It really is a thinking man’s game when it comes to catching early season walleyes because they can definitely be a challenge. Part of the problem is there is no starting point and you can’t pick up where you left off, especially in states where there’s a closed season. In that case you can try and rely on what worked in the past and that maybe the answer but things do change from year to year and it’s the thinkers that can roll with the punches that usually come out on top.
Ranger Pro Kevin McQuoid of Isle, Minnesota is one of the top rated tournament anglers in the country and has walleye fishing running in his blood. He and his brother Aaron grew up guiding for his Dad Terry on Minnesota’s infamous Mille Lacs Lake where he has spent many an opener finding and caching walleyes. He has also traveled the country in a competition mode entering walleye contests and earning big paychecks on a variety of lakes and rivers and offers some of his best advice to help you get your season off to a good start.
Kevin on Mille Lacs: “Much of what we do to catch opening day walleyes is dictated by the conditions and that can vary quite a bit from year to year. A nice warm up and calmer water usually means slowly drifting sandy flats that drop into deeper water and is nice easy way to fish. Before dropping them a line I’ll take a slow cruise along the breaks and scan the area with the Hummbird Side Imaging in my 1198 and see if I can mark some fish and where they’ve set up. Could be on top and could be down the break in deeper water, say maybe fifteen to eighteen feet. From the captain’s seat I can drop an icon on anything within a hundred and fifty feet of either side of the boat and will mark the heaviest concentrations. From there I’ll go back and work the areas I’ve found holding the most fish and see if we can get a few to bite. We’ll drag live bait rigs nice and slow which is usually the way they want it. I also like longer snells and will stretch them out to eight to maybe nine feet. I also like to use a red hook if I’m using leeches and do so more than ninety percent of the time. A colored bead can help at times and I’ll add a chartreuse bead to give the rig some added color. If I’m using a crawler I like the chartreuse but might change to orange or green. It seems pretty simple but can make a big difference in how many fish actually pick it up. Speed is a big key and slow is almost always the way to go, especially right away when the water is still plenty cold and the fish aren’t all that wound up. To keep my twenty-one foot Ranger under control I’ll get up on the bow and use a 36v Minn Kota Terrova to adjust speed and to change drifting depths. If it’s blowing hard enough I’ll drop a drift sock off the bow with a 60” hoop to slow it down and might even use a second sock if necessary but that would be a rare occasion. The design of the fiberglass hull reduces the wind effect and is quite impressive, especially after spending most of my early years in aluminum.
Too much wind and we’ll change tactics and location completely and head for the shallow rocks. It’s really impossible to try and use a live bait rig because you’ll be constantly hanging up and breaking off and why we change things up and use an anchor and slip bobber technique. By anchoring up wind of a shallow rock pile or reef you can let the wind drift a jig head tipped with a small to medium leech suspended below a slip bobber back just over the tops of the rocks. It doesn’t take long to know if you’re on the fish because the bobbers will be going down. If you’ve given it some time and have come up empty you better pick up and try another spot. I can guarantee you if the wind is blowing there are shallow fish biting somewhere, you just have to move till you find them”
Early season walleye tournaments are typically held on rivers and Kevin has been competing in them for over ten years and has found specific techniques that he knows will produce: “What I do will depend on the time of the year and whether I’m looking for fish or working over a specific area. When I’m trying to locate walleyes I’ll troll smaller crankbaits like a #5 Shadrap with leadcore line. Leadcore lets me use smaller baits and get them running close to the bottom which is where you want to be. Smaller cranks don’t dive that deep on their own, (especially the jointed models) which can be superhot early on. You might not be fishing that deep but current can push your bait out of the “zone” without the added weight of leadcore. Most of the time I’ll be trolling into the current because you can stay in the fish that much longer and can keep your lure wiggling at slower speeds. To run a crank with the current you may have to move at warp factor five just to get it to work properly. Some of the earliest patterns include pre-spawn and spawning fish and is when we pitch a lot of jigs tipped with plastic bodies up to shallower rocks and rip-rap. A plastic body like a ringworm is about all you need and can out produce the real deal. Another technique we use when the fish have pulled off the shallow structure and set up in deeper water is to slowly drag a three-way rig with an ounce and half bell sinker on a 1’ dropper and a four to six foot leader tied to an orange floating jig head tipped with a minnow or half a crawler. The half crawler will get hit just as much as a whole one but you greatly increase the hooking ratio by shortening up your offering.”
The techniques Kevin uses on Mille Lacs can be effective on any natural walleye lake wherever they may swim. Same goes for rivers and includes the mighty Mississippi in Minnesota and Iowa, to the Wolf River in Wisconsin and the Illinois River near Spring Valley. Kevin still calls Mille Lacs Lake home and does a fair amount of guiding between big time tourneys and can be reached at 1-320-676-8709. See you on the water.