June 28, 2022
By Jim Edlund
Anyone who has spent time at the fish cleaning station will tell you that walleyes are opportunistic feeders beyond imagination. Besides minnows and young-of-the-year perch, panfish, and minnows, it’s not uncommon to find such odd creatures as juvenile snakes, crawfish, frogs, even mice and small birds in the gullets of filleted walleyes. Guides will tell you that a lot of strange things have ended up in the grinder or guts bucket over the years.
This brings up one of the most important factors of becoming a consistently successful angler, and that’s figuring out where, when, and what walleyes are feeding on. In the Upper Midwest portion of the Walleye Belt, it’s not hard to figure out that from ice-out until the water hits about 60-degrees or so that the predominant walleye forage will be shiners. With the silvery protein-packed minnows running rivers and shallows on lakes, reservoirs, and rivers, it’s one of nature’s signals to match-the-hatch. At this time, nothing beats a jighead and a shiner or shiner-mimicking plastic paddletail, split-tail minnow or curly-tailed grub. Shiner-profile crankbaits will also work but recently seined and lively shiners consistently outperform everything else.
But what about the rest of the year? ‘Crawlers and leeches take over after the jig and shiner bite ends, yet most waters don’t have nightcrawlers or ribbon-tailed leeches swimming around. Still, walleyes grab them up with reckless abandon. But left to the forage opportunities of each individual body of water, walleyes will key into young-of-the-year perch, bluegills, and other available minnows—and later on—emerging bug life out of the mud.
Walleyes Chewing White Bass
Especially throughout the southern and western portions of the Midwestern Walleye Belt, many waters co-exist with sizeable populations of both walleyes and white bass. In fact, it’s not uncommon to encounter schools of the ravenous, surface-breaking panfish-on-steroids when walleye fishing. Ask me, and that’s a bonus because they’re just plain fun to catch—and cut out the red meat and they make great table fare, too. That’s not even to mention that they’re respectable fighters and when you catch one, you’re likely to catch several as they travel in baitfish-gobbling schools. It can be a nice bonus especially when the walleye bite is negative to neutral.
Early spawners—typically from mid-March to late-May—the white bass spawn is typically triggered by water temperatures in the mid- to high-50-degree range. The white bass spawn begins with males running up tributaries and to areas of current with the females following a week or two behind.
Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency biologist and white bass expert John Riddle notes that one female white bass will lay about 500,000 eggs. Following the spawn, white bass typically head for areas of less current; bridges, riprap, points, the edges of shoreline breaks, and rocky shorelines are all high-probability areas to find them. But you can also find them hovering over deep waters in no-man’s-land. All comes down to where the food is. Weeks to months later, once mature enough to leave the current spawning areas, dime- to half-dollar-sized young-of-the-year fish will eventually head to main lake areas like the above to feed on emerging insect life.
These overlooked fish are often the key to catching walleyes when other old-school and newer techniques fail as young-of-the-year and slightly larger white bass become the targets for hungry walleyes. As seen in the photo below, walleyes will literally gorge themselves on the small white bass.
A secret to guides and only those walleye anglers in-the-know for decades, more anglers are now adjusting their location-seeking to find balls of juvenile white bass on sonar or by following birds to help locate the juvenile, surface-breaking walleye fodder.
I was personally introduced to the walleye-white bass forage connection by legendary Devils Lake, North Dakota guide Steve “Zippy” Dahl a couple years ago while fishing at an AGLOW event (Association of Great Lakes Outdoors Writers) co-sponsored by Devils Lake tourism executive director Suzie Kenner and her staff. I was fortunate to fish a day with Zippy and he filled me in on the entire walleye white bass connection as it happens on Devils Lake and many other lakes throughout the Dakotas.
“It was years ago that I really noticed the connection of walleyes to juvenile white bass. Of course, I noticed it when I was cleaning fish and all of these young-of-the-year white bass turned up in walleye stomachs. That’s when I started following the bait balls on my electronics and started trolling long-lines and lead core—all depth dependent of course—with white shad-profile crankbaits like the Flicker Shad Pro in slick pearl silver and other pale colors—sometimes firetiger hues when water clarity is poor—to mimic the abundant walleye food. Color is important, but the profile and vibration of the bait is the real key to keep in mind,” noted Zippy.
