Finding Walleyes

If there’s one thing you learn in over 30 years of chasing walleyes, it’s that good spots are good spots, sometimes even independent of the season. Along the location trail, it’s common to uncover spots that look appealing on a lake map, but don’t attract walleyes because they lack baitfish, vegetation, or other critical habitat; or sometimes it’s as simple as the structure is in the wrong part of the lake; or it’s not exposed to the right current or wind.

Humps are examples of a seemingly obvious location that often fails to consistently attract walleyes. Humps in many lakes and reservoirs are classic boom-or-bust locations. At least during summer, you might check a few favorite humps every time you fish a particular lake because you’ve found good fish there often enough to make the search worthwhile.

On many lakes, humps serve as temporary feeding zones, visited by pods of walleyes during short periods of time. The chances of you landing on the hump when walleyes are there aren’t good. Nor is it always easy to predict when fish move onto such structures. But on clear lakes, humps or sunken islands with rock or hard bottom seem to be most consistent during the low-light phases in summer and early fall. On some lakes, fishing pressure can throw a wrench in such calculations, pushing fish off prime humps and other structure and onto non-descript sections of shoreline breaks or expansive flats.

If there’s one type of cover anglers don’t fish thoroughly enough, it’s vegetation. For many of us, it takes years of failure to finally develop the confidence to fish vegetation effectively. It helps to share a boat with anglers like Mike Gofron, who happily humbles you while putting on a fish-catching clinic until you gradually begin to see the light.

I recall a trip to Lake Gogebic, Michigan, many years ago, in which Gofron and another pro handed me a rod rigged with a Johnson Beetle Spin dressed with a Berkley PowerBait Minnow. I had to wonder. But Gofron proceeded to hook 15 walleyes in short order before I matched his retrieve and put a few fish in the boat. It turned out that the Beetle Spin and softbait could be fished at the right speed and cadence to lure bites from walleyes in medium-density vegetation while remaining mostly snag-free.

The Beetle Spin remains an overlooked lure for walleyes in vegetation, as is the Gopher Tackle Bait Spin, a modern take on the old Lindy Spin Rig. Dress either of those compact spins with a 3-inch paddletail, grub, or minnow-profile softbait, and work it moderately fast through pondweed, coontail, or elodea and you’ll put surprising numbers of walleyes in the net.

Productive vegetation zones are like any other good spot. Sometimes there’s an obvious indicator, such as an adjacent rock ridge or a sharp drop-off, or a mix of different plant species that ignites the location lightbulb in your head. Yet nearly as often, some vague, difficult-to-pinpoint factor is at work. All you know is, you’ve found and caught walleyes in this spot consistently enough to call it a goldmine. Usually, however, if you zoom out far enough and look at the spot on a lake map from a broader perspective, something about it starts to make sense. Often, that “something” is that it lies amidst one of the most expansive feeding flats in the lake. Big feeding flats—especially those intersecting or dividing deep main-lake basins—almost always attract walleyes.

Finding WalleyesSuper Spots Versus Seasonal Migrations
You can go years believing that super spots are a myth. And until you find one, they are. Last year, I wrote about such a spot—likely the most fruitful walleye structure I’ve ever fished. The surprising thing about the spot is that it couldn’t be subtler, less obvious, or much smaller in size—at least the sweet spot, which is no more than the 10 walleye boats wide. It’s a point only in the sense that it’s a hard-bottom extension out into the main lake, but the change in depth is only a few feet, so although it appears on a LakeMaster digital map, it’s exceedingly easy to overlook.

Perhaps what’s magical about it is that amid a lake that’s 90 percent soft bottom—other than a few small humps and the shoreline breaks—it’s one of the only relatively expansive areas of hard bottom. Moreover, the hard-bottom sweet spot juts well into the basin, lying in 24 to 26 feet of water, surrounded by 27 to 29 feet of soft bottom in all directions. What I’m saying is, prominent hard-bottom extensions—no matter how subtle in depth change—are one of the most universally appealing walleye spots, no matter the season. This applies to reservoirs and Canadian Shield lakes, where almost everything looks like hard bottom. Rivers, too. Prominent extensions are key, almost always.

