Gary Parsons recalls some lessons learned from fishing Wisconsin’s Lake Winnebago with his father that have changed the way he approaches early season walleye fishing.
I realize its only March and there could still be ice covering some of the lakes and rivers that “Old Marble Eyes” inhabits. But sometime over the next four to six weeks the ice will be gone and winter-long visions of chasing summer-time walleyes will become reality. Of course, these early outings normally will find you probing the water with jigs and minnows; working river stretches or shallow flats near spawning grounds. It’s a tried and true approach that will put fish in the boat, but it’s a numbers game … mostly smaller males … the big mamas are rarely found in the mix.
There is another option, though very few anglers ever take advantage of it. The bites are few, but the rewards can be monstrous! Beginning what seems like eons ago, my dad and I began doing fairly well on Lake Winnebago fishing the main lake basin as early as April. We were getting fewer fish than the guys fishing in the river, nearer the spawning areas, but the fish we caught were considerably larger. They were getting limits of 14 to 16 inch walleyes, compared to our two or three fish that went three to five pounds. At that time, those were the largest walleyes in the system, and we consistently took home Big Fish honors in the local early season tournaments. Those experiences lead us to believe that, once the spawning female’s duties are done, they make a move … straight to deep water. That’s not to say that they head for the depths and just sit there. They tend to relate to the first deep water flats near the mouths of spawning rivers, or the nearest deep water close to main lake spawning areas. On Winnebago, the deep water meant 18 to 20 feet, but the fish were not always on the bottom. They were scattered throughout the water column, most likely chasing baitfish. These females go there to feed and regain strength from the rigors of spawning, and they’re catchable.
The validity of this pattern really came to light back in April of 1991, as Keith Kavajecz and I were pre-fishing for our first PWT tournament on Lake Erie’s western basin. Most of the anglers were concentrating on the reef areas, fishing shallow water patterns near spawning sites, and while the catches were fair, no one was finding the large females that we knew inhabited this body of water. That’s when we took the lessons I’d learned from Winnebago, and headed for the first deep water flats near the spawning areas and began looking for “the pot of gold”. Well needless to say, we found it … in fact Keith ended up second and I third in that tournament and the early season fishing on Erie has become legendary since then. In fact, in April of 2002, the PWT once again held a tournament on the western basin of Lake Erie, and the big walleyes were there in full force. In three days of competition, there were 350 walleyes over ten pounds brought to the scales, including one over fourteen pounds, and they were all caught trolling crankbaits … that’s right, crankbaits. That’s the thing that makes this pattern so difficult for many anglers to try. Very few fishermen consider trolling crankbaits when water temperatures are below 50 degrees, especially in the spring.
There are four key factors to being successful at cold water cranking: First, you have got to find the fish, then you have to use the right crankbait, you have to get that bait to the fish, and you’ve got to fish them slow. Finding the fish is a matter of covering water with your electronics. Depending on the size of the lake you’re fishing, this may take a good deal of graphing, but if you concentrate on the deep water flats near spawning areas, it should narrow your search. Be sure to look for fish throughout the water column. It may be 50 feet deep, but they could be 15 feet down or near the bottom. As for crankbaits, subtle action minnow style lures like Berkley Flicker Minnows are the most effective in the cold waters following ice out. The best temperature ranges for this pattern tend to be when the water reaches the mid-forties, and gets really good as the temps approach 50 degrees.
Of course, small-lipped lures such as these are not designed to go very deep, typically only diving four to six feet down when trolled on their own. Since the deep water flats holding these walleyes may be anywhere from 20 to 60 feet deep on some lakes, it takes some sort of weighting system to get the lures down to the fish. Off Shore Tackle Snap Weights are one option. They can be attached to the line anywhere ahead of the lure, and are easily removed when reeling in fish. Trolling with lead core is another option. For this style of trolling we usually opt to fish “segmented lead core”, meaning we splice in two to three colors of lead core line between a leader and a backing of 10 pound test monofilament. That way we can still incorporateOff Shore OR-12 Side Planer in-line boards in the trolling pattern. These help spread the lures out, covering more water, and help to eliminate some of the boat spooking factor that can shut down these early season fish.
Last but not least, you’ve got to troll slow! You are dealing with cold water, and while the fish are catchable, they are by no means what one would call “active”. That’s a big reason why the subtle action of the minnow style lures is so effective, and these baits do their best work at slower than average trolling speeds, typically around 1.25 mph. Four Stroke kicker motors like Mercury’s 9.9 and 15 hp models easily troll down to the right speed, and are quiet and clean running, making a long day of trolling easy to take.
If the ice hasn’t left your favorite walleye water yet, don’t worry, it will soon. When it does, or if it already has, it’s a good bet that the biggest fish in the system may be ripe for this early season trolling pattern. Sure, you may get fewer bites over the course of the day, but there’s also the chance that you’ll hook into the biggest walleye of your life … and wouldn’t that be a great way to start the season!