By Ross Robertson
Big, Heavy Baits
As the snow melts and lakes thaw, walleye fishermen break free from their cabin fever and race to the water to begin hunting for trophy spring walleyes. Regardless of where and when the weather allows you to make a spring run after fish, remember that catching cold-water walleyes can be tricky business. Fish are preparing to spawn, but still not out of their lethargic winter moods. To help you make the most of this unique time of year, here are 10 tactics for getting more walleyes in the net.
Walleyes are notorious for making soft strikes and spitting a bait as quickly as they hit it, which is why many walleye anglers typically fish the lightest jig they can get away with. However, in the spring, rising water levels and tricky currents keep fish deep, so the heavier the jig, the better. Depending on your water conditions, use a 3/8- to 1-ounce lead-head jig or spoon. Fish vertically, straight over schools of fish, be prepared for light bites, and avoid snags. Don’t over-work your jig. Instead, gently raise and lower your rod tip with short, soft strokes, or hold a jig in a current and let the water work it for you.
Troll for Spring Walleyes Slowly
After enduring a long winter, it is easy to get over-excited about being on the water again and fish at a pace that’s way too fast. Instead, troll slowly, especially in water that still has icebergs floating around. If you’re using stickbaits or crankbaits, start your trolling speed around 1 mph before speeding up or down a few tenths to find the ideal speed. If you’re having trouble finding an ideal speed, make wide, slow “S” turns with your boat to speed up lures on one side of the boat, and simultaneously slow down lures on the other side. This will help determine if fish prefer a faster or slower presentation. If you want to get even more specific, a Fish Hawk can show your lure’s exact speed at the depth it’s running. When the water is still cold, little adjustments to your fishing can mean big results.
Use a Trolling Motor to Stay on Course
Back in the day, anglers who wanted to handle their boats better used tiller motors, and if you wanted to remain in one place, you dropped anchor. Fast-forward a few decades—and several leaps in technology—and trolling motors now make it easier to stay on course. Modern trolling motors have autopilot features that, in addition to a cordless remote or foot pedal, allow you to run hands free so you can continue fishing. These days, GPS technology means you can plan a course for the motor to follow, or simply command it to hold your position is a specific place, no matter what the wind or current might be doing. Long story short: The features of a modern trolling motor allow you to keep your line in the water longer, while technology keeps the boat where you want it.
Go Slow for Walleye With a Drift Bag
Rarely are walleye boats drifting or trolling too slowly. Gusty spring winds or constant currents can surge boats ahead at a clip that’s too fast for even the hungriest walleye to chase. You can use your motors to slow down, but a simpler and less manual method is with a drift bag. When placed over the side, a drift sock acts to slow your boat by adding drag. I recommend keeping several drift bags in various sizes on hand. That way, you can increase or decrease the bag size as conditions, or fish preferences, change. Attach bags to a steel carabineer and quality dock line to make quick changes. I also recommend adding a pool noodle or two to the tow line so it floats and it’s easy to detach a bag if a fish becomes tangled in it during the fight.
Eat the Meat
Walleye lures can often catch fish just as well as live bait, but you just can’t beat live bait early in the season when you need to fish slow. The action, scent, and flash that a live minnow puts off in cold water is often second to none right after ice out when water temps hover below 40 degrees, or during an off bite. But be picky about bait size. In clean water, select the small minnows in your bucket. For dirty water, select the larger minnows; they’re hardier and provide more vibration in the water, which allows lurking walleyes to easily key in. To that point, don’t be afraid to try rigs with and without a stinger hook. Some days they work, some days they don’t, and you just know what day it will be until you experiment.
Attach Rattle Beads to Lures and Line
Spring fishing routinely means dealing with either off colored, or completely dirty, water conditions. Murky water condenses a walleye’s strike zone so hungry fish require a bit of help keying in on lures. That’s the perfect time to look in your box for lures with rattles. Often times, the louder the rattle the better, though some days a loud lure isn’t enough. If that’s the case, change lures to something equally loud that emits a different pitch or shakes with a different action. Another trick is to attach rattle beads on the line above a lure, especially if you want to add noise to an otherwise favorite, but silent, lure.
Bulk Up the Lure Presentation
Bass fishermen have taught walleye anglers a lot about how slowing the decent of a lure can make a big difference in catching fish. In the old days, bass anglers added a big piece of pork or other attractant to a jig to give the lure more bulk and slow the lure’s descent. The same logic applies to cold-water, springtime walleyes. Try rigging a plastic body onto a jig and then using another smaller plastic body to tip it as if it was a live minnow. Adding two plastic baits provides extra color and scent and slows a lure’s decent, which is important in cold water since a majority of the strikes occur on the fall. Don’t be afraid to experiment with large paddle tails or combinations that vibrate, particularly in dirty water.
Walleyes Love Stinky Baits
n cold water, scent can be more important for attracting walleyes than any other time of year because you’re fishing slow and covering less water. Finding lures with scent isn’t a problem, but it can be overwhelming with so many options. For plastic lures, look for models that with impregnated scent. For lures like crankbaits or jigs, apply a liquid gel scent that stays on and doesn’t rinse off easily. When you’re convinced a scent is helping attract fish, don’t be afraid to reapply it every 30 minutes. More scent is generally better than less scent. If nothing else it helps cover up gas, oil, or other unnatural odors in the water.
One of the biggest mistakes fisherman make is spending too much time where there are few, if any, fish. Fish naturally move in and out of areas, and because the cool water of spring forces us to slow down our pace, it’s even more difficult to cover water effectively by simply fishing through it. But with modern electronics, the days of wondering are over. Rather than meander through a fishy area, cruise around on plane speeds between 14 and 25 mph and look for pockets of fish on your sonar. At fast speeds, fish won’t appear as traditional arches on the screen, but rather as BB-size round or oval blips. After you locate a school, fish them hard until they break up. Then relocate and repeat the process.
Heading out after a long winter can make for some of the most fun fishing of the year, but to make it some of the most productive, pay attention to details like trolling speed and bait selection and use a few tricks from this list to stay one step ahead of the marble eyes.
This article first appeared in Field and Stream.