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Crankin' Trophy Walleye

By Steve Ryan - March 1, 2005

Spring is here and the smell of walleye is in the air. As water temperatures creep up, deep-bodied walleye head toward their spawning grounds. With proper planning, this period offers anglers the best opportunity to land multiple trophy walleye in a single outing.

Most river systems in the Midwest contain a good population of trophy walleye. Key spawning locations include shallow shelves and ledges in the upper sections of the river. Trophy walleye concentrate in these areas when the water temperature enters the mid-forty degree range.

Since water temperature is a key ingredient to success, always have the means to check water temperatures at various depths. Be mindful that water temperatures vary depending on the location and depth at which they are taken. Surface temperatures are generally warmer than bottom readings. Once a few prime areas are located and the water temperature approaches the spawning range of 42-46 degrees, fluctuations in the water levels and water clarity become important. Rapid increases in the water levels often happen this time of year due to spring rains and run off. Typically these rains lower the water temperatures and forestall the prime run of fish. The spawning run can also be stalled when dams decrease the amount of water being released, causing water levels to drop and leaving prime spawning areas high and dry. Under ideal circumstances, a warm rain will slowly elevate water levels to slightly above normal levels while still providing good water clarity. While small male walleye can be taken all spring from the first deep hole below dams on a jig and a minnow or three way rig, large female walleye require a different approach.

Night time is the optimum time to target trophy walleye. Since walleye are light sensitive and spawn predominately in shallow water, spawning generally occurs under low light conditions. Accordingly, dawn and dusk are popular times to target big walleye. These periods also coincide with prime movements of fish. However, peak activity for walleye will occur in sporadic waves. On some nights, the bite may only last fifteen to twenty minutes while other nights the activity may remain consistent for hours. Therefore, patience and perseverance are essential.

One must constantly be mindful of the current. Key items to note include brakes and changes in the current which occur throughout the night. By observing these changes, one can predict where walleye will concentrate. Water levels should also be monitored closely since they can change in the span of hours depending on the amount of water being discharged from the dam. Raising water pushes fish shallow, while receding water moves walleye back into the main river channel.

The most effective method to target these shallow water lunkers is casting crankbaits slightly upstream and then slowly retrieving the lure as it swings down stream with the current. Certain crankbaits stand above the rest for spring time trophy walleye. Among the most effective are Yo-Zuri's Crystal Minnows, 3D Minnow and Hardcore Minnow. All of these baits are plastic injection baits which allow them to be cast greater distances than lighter balsa baits. This is critical when covering shallow water ledges and shelves.

Yo-Zuri's Crystal Minnows come in a multitude of colors and models. They range in size from 3 5/8" to 5 1/4" in length and come in floating, suspending and sinking versions, along with shallow and deep diving styles. There is always a Crystal Minnow model to match the river conditions. Their unibody construction allows them to be bounced off bottom rocks without breaking the lure's lip or ruining the lure's action. Walleye often strike this bait immediately after the lure hits a boulder and again starts to be retrieved. Crystal Minnows also contain a unique holographic laser finish which allows them to brilliantly reflect any available light.

When current flow is slow, many anglers believe that conditions are not right for crankbaits since most baits have to be retrieved too fast in slow current to obtain good action and the required depth. In these slow flow conditions, try Yo-Zuri's 3D Minnows. Its unique lip design makes the 3D Minnow an outstanding casting lure for trophy walleye, especially when water levels are low and the current is slow. The 3D Minnow obtains a maximum depth of four feet with just a few cranks of the reel handle. Then, the suspending nature of the 3D Minnow allows it to be retrieved extremely slowly with an effective wide swinging action. Since walleye are not forced to hold tight to the bottom when the current conditions are slow, crankbaits can be fished slower and higher in the water column.

A final choice of baits is the Hardcore Minnow which contains noisy rattling beads to add to its attractiveness. The Hardcore Minnow also contains Yo-Zuri's unique weight transfer system which allows the lure to be cast much greater distances than ordinary stick-baits. Hardcore Minnows are best fished with a moderately slow and steady retrieve. This allows large walleye to hone in on the bait under low light conditions. On a steady retrieve, the bite from a trophy walleye can range from a jolting strike which totally stops the lure, to merely the feeling of increased pressure. In either event, set the hook quickly and firmly.

To effectively fish crankbaits for walleye in these situations, use a long quality graphite spinning rod, ranging from six feet in length, on the short side, to eight feet, on the long side, with a seven and a half foot rod, such as Lamiglas' Walleye Rod XPS 763, being ideal. This rod allows for long casts, solid hook sets and proper lure presentation. The extra length and moderate-fast action of the rod also provides a greater cushion when fighting big fish. This helps to keep treble hooks from pulling free from the fish's mouth. In cold conditions it is important to balance this rod with a top-notch spinning reel, with 8 pound test monofilament or PowerPro of equal or smaller diameter. PowerPro provides increased casting distance and enables one to detect the slightest variations in the lures wobble. Due to PowerPro's strength and abrasion resistance, it will typically save a couple of baits throughout the course of the night, which would otherwise be lost in the rocks.

Now the critical moment arrives - your persistence has paid off. You are at the right location at the right time. Your presentation is perfect, and you land your trophy walleye. If you want a mount of the fish, take a quick length and girth measurement along with several photos prior to releasing the fish. With this information, you can obtain an exceptional mount of the fish from one of the premier replica companies such as Artistic Anglers ( without having to kill the fish. Practicing catch and release is critical when fishing for these lunker walleye. Since these fish represent the top of the gene pool, care must be taken in handling these fish as little as possible and in releasing them unharmed. No fishery is unaffected by the removal of its prime breeders. In addition, releasing that fish of a lifetime gives you the satisfaction of knowing that you could have a date with her next year or in future years when she approaches record proportions.

Author Steve Ryan
Steve Ryan
Steve Ryan is an outdoor writer and avid angler who enjoys targeting trophy fish throughout the Midwest and beyond.
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