slow down, which often triggers strikes. Planer boards or skis allow you to troll baits close to rocks and riprap in areas too shallow for an outboard. They also spook fewer fish in shallow water.
You may have to try different sizes and colors of lures because walleyes can be fussy in spring. Smaller, brighter baits tend to work better in colder water. Fluorescent colors are more visible in dark water, while natural colors are preferred in clear water.
Try these tactics this spring and you should enjoy some good walleye action long before the summer crowds flock to your favorite river or lake.