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Walleye Week: Keeping Up With Postspawn Walleyes

Time-tested patterns for pinpointing postspawn fish and tripping their triggers.

Walleye Week: Keeping Up With Postspawn Walleyes

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Depending on your success at finding and triggering walleyes, fishing the Postspawn Period can be incredibly rewarding, extremely frustrating, or somewhere in between. Time-tested patterns for pinpointing postspawn fish and tripping their triggers still hold water under the right conditions. But change is a constant, and keeping up with the latest lines of thought on postspawn fish behavior and location, and productive tactics, are key to catching the most fish possible on every trip.

In-Fisherman Field Editor Steve Ryan sums it up. “Part of becoming a better walleye angler is staying on top of current trends and tactics. It’s all about knowing where to fish, when to fish, and how to fish,” he offers. “On a large system such as Lake Michigan’s Green Bay, those parameters are constantly changing. For postspawn walleyes, the first task is knowing where the spawn occurs and precisely when it’s wrapping up.”

Ryan notes savvy anglers discovered that only a fraction of Green Bay walleyes run all the way up to the DePere dam to spawn on the Fox River, the Stiles dam on the Oconto River, or Hattie Street dam on the Menominee River. “Plenty of giant fish spawn downstream of these dams,” he says. “Even more fish are content mating along Green Bay’s rocky eastern shore and throughout marshes and gravel patches of the western shoreline.”

In addition, Ryan reports the timing of the spawn—and thereafter the mass exodus of these fish to postspawn feeding grounds—has changed over time. “Thirty years ago, you could confidently predict the peak walleye run occurring between April 6-12 on the Fox River, April 8-14 on the Oconto and Peshtigo rivers, April 10-16 on the Menominee, and from April 15-22 surrounding Sturgeon Bay,” he explains. “Immediately thereafter, anglers would vacate the rivers and power-fish postspawn walleyes in the lower river stretches, rivermouths, and adjacent flats in depths of 6 to 18 feet. If you’re still following those general spawning benchmarks, you are at least a week late for the best postspawn bite. In recent decades, the peak spawn has generally moved up on the calendar. Plus, more big postspawn fish are being caught in the river or tighter to shore, as opposed to adjacent flats or offshore. This may be the result of gobies making up a larger percentage of walleyes’ diets in recent years, and walleyes being less programmed to roam offshore for schools of lake shiners after the spawn.”

Tactical trends have also changed on Green Bay over the years. “Ten years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a boat not throwing a Rapala Rippin’ Rap,” Ryan says. “Then Shiver Minnows caught fire with tremendous results. Next, guys snapped swimbaits, before gradually getting reacquainted with the effectiveness of hair jigs.”

He says there currently isn’t one “hot bait” on Green Bay. “Instead, there has been a gradual shift in tactics and refinement in gear. With walleyes staying in rivers longer after spawning, more anglers are trolling large stickbaits along shipping channel edges. A #14 Rapala Husky Jerk or Smithwick Elite Eight on one or two colors of Sufix 832 Advanced Lead Core achieves a running depth of 15 to 22 feet, respectively, at relatively slow trolling speeds of 1.2 to 1.6 mph. These larger baits appeal to trophy walleyes, and trolling allows anglers to quickly cover water for fish on the feed.”

Advances in technology have also fueled change. “With the onslaught of real-time, forward-facing sonar, anglers have become more exact in their approach,” Ryan says. “Instead of power-fishing by quickly fancasting large swaths of water, anglers find pods of fish on small pieces of structure and target the biggest fish in the group. This means every element of the presentation becomes much more important. Anglers seek out finely nuanced, custom-painted Rippin’ Raps at local baitshops. Purples, golds, and greens factor prominently in productive color schemes—as do UV and glow finishes. Astute anglers are also adding VMC Bladed Hybrid Treble hooks to the back of their lures for more flash on the fall. Small accents can lead to huge fish.”

Ryan notes compact bladebaits and slab spoons have also made a resurgence due to their ability to punch through wind on long, precise casts. “Adding scent such as Dr. Juice, Pro-Cure, or Gulp! Alive to these baits is an added trick top anglers use to convert on-screen follows into strikes,” he adds.

Prespawn ‘Eyes North

In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer reports chasing trophy postspawn walleyes in traditional summer haunts is one of the hottest things happening north of the border. “I’m not sure if it’s a new trend, but it’s been incredible for us lately,” Pyzer begins. “Everybody talks about male walleyes being much more aggressive than females, but that’s not necessarily the case. Females need to feed and regain strength as much as the males—even more so—they’re just not where most anglers think they are.

