A long winter is coming to a close, and preparation for open-water fishing is in full swing. This is one of my favorite periods of the year -- big walleyes spend time shallow, and their movements are fairly predictable. This is one of the best times to score a trophy from shallow water.
When I target shallow walleyes, I'm talking depths in the 1- to 5-foot range. I've caught fish shallow enough that I could see the swirl of the take. In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail angler John Kolinski has it right when he says about this situation, "Once you think you're fishing shallow, go shallower."
After ice-out, walleyes begin to make some movements shallow, checking out spawning areas and feeding on baitfish that also move shallow at this time of year. They eventually begin to spawn as the water temperature pushes past about 43F. This gives an angler a pretty good block of time to fish for prespawn fish -- anywhere from a week or two to a month, depending on the body of water and the latitude. The Prespawn Period tends to be extended in southern waters and compacted in northern waters, although a lot also depends on the weather during this time. Cold weather extends the Prespawn Period.
Male walleyes move up shallow first and stay the longest -- through most of prespawn, right on through the spawn and into postspawn. The males are aggressive when they're up shallow, dropping deeper when they're not feeding actively. Female walleyes generally only move shallow during peak daily periods: morning, evening, after dark, and on windy days.
During most of the prespawn, females (larger fish) hold just off spawning areas in deeper water. These fish are in a neutral to negative feeding mood. When they move shallow, it's to feed, and they become much more aggressive at that time.
Wing dams are an important locational structure on rivers. Walleyes use them in spring, but overall, current eddies hold the most fish at this time of year. Eddies are caused by obstructions like points, rockpiles, sunken wood, and wood debris protruding from the bank. Obviously, wing dams also often create eddies. The best eddies are near deep water.
With a little experience, it's easy to locate eddies visually; the next step is to check each one with electronics. Find out how deep the eddy is and how close it is to deep water. The eddy itself doesn't have to be in deep water, just near it.
This same idea works in lakes and reservoirs, where currents are caused by the wind. Mudlines are important. They may attract fish all day long because they cut light penetration, and baitfish accumulate in these areas. When a mudline coincides with a main-lake point or an eddy, you usually have a great spot.
My favorite jig-casting combo is a short-shanked jig like the Northland Fire-Ball. A compact jig casts better, snags less, and does a good job of hooking fish. In place of the typical minnow tipping a jig, I use a 5-inch Berkley PowerBait Jerk Shad or a 4-inch Berkley Power Minnow. Eventually, you may have to replace the plastic body; but there's never a need to dip your hands into a minnow bucket. This presentation is just as productive and much more efficient than tipping with livebait.
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Fish prime locations by pitching the jig up into the shallows and letting it sink to the bottom. Then lift your rod tip to raise the jig slightly, letting it fall on a semi-tight line back to the bottom. This sort of "lift-drop" retrieve is a standard at this time of year. It works in lakes, rivers, and reservoirs. Bites are indicated by a tick in the line as the jig settles or swings in the current.
Fish each current eddy thoroughly, beginning at either the head or tail of the area. Some eddies are big enough to require many casts, while others only take one or two. Giant eddies at times require anchoring, especially when it becomes obvious that lots of fish are present. Anchor in deeper water and pitch shallower, letting the current sweep the jig along as you lift it and let it fall. If you find a prime eddy -- one that's consistently used by fish moving upriver or moving shallow (in a lake or reservoir) in the evening. It isn't unusual to continue to catch fish from the same spot for an hour or more, sometimes all day.
I often use crankbaits in this situation, especially as search lures for finding fish. You can work through an area with a crankbait faster than with a jig. It's also the tool of choice anytime an area's too rocky to work a jig, and works well when it's too windy to ply a light jig. You may note, too, that sometimes crankbaits seem to produce larger fish than jigs do.
Control of both depth and speed are the most important factors in choosing a crankbait. Right now, the crankbait also shouldn't be too large. For water less than about 2 feet deep, I use a #7 Count Down Rapala or a Rapala #10 Husky Jerk. If a little deeper, I go with a Shad Rap or a Rapala #7 Tail Dancer. Usually the subtle-wobbling baits produce best at this time, but sometimes the wider-wobbling Tail Dancer produces best when fish are aggressive.
Fish a crankbait through an area just as you would a jig, casting up shallow and working through the eddy with either a straight retrieve or a stop-and-go technique. With this lure, I usually fish a pool from top to bottom.
If you encounter flat-calm conditions, sometimes the splashdown of a jig or crankbait spooks shallow fish. This is where the slipbobber comes into its own. In rivers, cast to the head of the eddy or pool and let the bobber slip through the area. In lakes and reservoirs, cast beyond prime areas and slowly bring the bobber into the strike zone, with minimal surface disturbance.
A leech tipped on a jighead is my favorite bait choice, even though many anglers think it's too early to fish with leeches. If it's difficult to find them this soon, minnows work, too. A slipbobber also is a top choice if you have beginning anglers in the boat with you -- anglers who need help getting the hang of pitching jigs, or have difficulty controlling their casts with crankbaits. The slipbobber option also sometimes works well in heavy wind and when it's particularly cold out.
Fishing deep is sometimes the right option at this time of year -- often, conditions demand it. Walleyes spend some time shallow each day and, once they move shallow, they're some of the most aggressive and catchable fish during this season.
I usually look shallow first, to determine whether or not I should probe deeper water. Most anglers do the opposite. Too many anglers never consider fishing shallow at this time of year. Big mistake.