A Shallow Spring Walleye Sunset Surprise
July 25, 2011
Spring is a catalyst for change in the underwater world. Hordes of baitfish stack in the shallows in search of warmer water. Walleye anglers, also plentiful in spring, congregate along shallow points and sunken islands and atop mid-depth flats in search of their quarry. Fickle warming and cooling trends, however, often wreak havoc on both anglers and walleyes, as strong winds and fluctuating water temperatures cause the fish to turn on and off at a moment's notice.
Despite this fickle on-again, off-again activity cycle, a distinct pattern often emerges during spring and early summer, triggering an incredible display of energy and consistency during an otherwise fairly lethargic period. The trick is, you not only need to know where to look but how shallow to look. In most cases, anglers don't look shallow enough.
Catching shallow-sand walleyes has become a passion for my friends and family in recent years. Many nights, the best bites occur while wading or casting from shore; in spring, 'missing the boat' may in fact be an advantage. Stalking a shoreline afoot or fishing from docks affords several key benefits, most notably a natural, stealthy presentation in skinny water.
Baitfish ranging shallow typically do not flee toward deeper water when engaged by predators like walleyes, since this provides walleyes a feeding advantage over vulnerable and exposed forage. Quite the opposite: Forage fish often attempt to elude walleyes by moving so shallow that predators can't pursue them. In such shallow water, wind and waves disguise your presence as you attempt to contact walleyes. But on the calmest of nights, fishing from shore or wading provides the stealth required to pursue large fish in shallow water.
Spring walleye anglers often suspend leeches or minnows below slipbobbers in early evening, commonly in the 6- to 12-foot range: A good strategy for those content to watch a float while targeting relatively small areas. For the rest of us impatient types, however, a more aggressive approach is in order.
I prefer to target expansive areas of shallow sand -- shallow commonly being 4 feet or less, with many of the hottest bites I've experienced in recent years occurring in only a foot or two of water. In the natural lakes I fish, this shallow activity kicks in with water temperatures in the upper 40F range and extends all the way into the low 70F range, meaning a month or more of intense action. The bite window always centers around first dark, extending from the witching hour of sunset until true darkness sets in. The best bite often lasts only about an hour, sometimes longer; plenty of time to score big with the right tactics and be home in time to get your beauty sleep.
Don't overcomplicate bait selection when fishing shallow sandflats. Forget the bobbers and livebait in favor of more aggressive tactics, when walleyes slide shallow and feed with ferocity. We've had fish easily snatch lures moving as fast as we could turn the cranks on our reels -- admittedly quite fast, compared to longline trollers who typically begin their evening fishing at speeds of 1.4 to 1.8 mph. But when the fish are hot, as they commonly are when hunting across shallow sand, it's tough to take a bait away from walleyes that can easily track and grab a lure ripping along at 6 mph.
Several lures work superbly across shallow flats. Small rattlebaits like Bill Lewis Rat-L-Traps and Rapala Rattlin' Raps are amazing search-baits that far outproduce minnow imitators in extreme shallows, day in and day out. Smaller, lighter versions track true and make occasional bottom content on speedy retrieves.
Jig-and-grub combos are also effective in the shallows, although we prefer to use much heavier versions than most folks to facilitate this shallow speed approach. Heavy heads ranging from 3/8- to 1/2-ounce cast quite a distance and remain near bottom when quickly retrieved. We typically use 3- to 4-inch tails with white or silver imitating baitfish, while black or brown stand out like crayfish against the light-colored sand. Some nights, color makes a difference; often it doesn't. In all cases, retrieve the jig quickly, with the occasional pause to trigger following fish.
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In skinny water, baits need to run near bottom to produce the most strikes. Fish rousting crayfish can't seem to resist a bottom-hugging bait burned across the flats, then killed. Similarly, walleyes chasing minnows seem to like a burned bait to be flared and paused. In all cases, cast the lure out across the flat as far as possible, burn it back toward the boat for 5 or 10 cranks, pause for a second or two, then repeat all the way in. Walleyes follow lures until they can no longer stand the suspense, then pounce on it.
It's common to have 10 or more follows per night. That's right -- follows. Walleyes often track these baits, their noses hot on the bait's tail all the way to the boat. Many times, they're easy to see in the moonlight, since their dark backs stand out against the light-colored bottom. You'll often see them 30 feet out, which is why triggering a strike becomes important. Like muskie fishing, be ready to execute a figure-8 or L-turn at the end of the retrieve, with the lure dangling a foot or so off the rod tip. Catching walleyes that act like muskies after dark is exciting, even a bit nerve-wracking.
Productive stretches of sand often lie along the inside edges of weedflats, where walleyes relate to weeds early in the season and slide onto the adjacent sand at night. The more room the fish have to move between the inside edge of the weeds and the shore, the better -- at least for this pattern. One of my favorite spots has 200 to 300 yards of open sand extending offshore until the weeds begin. Such clean, hard sand helps your baits track well, with no organic matter to muffle vibrations or disguise lures, and walleyes have no trouble honing in on vibrating baits at night.
Large structures tend to draw the most shallow-sand walleyes. While smaller fish can be caught here throughout spring and early summer, larger walleyes seem to relate best to the sand when warm, flat-calm, muggy nights bring insect life to a peak, and wherever minnows are found in abundance.
Mainlake points and humps with hard sand or rock bottoms are also key areas for this approach. Follow the drop-off and cast inward at a slight angle to the breakline, keeping your lure atop the flat for most of the retrieve. Beaches can also be good producers once the crowds conveniently begin to leave at sunset, allowing the fish to slide in shallow. Most of the fish you'll catch will be of a similar age-class and are rarely loners.
Once total darkness engulfs the landscape, use a steady, mid-speed retrieve, still considered by most to be too fast for fishing after dark. Straight retrieves are usually best in inky-black conditions: Random action makes lures harder for walleyes to catch at night.
Windy conditions help push baitfish shallow, and prevailing winds from the same direction for several days can pinpoint productive shallow stretches. Should the wind suddenly slack off and calm, it's a good bet the fish will move shallow at night, even if daytime fishing suffers. Flat-calm nights often key some amazing fishing during spring and early summer.
While spring fishing is often inconsistent, and weather wreaks havoc on anglers struggling to catch fish on traditional structures, the shallow-sand pattern can be a consistent producer of fish after dark. It seems that regardless of the weather, walleyes still slide shallow in search of forage during this time of transition. So, the next time the weather has you scratching your head, consider shifting your efforts shallow at the witching hour for a little lowlight magic, Sandman style.
*Matt Holbrook is an avid angler from Brainerd, Minnesota, currently attending Michigan Tech University.