Zippy’s been around the block, guiding day-in, day-out for decades. So, when he talks, you listen. The Perch Patrol Guide Service was founded by Zippy, Dave Tronson, and Jim Legacie in 1995. So, over that time he’s seen the lake change—and walleye behavior change over the years—besides on a daily basis as he attempts to put his clients on fish. Due to their high batting average of putting anglers of all walks on walleyes, the Perch Patrol Guide Service has grown over the years into one of the largest and most popular guide services—both on open water and the ice. Besides being featured in every fishing publication you can think of, many TV segments have been shot with Zippy and his staff, and in 2006 they were honored to be voted as North Dakota’s “Best Vacation Package.”
Interested in the white bass-walleye bite? You can check Perch Patrol’s guiding availability by visiting their interactive calendar on the Perch Patrol web site here. On a budget or without a boat, but still want to get in on the Devils Lake action? Devils Lake has invested in a host of docks, jetties, bridge areas, and easements where fish can be caught readily offshore or in waders. For more info and map of these areas, visit https://devilslakend.com.
A Cowboy Fishing Story Continued
Back to the story: As an outdoors writer, it was an honor fishing with such an esteemed and legendary guide. And in terms of fishing trips, it’s definitely one for the books. These guys aren’t your pretty boy guide service posting to Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok every five minutes. They rely heavily on word-of-mouth and do things the old-fashioned way. Yes, they’re salt of the Earth—and damn, I like that about them.
They say North Dakotans are cowboys at heart, and Zippy definitely exhibits some of these traits. Rather than put in at one of Devils Lake’s more than a half-dozen public boat launches (with deluxe fish cleaning stations) throughout the expansive and ever-growing 220,000 acres of fishable waters, Zippy chose to bring us to a secret location only accessible by backing in his Lund through a pasture, down a minimum-maintenance, dead-end road, and over a rocky shoreline, no boat ramp for miles. Gives new meaning to going where the bite is … And good thing for four-wheel drive!
Once in the boat, I was joined by AGLOW Executive Director Mark Smith and his wife Lori for a day of chasing walleyes. Once launched, the truck and trailer parked, Zippy handed us each a baitcasting trolling rod with a white, Pro Flicker Shad and told us to hang on for the ride. With steady winds, the boat ride was a bit bumpy, but I felt totally secure with the seasoned guide. Staring at his two Lowrance fish finders and checking the shoreline for landmarks, Zippy eventually slowed the boat down to a trolling idle and told us to cast behind the boat.
With approximately 30 to 50 feet of line behind his camo Lund Alaskan, the action was almost instantaneous as Lori and I both hooked up on fish; both were in the 20- to 24-inch size class, definitely a good start to the day. Mark was next after the fish were netted. And so the day went as we made passes through the balls of sonar returns Zippy marked on his Lowrance Elite screens. The action was steady.
“The first thing is obviously location,” said Zippy. “You have to figure out where the juvenile white bass are holding and look for those larger marks around them signaling feeding walleyes. The second thing is presentation. Your bait has to look like a juvenile white bass. I like 1/8th- and 1/4-ounce Pro Flicker Shads but that’s depth dependent. Shallower I’ll go smaller, and deeper I’ll choose a larger bait with a steeper dive curve. At $5.99 a piece, it’s hard to go wrong with these baits. They don’t break the bank.”
As mentioned, Zippy is a big fan of the Berkley Flicker Shad Pro. They have a nice tight wobble which appeals to the walleye’s lateral line and visually look a lot like the young white bass. Other baits will work, too, like the balsa Northland Rumble Shad, Rumble Shiner or Rumble Bug, as well as the venerable Rapala Shad Rap. Salmo Hornets also consistently produce fish.
Zippy likes to troll at approximately 2 mph to 2.3 mph with 30 to 50 feet of line out behind the boat. His long-line trolling rod and reel set-up comprises 7- and 9-foot medium-power, moderate-action rods with Daiwa line-counter baitcasting reels spooled with 10-pound test smoke Fireline braid. On leadcore—depending on depth—he runs the collapsible Berkley rods and Daiwa reels in holders.