Super spots like that one are super spots period, regardless of what they look like, and often, regardless of season. This one has produced great bites in nine different months of the year, only excluding February, March, and April, I suspect, because that’s when the season’s closed.

This brings to mind a poignant quote from Mike McClelland, one of the finest walleye practitioners in the history of the sport, regarding seasonal transitions, and why walleyes don’t all fall into neat, orderly patterns of behavior. “People have calendars,” McClelland noted years ago. “Fish don’t. In some cases, fish experience transition periods as they move between habitats, while in others, they move and set up in a day.”

His point was that many anglers become so conditioned to traditional thinking regarding seasonal movements that they don’t always consider that walleyes can and do rapidly make major location and behavioral changes. “If fish move in a day and it takes us two weeks to respond, we’re the ones creating the transition period,” he adds.

The overarching point is that although spawning dictates that many walleyes gravitate to current areas, creeks, and other shallow spawning habitat, these walleyes easily travel back to main-lake structures within a day or two of spawning—at least on most small to medium-sized waterbodies. And even on bigger waters, the distance from spawning habitat to great, season-long spots isn’t farther than walleyes can swim in a day or so. Good spots are always good spots. The trick is figuring out when the greatest number of walleyes gather there.

INFS-170020-MOV-05That reminds me of a tracking study conducted on 5,000-acre Ten Mile Lake in northern Minnesota, published in the mid-1990s in In-Fisherman magazine. Most striking about this study was that each of the walleyes implanted with transmitters exhibited totally individual movement patterns, and that fish rarely “set up” or lingered in one area for more than a day or so. Rather, several of the fish traveled many miles in a day, often bee-lining across deep open water from one structure to the next. Often, too, walleyes positioned within the top 20 feet of the water column over much deeper water, feeding on pelagic prey. Even in winter, movements of individual fish were often far-ranging, in some cases, even more extensive than spring and summer travels.

So while summer fish appear less likely to haunt shallow vegetated bays, and walleyes in spring might be less likely to show up on deep main-lake points, individual fish—and in some cases, many fish—can and do break rules. A recent example: Last October, I located a big pod of sizeable walleyes hunting yearling panfish in 2 feet of water within a large bulrush bed with a water temperature of 51°F, a time when fish are “supposed to be” on deep structure. And in contrast, I can think of several lakes that harbor big schools of walleyes in 40 to 60 feet of water as early as May 30th, and perhaps even earlier—surely just weeks or less after spawning.

The lesson remains that walleyes don’t necessarily conform to our ideas of seasonal habitat, whether prespawn “staging areas,” postspawn “recovery areas,” or even spring-to-summer transition areas; that walleyes are quite capable of moving from shallow bays to main lake structure and over deep open water within the space of a day. Fish go where food and conditions dictate, sometimes, regardless of season.

Sonar Shortcuts to Success
Given what high-tech tools offer in the way of shortcuts, it’s impossible to talk about walleye location without bringing sonar and other technology into the discussion. From the broadest perspective, digital lake maps, such as LakeMaster and Navionics, provide overviews of the waterbody. Drop waypoints onto possible locations before hitting the water. Use real-time on-water mapping, such as Humminbird’s AutoChart Live, to fine-tune specific structures. Even though maps of many waters have accurate 1-foot contours, you often discover that some data are inaccurate. By remapping a given point while you fish or move across it searching for fish, you reveal spots-on-spots—microstructures such as bumps in the breakline, high spots, or mini depressions.

INFS-170020-MOV-03On rivers—many of which remain unmapped—you can uncover goldmines. Spend enough time, and you can accurately map entire stretches, such as the 10-mile section of the Upper Mississippi, which serves as my home water. Same deal for small reservoirs or remote waters. There’s something satisfying in knowing you’re the only angler in possession of such valuable depth data. And the data inevitably put you on fish in new and surprising locations.

Along these lines, with LakeMaster Plus software, you can overlay satellite imagery on lake depth data, which often shows shallow reefs, as well as subtle details like minor depressions on sweeping flats and holes, and lanes and openings on vegetated flats. On Cass Lake, Minnesota, I’ve used this tool to discover subtle depressions on large sandflats, which often gather small pods of walleyes when the wind blows.

