By Nick Simonson
Spring walleyes – especially those river fish that offer up some of the season’s first opportunities as ice takes its time peeling off area lakes – are a predictable lot insofar as the locations they use when staging for the spawn. In those holes and riffles below obstructions, shallows or mating areas are where they can be found getting ready for water temperature, day length and related seasonal factors to combine in an ideal scenario and trigger the species’ regular spring rituals. Targeting walleyes in these traditional spaces means feeling out those things that hold them there.
Walleyes relate to transition areas and structure that provides them a reprieve from the constant flow of water around them, allowing them the opportunity to dart out and grab an easy meal and conserve energy for the run that’s yet to come. Anglers can probe these pre-spawn places with inexpensive and reliable tackle to connect with spring walleyes, both from boat and from shore. Utilizing today’s effective no-stretch lines, which with their super sensitivity can detect changes in the bottom and sometimes even in just the current moving around them, can help get a feel for where Ol’ Marbleyes is lurking. Finally, a solid graphite rod conveys not only the message of what’s below from the line to hand, but also picks up and transmits the sometimes-subtle take of a spring walleye.
A variety of jigs can be used to fish spring walleyes, and each has its benefits in probing the depths and locating areas of structure and fish. A standard ballhead is a good start, as it is inexpensive and easily customizable with curlytail, paddle and swimbait-style plastics as well as live bait. Find the weight of the jig that matches the speed of the flow, noting that the faster the water is moving, the heavier the jig will need to be in order to get to the bottom. Bumping the jig along the substrate helps detect transitions of mud to sand, sand to gravel and gravel to rock and can also make contact with other sunken items like deadheads and wood deposits. Walleyes will hold in the space just behind objects like bridge pilings, boulders and stumps, and with sensitive line and a good rod, it’s easy to feel when the pull of the current lessens and the offering slips into these seams behind these current blockers where fish also lurk and rest. Find a combination of obstruction and a change in bottom and it is likely even more walleyes will be waiting in that special space.
Stand-up jigs with a flat bottom are great for deploying live bait and can be gently drug along the riverbed, slowly setting up the food item for a walleye to snap up when it comes into view. This wider bottomed head also helps keep a better connection with the riverbed to get a firmer feel of what’s below. A soft sticky slide means mud, a gritty drag signals sand and a bumpy skate usually suggests a more gravelly substrate. Thinner jigs like banana- or pill-style heads are also good for cutting current in faster flows and exploring areas with tighter nooks and crannies like rock fields or areas of timber. Having a selection of these specialty heads on hand is great for unique situations to explore niches where walleyes may be holding in spring.
Superlines or low-stretch fluorocarbons increase sensitivity between rod and lure and help with determining where a jig is sitting when it comes to bottom composition. Experiment with dragging lures over known areas of mud, sand and gravel to get an understanding for what each feel like and remember that it might take a trip or two to refresh that recollection in spring. The heightened strength of those specialty braids will also help loosen lures when they get snagged up, or bend light wire hooks to free them from wood or other underwater items like metal posts or other sunken debris that may also hold fish, and remember the old adage when exploring stretches of water in spring: “if you aren’t snagging, you aren’t bragging.”
Finally, a sensitive jigging rod made from graphite will help in the final connection of line to angler. Keep the rod tip raised to feel for those takes that happen on the fall after moving or twitching a jig and the line at least semi-tight during any of those motions to help with the transfer of a bite. While rods can be adjusted to the strength of the flow, the size of the lures used and possibly even to the fish that could be caught, a medium weight rod will do the trick.
Putting together the right tackle and gear – none of which has to be terribly expensive – to explore those spaces that hold walleyes is a surefire way to heat up spring. Get a feel for changes in bottom composition, identify those current breaks behind bars, obstructions and underwater structure and detect those subtle bites to increase success this time of year and start the openwater season off right.
Featured Photo: The author releases a spring walleye caught behind a sunken stump on a current break in the Sheyenne River. Simonson Photo.