By Dan Johnson
If you're convinced that cold-water walleyes and crankbaits don't mix, a change of heart could pave the way to enjoying the fine fishing you've been missing. Since its inception, In-Fisherman has noted that there are times and places when shad- and minnow-imitating hardbaits are not just an option -- but the best choice -- for putting late-winter and early-spring walleyes in the boat or on the bank.
Veteran walleye angler Chris Gilman recalls his cold-cranking epiphany. "Nearly 30 years ago, I was working as a fishing manager in a Gander Mountain store in Brookfield, Wisconsin," he says. "One April day, a customer came in and loaded up on Rattlin' Raps. I thought he must be stocking up for the season ahead, but when I started talking with him, he said he'd been killing giant walleyes on the Wisconsin River near Nekoosa.
"I didn't believe him at first. But then he showed me a cooler in his truck, full of 7- to 10-pound walleyes. This was long before catch-and-release caught on, and he said this was just a sample of the fish he'd been getting on rattling crankbaits."
Gilman wasted little time checking out the fishing report for himself. "As luck would have it, I had the next day off," he recalls. "A co-worker and I drove to the river to see for ourselves. We had no idea where the guy was fishing, so we started drifting down the middle of the river. I caught a 4-pound walleye on my first cast, and we ended up catching a bunch more. After that, I never doubted the potential of crankbaits for cold-water walleyes."
Shortly after that experience, Gilman fell hook, line, and sinker for competitive walleye fishing. Memories of that cooler full of walleyes in the Gander parking lot helped guide his cool-water strategies while fishing the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail (PWT), FLW Walleye Tour, National Walleye Tour, and Masters Walleye Circuit. To date, he's racked up 47 top-10 finishes in major events, including three PWT championships.
"I've handlined, flatlined, and casted hardbaits like Rapala Original Floaters from the Great Lakes to Montana and Arkansas, and won a lot of money on them in cold-weather conditions," he says. "There are times from late winter through the postspawn when a crankbait is the best presentation, even when conventional wisdom dictates a jig and minnow or other classic tactic."
Gilman doesn't dally when it comes to tying on a hardbait. "I fish them early in rivers like the Illinois and Mississippi, and wherever the season is open in natural lakes including the Great Lakes right after ice-out," he says.
In flowing water, a three-way setup is a great way to put slender stickbaits in the strike zone. As Gilman and I discussed the many scenarios where such tactics shine, I recalled the 2011 MWC season opener on the Illinois River, where another longtime derby competitor and In-Fisherman friend, Tom Brunz, paired with teammate Mark Meravy to crank up a first-place finish while most of their 250 rivals focused on vertical jigging.
The pair targeted walleyes and saugers that were hugging hard-bottom channel edges dropping from 14 to 17 feet. They countered bitter late-winter winds by dividing the duties of fishing and boat control. Meravy handled the latter duties, using their kicker outboard, bowmount electric trolling motor, and Lowrance X-15 to edge upstream at 1 mph while simultaneously sidling up and down the break.
Brunz tended their four rods, which included 12-footers spooled with fluorocarbon on the outside and 7-footers with Berkley FireLine on the inside. All towed hot pink #5 Rapala X-Raps anchored by 4-ounce weights. Baits were doused in Berkley Gulp! Alive! Spray, which Brunz believes caused striking fish to hang on longer.
I was at that tournament, and remember Brunz -- ever the experimenter -- talking about how he also likes tandem-rigging slender stickbaits in cold water. Often, he pairs a #9 Original Floating Rapala 18 inches in front of a #7 Jointed Rapala, which has a bit more action than its jointless cousin. Baits are joined by snaps on both ends of a leader that links the Original's rear split ring with the trailing lure's pull point. Sometimes he replaces the sinker with a heavy jig for a Dubuque Rig-style setup that offers even more points of contact.
"Such systems are a great way to fish a variety of river structure, including wing dams on large channelized rivers," he says. "Another top early season approach is trolling shad-style baits like Rapala Glass Shad Raps and standard Shad Raps, both upstream and down. It's an extremely efficient way to cover water when fish are staging in sand dunes near spawning grounds."
Gilman also likes casting the same baits along rocky riprap banks in the spring. "The average fish size is larger on crankbaits than jigs because you tend to catch more large females on them. Casting also covers water quickly," he says.
"When you're fishing a bank, look for irregularities like points, rockpiles, boulders, logjams, basically any obstruction that creates slack water. Fish hold in those eddies -- not necessarily along the seam, but in slack water. "
Shad-style baits also produce early in lakes. "I've trolled #5 Shad Raps on the Minnesota walleye opener in mid-May on Mille Lacs Lake," he says. "You put your lines in the water at midnight and after an hour of trolling one of the north-end reefs or breaks you have a limit -- in water so cold other anglers are finessing minnows or figuring out how to unwind their balled-up leeches."
That said, he still favors the subtle roll and shimmy of a long, slender lure. "Lures like the Original Floater are good pretty much year-round, including in cold water," he says. "Husky Jerks work well, too. They're a standard on Lake Erie after ice-out, when the fish are high in the water column.
"Minnowbaits can save the day in early spring when the water dirties up and the jig bite goes south," he adds. "On the Detroit River, for example, jigging is effective when the river's running clear. But when Lake St. Clair gets roiled up upstream and the river turns to chocolate milk, the only way to catch walleyes is hand- or polelining a minnowbait."
Gilman also recalls banner evenings spent casting lures below the fabled De Pere Dam on Wisconsin's Fox River. "For years, the best way to catch a 15-pound walleye was firing #11 and #13 Original Floaters into the spillway and slowly reeling them back," he says. "Today, people are more advanced and target walleyes before they get to the river."
