Outsmarting Early-Season Eyes

By Ted Peck - June 1, 2008
Thirty-five years of marriage has made me a better fishing guide, although I must admit guiding and fishing were both more fun back before the marital knot was tied and cinched down tighter than a loop in boat launch line you were foolish enough to let a client hold when backing the "office" into the lake.

Catching walleyes from May until the arrival of serious summer is pretty straightforward : fish where they are feeding when Wally and Wanda are in the mood to eat. This will invariably be in the top six feet of the water column during periods of low light. Fish are cold-blooded creatures. They are wired to eat the easiest available meal available with the least amount of energy expended while avoiding being eaten by the next predator up the food chain.

The reason the Creator endowed Stizostedium vitreum with those opaque, bulbous eyeballs is to make the survival process of eating easier under low light conditions when the forage base can be easily silhouetted and ambushed after being herded to a pinch point like a rocky wall or shallower water found along the shore or on top of a reef…usually on the windblown part of the lake where the food that the walleye forage base is eating is blown because of little ability to fight natural factors like wind and current.

Next to the spawning urge-which walleyes just got done dealing with-the strongest life force driving walleye movement and activity is the predator/prey relationship. Between now and the arrival of serious summer when lakes begin to stratify and there are numerous feeding options in the ecosystem the walleye's daily feeding drama will likely play out fairly close to where spawning occurred.

In lakes fed by inlets in which walleyes make upstream spawning runs the first place to look is along the first breakline out from shore. On this part of the planet most natural lake inlets are on the north side of the lake where the angle of the spring sun warms water quicker. Seasonal change tends to bring a prevailing west or southwest wind under stable weather conditions. This creates wave action which pushes zooplankton that the walleye forage base is feeding on towards the northern shoreline. Current influx from the inlet is also a force to consider. Odds are walleyes aren't the only finny critters which move up into the creek to spawn. Walleye food makes the upstream trip as well…one more reason for Wally and Wanda to cruise fairly close from where the feeder stream's influence mixes quietly with the lake.

This walleye pattern hasn't changed a whit in natural lakes since God created walleyes. But the ministrations of mankind over the past century or so have created flowages and countless man-made lakes and reservoirs where native walleye populations have been augmented by stocking of hatchery-reared fry and fingerlings.The primordial walleye wiring is still in place. These fish will try to seek out rocky-rubble bottom areas, ideally close to some kind of current and at least go thru the motions of spawning when water temperatures warm to about 45-48 degrees. The closest thing they may be able to find that approximates this kind of habitat may be rip-rap along a man-made dam…or the transition zone beyond where the sand ends out from an artificial safe, sandy beach.

Between now and early June the water temperatures shouldn't warm much beyond 65 degrees. After walleyes spawn-or at least make spawning attempts-you'll find them close to where the food is...in less than 12 feet of water. This may be around artificial structure like fish cribs or natural cover like the branches of a fallen tree along the shoreline. The forage base may be hiding amongst larger rocks along the edges of a natural reef or tucked into any available weed growth. Weeds are always a good place to go looking for May walleyes. On lakes where weed growth is minimal the attraction of this foliage is enhanced in spades. Looking for walleyes in a lake with one weed bed is like looking for a cop in a city with one donut shop…or dinner in a one-tavern town when the grill is closed. Hungry ? We've got frozen pizza, beer nuts and pickled eggs…whaddya want? A similar dilemma is faced by walleyes. The forage base has been decimated over the winter. Minnows are in short supply because young-of-year baitfish aren't in the system yet…and those which are still around are well-versed in survival. Crustaceans are a possibility. Crawfish might be the easiest meal. Walleyes on a mud flat? The water will be warmer here than over a sandy bottom…and if crawfish are plentiful walleyes will be close by.

Mud bottoms can also hold baitfish forage like bloodworms. This kind of sediment is also more conducive to weed growth than rocky/rubble or sandy bottoms. Besides invertebrates this kind of habitat can foster insect hatches.

