A new season of optimism awaits. In many states, the inland walleye seasons
open in May. Even in states where there
is no closed walleye season, the kickoff on many natural lakes and some
reservoirs begins in earnest during the same time. What has always amazed me is how patterns and
locations can sometimes vary from year to year.
No two years are quite the same.
Ice out dates flux, surface water temperatures can vary and seasonal
weather patterns can be all over the board.
Looking back, I can remember one specific year when we could
get on the ice in early May. There have
been other years where we were bundled up in boats, finding fish in over thirty
feet of water. Of course, there have
also been times when we found fish shallow.
Nothing surprises me anymore but there is often a method to the madness. The following are a few observations.
Deep Fish Factors
So often when we look at early season walleye fishing, much
of the talk revolves around finding fish using shallow water. Shallow water is warmer and finding walleyes
early in the year often revolves around water temperature but there is a big
exception. Traveling fish often run deep
and unstable weather along with wicked cold fronts that crash water
temperatures will also send fish deep. Whenever
environmental factors cause fish to move multiple miles, these fish often
follow the deeper contours as that is often the least amount of distance to
travel. Especially during periods of
frigid and brutal weather, don’t be afraid to look deep and fast forward ahead
to locations offshore that you wouldn’t expect to catch fish until much later
into the season. Speaking from
experience, it took me many years to learn that lesson.
Stable and Able
Steady progression of rising water temperatures and stable
weather typically sees the classic patterns unfold on many fisheries and this
predictableness works in the angler’s favor.
Each body of water has a unique personality. On some bodies of water, the norm would be to
find walleyes relating to 15 to 20-foot gravel bars while fifty miles away on a
different body of water, you might anticipate fish in five to ten feet of water
along emerging weed lines. On big bodies
of water, find bays and other protected pools of water that are warming up at a
Look to see if wind is stacking warmer water along a shoreline. Big water often demands finding these pockets
of warmer water which can make these larger bodies of water more
challenging. Because water temperature
can be so important to early season success, a tried and true strategy is to
focus on smaller and more protected bodies of water that are a step ahead in
warming up. You can sometimes fast
forward by a week or two into the biological clock by shifting to smaller
As a rule of thumb, cold water is usually much clearer. As the water warms up or get churned up by
wind, the water will develop some color.
This stain in the water often coincides with water temperature. Too much wind can hurt some bites when the
water begins to get turbid from wave action but some color or stain is usually
good. Look into the water with polarize
glasses and gauge the visibility. A good
general rule of thumb I like to use for starting out on a lake is to double the
depth that I can see. If you can see
down to five feet, start fishing in ten feet of water.
This rule of thumb often gets me pretty close most of the
time during stable weather but of course there are always exceptions especially
in regards to what we discussed earlier… wicked fronts carrying a lot of wind
that crash water temperatures and send fish deep.
So often, many anglers assume that they must fish slow and
methodically early in the season. In fact,
on many bodies of water, many anglers will be slinging a rig or perhaps a
jig. Don’t always assume that time of
year or water temperature dictates the presentation. If fish are clumped on a small location or
holding on a “spot on the spot,” use a presentation that can be surgical like a
jig or live bait rig. If fish are fanned
out over large spots like channel edges or flats, don’t be afraid to troll
crankbaits or even a spinner harness.
The key to catching fish is matching up the presentation to the location
so that you can efficiently fish through the spot.
Typically, on most fisheries, there will be several patterns
happening and this variety of location types and patterns is further
exaggerated by the fact that walleyes will typically be just wrapping up
spawning come May. Thus, anglers can
often target male walleye that continue to linger in current and hard bottom
areas. Classic spawning locations like
bottle necks, rip rap areas and rubble or rock shorelines often hold male
walleyes for an additional month at times… long after the females vacate these
In reservoirs where fish will sometimes move several miles
during this time of year, a population of fish can often be found deep as they
follow the edges of old river channels.
As the water temps continue to climb, post spawn females will often
slide up onto shallow sand flats to warm up.
Because these productive patterns and locations can often be a moving
target, don’t get affixed to just one pattern or type of location. Be flexible and take samples of different
locations and patterns until you get into the groove.
Fifty Shades of Gold
Because of the amount of distance some fish move or travel
during the spring, there are different populations of fish living completely
different lives on most top walleye fisheries.
Some fish won’t travel far over their entire life while some fish put on
several miles. As a rule of thumb, fish
that have not been traveling great distances will have darker and more robust
coloration while fish that put on a lot of miles appear pale and washed
out. Fish with the dark and robust
colors have been hanging out in the same location while the paler fish are
transition fish. Both fish can be
targeted and caught but having that understanding and grasp of what these fish
are doing can make you much more attune to the patterns.
Note that on some fisheries, the fish are constantly
roaming, moving and on the go and are typically always pale. Each body of water also has its own
characteristics as some lakes produce green and gold walleyes where as other
fish look almost black depending on the water in which they live. On many fisheries, however, you will have
what many would consider a normal looking walleye and then there are much paler
Some anglers believe that shallow fish get darker coloration
and deeper fish get pale and this change in color is a result of sun
penetration. My personal believe is that
this change in color is caused by slight stress. You can take a dark colored walleye and put
it in your live well with the lid open and so often, the fish will lighten up
in color within an hour… caused by stress.