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In Search Of Spring Walleyes

Your head is full of information learned at seminars. Your tackle box has never been more organized and full of fish catching ThunderSticks and BuckShot Jigs. Over the long winter you’ve seen our videos and read every walleye article you could get your hands on. Now all you have to do is find the fish, ’cause if you’re not fishing where the walleyes are this Spring, you sure aren’t going to catch any.

This article on finding Spring walleyes will hopefully make all your early trips a big success.

Generally speaking, springtime walleyes are shallow, 15 feet or less. That’s true in the Great Lakes, rivers, natural lakes and reservoirs. When the water temperature reaches the low 40s, walleyes move to shallow spawning areas or find baitfish around emergent vegetation in warming shallow water.

When walleyes are real shallow (less than 5 feet), electronics aren’t very useful since the boat spooks the fish. You have to fish to find them. Start in a high percentage area like a hard bottom shoreline, a rocky reef, a stretch of rip rap or a shallow point and prepare to pitch jigs to cover lots of water. Covering water doesn’t mean setting the bowmount trolling motor on high and retrieve the jig back fast. The fish are sluggish this time of year.

We’ve found that most early walleyes hit the lure as soon as it hits bottom or within the first couple of short, slow pulls after it’s on the bottom. By choosing a heavier, 1/8- or 1/4-ounce jig, it will sink quickly allowing us to move along at a moderate pace with the front trolling motor, pitching out in front of the boat with lots of fairly short casts. After each cast let the jig and bait hit bottom, lift the jig off bottom six inches and then let it pendulum back to the bottom. This is repeated a couple of times before reeling in to make another cast.

The idea of this pitching approach is to make fish contact and therefore find what sort of area the fish are using on that particular day.

As soon as we get a bite, we back off and use our Minn Kota MAXXUM bowmount to maintain position. We also switch to a lighter jig , like a 1/16-ouncer, making it easier for a walleye to suck the lure into it’s mouth. A compact jig with a short-shanked hook (like the Northland Fireball) is perfect for this sort of pitching. It puts the brightly colored head close to the minnow, leech or crawler and helps the walleye get the hook in its mouth. Once in the mouth, the Fireball’s wide gap hook has a great chance of contacting flesh when you set the hook.

Two years ago we switched all our jigging rods to the new no- stretch, 6-pound test Berkley FireLine (two-pound diameter). Not only does the thin diameter enhance your feel of the jig when the wind is blowing, but the no-stretch property of this space age stuff telegraphs bottom composition – and lets you feel the lightest bite. Feeling the bottom will indicate what is holding the fish in a particular spot – you might feel pebbles or small weeds or the bottom go from hard to soft when you get a bite. You can then look for other spots with the same type of bottom in different parts of the lake.

If you can’t find the fish shallow, look for them in slightly deeper water. Lots of times they will be on adjacent, shallow flats when the water temperature approaches 50 degrees. Start looking for walleyes on your electronics – they’ll usually appear as small bumps on the bottom, sometimes just a widening of the dark line above the gray line. One way to spot these fish is with a unit with lots of vertical pixels (the Lowrance LMS 350As have 200 v.p., the Lowrance X-85s and Eagle Optimas have 240 v.p.). These tiny squares on the LCG screen darken to relay the bottom signal. The more pixels, the more precise the picture of the bottom.

Once you start seeing lots of fishy looking bumps, it’s time to cover this water with a bottom bouncer and a healthy live crawler, leech, minnow. Or try a crankbait set to tick the bottom. Let’s take a quick look at both techniques.

We use long wire Northland Rock Runner bottom bouncers. The “L” shaped wire keeps the bait above snags and adds action to the bait. As it moves along the bottom the long wire falls forward, camming the short arm which gives the live bait an erratic action. For most applications on shallow flats, we use a 3/4-ounce Rock Runner and pull the boat slowly enough with the bowmount trolling motor to establish good bottom contact. Attach a 6 foot leader with light wire hooks (1 for leeches or minnows, a 2 hook harness for crawlers) and you’ll have a deadly spring presentation. Really, nothing could be simpler.

Crankbaits take a bit more practice than bottom bouncers, but not much. Select a crankbait that will run right at the bottom, without getting snagged very often. We often take a medium diver like a Storm Rattlin’ ThinFin or a deeper diver like the Deep ThunderStick Junior and set it so it will run right above the bottom.

We’ve also switched to the fine-diameter 10/4 FireLine for crankbait fishing. With the super thin FireLine, you don’t need to let as much line out to make the cranks run deep. And, when flat lining (no boards), you can feel every move the crankbait makes – if it picks up some gunk off the bottom, you’ll know it right away and can reel up to clean the hook. Incidentally, because non-stretch FireLine is less forgiving, fish can sometimes shake free when using standard trebles. We put Mustad Triple Grip trebles on our lures because the inward bend won’t let fish get off.

