To catch spring walleye, you need to outmatch the hatch
Spring can be a challenging time for walleye anglers. Sure, the fishing can be great because the famished, post-spawn walleye are feeding voraciously, devouring up to three per cent of their body weight a day. But spring is also the time when mayflies hatch, emerging from the muddy bottoms of our countless waterways.
To walleye, these insects are like candy—they only need to open their mouths to enjoy the buffet. To anglers, however, mayflies are competition, and therein lies the challenge.
So, how do you compete with all that food? The best way is to not compete at all. Instead, join the party. In fact, you want to be the life of the party—in other words, be a better mayfly. And one of the best ways to do this is to use the “Weapon,” a rig developed by walleye anglers on Lake Erie, where mayfly hatches get so thick and heavy that snowplows have been called in to clear the slippery roadways.
To make the Weapon (below), slide a small #2 or #3 copper- or brass-coloured Indiana spinner blade and clevis onto your line, followed by three or four tiny, dark orange beads. Most Erie anglers complete the rig by tying on a #4 or #6 hook, although I prefer using a wide-gap-style finesse hook.
For bait, thread a night crawler onto the hook so it covers the shank, then snip it off so only a smelly nub remains, with nothing trailing behind. A scented Exude, Gulp! or Trigger X night crawler works just as well, maybe even better, when the walleye are otherwise slashing and tearing apart your bait.
Most anglers troll the rig slowly behind an in-line sinker or bottom bouncer, weighted to keep it spinning about a foot or so above the mud bottom that both mayflies and walleye prefer. To accentuate the spinning, I’ve been modifying the rig in recent years by placing a small swivel between the beads and the hook. I’ve also substituted a kinked Slow Death-style hook for the straight-shanked version.
And here’s something else I do with my Weapon that most ’eye anglers don’t: I cast it. When I’m trolling and I spot a tightly grouped school of walleye on my sonar, I’ll throw out a marker buoy on the spot and stop the boat. I then cast the Weaponusing a seven-foot, medium-action spinning rod rigged with eight- to 10-pound-test line. And pegged ahead of the spinner, I’ll add a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce tungsten worm weight (depending on the depth).
After casting the rig so it lands well past the marker, I let it fall to the bottom then slowly reel it back in, lifting up my rod tip to simulate an adult mayfly emerging from the soft bottom.
Another great option is to cast a brass, copper or gold blade bait, such as the Heddon Sonar or Silver Buddy, or a tail spinner such as the ReelBait Lytle’s Secret. I even use muddy brown nail polish to paint the baits in order to match the hatch.
Simply cast your lure and let it plummet to the mud bottom, where it will kick up a cloud of walleye-attracting silt. Then slowly reel and pump the wriggling bait back in. Just don’t be surprised when you feel the tell-tale *thump* of a mayfly-hungry walleye on the other end of your line.
Timing the bite
The most geographically widespread species of the 2,500-member mayfly order is the Hexagenia limbata, or simply Hex to most anglers. These bugs may be called mayflies, but the peak of the Hex hatch across most of Canada takes place in June, once water temperatures reach 15 to 18ºC and remain consistent for some time. When this happens, the finger-sized nymphs emerge from the mud bottoms of lakes, rivers and reservoirs as the beautiful, delicate adult mayflies we see each spring and summer.
The most obvious sign that a hatch is in full swing is when the adults lift off the water and congregate around streetlights in the evening. But you can get a head start on the action by checking the stomachs of any small fish you keep to eat. If you find what appears to be mud, it’s a sure sign the mayfly bite is underway.