A smiling angler holding a large walleye in a boat on a lake.
In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer leapfrogs ahead of other anglers to target big walleyes on offshore sweet spots.

“Good friend and former Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources colleague Dr. Peter Colby headed up Ontario’s walleye research unit. He discovered many years ago that female walleyes leave spawning grounds much faster than most anglers think. And they head to deep-water refuges—main lake structures—where they stay in deeper, cooler water to maximize their physiology and eat prime soft-rayed prey like ciscoes. They do this to stay fit and produce more eggs.”

Few anglers picked up on Colby’s findings. However, Pyzer recently began leveraging them to leap-frog ahead of other anglers in search of postspawn giants. “The last few years we’ve been catching and releasing dandy trophy walleyes on deeper mainlake structures way ahead of the walleye crowd, which is still fishing around shallow spawning areas,” he says. “You don’t get a lot of fish on any one spot. And you often strike out on several spots before you find one that has fish on it. But when you do, they’re good size and you have them all to yourself. The best locations seem to be the first summer-like structures close to spawning areas.”

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Pyzer’s heavy jig and swimbait program works well, “But we’ve also nailed gorgeous fish casting Super Shad Raps. The same ones we use for muskies,” he notes. He fishes the baits early in the season at the same pace his does in midsummer. “I wouldn’t call it ‘aggressively.’ More a moderately fast retrieve. The key for both baits is keeping them within a foot or two of bottom. Having said that, though, I remember a particular nice walleye last year that clobbered my Super Shad at boatside, just like a muskie. I had the boat over deep water and was throwing over the top of the reef and skimming the lure over the rocks. The fish followed it out—then nailed it over 20-plus feet of water next to the boat.”

Pyzer throws Super Shad Raps when he finds walleyes up on top of mainlake structures of along the sides in 10 feet or less water. “With the wind blowing onto a saddle or seagull reef, for example, a Super Shad Rap is the first bait I pick up,” he says. “Wind makes it better. Deeper than 10 feet I like to use swimbaits.”

The big-fish bite doesn’t end when waves of smaller walleyes arrive on the scene. “Bigger females hang around once males start showing up,” Pyzer says. “And you definitely start catching more fish. This is about the time most walleye anglers start moving out to mainlake locations and summer patterns start kicking in, but we’ve been checking and fishing the spots daily, sometimes for over a month. It’s proof positive that sometimes the early bird does get the worm.”

Prairie Prespawn

A smiling angler holding a large walleye in a boat on a lake.
Jason Mitchell says big walleyes take the lead in the postspawn exodus from the spawning grounds.

High Plains walleye ace Jason Mitchell experiences a similar early bird pattern on a number of the lakes he fishes, particularly Missouri River impoundments. “It’s not talked about, but the biggest walleyes are the tip of the spear, transitioning from one place and pattern to the next well ahead of the rest,” he says. “Mass numbers of walleyes, including some nice-sized fish, are a step or two behind. To target the biggest fish in the system, focus on locations that will hold numbers of walleyes two to three weeks in the future. For example, for 28-inch walleyes in June, I head for spots like primary points or offshore structure that are typically loaded with 15- to 21-inch fish in early July.

“This pattern is more pronounced on reservoirs because of massive fish movements in and out of bays and tributaries,” he notes. “It’s less of a factor in places like North Dakota’s Devils Lake. There, big fish may be shallower longer—sometimes shallower than the masses—and can act more like muskies, where you have a big walleye or two living on a spot, running smaller fish out. Pike over 30 inches are a good sign there are big walleyes around, which I believe is often tied to forage.”

Mitchell also says large walleyes don’t always take the lead in seasonal migrations. “Sometimes the opposite is true,” he says. “Big fish are a step behind before the spawn, for example. But the first five to seven weeks after the spawn, bigger walleyes tend to be a step ahead of the other fish.”

Mitchell also notes the impact of forward-facing sonar. “It’s a factor in situations where side-scanning sonar works well, such as when fish are off bottom over sandflats deeper than 6 feet. Fish tight to uneven bottoms are another matter; you can spend all day trying to figure out how to see them,” he says. “In ideal conditions, being able to see fish boosts confidence. But time management is still critical. You have to know when to leave a new target when you can’t get a fish to move or strike, which is more common during a tough bite.”

Mitchell says two-fisted strategies can be successful with walleyes marked with forward-facing sonar. “Get the fish to move with a jig and softbait, then seal the deal with a finesse jig and leech or slipbobber rig. Forward-facing sonar has in many places brought slipbobbering out of obscurity. Not just for triggering fish moved with more aggressive tactics, but as a standalone system for casting a jig and twistertail or paddletail past fish, then swimming it by them. If they don’t move when you cast past them, try dropping casts short of the fish.”