A walleye will probably swim right past a jumbo leech under a slip bobber to eat a little marabou crappie jig that looks like a shad fly if a recent insect hatch has made shad flies the easiest available food. This insect hatch will be coming off back in a shallow, marshy area…not in classic, rocky "walleye water". Why would any walleye be swimming back in water better suited for pike and frogs when there is an island with gravel and biggerrocks just a quarter mile away ? Because the walleyes are gonna go where the easiest meal can be found! Make no mistake, you want to start looking for fish on classic structure like a windblown rocky-rubble flat, reef top, or area with influence from some kind of current flow. A slack water pocket out from where a 36 inch galvanized drain tube moves water between lakes isn't exactly classic walleye water. But if food is there, walleyes won't be far away! Necked down areas which are either natural or man-made like bridges with an earthen road bed on either side, or that 36 inch drain tube are always good places to look for walleyes if there is significant water on either side of this barrier…even with no current driven by an inlet or outlet stream. Prevailing wind over a day or two can actually stack water up on the windward side of the barrier. When the wind subsides or changes direction the law of gravity takes over and the water flows back to whence it came. This creates current, which draws bait looking for an easy meal…with the next link in the food chain skulking in close proximity.

Although guiding pays the bills, I still love getting my string stretched. There are a bunch of places close to home where I can park the truck and walk down to a drain tube or bridge on a warm May evening or cool pre-dawn morning with a spinning rod and a small shallow running crankbait and catch a couple of walleyes with little company from other anglers.

As noted at the beginning of this article, catching walleyes now is fairly straightforward: put something in front of 'em where walleyes are feeding when they want to eat…essentially targeting the top five feet of the water column during periods of low light.

Here is where 35 years of marriage has made me a better fishing guide. Experience from the longevity of this holy union has taught me that my wife is always right…or at least it's easier to attempt fulfilling her heart's desire than to tell her the request is somewhere between obtuse and ridiculous. Most clients…or my wife…don't want to join me or reward a short walk from the truck to catch walleyes on a #5 ShadRap by a drain tube at 4 a.m. They want a boat ride, perhaps the opportunity to work on a tan and still catch walleyes. The fact that walleyes will be about as eager to actively feed as it is easy to build a laundry chute in a tri-level house from a bedroom on the top floor at one end to the opposite end of the basement on the other is my problem. Fortunately, catching walleyes during 'banker's hours' is easier than requests for extreme engineering dictated by a spouse. The predator/prey relationship is still the major key to consistent success. Walleyes may not be up there cruising amongst the baitfish in five feet of water at midday. But they won't be far away. You still want to target water less than 12 feet deep. In ultra-clear water maybe as deep as 20 feet. When not actively feeding during stable weather conditions walleyes in lakes tend to slide just a little deeper-usually just down from the transition breakline-from where you'll find them when it's time to eat…either vertically along a steeply breaking shoreline or several hundred yards away on a slowly sloping flat. They may still be in less than six feet of water, hiding in the shade of a fallen tree or dock with a deck close to the water. Or they may be tucked in submergent weed growth facing a little pocket where they can quickly dine on an unsuspecting meal with little effort. A minnow, half-crawler or leech presented on a 1/16-1/32 slow-falling jig presented to afford an easy ambush opportunity can be deadly. Controlled drifts using slightly heavier jigs fished just off the bottom along that 10-12 foot contour…or first deepwater breakline…will produce too. Trolling or casting this contour with small crankbaits can also be effective. Especially when you vary the speed these lures track thru the water until a pattern is established. There are always a couple of pre-rigged spincast outfits in my boat for folks who cast with a spinning reel above the rod, reel backwards and ask "by the way…how heavy is the string on your winders?" This usually prompts a smile and reply like "four pound test…just right for the bluegills and crappies which are practically suicidal right now" .

Author Ted Peck
Ted Peck
Cap'n Ted Peck has over 30 yrs. guiding experience, specializing in multi-species fishing on Pool 9-10 of the Mississippi from Genoa, Wi. to Prairie du Chien. Cap'n Ted is a pro staffer for Lund, Northland Tackle, MinnKota, Bill Lewis Lures, Evinrude, Uncle Josh, HT Enterprises and Custom Jigs & Spins. When not guiding Cap'n Ted communicates the outdoors experience via newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and through seminars. This work has taken him all over the midwest, Canada and beyond... but he always returns to the upper Mississippi which he considers the most diverse fishery in North America. Click here for more info on Ted's guide service. Cap'n Ted's new book Mississippi Musings with the Old Guide is a personal account of his long career as a professional fishing guide on Old Man River.