Catching Walleyes in the Spring

Advanced Angler Joe with a WalleyeThe following piece was generated from some enthusiastic questions posed by our up-and-coming youth anglers interested in landing a walleye or two to kick-off their fishing season.

Anglers starting out in their fishing careers ask a lot of questions about how to best maximize their fishing success.

They’re typically chomping at the bit to begin the open water fishing season with some quality fish.

The following information provides a brief overview into walleye and how they behave during the spring season.

I hope the highlights are able to put you on the right track towards hooking up with a few nice fish to start this season.

What is a walleye “run” and When does it occur?

Walleye RunThe term “Walleye run” refers to the period of early spring in which one of the country’s top game fish make their seasonal migration towards the spawning areas of their lake or river in order to reproduce.

This time of the year is popular amongst Northern anglers as it is not only the chance to land a trophy walleye, but it symbolizes, for many, the start to their open water fishing season!

Where do walleyes migrate to spawn?

Rocky bottom of the riverAs an angler, seek out rocky and wavy areas on the body of water you’re intending to fish for walleyes.  They instinctively seek places that have a rocky or gravel-like bottom substrate that receives sufficient and continuous wave action.  This combination of wave turbulence and hard bottom enables walleyes to successfully reproduce and drop their eggs in an environment that provides sufficient oxygen while offering protection from being silted in and buried.  Local bait shops are a huge source of information in regards to where walleyes on a given body of water will congregate each spring.

Lock and Dam AreasOn a river, walleyes often migrate very long distances (up to 100 miles one way on the nation’s largest systems) in order to spawn near the system’s dams OR in the tributary creeks just off the main channel.  River walleyes are the most predictable as they migrate upstream to these dam areas in large concentrations.

Mid-Lake HumpsOn a lake, rocky mid-lake humps tend to attract most of the spawning walleyes.  Wind current from this area of the lake consistently receives spring winds from all directions which is necessary when it comes to generating oxygenation for the fish’s eggs.  The bottom content is also condusive here as well for successful reproduction.  Using online mapping technologies such as Angling Technologies or topographic, paper maps will provide you great information towards finding this structure on your favorite walleye lake.

On both lakes and river systems, the male walleyes will typically arrive before the larger female fish by about a week on average.  If you’ve visited a body of water and caught a large majority of males on a given day, it may be well worth the investment to try and get back at least one more time in the next seven days in order to increase your chances at landing a trophy female!

What’s the Best Water Temperature to Target Spring Walleyes?

40-50 degree water is the time to target walleyesThis the strongest indicator that shouldn’t be ignored when it comes to walleye primetime!  The spawn typically begins when water temps reach 40 degrees with 43-45 degrees being an ideal window.  The period can be short, especially on shallow river systems which can quickly warm into the 40’s a mere week or two after ice out!  Keep in mind, this is a window of temperatures, that will give you the most success, however there are always exceptions each year based on factors such as photoperiod (amount of daylight), moon phases, as well as the amounts of local precipitation.  A year that has more rain and melting snow runoff can have a large impact on the activities levels of fish on a given day.

When is the best time of day to target them?

WalleyeLike most of the fishing season, many anglers won’t even target walleyes unless it’s during that low-light period before and  sunrise and sunset.  This generally holds true during the spawning period as well.

There are a lot of sources out there that indicate walleyes spawn for a period of about 4 hours!  That’s it…then they’re done!  Some fish will come in on a single night and spawn for that duration, while others will return on consecutive nights and spend a shorter window of time in the spawning area–while still collectively spending about 4 hours total time spawning.

As a general rule, getting set up slightly before dark–whether casting from a rip-rap shoreline or dialing in a milk run of drifts with the boat before dark–and then fishing until about midnight will give you the best chance at landing numbers of walleye…and some that are quite large!

What’s the Best Way to fish for them?

Walleyes off the bottomIf you’re fishing from a boat rigged with electronics, you’ll have an advantage as walleyes are commonly indicated on the graph as arches located a foot or two off the bottom.

On a lake, vertical jigging often gets the nod.  Using the lightest jig you can get away with that still allows for a good feel of the bottom while maintaining a vertical line will give you the best presentation.  Depending on depth and the amount of wind that may try to bow your line, a 1/4oz to 3/8oz jig tipped with a large fathead minnow or the right plastic (i.e. Moxi) can excel in the cooler spring waters.

Experiemnting with colors throughout your trip will help you determine the hot jig for the night.  Generally pink, chartreuse, and orange (or a combination of these colors) will work as a great starting point.

As a secondary lake tactic that compliments vertical jigging, involves using a live-bait, or Lindy, rig as a tactic that can help you cover water and narrow down the best location and presentation on a given day.  A small sucker on a live-bait rig that trails 75-125 yards behind the boat will entice walleyes into biting as it moves through the strike zone in a horizontal fashion versus a vertical one like jigging.  Again, utilizing both tactics will let the fish tell you what they want today.  As a bonus tip, keep in mind that when livebait rigging at this time of the year, it will increase your hookup ratio if you give the fish a 10-20 count before sweep-setting the hook.
Live bait rig

Our most successful set-up in the boat for this type of fishing features hanging live-bait rigs off the front of the boat while slip drifting with the bow mount trolling motor–facing into the wind for better boat control.  We’ll then utilize the middle and back half of the boat for our vertical jigging.

Shore anglers routinely do well with both aggressive and passive techniques.  A combination, here, is always recommended as well and here are two of the basics to get you started.

Suspending JerkbaitThe first is by casting a suspending jerkbait that features a tight wobble to entice fish in cold water.  The retrieve on a given day can be painfully slow and steady to get walleyes to eat, and on other days they want the jerkbait erratically jerked down into the strike zone and then allowed to deliberately pause (sometimes up to 30 seconds) to trigger a reaction strike.

3-way rigThe more ‘laid-back’ approach from the bank (specifically used on rivers) involves deploying a 3-way rig slightly downstream from the spawning areas.  Fish will continuously be moving in and out of the spawning areas near the dam and won’t pass up an easy meal on the way to or from the headwaters.  In Wisconsin, where 3 lines per angler are allowed,  casting out two rods with 3-way rigs and dedicating one rod to casting suspending plugs, gives a shore angler an increased chance at landing a few spring walleyes this season.

Walleye releaseI hope this basic overview of walleye behavior during the spring spawning period gets you headed in the right direction when it comes to experiencing success when targeting ol’ “Marble Eyes”!

Keep in mind that selective harvest is encouraged as the practice of catching-photographing-and releasing the larger female walleyes will no doubt improve the chances of maintaining a quality fishing location for future generations to enjoy!

You’re invited to contribute in the comments below regarding your own successful techniques and tactics!  What’s your go-to bait for targeting spring walleyes?

AND…without getting “TOO” specific, where do you like to fish in the spring for ‘eyes?

 To catch a glimpse of HookedUp101 youth anglers deploying similar strategies to catch walleyes, check out the link to this video!