For either bottom bouncers or crankbaits, run the rigs behind in-line Side Planer boards. In shallow water spooking is a major problem – spreading lines is the cure. Because FireLine is so thin and so slick, you will want to attach the Offshore Side Planer Boards by putting the line through the pinch pads, wrapping the line over the top of the release and then back through the pads a second time. Since Offshore’s boards are weighted, even at the slow speeds you’ll be fishing the bottom bouncers, the boards will spread nicely to the side.

Spring fishing is the most anticipated time of year for many walleye anglers. A great formula for success is to start by looking for walleyes in shallow water. Then use all that winter research and well-organized tackle to put lots of fish in the boat.

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Walleyes: Taking Control

Whether we’re talking about making money in business or catching a limit of fish, keys to success include such things as preparation, focus, and execution.

In fishing, preparation, focus and execution all involve being in control. While there are those lucky dogs who occasionally drift their way to big limits of fish, more frequently the fisherman who pays attention to his boat control enjoys consistent success.

Let’s focus on boat control for a wide number of walleye presentations and discuss why your best walleye fishing can be done with a bowmount trolling motor.

While some diehard backtrollers refuse to even put a bowmount on their boat, they are becoming the exception among the walleye anglers across the nation. And please note that we’re not knocking the anglers who prefer tiller-style boats. We’re just pointing out that whether you have a console or a tiller, some of your best fishing will be done by controlling the boat from the front deck. Here’s why and how to do it best.

Probably the main reason the bow platform is the best place for most walleye fishing is accuracy–especially when you’re live bait rigging, jigging or fishing with bottom bouncers. A foot control bowmount gives you instant ability to move the front tip of the boat, and your lines, in any direction. The key word there is “instant.” With an eye on your depth finder and a touch of your foot on the control, you can instantly turn, staying over the exact contour that’s holding fish.

A second reason the bowmount outfishes tiller control is that (in states and provinces where it’s legal) you can hold and fish two rods at the same time. That’s impossible to do when you have to have one hand on a tiller control. Controlling the boat with your foot also leaves your hands free to retie or put on fresh bait while your foot keeps you in position.

Now, most backtrollers will tell you that they have an advantage over bowmount anglers in high wind and big waves. And, at the extreme, that might be true as they can ride over or bash their transoms through really big waves using their main gas outboard in reverse. But even in three- and four-foot waves, the proficient bowmount angler has more control. When a big waves slams the back of a transom, it moves the boat. The bowmount angler, facing the wave, can slide up and over it without losing ground, staying right over the fish and structure.

Fishing in bigger waves with a bowmount is really extreme fishing. It’s on the edge and a whole lot of fun. Let’s look at how to use the bowmount in extreme conditions as well as other walleye situations.

In big waves, if you’re moving backwards and can’t stay on the structure, tighten down the tension on your kicker outboard or point your main motor straight ahead and put it in forward gear. The slight thrust of the gas outboard will compensate for the wind; you control your direction with the bowmount electric.

No matter what size the waves, when you fish with a bottom bouncer and need to keep moving to keep the spinner spinning, it’s best to put your electric motor on “continuous on” –we set our Minn Kota 48 All Terrain bowmounts at about 30 percent power–and simply steer on the structure. In low wind conditions, with the motor set to “continuous”, you can point the boat where you want to go, leave it running and move around your boat to get tackle or fresh bait. With rods in rod holders, you never stop fishing.

In river situations where you are vertical jigging, the bowmount is mainly compensating for the wind. It’s best to set the motor on high and use short bursts to keep your line vertical and your boat going the same speed as the current.

The same setting usually applies to deep live bait rigging with a slip sinker set-up like the Northland Roach Rig. Since you want the bait close to what your electronics show below the boat, it’s usually best to use short bursts of the trolling motor to maintain your position.

One last point about bowmount fishing is that when doing it effectively, your front platform becomes the boat’s command center. In other words, it’s helpful to have good electronics up there to show you depth, position, bottom structure and what water you’ve covered. We use a “windows” function on the Lowrance LMS 350A with GPS. Windows allows us to construct a screen that shows a digital depth reading, a small plotter screen to track the water we’ve covered and even add an electronic icon when we catch a fish. Plus, the whole right half of the screen is like a conventional depth finder and shows us the bottom contour and fish arcs.

With the LMS 350A and other units we use a transducer mounted to the bottom of the trolling motor that shoots a relatively narrow, 20-degree cone angle, showing us the bottom directly beneath our boat. This narrow cone angle is necessary so we don’t see too much of the bottom. If the cone were wider, it would be more difficult to see sharp breaks in the bottom depth.

So, take control of your fishing. Get up in front of your boat and experience the pinpoint control you can accomplish. Using precise control with a bowmount motor will put your bait where a walleye is likely to eat it.

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