Walleye pro Gary Parsons adds that Lowrance’s Insight Genesis mapping resource can reveal zones of hard versus soft bottom. “Before running these new maps alongside Lowrance’s StructureScan, we didn’t realize how far some of these hard bottom extensions protruded into soft mud basin areas,” Parsons says. “They can be so subtle, depth-wise, that they’re easy to miss. But the bottom hardness maps make them stick out like a sore thumb; they can open up a whole new world of untouched fishing spots.”

Parsons says he’s been amazed by how many of these subtle yet elongated hard-bottom extensions he’s found in many bodies of water, and how many predators he’s found living on them. “Lots of times, we’ve followed these extensions way out into the main lake and near the tips, we’ve frequently found big numbers of walleyes and large pike that probably don’t get fished often.”

Zooming in and examining specific structures identified with mapping and side-imaging reveals changes from soft to hard bottom. Traditional sonar shows transitions, too, but not so obviously as down- and side-imaging views. On my Humminbird Helix units, I look for a change from dark-shaded bottom to much lighter bottom—the clear indication of a transition. Zigzag back and forth over the transition and you soon uncover high percentage protrusions, as well as marking fish close to the bottom change.

One other valuable tool for patterning fish is the LakeMaster depth highlight feature. Once you’ve established that fish are using certain depth range, say 20 to 25 feet, you can plug in the range and watch as the map colors all areas of the lake that match your parameters with contrasting colors. With this feature you instantly see the most expansive areas 20 to 25 feet deep. So while most of these depths might lie on sharp, non-descript drop-offs, shown by a narrow band of color, a few broad swaths of color reveal now-obvious feeding flats, including potential hard-bottom extensions into the main lake.

INFS-170020-MOV-04In regards to fish in vegetation, we noted the importance of confidence. Vegetation, as well as dense brush or submerged timber in reservoirs, represents a final frontier where identifying walleyes on sonar remains problematic. Many anglers now use underwater cameras to discern walleyes within vegetation or timber. Other than fishing—which often requires hours of casting to zero in on biting fish—an Aqua-Vu is the only way to find walleyes, see with your eyes exactly how they’re positioned within the cover, and ultimately, to give you the confidence to fish precisely and with intent within dense cover.

Tech tools have enhanced the efficiency with which we locate walleyes. The stuff is so effective that you sometimes find yourself feeling a little uncomfortable. But it’s still not that easy. And you still have to have a clue about specific lake sections on unfamiliar water and a bit on seasonal location tendencies, before beginning to drive around looking for fish on the screen. Good spots are good spots, yes, but if I’m on a new lake in May, I’m probably not going to start on sharp sloping points in the deepest part of the lake; or in shallow bays in November. But you never know.

In a similar vein, I’ve spoken recently with several experts about the efficiency of new GPS-guided trolling motors. After spending many seasons learning to precisely backtroll a contour, for example, we can now hit “spot-lock” and park over individual fish or a sweet spot, keeping a laser focus on presentation without giving a second thought to boat control. Times and technology change. Walleyes don’t.

INFS-170020-MOV-02Open-Water Ghosts
But I don’t feel too guilty about high tech tools and their associated shortcuts because as we all know, about the time you start feeling like you’ve figured a few things out, the walleyes disappear and leave you befuddled again. Years ago, it was driving me mad that I’d catch nice fish on a big point one day, only to have them vanish the next. Eventually, I happened to wander off structure into the adjacent deep basin and started marking big hooks, suspended at roughly the same depth as before. I made one drop with a jigging spoon and connected with a big walleye.

It makes sense that fish follow baitfish both onto structure and off. But it’s not always that simple. Sometimes, you still mark bait glued to structure, while walleyes drift in open water nearby. The beauty is, suspended fish are easy to mark on sonar, and often seem willing to bite. I’m finding that bombing for walleyes in open water isn’t so different from bombing structure, often with the same heavy jigging lures in each case.

In the past, anglers thought you had to approach open-water fish by trolling crankbaits. But the reality is, given our ability to zero in and virtual-anchor over individual fish, bombing open water is rapidly becoming a viable and sometimes amazing method for catching big fish—something we’ll investigate and report on in the future.
For now, know that walleyes can be in open water immediately after spawning. From late spring through early fall, the open-water option can be the most consistent pattern in many lakes and reservoirs—at least if your goal is a big fish or two each day.

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