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Catch ‘em if you can…
Walleye are one of North America’s most sought after game fish, prized for their spirited battle and great eating. But, they’re a real challenge to catch. First, they keep particular hours. Their primary feeding times start a little before sunrise and sunset and last a few hours after each. They are also very particular about lighting, seasons, and weather conditions and their habits vary, depending on whether they reside in a lake or a river. And if that wasn’t enough, they have an exasperating reputation for striking bait without getting hooked.
But, if you’re up to the challenge, the reward for latching onto this aggressive predator is a good fight and a tasty meal. And yes, there are more lures than you can shake a jig stick at, but we’ll run down the basic baits to help you beat one of the craftiest fresh waters adversaries around.
Spring is here…
And love is in the air… or the water, depending on your perspective. Once the ice is out and the water temperature has reached the 38-44°F range, the pre spawn begins as walleyes migrate to their spawning grounds. They will stage themselves on or near these grounds until the spawn, which peaks at about 42-50°F. The shallower the lake or river, the faster it warms up.
Walleye spawning grounds are typically shallow, rocky areas in water that moves fast enough to keep the eggs well oxygenated. River walleyes will spawn near dams and other man made or natural obstructions that impede their travel any farther upstream. They also like areas where tributaries feed into the main river. Lake walleyes will stage around structures at harbor mouths and river inlets until it’s time to move up the rivers that feed into the lake.
The map shows when you can expect the spawn to begin, give or take a week or two, depending on the weather. It’s also important to remember that in most northern states and Canada the walleye fishing season is closed during this period to stop poaching when spawning walleye are most vulnerable. This practice is still debatable in some circles, but the prevailing thought is that limiting the season helps maintain fish population levels. In many southern and western states, however, the season is year round. So, check your local fishing regulations to see when you can hone in on early season walleyes.
Big bait is best
Walleyes generally spawn in shallow waters, but during pre spawn they will stage themselves in deeper areas near their spawning ground. The males will move into shallow water earlier while the females will continue to hold in deeper spots until spawn. The water will be cold, so they’re not going to be particularly aggressive feeders. But, if you fish them slow, with big bait, you stand a good chance at taking two or three. Most of the usual bait fish have yet to hatch, so walleyes are looking to older, larger fish that survived the winter. Try large minnows on a Lindy rig and troll as slow as possible to give those lethargic ‘eyes a chance to think and react. When they do hit the bait, let them have some line and time before setting the hook.
You can also vertical jig with a big minnow. Keep your line and jig as straight to the bottom as possible as you slowly troll. Be sure your jig is heavy enough (1/4oz – 3/8oz) that you can feel the bottom and, contrary to the Lindy rig method, set your hook as soon as you feel a hit. A walleye can inhale bait, sense that extra weight, and blow it back out pretty quick.
Trolling with crankbaits is a third alternative that can yield good results, especially if you’re looking to take a female. Unlike the males, which stage packed in shallower water, these heavier “hens” tend to hold near the bottom in a more scattered pattern. Shad Raps, Tail Dancers and other “sinking” crankbaits work well and come in a variety of styles and colors for all water conditions and depths.
What colors are best? As a general rule the more turbid the water, the more color you’ll want to use. White, gold or silver work well in clear water. Red, orange, green, etc. are good for more stained water and the fluorescents will make their presence know in the dirtiest environs. You’ll also want to factor spring into the equation, when the brighter, more annoying colors spark the walleye’s defensive strikes over spawning grounds. Finally, none of these are hard and fast rules because walleye tastes can be fickle, so having a wide variety of colors in the tackle box will cover all the bases.
Spring may be the most challenging time of year to catch walleyes, but it’s also the most rewarding. There’s nothing more satisfying than beating the odds and if you do your homework and experiment a bit, you’ll get your bragging rights.
5 best spring baits
Sure, considering what’s already been mentioned, there’s more than five, but here’s a selection that’s proven to entice spring ‘eyes.
Rapala Down Deep Husky Jerk
- great for spring trolling the deeper water where the large females tend to hang, especially in the afternoons.
Rapala Original Floating Minnow
- small to medium size; silver, or gold are good, but colors and firetiger may be a better bet in spring, works at all depths, action mimics a wounded minnow, very popular.
STORM Original ThunderStick
- 3 or 4 inch size; red, blue or firetiger colors work well in spring.
Bass Pro Shops XPS Walleye Jigs
- uniquely designed, highly rated, multiple colors, but many will tell you that standard round, lead, ball-headed jigs with a good quality paint finish will do just fine.
Terminator T1 Spinnerbait
- great one for later in the spring when the feeding pace quickens; long-lasting, changeable skirts, stable at slow speeds.
Jigs are probably the most popular lure for fishing walleyes. The jig is a hook with a silicone or rubber-coated lead head that comes in various sizes, weights, colors and configurations. Very often live or plastic baits are placed on the hook to complete the presentation. 1/8 and 1/4 ounce jigs are good for shallow waters. A 3/8 to 5/8 ounce jig weight works well in deeper or strong current settings.
The idea is to fish with the lightest weight possible, just enough to let you feel the bottom. If you keep a variety of different weight jigs, you’ll be ready to match all environments. Jig color is also an important factor in attracting hungry walleye. Chartreuse, orange, and green are popular colors. Again, usually the darker the water, the brighter colored jigs you’ll want to try. They stand out in the walleye’s eye, but each situation is different, so if one color isn’t working for you, switch over to another. There’s sometimes no telling what walleyes might be attracted to on a given day.
Crankbaits, also known as plugs or divers, are hard bodied lures that come in many sizes, shapes and colors. There are hundreds of them to choose from, but look for specific characteristics that are the most successful in enticing hungry walleyes. The “action” of the lure is all-important. Most hard baits wobble from side to side as they are reeled in. But walleye are most attracted to a bait’s top-to-bottom roll, or “side flash”. Walleye lures typically have bright colored sides and dark backs. As these hard baits move forward through the water, their roll presents an alternating flash of color that simulates live prey, a presentation walleyes find hard to resist.
Check this video of Rapala Pro Anglers, Al Lindner and Dan Sura, catching Walleye using three-way rigging techniques with Rapala lures like the Rapala Flat Rap, Rapala Original Floater and Jointed Rapala.
A spinner lure (aka crawler harness) includes one or more metal blades that spin as it moves forward. Its attraction is twofold in that the spinning action creates a visual flash and the vibration mimics live prey. A spinner rig also includes a number of small brightly colored beads to increase visibility. Add a juicy nightcrawler, leach or minnow to the trailing hook and you’ve got yourself one of the best walleye baits there is.
There is no doubt plastic baits are very successful in landing this elusive fish, but artificial baits and lures are missing a couple of key traits that live baits offer. First, hard baits don’t display the natural random movement of a live minnow or crawler. Second, artificials don’t exhibit the typical flight response of live bait when harassed and nipped at by a hungry fish. Minnows, crawlers and leeches are the most popular live baits for catching walleye, but they can be picky eaters. If they’re not interested in their usual fare, frogs, salamanders, and crayfish can be appealing alternatives.
And, by the way, none of the above are particularly expensive to buy. Every place from the neighborhood Walmart to your favorite tackle shop will likely have great walleye baits and lures for a decent price and purchasing online could save you even more.
You’re never too young to learn how to catch a walleye!