Ron Anlauf offers up some great early season walleye advice for those looking to break their Cabin Fever.
Where there’s a will there’s a way, especially if your will is to get in on some early season walleye action. The “way” will depend on where you are, or how far you’re willing to travel. There are some exceptional “ways” available to today’s anglers throughout the country, and includes some extremely productive river stretches.
In Minnesota you can’t have a conversation on early season walleye angling without including the Mississippi River as well as the Rainy River on the Canadian border. The reason for the inclusion is the fact that those are basically the only options, as the rest of the State’s waters remain closed. In Wisconsin it’s the Fox and Wolf rivers. In Ohio it’s the Maumee and Sandusky rivers, and Illinois it’s the Illinois River. The truth is there is probably a fair amount of decent action happening within a reasonable drive for most early season anglers.
Heading for a river in search of ol’marble eyes can be a feast or famine proposition early in the season, and unfortunately heavy on the famine for most first timers. However, by reading up on a little pre-trip info you might be able to have your cake and eat it too. Famine comes into play whenever anglers fail to adjust to an ever changing river environment, and change is the only constant. Take the ups and downs of early season water levels, add in clarity that can run from clear to pure mud, and then throw in the annual spawning cycle for good measure and you have a scenario that is impossible to set in stone. The good new is that even with all of those variables you can still be successful if you stay fluid and go with the flow.
According to professional walleye angler and river aficionado Jimmy Bell of Ham Lake, Minnesota; “The most important factor effecting walleye location during the earliest part of the season is the presence of baitfish. If you can find the bait you can find the walleyes. The more you know about the forage base the better off you’ll be. On pools 2 and 3 of the Mississippi River where I spend a good deal of time the main forage base is shad, which can be readily found with a good graph. I’ve been using a Garmin color graph and have found that it will clearly mark schools of suspended bait as well as anything holding tight to the bottom. Look for schools of bait to hold in front of and behind wind dams, in deeper holes, as well as along any type of current break.”
Water levels are another important consideration and can vary greatly from week to week and even day to day, depending on the prevailing conditions. Light run-off and low water levels tend to spread walleyes throughout a system while heavy run-off and higher levels will bunch them up. “The higher the levels the more concentrated they’ll be. The process can be slow or quick, depending on just how fast water levels rise. For example: Walleyes that were previously holding in deeper water off the tip of a wing dam may now be packed in tight to shore on the downstream side of the dam, if there’s enough current.
Secondary channels are another hot spot and may be several miles or more downstream from any impeding dam. The key to finding walleyes in secondary channels is current, as they simply won’t hold any appreciable numbers without it. When water levels peak and are at their highest levels you need to start looking for seams close to shore, instead of the usual major current breaks. A seam is a small current break that can be hard to detect, but may hold plenty of high water walleyes. They become easier to read when there are buds falling, like those that drop from maple trees.
The buds will stack up along the edge of a seam and it becomes much easier to detect.” Water clarity is the next item on the list that has to be dealt with. Just how dark or clear things are will require small but important variations in your presentation. “For the most part when I’m working clear water I’ll probably be pitching light jigs in the 1/16 to 1/8oz range tipped with minnows to the shore, and working them back through the current break. I’ll also use high vis line to help me keep track of my bait. When a walleye picks up the bait many times the only indication you’ll get is a slight twitch in the line and the high vis line lets me actually see the bite.
Dark or muddy water calls for something else and is when I’ll start using big plastic baits without the benefit of any live bait. Bigger plastic baits provide a larger profile and create more commotion than a smaller jig and minnow, and are an easier target for ol’ marble eyes to hone in on. A plastic bait like a four or five inch lizard can be absolutely deadly at times, and is an option that’s often overlooked.”
Bell also uses the brightest colored baits he can find and will actually take the time to use a special dip to get the desired effect if he feels the need. “If it’s dark enough I’ll actually jig straight up and down in two or three feet of water and slowly work down river along the edge of a seam. Fish that shallow can be easily spooked and you have to take some extra precaution to prevent that from happening, like running your trolling motor at a constant speed.
Starting and stopping an electric trolling motor can spook fish and may ruin your chances of finding active shallow. Instead, I’ll set the desired speed on my Minn Kota and let it run on constant until I am completely through an area.” Besides current and clarity there’s that doggone spawning cycle which can definitely change things and has to be addressed. According to Bell; “When you get close to the spawn look for walleyes to line up near flooded weeds like cane. Walleyes will actually use the weeds to drop their eggs in, and is where most of the river spawning takes place.”
It certainly doesn’t fit the bill of “classic walleye behavior” but tracking studies have shown the phenomenon to be true. See you on the river.