A Trolling Alternative
While trolling maximizes the area covered and puts anglers on fish fast, with today’s forward-facing sonar, Side Imaging, Down Imaging, and contour-perfect lake mapping, it’s pretty simple to find where these balls of young white bass are, Spot-Lock or anchor, and pitch cranks to the fish, too. Along those lines, hair jigs like the VMC MTJ Moontail Jig and Northland Fishing Tackle Deep-Vee Bucktail Jig also catch loads of fish, especially when dressed with a paddletail or split-tail minnow. Northland’s Impulse Minnow in white is one of my favorites; I’m also a big fan of the Z-Man Scented PaddlerZ in Pearl. The latter are made of ElaZtech, a durable material that is ten times as tough as regular plastic. One bait can literally last dozens of fish. Just make sure you use some variation of white to match-the-hatch.
Rattlebaits also catch walleyes feeding on white bass. LiveTarget makes a fantastic white-bass mimicking rattlebait, as does Northland Fishing Tackle with their Rippin’ Shad in Glo White Tiger and Rapala’s ubiquitous Rippin’ Rap in Pearl Grey Shiner.
I think you could also catch white bass feeding ‘eyes on a smaller Alabama Rig like LiveTarget’s BaitBall Spinner Rig, but the jury’s still out on that one. I’m also anxious to fish the new Chatterbait-variation from Z-Man called the Willow Vibe—a jighead with a vibrating chatterbait-like willowblade off the head—dressed with a Z-Man Scented PaddlerZ, Impulse Paddle Tail, or BFishN Tackle AuthentX Pulse-R—which would provide the right profile and action to trigger these white bass hungry ‘eyes. With its unique vibration and diminutive size, I think this bait fished through pods of juvenile white bass would prove very effective, especially on the river. I’ll report back in the future!
A Devils Lake Day To Remember
Back to the fishing story … Mark Smith, Lori Smith, myself, and Zippy Dahl crushed the walleyes that particular day, thanks in no small part to Zippy’s acute knowledge of when, what, and where walleyes eat. And driving down a bumpy, minimum-maintenance, dead end road over a rocky shoreline to launch the boat? That was a great introduction to just what Zippy and his staff will do to put his clients on fish no matter the conditions and the bite on the rest of Devils Lake. Gotta love an adventure.
Since, I’ve personally taken Zippy’s lessons to the Mississippi River Pools 2 through 4 and keyed in on juvenile white bass to catch more walleyes. From current breaks to riprap to moving water confluences, I’ve found trolling and pitching white cranks, hair jigs, and rattle baits just flat-out produces when other methods fail.
The lesson here? Monitor the predominant forage to catch more marble eyes. And think outside the box. Sure, walleyes will predictably gobble shiners, fatheads, perch, bluegills, mud-borne bugs, and more … but it’s time to add young white bass to the program.
Try it where you fish—or better yet—book a trip with Zippy and his crew—to experience the epic bite yourself on Devils Lake, North Dakota, although these methods will work anywhere walleyes and white bass co-exist.
Not a fan of fishing with guides? You’ll find Zippy and his crew are incredibly good-natured and fun to be around, no matter your angling skill level. They cater to everyday anglers as well as expert fish-heads and are good with kids, too.
Lori Smith said, “Being from Indiana, we do a lot of river fishing. I had never trolled for walleyes before, especially in the North Dakota wind. But Zippy taught me everything I needed to know, from how much line to let out to avoid bottom and how to play the fish once hooked. Mark, Jim, and I had a great time, and I learned a lot. Plus, Zippy cleaned our fish and sent us home with a few meals of the best fish you could ever ask for!”
Seasoned angler and Indiana-based outdoors magazine publisher Mark Smith concluded, “Despite difficult weather, Zippy and the Perch Patrol crew put us on some good fish. And the biology behind the whole bite—keying in on young-of-the-year white bass—was really interesting. From launching the boat on a dead-end road with no ramp—and having to rely on four-wheel drive—to catching fish where he said we’d catch fish—it was a really memorable trip. We covered a lot of water but found pods of walleyes feeding on the young white bass. It was definitely a great day on the water. I hope to fish with Zippy and his crew again. They’re top-notch. And Devils Lake, what a fishery—it’s gotta be some of the best walleye fishing on the planet. It definitely deserves to be on every angler’s bucket list.”
-Perch Patrol Guide Service – (701) 351-3474
-Devils Lake Tourism
-Devils Lake Fishing Pier Locations