“Edges, edges? We don’t need no stinkin’ edges!”
OK, so the bandit in the Bogart classic was talking about “badges” and not about walleye fishing. But, that silly phrase might just help us remember an important piece of fishing wisdom – anglers should recognize the importance of edges.
Just like deer or turkeys, fish of all kinds, including walleyes, love edges for exactly the same reasons as their solid ground counterparts.
The main problem any angler faces is, “so much water and so little time.” But anglers who know what edges to look for can quickly focus on the 10 percent of water that holds walleyes on any given day. Keys to success are recognizing different types of edges, anticipating walleye movements along them based on seasonal and daily conditions, and knowing what tactics are best to tempt them with, once the fish’s position on the edges is known.
It all starts with the basics. Buck Perry taught us that fish travel through a system from deep water to the shallows to feed or spawn along well-defined features on the bottom. They hold along subtle variations within the drops in depth called breaks along the way.
Think for a minute what that means to you on the spots you fish. It’s easy to see why the old river channel is so important when fishing reservoirs, such as South Dakota’s Lake Oahe. The channel features the deepest water in the impoundment, and its former banks provide the contours which fish migrate along. Add a structural, underwater point which reaches from shoreline to the channel, and walleyes have all they need – a way to travel through the system and a path to shallow water (where they often feed) and back.
Anglers at Oahe will pitch jigs to shallow shoreline points in spring and troll bottom bouncers and crank baits along contours at other times of the year. At times, the contour is at 10 feet. At other times, it’s the deeper breaks. But it’s always on an edge of some kind.
Don’t expect all edges to be pronounced. Some are quite subtle. Lake Erie’s bottom is essentially featureless for miles, so a break of a foot or two can mean a lot. Walleyes find them and use them.
Variety Among Edges
Our apologies to Buck, but structural edges are only part of the story. For example, structure in rivers is critical because it creates another kind of edge – current edges between faster and slower water. Rivers feature many of them, known as eddies. Current edges will form in front of, and behind, obstructions, whether manmade or natural. These current breaks include holes in the river bottom, points, downed trees, wing dams, bridge abutments, and so on.
Current also plays a role where feeder creeks empty into reservoirs and natural lakes, especially in spring and fall when walleyes are drawn to moving water. Try 3/8-ounce jigs tipped with shiners at places such as the mouth of the Menominee River on Green Bay or the Rainy River on Rainy Lake in Minnesota. Vertical jig and slip with the current while using your trolling motor or anchor on the old river channels, which serve as walleye pathways.
Walleyes also gravitate to edges between hard and soft bottoms because different kinds of aquatic creatures inhabit each area. Transition spots provide a smorgasbord as a result. Subtle changes on the breakline or small rock piles will concentrate fish.
Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago is a classic example where weed edges are critical. Most anglers know enough to concentrate on outside weed lines. But, they often overlook three other important weed-related edges: the inside weed line, the edge created by the tops of the weeds, and the edges surrounding pockets and alleys in the vegetation. Each weed edge can be as important as the others.
Try drifting with the wind or trolling with the electric motor, using a spinner and split shot or a small bullet-shaped sinker over weed tops. But, weed beds can be massive. Just as you did with the outside and inside weed edges, narrow the search by focusing on the “something different.” Walleyes often hold where a small patch of plants in the bed rise above the others, like tall cabbage rising from a bed of coontail. Walleyes will often be in the cabbage in big numbers.
Some species of aquatic plants prefer soft bottoms while others prefer a harder bottom of small gravel and sand. Look for places where two types of weeds border one another. That often signals two different areas of bottom content where hungry walleyes find a more varied diet.
Other kinds of cover have edges, too. Anglers at Devils Lake, North Dakota, target vast forests of submerged trees. Tournaments have been won trolling crank baits on leadcore deep enough to just tick the upper branches. Anglers also do well by finding points in the tree lines, anchoring above them and vertical jigging or using slip bobbers.
Even rocky, sandy or soft-bottomed flats feature edges. On Mille Lacs in Minnesota, fishermen use live-bait rigs or bottom bouncers and spinner rigs to target the little points within their irregularly-shaped outlines. Again, it’s the “something different” that yields results.
Good sonar units are mandatory to find the spot on a spot. All models help identify the edges of structure, cover and transitions between hard and soft bottoms below the boat. Recent advances, such as Humminbird’s side-imaging, can paint a visual picture of the bottom out to the sides which is detailed enough to see elements such as weeds, rocks and wood, and how they are positioned on breaks.
Think, Think, Think
Subtle edges are often ignored. Water clarity is an important one in walleye fishing. Even though they are superb hunters and can feed effectively while using their lateral line sense, walleyes show a preference for feeding where they can see what they’re chasing. After rainstorms, runoff from rocky terrain is often cleaner than the main river, so fishing the mouths of feeder creeks in regions such as that makes sense. Where runoff comes from farm fields, the main lake may be clearer. Either way, places where dirty water and cleaner water meet will often attract fish.
Wind blowing into a shoreline-connected point can create a mud line where walleyes feast on confused baitfish. The wind works to your advantage where you are less likely to spook shallow predators. There have been many times on reservoirs such as Oahe when windy shorelines produce as long as the breeze is blowing, but action stops when the wind changes direction. That’s when it is time to move on to the windy side.
Each type of edge is important in its own right. But, experience has taught us that the more kinds of edges that come into play, the more likely walleyes are there. A general example would be a structural edge, like a point, combined with cover and wind-blown mudlines. That is a recipe for walleye action.
So, who needs stinkin’ edges? We do.
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