March 20, 2023
In spring, many reservoir walleyes are moving to the upper reaches of a major river feeding a lake--either to tailwater areas below the next dam upstream (if reachable by fish) or to the first set of shallow, impassible barriers like rock shoals or rapids where fish can spawn on rocky bottom. If suitable rocky spawning sites exist, such areas often host the majority of spawning activity. Otherwise, walleyes often are forced to spawn along the riprapped rocky faces of manmade causeways and dams.
In large reservoirs with numerous rocky feeder creeks, prespawn walleyes may also migrate into major creek arms with suitable bottom content washed by current. Lake Oahe in the Dakotas is one such example. Walleyes not only move up the main arm of the Missouri River to spawn near Bismarck, North Dakota, but some also move up into three large rivers--the Grand, Moreau and Cheyenne in South Dakota--and to a lesser extent into several additional large creeks. Angling pressure concentrates below obvious dam areas, while major creeks often receive relatively little attention except from a handful of savvy local anglers.
Larger creek arms tend to have more current, harder bottom, less siltation, and a variety of areas suitable for attracting walleyes in spring. Small or inactive creeks generally have softer bottom and are unsuitable for walleye spawning. The best creek arms have distinctive points with obvious rock to provide potential spawning sites; rocks also concentrate baitfish like shiners, which in turn attract walleyes.
As soon as ice leaves the reservoir, rocky points at and just inside creek mouths begin holding walleyes. As water temperatures warm, walleyes move farther back into creek arms. They move far up into the creek arm until they find a suitable combination of current and bottom content for spawning. Large, flat, rocky points extending some distance out into the main creek channel usually hold the most fish.
Experiment to find the best depth for targeting prespawn walleyes. On spring days when the water is warming, active walleyes often move up into 4 to 10 feet of water atop the points. During a cold front or during periods of less activity, they may drop down into the 15- to 30-foot range. The best strategy is to simultaneously cover both shallow and deep ranges until you can establish a depth pattern.
I like to work along the edges of points, casting atop the point with one rod while covering the adjacent drop-off with a deadrod placed in a rod holder. For the rod placed in a holder, I recommend a bottom-bouncer livebait rig tipped with a rainbow or shiner minnow on a plain hook; I use a 4-foot snell. Use enough weight for the bouncer to hang nearly vertical as you move slowly along with your electric motor, following the contour. Let out just enough line for the bouncer to suspend just above bottom most of the time. If it drags too often, it offers too much resistance for light-biting walleyes. If it's suspended, a walleye can inhale the bait without sensing the weight. Fish hook themselves if they don't sense the weight.
Use an 8- to 8 1/2-foot baitcasting rod with a soft tip; a stiff tip creates too much resistance, and fussy fish will drop the bait right away. A soft tip bends substantially under pressure and alerts you to the presence of a delicate pickup.
For casting atop points, most anglers select a 1/8-ounce jighead tipped with a fathead or shiner minnow. Cast right up into the shallows, let the jig fall to bottom, and impart a slow lift-drop retrieve back to the boat. Six-foot medium-weight spinning gear with 6- or 8-pound-test monofilament provides good casting distance and balances nicely with lightweight jigs.
In recent years, I've had impressive results by tipping jigs with plastic tails rather than livebait. Most days, plastic tails seem to work as well as minnows, without the hassle of dealing with livebait. My best producer has been Berkley's 5-inch Powerbait Jerk Shad in pearl white. I pinch off the first inch of the body to reduce the profile and work it similar to a jig and minnow. Missed strikes are rare; I believe the added buoyancy of the plastic helps fish inhale the bait easier. Many times, the entire combo is entirely within the fish's mouth.
Contrary to public opinion, water temperature doesn't seem to affect the productivity of plastic, with excellent catches down to 35F. Admittedly, on days when the bite was really tough, livebait tended to outproduce artificials. But overall, these plastic tails closely imitate smelt or shiner minnows, and they've become an important addition to my walleye arsenal.
Come spring, when everyone else is making a mad dash to tailwaters below dams, consider a different plan. Head up a large creek, determine whether the fish are shallow or deep, and experience one of the best bites of the early season. n
*Dan DeJaeghere, past Professional Walleye Trail Rookie of the Year, lives in Walker, Minnesota.