Right about now, anglers throughout the walleye belt are probably gazing out across a sheet of ice encompassing their favorite waters, longing for the open water yet to come in spring. Some undoubtedly are still punching holes through that sheet in search of a late-season ice walleyes, or perhaps even searching for other species, like panfish. With walleye season drawing to a close or already ended in many northern states, to reopen sometime in May once spawning is complete, what other options do you have?
Plenty, or at least more than many anglers realize. Major rivers are the best and nearest examples, because on big rivers like the Columbia, Missouri, Ohio, and most of the Mississippi, the walleye and sauger season never closes. So sneak out below a major dam on unseasonably warm winter days and fish the pool of open water below the dam, vertically jigging for walleyes and sauger. Just dress warm, bring a thermos of coffee, and have at it.
For the more adventurous snowbird, there are also trips south. Not all the way down to Walt Disney World, however; there are no walleyes in Mickey's local lakes. But travel to the Midsouth, were spring is already beginning to creep across the landscape. In the lower prairie states, walleyes are even now beginning to gather near the riprap of dam faces in anticipation of spawning. Walking the bank and casting a crankbait, or better yet, longline trolling the dam face from a boat, can put fish on the line at night. Once again, dress for success--warm.
But of all late winter-early spring forays, perhaps none has more allure than the mountain states of the Midsouth, historic home of gigantic walleyes, where walleyes grow huge in warmer-than-average environments, and where the spring spawning runs kick off early while northern waters are still locked in ice. Don't go expecting limits of eating-size fish, because walleyes seldom exist in appreciable numbers in these waters; they always seem to be about #5 or #6 on the pecking order among top-of-the-line predators. But when you consider that a few of those fish may reach or push above 15 pounds, well, there's your tourist draw.
Like all prespawn walleyes, these fish tend to run toward current and rocks, which are chiefly found in rocky feeder rivers and creeks flowing into these waters. Walleyes tend not to run toward the lower lake and dam faces, because the natural habitat offers better spawning options than the vertical face of a concrete dam. Instead, they run uplake into rivers and creeks, spawning on gravel shoals at night, and lingering in pools during the day. This is as you'd fish river fish back home, except you're after a giant.
As always, local habitat and available forage dictate walleye behavior. At spawning time, locating proper spawning substrate mixed with current tends to overwhelm and sometimes displace the instinct to feed, but given the opportunity, walleyes still feed close to their spawning grounds, if forage is available. With shad typically at their lowest levels of the year following the stress of winter and cold water, however, food usually isn't abundant at this time of year. So if you place a suitable lure near a giant 'eye, at a likely speed of movement, expect it to get nailed, especially at night, even if that fish is barely hours away from spawning.
So the choice arises: Do you stay home, work on your tackle, and begin getting everything rigged and ready for the coming season opener--still several months away? Or do you take a road trip and explore another facet of walleye behavior--in the Ozarks, the Smokies, or the Appalachians? Depends if you're feeling more like an Ozark Mountain Daredevil or a Yankee Doodler. You make the call. As luck would have it, we have an article on both topics in this issue. One will help get you organized, the other just might get you bit.