Perhaps the most eagerly sought after of all game fish, at least during the early open-water months of spring, is the walleye. While the Wisconsin state-wide opener is not until early May, a few bodies such as the Wisconsin River system where I guide remain open year round. To my clients and me, the walleye presents a much needed bend in the rod after the icy grasp of winter; in addition, they are excellent table fare. For those willing to ply the chilly waters where fishing for walleyes is legal prior to the opener, the rewards can be great – each spring we boat literally hundreds of walleyes before the “rest” of Wisconsin anglers even get under way. Although March and April are typically when the action begins to heat up, we have had fantastic fishing action as early as mid-February, of course depending on the length and severity of winter.
So how does an angler begin their search during this early season period? Begin by looking at deeper holes and pools in rivers, and begin exploring the deeper sections of main river channel adjacent to spawning areas; in addition, thoroughly probe secondary channels with access to spawning areas while on any of the rivers and reservoirs. Having been practically born and raised on the Wisconsin River system, I can tell you there are a variety of areas that hold fish, a little patience while searching will reap big rewards.
As the water warms and the spawning mentality reaches more of a fever pitch, look for funnel and neck-down areas immediately adjacent to spawning areas to hold numbers of fish, as will the spawning areas themselves. While spring temperatures are not always the most comfortable even during the daylight hours, there are tremendous angling opportunities available at night for the angler willing to brave the elements while looking in the right areas.
There are many effective techniques to score on walleyes, but three are worth your time and effort to master; do so and you will find yourself catching springtime walleyes year in and year out. Jig fishing is probably one of the most popular presentations in the early season and for good reason, it catches a lot of fish. Equip yourself with an assortment of jigs, such as those manufactured by Mister Twister, in an assortment of colors, and sizes ranging from 1/16 oz. to 1/2 oz. These should handle most situations you will come across in the spring, although in high water/high current situations, I’ve caught walleyes on jigs as heavy as 1 oz. Some jig-style lures, such as the Mepps SpinFlex, also offer the added flash and vibration of an attached spinner blade.
Predominantly thought of with live bait, a variety of plastic trailers will also produce action when using jigs, and are much hardier than minnows. Solid choices for plastic trailers include Mister Twister Curly Tail Grubs, G-Grubs, Sassy Grubs, and Sassy Shads; each model has its own unique action, with walleyes varying their preferences depending on water and weather conditions. I prefer to do my jig fishing with a 7′ St. Croix Avid or Premier spinning rod. I complete the outfit with an Abu Garcia Cardinal reel spooled with Sufix monofilament or super braid from 6# – 10# test, depending on water conditions.
Live bait rigs have their place in spring walleye fishing as well, often scoring on fish that have turned away from a jig and minnow or plastic combinations. Keep your minnows lively and fresh by storing and transporting them in an aerated-style minnow bucket such as the Frabill Aqua-Life. Walking style sinker rigs are a staple in most serious walleye anglers tackle boxes, and do well on spring walleyes. The ability to adjust the rig, including the length of the leader snell, allows anglers to fine tune their offering should the fish become finicky. Another “must have” walleye rig for marble-eye anglers is the three way rig. Three-way rigs can be very productive when used while slipping with the current in a vertical fashion, or even trolling. I have caught walleyes while pulling three-way rigs baited with strictly live bait, crankbaits, and even yarn rigs tipped with minnows.
While the bulk of spring walleye fishing is often thought of with live bait as the crucial component, the use of hard-bodies lures, especially during the spring run itself, is an often overlooked but equally deadly option. As walleyes move upstream to spawn, casting or trolling crankbaits can yield excellent catches, including some true trophy walleyes. Although jigs work wonders for me in spring, my largest to date, a heavy spawn-filled bruiser over 31″ long was caught casting a Storm Thunderstick crankbait. Multiple other large walleyes have eaten Rapala and Storm crankbaits cast by clients or me over the years as well.
When selecting cranks, variety is again a good word to keep in mind. Both floating and sinking (countdown) style crankbaits have their place in time for spring walleye fishing, and a virtual plethora of makes and models adorn nearly every bait and tackle shop here in the Midwest. In addition, don’t overlook lipless style crankbaits in your repertoire, such as the Rapala Clackin’ Rap or Rattlin’ Rapala – their noise and ability to be fished quickly make them effective search lures and will often trigger strikes when less subtle presentations fail. I use a similar set-up as I do when jig fishing; although I will often go to a 7 ½’ St. Croix spinning rod as I feel the added length performs better in a variety of situations. As for color, locally on the Wisconsin River system I’m a big fan of brighter combinations, but try more natural and/or darker patterns should the bite begin to slow, and certainly when approaching clear water.
It is crucial to keep in mind safety during this chilly fishing opportunity; just as important, respect the resource – don’t keep more than you need and practice select harvest on the “eaters”. As for the big gals, let them go, let them grow! I’ll see you on the water…
As an outdoor educator and guide, Joel is involved in a myriad of fishing-related promotional and educational events including teaching fishing techniques through both classroom and on-the-water clinics. He is active on the internet, providing articles and fishing reports to over a dozen different web sites in addition to appearing on television and doing web-radio shows. Joel is a published outdoor author including articles in Musky Hunter, Muskie, On Wisconsin Outdoors magazines, and his highly-acclaimed syndicated weekly column, “The Guides Corner”.
Wisconsin Angling Adventures
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