1. Fish Where They Spawn
Walleye fishing is first and foremost about location. You can’t catch what isn’t there, so you need to put yourself in the middle of the biggest concentration of hungry fish. And when the season begins, that’s close to the key spawning areas. Indeed, most provinces and territories time the walleye season to open just after the spawn ends.
Walleye lay their eggs on shallow, baseball- and basketball-sized boulders, where the eggs can settle into the cracks and crevices, safe from the marauding mouths of hungry perch, suckers and panfish. They also favour areas exposed to wind and current, because moving water cleans and aerates the eggs. This makes the mouths of creeks, streams and rivers prime spots to fish early in the season. Ditto for narrow, necked-down channels in larger lakes and rivers where current is present, as well as shorelines, shallow reefs and shoals exposed to the prevailing wind (typically northwest).
Once you find fish in one of these areas, it’s a safe bet you can come back in subsequent seasons and find them again, as mature walleye return to the same spawning grounds year after year. Not only that, first-time spawners learn where to go by following older, more experienced fish.
2. Go Deep
Here’s a top secret that few walleye anglers know, and one that is likely counter to everything you’ve always been told: in the spring, trophy-size fish leave the spawning areas quickly.
The common perception is that you need to weed through numbers of smaller, precocious males in the spring in hopes of catching one or two larger female walleye, but that’s simply not the case. Instead, the large females are quick to leave the spawning areas in search of deepwater refuges where there are plenty of ciscoes, whitefish and smelt to eat.
Younger, smaller walleye typically feed on yellow perch, and since perch are shallow in the spring, the smaller walleye stay shallow with them. But as the walleye grow bigger, they switch from what is abundant to what they fancy most—soft-rayed forage fish such as herring, whitefish and smelt, which don’t have sharp dorsal fins and spines.
There’s another reason mature walleye retreat quickly to deep water. The female fish can reduce their metabolic demands in the colder water to devote more energy to producing eggs. So in the spring, if you want to catch numbers of aggressive walleye, fish close to the shallow spawning areas. But if you’ve set your sights on catching the trophy of a lifetime, head for deepwater structures and cover.
3. Do the Jig
Anglers have caught more walleye using jigs than all other presentations combined. Still, as close as jigs are to being universal walleye catchers, they stand out in the spring when weather and water conditions are variable, providing maximum versatility.
For example, if spring arrives late and the water is icy cold, the fish may be lethargic and relating to heavy current down deep. In that case, use a bigger 3/8-ounce to 3/4-ounce jig. This will allow you to hover live bait over the fish holding within inches of the bottom. On the other hand, if spring comes early and the walleye have migrated to the nearby shallows, you can pitch a light 1/16- to 1/4-ounce jig into the warm water and pick off aggressive, roaming fish.
Jigs are so effective because they let you tailor your presentation to both live baits and soft-plastic dressings. When the water is frigid in the spring—and again in late fall—live bait gets the nod, especially lively minnows. Leeches excel when water temperatures begin warming up, while crawlers reign supreme in the summer. Still, I like to bring along all three live-bait options, and let the walleye decide what they prefer on any given day.
Scented soft-plastic grubs, worms and minnows tend to work best when walleye are active. And for an even bigger, bulkier presentation, you can team them with live bait. It’s deadly on fish that want the shape and profile of a soft-plastic dressing, with the added flash, flavour and aroma of the real thing.
Keep in mind that walleye are also colour conscious. They respond most positively to shades of red, orange, yellow, chartreuse and green. If you can’t decide what colour jig to use, pick one that’s multi-hued.