Extreme sports are entertaining to watch.
Twenty years ago, who would have imagined slopestyle competitions, holyman tricks, upside-down snowmobiles and slang-spouting teen-agers known as thrashers and rippers? Unfortunately, fishing has an extreme side, too, and it occurs during springs when high water prevails. While spectators might enjoy watching anglers try to launch boats from flooded ramps or witness others spinning around while fighting the current, April isn’t always much fun for those trying to put a few fish in the livewell. There are a few things we can do to improve our odds, and they don’t require big air or 560 flips. A few freestyle maneuvers can make all the difference.
This past winter left most of the Midwest buried under record amounts of ice and snow. That will keep temperatures below normal and slow the melting process until the thermometer climbs into the 50s and 60s. And when that happens, all that frozen precipitation will pour into our lakes and rivers. Add a few April showers into the forecast and it shapes up as a challenging month for walleye anglers who typically enjoy some of the year’s best fishing in the weeks before and after the species’ annual spawn.
Water clarity is one of the first issues we’ll have to deal with whether we choose to fish lakes, reservoirs or rivers. An extended spring runoff with a big finish will color the water brown in most locations. And the higher and faster the water gets in river systems, the more sediment it pulls along with it from adjoining lands and fields. That makes it harder for walleyes to forage, but it can also drive them into some shallow-water areas where they become easy targets for anglers.
There are three reasons I always probe the shallows in April, and especially when extreme conditions prevail. First, shallow water will warm faster than the main lake or river. I believe female walleyes preparing to spawn use that warmer water to accelerate the development of their eggs, which can’t be all that comfortable to carry around. And where there are female walleyes in April, there are male walleyes nearby. The second and third reasons the shallows can be productive are related. Baitfish are attracted to the warmer water, and there is no better place for a walleye to ambush a meal when its visibility is limited than skinny water. That’s not to say walleyes will spend all their time in shallow water. We also need a plan to get after them in their traditional spawning locations because nature still leads them to areas where the environmental factors exist that allow their eggs to hatch.
My extreme angling plan starts by choosing lures and presentations that give the fish an opportunity to react. Jig fishing is a standard for most April walleye anglers, and so are bright colors like chartreuse, orange, lime green and white. In shallow water, I experiment with bright-colored plastics like Lindy’s Techni-Glo Munchies and Ringworms, to which I add a liquid scent, but more often I tip a plain jig head with a minnow or shiner for the scent it provides. Rattles can be a valuable addition to the presentation when fishing over hard-bottom areas of rock or rubble. Unfortunately, the shallows are usually full of snags. For that reason, I fish the smallest jigs I can present effectively, and those with soft hooks that can often be rescued from snags. Stinger hooks are usually not a good shallow-water option. When I move out into deeper water, stingers are a must. Because it is more difficult for fish to get a fix on potential prey and because they are typically not as aggressive as we’d like in dirty, deep water, a No. 10 treble hook behind a jig can make a big difference in our catch.
As I move deeper, I turn to jigs in the 3/8th to 1/2-ounce range. In river situations, I also change to tapered head styles that are more aqua-dynamic and cut through the current current rather than get pushed around by it.
No matter what you offer the fish, it won’t work if you can’t control it, and that requires some extreme methods of boat control. In the shallows where current or wind are factors, you can simply toss out an anchor or tie off to a tree and pitch jigs around the stumps and rocks that provide pockets of slack water for walleyes to rest and ambush their prey. If there’s no current, use your electric motor to help you cover water.
Rivers are more problematical because there’s often nowhere to escape the flow and because we often have to target fish that are in deeper water on the main channel.
The biggest challenge is to find the combination of boat and current speed that allows vertical presentation of our jigs. Dragging jigs downstream is seldom an effective approach this time of year because they are moving too fast for dirty water fish to react and because the angler doesn’t have enough control to detect bites.
Your choice of tackle is an important factor. I’ve found a Quantum graphite rod coupled with Yo-Zuri H.D. Carbon line does a great job of transmitting information from the bottom of the river to my hands – especially those light spring walleye bites!
When I’m on one of our Midwestern rivers in April, I also have a drift sock in my Triton. Used in conjunction with my Optima-powered MinnKota bow-mount trolling motor, that keeps my boat from moving faster than my lure. Sometimes, however, even that’s not enough. I’ve been in situations where the best way to achieve the point of ideal presentation is by dropping my Mercury kicker motor and using it together with my bow-mount.
A couple of other ways to deal with extreme current are to anchor up and cast to the locations you believe are holding walleyes or to switch to a trolling presentation that puts your lure in the strike zone and keeps it there. Bright-colored Original Floating Rapalas (chartreuse and fire-tiger patterns) take a lot of spring walleyes in extreme conditions when fished on three-way rigs, pole-lining or hand-lining gear where leaders of varied lengths are attached to heavy weights that hang vertically from the boat. If you really know the body of water you’ll be fishing, you will also know the areas that clean up fastest, are less susceptible to immediate runoff from the adjoining flood plain or have something else about them that keeps them slightly cleaner than the majority of the water. Those can be good areas to target, as well.
Angling is an extreme sport this time of year. Make a few adjustments and you’ll be fun to watch for all the right reasons.