Skittish fish call for special treatment. “Every once in awhile forward-facing sonar spooks walleyes; you glimpse fish but never really get a lock on them,” he says. “Other times the boat is the culprit. Either way, the best approach is to ease in as close as possible and make long casts before they disappear.

Like Ryan, Mitchell has seen a rise in hair jigs outside traditional strongholds. “They used to be relegated largely to rivers and select places where they enjoyed a cult following, but now I see anglers throwing hair across the Walleye Belt,” he says. “Which is good, because casting and swimming or rip-jigging a hair jig and stinger hook excels in cool, shallow water during Prespawn and Postspawn periods. Use them anytime you’re struggling with a jig and plastic and need to cover water faster than possible with livebait. Rip-jigging looks aggressive above the surface, but on 6- to 8-pound mono a hair jig glides seductively.”

Precision trolling crankbaits in small, shallow sweet spots with spinning gear and a trolling motor is also on Mitchell’s trends to watch list. “I do a lot more shallow cranking early in the year,” he says. “Small fish-holding areas—anywhere from 70 feet to 100 yards long and less than 10 feet deep—used to be casting or pitching spots. But a diving crankbait trolled a short cast (roughly 20 feet) behind the boat on 10-pound braid and a spinning outfit lets you fish these areas far more efficiently, keeping the bait in the strike zone the entire time you’re working the structure, not just for a few turns of the reel handle on a cast or pitch. It’s not rocket science, either. If you hit bottom, reel up a few turns.”

Mitchell says short-line trolling is best in stained waters or windy, low-visibility conditions. Clear water calls for longer letbacks, which require shallower running lures and reduce your ability to trace contours in tight quarters. He notes casting or pitching can be the best call for targeting pods of active walleyes swarming the very top of a structure. Still, he recommends keeping shallow, short-line trolling to your bag of postspawn tricks this season.

Prespawn ‘Eyes on Erie

Big-water, big-fish specialist Captain Ross Robertson plies the legendary waters of Lake Erie. He encourages postspawn anglers to consider overall weather trends and keep in mind not all walleyes spawn in one place at one time. “When we had hard winters all the time, it forced the fish to do things by the calendar, but not lately,” he says. “Last spring the walleyes were late, they were 50 miles east of where they should have been, and April was prespawn. Another thing to consider is, Erie’s spawn consists of multiple waves of walleyes and occurs on a variety of main-lake areas and rivers like the Sandusky or Detroit, as it does in many other large systems. The biggest fish, whether they’re spawning on reefs or in rivers, show up well in advance of the bulk of the fish and get out quickly—we’re talking within minutes or hours, not days.

A smiling angler holding a large walleye in a boat on a lake.
Captain Ross Robertson trolls up postspawn ‘eyes in deep, soft-bottomed basins.

“Postspawn, most fish gravitate to softer bottoms in deeper water, but because the timing of the spawn is spread out, you can see a month to six weeks of different mood swings and activity levels in areas holding postspawn walleyes,” he says. To find postspawn walleyes, Robertson zips over prime lies in 30 to 40 feet of water at 25 mph, watching his Humminbird Helix sonar. “A lot of fish are right on bottom, where no sonar will see them, but those slightly above it provide clues where to fish.” To catch these slightly suspended fish, he trolls nightcrawlers on Silver Streak or VMC spinner rigs behind bead-chain sinkers and planer boards .8 to 1 mph. “Most times, walleyes on bottom won’t bite,” he adds. “But it’s worth running a spinner rig behind a bottom bouncer to check. When they turn on, this line will catch the biggest fish of the day.” Spinner bites are extremely subtle, he warns. “It’s critical not to use a stiff planer board rod or you’ll rip the hooks out of the walleye’s mouth,” he says. “Shimano’s 8-foot 3-inch Compre MMD, which I helped design, is much softer and doubles over without tearing hooks free.

“Once walleyes are so postspawn you don’t even say postspawn, the fish lift higher in the water column—say a third to halfway down—they become more aggressive, and you can run crankbaits like HJ12 Rapala Husky Jerks behind boards at 1 to 1.6 mph,” he says. “Boat-juking with S-turns and stalls followed by bursts of speed is key to triggering fish.”


In-Fisherman Field Editor Dan Johnson of Isanti, Minnesota, is a longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications and marketing manager for LVC Companies. Contacts: Jason Mitchell Outdoors, 701/351-1890; Capt. Ross Robertson, 419/283-7069.




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