Spring Walleye Fishing
It’s definitely spring time in Colorado; in the high 70’s last Saturday, then snow on Wednesday, then 70’s again on Friday. I love this time of year, even with the wild swings in the weather. The grass is turning green, trees are budding, and the fish are hungry. Now is one of my favorite times to fish for walleye as they are quick to spawn after the ice thaws off the lakes.
The nice thing about living right next to a great walleye reservoir is that walleye in a reservoir will spawn over a much longer period of time than fish in a natural lake or river. In a reservoir walleye can begin their spawn anywhere from late February to mid April, and different schools of fish within the same reservoir can be in different spawning stages at the same time, this usually results in good walleye fishing to start off the new fishing year.
Walleye are appealing to me, and many other fishermen, because they can be a tough fish to catch; you have to have some knowledge of them to catch them consistently. This time of year as I mentioned above, the fish are in one of three stages; pre-spawn, spawn, and post spawn. During the pre-spawn the fish are looking to eat as much as they can to prepare for the spawn and to regain their mass that was lost during the winter months. This is when fish migrate towards feeding areas near spawning areas.
Walleye spawn in rocky areas, instinctively seeking places where there is a lot of wave action to keep the eggs oxygenated and free of silt build-up. In the pre-spawn the fish will look for structure not far from the spawning areas, structure like humps, ledges, and channels. Conversely, some fish prefer to be over a completely flat area, so don’t discount those parts of the lake. The fish can be anywhere between 8 to 30 feet of water, and are usually hanging out above the structure you can find on the bottom. I focus on the deeper water closer to 30 feet at this time of year.
I don’t fish in a high-tech fishing boat, only a kayak or canoe and a topographic map of the lake bottom. For me, this is part of the challenge; reading a map to know where to find fish. For people who do have the high-tech electronics to scan the bottom of the lake and even see fish, there are times when I envy you! The electronics don’t guarantee that you will catch fish, but they can certainly give you an advantage, especially in large bodies of water. Because I have been fishing the same lake 90% of the time for the past 20 years, I have come to know it pretty well, so that helps.
In the pre-spawn I like to use jigs or spoons, and position my boat over an area that looks good for structure, and jig the lure up and let it flutter down. For spoons I prefer the age old go-to spoon, the Dare Devil in a 1/2 ounce weight with red and white colors. For jigs I prefer a 1/4 or 3/8 ounce round head jig with a 3” soft plastic body, like a Power Grub by Berkley with a twister tail or a Gulp Alive 3” or 4” minnow. For either lure, jigging slowly is the key, and you have to be patient.
When the spawn begins you have to find the spawning area. Walleye tend to spawn in the same places every year, so once you have found spawning areas on a lake, return to them each year in the spring. As mentioned before, ideal spawning areas are rocky with rocks the size of basketballs. But walleye will also spawn near river or creek inlets, rip rap areas, or rocks with shallow sand or mud nearby. In reservoirs such as the one I fish all of these conditions can be found, and my experience has been that all of them are successful. There is a very large, rocky dam face, there is a good sized creek that comes into a flat area of the lake, and there is a major river that comes into the lake as well.
During the spawn the fish are not going to be feeding, they will be defending their egg spreads. While I did read a study from 1983 that said walleyes perform no parenting behaviors, I don’t know if I agree with that. I think walleyes do defend the area where they spread their eggs. For this reason you want to use a lure with a lot of action, like a diving crank bait that bounces off the bottom. During this time lures that are larger than the natural forage in the lake will entice a defensive strike from a walleye. A crank bait with internal rattles is also a good option. I still use a lure that has colors of the forage in the lake, usually shad or perch, but I use a larger than normal lure to give the appearance of a threat to the walleye’s eggs.
I position my boat about 20 yards from shore and cast to the shallow water and work the bait back to my boat. Fishing in rip rap areas can cost a lot of lures, but it is important to get the lure hitting the bottom and causing a commotion. I find that a square-lipped crank bait tends to bounce off of rocks better than a curve-lipped bait, but the curve-lipped baits can dive deeper and faster than a square-lipped lure. I can’t recommend one over the other, they both have their positive qualities.
One thing to keep in mind while fishing during the spawn is that you do not want to kill a big female during this time of year, including the pre-spawn time period. A prime breeding female is 3 – 6 pounds and will produce about 27,000 eggs per pound during the spawn. Determining the sex of a walleye can be difficult, but there are a few things you can look for to help determine the sex. During the spawning seasons, males will tend to leak a milky substance which is used to fertilize eggs. Observe the anus of the fish; a male’s will be round while a female’s will look more like a key hole. A male will appear much slimmer, while a female will appear to be fat in the stomach. But a female that is over 30” has likely passed her fertile years and is OK to harvest.
During the post-spawn period, the fish will often rest for a few days, or longer depending on weather conditions; cold or stormy weather keeps the fish inactive. But once the fish are active again they are eager to make up for lost feeding time during the spawn, and they become very aggressive to regain the mass they have lost. This is the best time to catch walleyes in shallow water, especially at night. My favorite tactic at this time of year is to put on a pair of warm waders and walk out to about four feet of water and cast shallow to medium depth minnow lures parallel to the shore line. This type of fishing is best done as the sun is going down, and far into the night. I have had my best success with walleye with this type of fishing, and this method works well into the summer months.
Just as all game species have their seasons, spring is the time when walleye can be somewhat predictable in their behavior, and understanding their basic behavior can help you get more fish on your line. Walleye have a special appeal to me though, they just seem to be harder to catch, and therefore I want to try harder to figure them out. Not that bass, trout, catfish, or anything else is any easier, it’s just one more challenge that I want to master.