Sticks and stones may break our bones, but wood and rocks will never hurt us in our search for walleyes early in the year!
Add weeds and warm water to the mix and the action can be more than hot — it can be scorching even on opening day in the Northwoods where air temperatures are still on the chilly side.
Walleyes are not solely deep-water fish any time of year, but certainly not in May. Whether on a natural lake or reservoir, fish will often be in 10 feet of water or less. That’s where the water is warmest. Warm water ignites the food chain by encouraging algae and plankton to grow. Plankton draws baitfish, such as shad or young perch, which attract predators, such as walleyes.
Wind is also very important. The sun warms surface water, and the breeze blows it toward one shore line or another. The warmer water collects in shallow bays or blows onto shoreline points that reach to deep water, and that’s where walleyes will be. It doesn’t hurt that wind also creates a surface chop that diffuses light. Walleyes can remain shallow and active all day.
Take the example, which Northwoods guide Greg Bohn shared recently. Bohn said a couple of clients hired him to guide them specifically on a deep, clear lake near his home in Minocqua, Wis. Bohn wasn’t very enthusiastic about it. Deep and cold are not his favorite fishing combination in May. They tried several places without luck before stopping to eat a sandwich. As they ate, the wind drifted the boat into a bay where Bohn noticed the temperature reading on his Humminbird sonar rise from the mid-40s to the low 50s. He also saw a slight brush of white on tail fins of hundreds of fish swimming beneath the boat. Needless to say, lunch was forgotten. Here are some of Bohn’s tips to fish early season walleyes.
If you have a choice, focus on shallower, smaller lakes and reservoirs where water isn’t gin clear early in the season. They warm first.
No matter what kind of lake or reservoir you find yourself on, seek out the bays and the structure being bathed in the warmest warm water.
Narrow the search even more by finding the precise spots with the “something different” where fish will gather. Here are some examples: Francis Case is a large reservoir in South Dakota where anglers tend to focus on deep water, 10-to-20- or even 30 feet deep. But early in the year, large numbers of walleyes congregate in water five feet deep or shallower on the wind-blown side. The high bluffs surrounding the water are broken up by washed out areas where erosion has taken its toll. Fish the edges of them. You can almost predict when a walleye will strike. At Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin, the wind could be blowing into a point, and the “difference” could be a small pile of rock. At Cass Lake in northern Minnesota, it could be the inside turn on the side of a point closest to deep water. At your favorite reservoir, that means the points that reach all the way to the old river channel. In a natural lake, maybe it’s a sand bar in the bay. A foot or two in depth can spell success.
Look for areas with the most “character.” The more character a spot has, the more likely walleyes and other kinds of fish will be there. A point with a rock pile is good because the shallow rocks warm in sunlight. A point with a rock pile and fallen trees on shore is better. Wood basked in sunlight will warm the water around it. A point with a rock pile, fallen trees on shore and weeds is better yet. Weeds provide oxygen and cover. A point with a rock pile, fallen trees on shore, weeds, and a transition from soft to hard-bottom is even better. Do some searching. Not all these features will appear on lake maps.
Targeting The Shallows
Fast approaches are best when they work. Because they cover more water, casting or trolling crank baits is one of the quickest ways to find active fish.
Once you find fish with the crank bait or they just refuse to strike one, a slower presentation such as pitching a jig tipped with live bait might do the trick. Use a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce Fuzz-E-Grub jig or a Lindy X-Change Jig and pitch it to those “spots on a spot.” Use heavier line, such as 15-pound super braid for fishing in the wood. Use your electric trolling motor to move along the shoreline to target whatever rocks and wood you see.
Bohn targets weeds, too. For one thing, they hold lots of fish, and for another, weeds get no respect. They’re overlooked by most anglers who are conditioned to focus on the rocks. Fishing pressure is reduced in the green stuff.
Bohn has made a study of the weeds, and he’s learned that not all weeds are the same. Some varieties emerge sooner than others, and some grow thick and tall while others hug the bottom. As a result, different approaches are needed.
Elodea, a sun-loving plant, thrives in most bays in natural lakes and reservoirs in northern Wisconsin. A north or west bay will have a lot of the stuff. It doesn’t have to have warmer water to start growing. Elodea can be hard to locate because it grows tight to the bottom, maybe a foot or two high early in the year. Because it might not appear on the sonar, guides around Bohn’s neck of the woods cast big jigs with no bait to see if they can snag some elodea. Use a 1/16-ounce Veg-E Jig, add a plastic tail or live minnow and drift over the area.
Try to determine if the Elodea is everywhere or only in small patches. Watch the Humminbird for signs of structure. Drop anchor if you catch a fish or feel a strike. Put out slip-bobber rigs and use the wind to drift the bait over the top of the weeds. This approach is deadly.
Broadleaf and narrowleaf cabbage are green. Brownleaf cabbage is present in dark water. How high the plants will be early in the season is contingent on how warm the water is.
Cabbage is thick. Weedless jigs and plastic work well here, but just cast and reel slowly. With a walleye, you’ll feel the hit or the line will start moving. Stop reeling when the jig pulls over a plant. Let the jig fall back to the bottom to the walleye waiting in ambush at the bottom of the stalk. Twitch the jig, and then reel slowly again. Don’t set the hook unless you are sure it’s a strike. Otherwise, the hook will merely pull into the plant, the plant will be uprooted and the walleyes will spook.
Bohn’s favorite plastic bait is a 4-inch plastic minnow, slender with a forked tail. The baby bass color resembles an emerald shiner, which are common in Northwoods lakes.
Slip-bobbers also work. Just leave the bait above the weeds and let the walleyes come to you.
Sticks and stones, weeds and warm water can never hurt you early in the season. But, to a walleye, the combination could prove deadly.
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