Walleyes are nomads and they like company. In rivers and reservoir systems, schooling walleyes may travel hundreds of miles during their spawning run alone. Even in natural lakes, where there may be no tributary streams up which walleyes can run, they often move around enough to drive anglers crazy trying to find them. If you can understand their movement patterns and apply this to the type of natural lake you are fishing, you'll be well on your way to becoming a successful four-season walleye angler.
Spring And The Spawning Urge
Walleyes spawn when water temperatures reach the low 40s F. The farther south you go, the earlier this occurs. In the northern states, where most natural lakes are located, walleyes normally spawn in April and May on clean gravel, rock and rubble in shallow water.
Walleyes travel around a lot, even in natural lakes without tributary streams or rivers. Migration patterns are dictated by water temperature, food sources and the urge to spawn.
Prior to spawning, lake walleyes migrate from their deep-water winter haunts to staging areas in 10 to 30 feet of water near shallower spawning sites. When ready to spawn, they move into shallow water, usually at night. After spawning, they may hang around in staging areas for a few days, but they soon disperse in search of food. Even in lakes where their numbers are maintained by stocking, walleyes migrate to shallow water and go through the motions of spawning, so that’s where you’ll find them in early spring.
If season dates allow fishing before or during the spawning period, look for walleyes during daylight hours in staging areas until the water temperature exceeds 50 degrees. In deep lakes, walleyes stage below the main break to deep water, often along steep drop-offs, on gravel points and around rock piles. These breaks are less noticeable in shallow lakes, but they’re still there, and that’s where the walleyes will be.
A locator will help pinpoint schools of walleyes, but even without one you can often find them simply by working drop-offs near spawning gravel. If you mark two groups of fish at different depths, the larger females will usually be the deeper fish.
When the water is cooler than 50 degrees, work these areas slowly with a jig tipped with a minnow or plastic tail. In deeper water, jig vertically with a slow, up-and-down motion. Set the hook when you feel anything unusual, as a sluggish spring walleye sometimes just picks up a bait and holds it. In shallow water, cast a lighter jig towards shore and bump it down the drop-off out to deeper water. Experiment with jig and tail colors until you find a combination the fish want. For starters, follow this general rule: clear water, natural colors; dark water, bright colors.
If the law allows fishing at night during spawning season, try trolling over spawning structure with shallow-running crankbaits on flatlines (unweighted, tied directly to the lure) or behind planer boards. Trolling in a zig-zag pattern gives your baits added action and swings them over water that’s away from your boat’s wake. This method often produces good catches of big females.
In late spring walleyes will likely be scattered, so trolling helps the angler cover as much water as possible.
Shortly after spawning, walleyes disperse and go on a feeding binge. Water temperatures are comfortable and there is plenty of oxygen at practically any depth, so walleyes roam freely about the lake. You may not locate large schools, but you will pick up single fish practically anywhere there is food. Trolling over structure is a good way to cover a lot of water and find active fish. Work underwater points, gravel bars, fish cribs, submerged wood—anything that is likely to harbor baitfish, crayfish, insects and other food.
On windy days, troll close to windswept shorelines, where waves push baitfish and walleyes go to scarf up weary minnows. Match crankbaits to the available forage: perch, suckers, emerald shiners, golden shiners, shad, crayfish, etc. The closer you can troll to shoreline rocks, the more likely you are to catch walleyes.
Walleyes feel comfortable moving about on cloudy, overcast days, which are common in spring. If you strike out in one area, keep hitting other structure until you find fish.
In summer, walleyes regroup and move into areas where they have cover and food and where oxygen levels remain adequate. Food is usually so abundant that it may be hard to get walleyes to bite. The deepest water in many deep lakes is cold and devoid of oxygen in summer, so walleyes often frequent mid-depth structure, such as shoals, reefs and rock bars, where they feed on sculpin, crayfish, young perch and other baitfish. Drifting over structure with a slip-bobber and leech or crawler often produces fish.
In deep lakes with a cisco population, big walleyes often suspend in summer just below schools of these oil-rich baitfish. Find a school of cisco with your locator and rip a weighted blade bait up through the school, then let it flutter back down. Walleyes often grab these baits on the drop, taking them for injured ciscoes.
Weedbeds also offer walleyes shade, oxygen and food in summer. In some deep lakes and most shallow lakes, schools of walleyes will move through cabbage, milfoil, coontail and other weeds, where forage is plentiful. If weeds are dense, use a slip-bobber to drop a leech or crawler into an opening. If weeds are sparse, try ripping a weedless jig tipped with a plastic tail in big hops, letting it drop to the bottom between hops.
On one shallow northern Wisconsin lake, a friend tipped me off to a summer walleye pattern that rarely failed to produce: a floating bog lines one shoreline, and walleyes hide under the edge of the bog. He tied on a plain hook or floating jig head, pinched a small split shot about 18 inches from the hook and baited up with a juicy leech or night crawler, then lobbed his bait as close to the bog edge as possible. We routinely caught limits of walleyes in the middle of the day with this trick, and I have no doubt it would work on other lakes with a bog shoreline or similar overhanging cover.
On summer nights, walleyes move onto shallow weed flats, shoals and other structure to feed. Drifting with slip-bobber rigs and trolling crankbaits are two good techniques for nighttime walleyes.
Fall Feeding Frenzy
As autumn temperatures drop, walleyes typically move to deeper structure, though a warming trend can bring the fish shallow.
When the days grow short and lakes begin to cool, walleyes put on the feedbag. Spawn and milt development requires a lot of energy, and baitfish are scarce now, so walleyes are easier to catch than in summer. When stratified lakes turn over in fall, walleyes find desirable temperatures and oxygen levels at all depths, so they may move out to deep water, or they may prowl the shallows. Cruise the lake with a sensitive locator or troll to locate fish, then drift with large minnows.
In late fall, walleyes gradually move out to deeper water. Structure that produced during an Indian summer will suddenly turn up empty. Troll slowly over deep gravel bars with crankbaits that have a tight wiggle or those that rattle. You can also drift over these areas with big minnows on bottom-bouncer rigs.
Prior to freeze-up or on lakes that do not freeze, look for walleyes in the deepest water available and work very slowly with baits that hug the bottom. Some experts believe walleyes begin their pre-spawn staging in late fall or early winter. If you know where walleyes spawn in spring, look for them in deeper water near these areas.
Once lakes freeze over, many anglers pursue walleyes through the ice. This is specialized fishing that requires different gear and tackle and a certain quality of mind that only anglers who face six months of snow and ice seem to have. It would also take another article to do it justice, so look for a DTO.com feature on the topic sometime this fall.
Meanwhile, the walleyes are waiting, so get out there and give them your best shot!