July 24, 2012
Cabbage? Hmmmmmmmmm. A little coleslaw or perhaps some corned beef on St. Patrick's Day, but definitely not one of our favorites. If, however, you take summertime cabbage, add hungry walleyes, and combine with seasonal drawdowns on western reservoirs, you have the recipe for a feast no angler can refuse. A handful of western walleye anglers enjoy this bounty every year, and so can you.
Canyon, plateau, and lowland impoundments provide ample opportunities for walleye anglers across the country. Vast western reservoirs, meanwhile, typically offer a combination of these fisheries within the same impoundment. Large bays in the upper reaches of reservoirs in the West often exhibit similar characteristics as the fertile lowland impoundments of their midwestern neighbors. Both walleye factories offer phenomenal numbers; fertile areas within western impoundments, however, often provide the greatest potential for trophy 'eyes. Timing the movements of reservoir walleyes through these areas can therefore produce some of the hottest action of summer.
SETTING THE TABLE
Seasonal water fluctuations are a fact of life on western reservoirs. Water levels rise throughout winter and spring, bringing significant amounts of nutrients into the upper reaches of these impoundments. Agricultural demands quickly lower water levels during summer, allowing prairie grasses to invade the fertile dry flatlands. The combination of flooded grass and mineral-rich floodwaters creates incredible growth rates for aquatic vegetation, primarily cabbage. This wet-dry cycle converts nitrogen in the basin soils into a kind of aquatic Miracle Gro. In a few months, western cabbage can reach the surface from depths of 20 feet or more.
Warming spring temperatures attract forage species to shallow inlet bays from the lower reaches of many western reservoirs. The fertile soup in these soft-bottom locations accelerates the growth of aquatic plants and insects. Emerging cabbage provides spawning habitat and cover for perch, shiners, shad, and a host of minnow species. A few weeks later, young-of-the-year baitfish add yet another ingredient to this incredible mix. Hungry walleyes are quick to take advantage of this emerging feast.
TOSSING THE SALAD
Large reservoirs in the West often contain multiple shallow bays formed by sedimentation from rivers and intermittent streams. These extensive flats can range from a few acres to several square miles in size. Deciding where to begin fishing and what presentation to use can seem overwhelming. It's not. Need to cover water? Break out the crankbaits.
In early spring, active walleyes generally move toward the shallowest areas of bays. Shallow-running crankbaits excel when cabbage is just emerging. Shad Raps are a reliable producer, but don't forget Suspending Husky Jerks and Berkley's Shallow Frenzy Minnow. Both account for incredible catches at times. Color isn't fancy. Simply match the hatch. When shiners and shad are present, silver-black, chromes, and greens all produce well. Perch and carp forage call for gold, firetiger, and of course, perch colors. If trout are present, pinks, blues, or a little nail polish embellishment can be great as well.
In early spring, casting cranks is generally the best presentation. Keep moving. Look for creek channels, depressions, or any variations in the nearly flat bottom. Pockets around recently flooded willows can yield bonus fish, too. Active walleyes are commonly found in 3 feet of water or less.
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As spring progresses towards summer, the extreme shallows often become choked with cabbage. Creek channels provide limited access to previously productive areas. Cabbage has typically reached the surface on 10-foot contours and can be growing rapidly from twice that depth. If so, don't spend as much time shallow. Move out and cast the edges of still-submerged cabbage. Look for pockets of hard bottom where plant growth is reduced. Creek channels are always prime locations. Slight depth changes often result in layering of cabbage, creating another ambush opportunity for walleyes and an edge for observant anglers. Sometimes, with such subtle changes, "not much is a bunch."
Mature cabbage is tough stuff; using 10- or 14-pound-test FireLine is a necessity. Lure retrievers will pay for themselves the first time on the water, enabling you to retrieve your deeply entangled prize lures. A medium to heavy crankin' stick helps break the cabbage and pull good fish from cover.
Suspending cranks excel into summer. Rapala's #4 Shad Rap RS works well above the vegetation, while the #5 dives deeper into pockets. Pop 'em, pull 'em, pause -- let the fish tell you what they want. The frustration of tangled lures and cabbage is soon forgotten when a real lunker reaches the net. Casting crankbaits in early summer is one of the most exciting methods of walleye fishing. But wait, it gets even better.
GOOD TO THE LAST DROP
As summer heats up, demands on western water supplies grow. Municipal and agricultural users call for water from local impoundments as well as those in neighboring states. Even in the largest reservoirs, levels can drop as much as 1 to 2 feet per day. After a week or so, water levels usually stabilize for a few days and then plunge again. Local rains can temporarily ease demands, but the annual drawdown is inevitable. Vertical changes of 50 feet or more are not uncommon. Many anglers shift their attention to other summertime activities as local hot spots are left high and dry.
Receding water levels force baitfish from the security of dense cabbage stands. Scattered walleyes are also on the move. Previously deep creek channels are now visible as tall cabbage lines the banks. Time the migrations when fish are forced to move, when creek channels become interstate highways for baitfish and walleyes. The fertile shallow flats are now a memory, high and dry. Hard-bottom areas near the mouths of formerly expansive bays lie near the surface. Fingers of cabbage colonize the remaining areas of soft bottom. Shad and shiners are on the move to open water, suspending during the last few days of summer and on into fall. Perch hold around the last remaining islands of cabbage until exiting for deeper, safer havens.
TIME FOR DESSERT
Casting cranks during this time frame can yield unbelievable catches. Walleyes use cabbage in creek channels as if it were a classic river structure. As heavy cabbage chokes narrow channel sections, walleyes stack in deeper pockets, ambushing baitfish in traditional bottleneck locations. Dense fingers of cabbage jutting into wider areas of creek channels create situations similar to fishing wing dams in rivers. Active walleyes hold in upcurrent holes, preying on baitfish forced around these organic structures.
Sudden changes in water level cause tall cabbage to fold over on the surface, creating an impenetrable mat. Strong winds often push the tops of these stalks over the edge of deeper water. This creates a shaded canopy along the upwind side of channels and hard-bottom areas. Cast suspending crankbaits tight to the canopy. Stop-and-go techniques usually work well. When the action slows, however, put the pedal to the metal. Reeling as fast as a particular lure will allow often produces vicious strikes. Previously deep cabbage sandwiched between hard-bottom features becomes a haven for fleeing baitfish. Opportunistic 'eyes patrol these islands, becoming easy targets for accurately thrown cranks.
Walleyes follow shad and shiners migrating out to main reservoir basins. As 'eyes depart from the last remnant of cabbage in shallow bays, trolling crankbaits becomes highly productive. Trolling long edges created by hard bottom adjacent to rows of cabbage calls for planer boards and shallow-running cranks. Keep the boards as tight to the edge as your patience will allow. Weave between cabbage islands and open water to intercept walleyes on the move.
Crankbait selection is wide open. Wally Divers, Reef Runners, Shad Raps, and Frenzy Divers are all good choices. Mix and match until you discover the right combination of size, action, and color. Depth and speed can be equally as important as lure selection. Experimentation is often the difference between a few fish and a day to remember.
Changing water levels on western reservoirs leave many anglers frustrated and confused. Understanding walleye movements in relation to these changes and learning to use them to your advantage is the key to consistent success throughout the year. Working crankbaits around cabbage is another technique that can help put more fish in the boat this summer. And besides, casting cranks to active walleyes, well, it just doesn't get much better than that.
*Pete Kuhn is a reservoir walleye angler from Laramie, Wyoming, who competes in the Colorado and Wyoming walleye tournament circuits.