Get Ripped One of the latest trends in cold cranking involves ripping lipless baits for prespawn fish, and one of the areas where it's taking hold is Green Bay, just offshore from the Fox River and the De Pere Dam. "Cold-water ripping is still in its infancy," Gilman says, explaining that the tactic triggers walleyes that won't hit slower moving baits. "Anglers do it off the mouth of the Fox and other Green Bay tributaries like the Menominee River, but it has potential in other places."
The trick isn't finding textbook structure, but water that's slightly warmer than the rest of the lake or bay, he says. "Staging areas where ripping excels typically include the mouths of rivers, creeks, and other inflows, including marshes. You're not looking for rockpiles, points, bars, and other structure -- or even current -- just a shallow, mud-bottomed flat that's maybe half a degree warmer than everything else in the area." Depths vary by lake, and even from one area of the same lake to another, but Gilman says you typically find most walleyes between 5 and 20 feet. To reap the rip, he gears up with a fairly stiff 6-foot 6-inch spinning outfit spooled with up to 20-pound Sufix 832 braid, tipped with a foot-long fluorocarbon leader. "The fluoro isn't for visibility reasons in this situation," he maintains, "but to prevent the lure from fouling your mainline during the retrieve."
His bait of choice is a #7 Rippin' Rap, though he may downsize in water less than 5 feet deep. "A smaller lure is great when you're sight-fishing giant walleyes in 2 to 3 feet of water, which is a blast," he adds. Lure colors are typically tailored to water clarity, with brighter patterns getting the nod as visibility wanes. "Metallics like gold or chrome, with shades of orange, black, purple, or pink can be good, too." The ripping presentation is straightforward. "It's simple," he promises. "Cast out and let the lure fall to bottom. Tighten your line and rip the bait up and forward, so it rises 18 to 20 inches off bottom and rushes toward you another 2 or 3 feet. Then let it fall. I usually follow the lure down, which helps me feel the bite. Most fish hit on the fall, though some swim over and pin it on the bottom."
While some anglers pause the lure on bottom after the fall, he favors a faster approach. "I don't like to wait," he says. "I keep the lure moving. It hits bottom and is ripped again." Gilman isn't surprised that such aggressive maneuvers catch fish in 40ºF water. "Guys fish rattlebaits through the ice in Manitoba all the time," he says. "And we were trolling these lures on the Wisconsin River 30 years ago. So it shouldn't raise any eyebrows that ripping works in open water. If anything, it's proof of how much we still have to learn about cold-water cranking."
Boat position and casting angles are critical in many early-season cranking scenarios, and rivers are no exception. Figures 1 and 2 illustrate the differences between high- and low-percentage casts when fishing an obstruction such as a stump or boulder from the upstream and downstream sides.
Angles of Attack in Rivers
In Figure 1, approaching from the upstream side, casts A and D are low-percentage propositions. Both of these casts place the lure too far away from the object, since cool-water walleyes aren't apt to swim far in current to strike the bait.
Cast B is a better choice because it hits the upstream side of the obstruction, where feeding walleyes and other predators are apt to prowl.
Cast C is a great angle of attack when covering the downstream side of an object, since the lure swings directly through the slack water, tempting resting fish to bite. Cast the crankbait beyond the slack area and retrieve it as close to the object as possible. Once the lure enters the slack zone, slow the retrieve to keep it in the strike zone and give resting walleyes a chance to react. There are also times when faster speeds are a trigger, so experiment until you find the right pace for the moment.
As your boat slips downstream, another volley of casts is possible. Here, too, casts A and D are too far from the fish, making them more likely to strain water than connect with walleyes. Cast B covers the upstream side frequented by active fish, and C again plies the slack-water zone.
If you have a second rod rigged with a jig, it's not a bad idea to cast it into the slack water, tight to the object. With crankbaits, however, it's always better to cast the lure beyond the target area, so by the time is reaches the target area, it's running at the ideal depth and vibrating properly.
Learning to make your casts count is important to catch the most fish from each spot. When drifting or slowly slipping past an object like this, you're lucky to execute about three casts before the current carries you out of range -- so don't waste time on unproductive water.
Bank Jobs for Shore Patrol
Springtime is arguably the best time of year for patterning and catching walleyes from shore. Fish move shallow to spawn, and can be caught by shore-bound or wading anglers throwing crankbaits during the Prespawn through early Postspawn periods.
Contrary to what many anglers have long believed, walleye feeding doesn't shut down during the spawn and for weeks thereafter. The desire to eat may dim during the peak of the spawn, but the fish still need to replenish energy reserves.
Walleyes typically start spawning when the water temperature reaches 40ºF to 45ºF, after which the spawn usually lasts around two weeks. Male walleyes often move into shallow spawning areas well in advance of the spawn, however, and linger long after procreation ceases, feasting on baitfish and other sources of sustenance.
Spring shorefishing hotspots include river mouths, narrows between lakes, rocky windswept shorelines and points, seawalls, and riprap. Gravel and rocky bottoms attract the most fish, with depths of 1 to 4 feet being productive, especially an hour or so before and after sunset.
Shallow-running shad- and minnow-imitating crankbaits that produce maximum vibration on a slow retrieve are deadly now. Glow finishes and a touch of luminescent tape help fish home in on the lure once darkness falls.
Vary casts at all angles, from perpendicular to parallel to the bank. Steady retrieves are the rule, and strikes feel like hooking a sock in 40°F water. But above 45°F, strikes are savage.
Hotspots include current areas such as: A. Mouths of feeder streams, lake outlets, and necked down areas between lakes; B. Prominent shallow points; C. Bars outside the mouth of shallow bays (even those connected to the main lake by only a culvert); and D. Flooded low-lying areas that are dry the rest of the year.
*Dan Johnson, Isanti, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of All Creation Outdoor Media.