Fishing for Fastballs

For a lot of Midwest anglers, walleyes plus April equals rivers.

And why not? These flowages, both large and small, serve as hosts for massive runs of spring walleyes compelled by nature to perform their annual spring spawning ritual.

But fishing rivers is like trying to hit a dancing knuckleball. Changes in water levels, current flow, water clarity and water temperature that are so frequent in April give the advantage to the pitcher.

There are also populations of fish in our lakes and reservoirs that take care of their procreation out in open water. And many of these locales bring together the best of both worlds where they intersect with smaller rivers and creeks.

Fishing lakes is more like sitting on a fastball. Conditions tend to be affected less dramatically by weather developments. You know what you’re going to get, and it’s up to you to put a good swing on it.

Identifying likely April walleye locations on lakes and reservoirs is largely a matter of structure and bottom content. Walleyes prefer to spawn over gravel or rock, although sand will do in bodies of water where there isn’t much hard structure. Nature also tells these fish to deposit their eggs in places like reefs or rip-rap where moving water will help them hatch and disperse the fry before they can be wiped out by predators. Transitions from soft to hard bottom are also great target areas when other structure is lacking.

Choose a presentation that is most effective for the structure you’re fishing.

For example, drifting or dragging jigs is a staple on the sand flats in locales like Mille Lacs and Winnibigoshish and on the reefs of the Great Lakes and Lake Winnebago. I try to keep my line at no greater than a 45-degree angle when drifting jigs, and I use the lightest jig I can based on wind and depth.

Choosing an aquadynamic head style will allow you to fish lighter. Fin-Tech has a wide selection of drift-friendly jigs designed to slide through the water with minimal resistence.

Tip your jigs with whatever species of baitfish is dominant in that body of water. In some lakes, it’s shiners. In others, it might be fathead minnows. And try to create a tight profile by running the hook into the bait’s mouth then out behind its head rather than simply hooking it through the lips.

Your bait will stay on the hook better, it will be harder for fish to rip it free without getting hooked, and strikes will be more obvious. Don’t worry about the fact that the minnow or shiner won’t live very long after impaling it in this manner. In fact, they often do live a long time and if they don’t, that’s OK, too, because the bait is still fresh and it’s moving through the water.

If your target area is a soft-to-hard transition or a reef where debris is fouling your jigs, rigging might be a better option. Use an in-line slip sinker heavy enough to let you fish at a 30- to 45-degree angle followed by a plain bait hook and either a minnow, shiner or even a leech. Snells should be no less than six feet in length, although I’ve had days where stretching them out to as much as 10 feet doubled my catch when the walleyes were fussy. Sometimes, adding a colored bead in front of the hook can make a difference, too.

Whether you’re drifting with jigs or long-lining live bait, keep it slow. When wind conditions permit, I let my MinnKota Engine Mount 101 dictate the speed of my boat, but if it gets too windy and boat control becomes an issue, I’ll toss out a MinnKota drift sock for speed control.

Trolling is another productive option that allows you to target larger areas. In general, walleyes prefer to spawn under the cover of darkness. They will move onto shallow reefs or shoreline rip-rap at night to take care of their business or explore spawning areas, but they’ll slide back to deeper water as the day becomes brighter.

Two keys to catching these fish are your selection of baits and your trolling speed. Cold-water walleyes aren’t likely to chase a fast-moving lure with violent action, so I break out the Normark Minnow Raps and X-Raps, which fit in between tight-wobbling Shad Raps and the gentle action of a Floating Rap or Husky Jerk. Spread your lures out with a set of Off-Shore planer boards, and slow it down to 1 1/2-1 3/4 mph and give the fish a good look and a good chance to gobble it.

It’s important, also, to make good use of your electronics. I’ve found a lot of April walleyes suspended in the upper few feet of the water column over deeper water adjacent to structure, probably because the top layer is a few degrees warmer than the depths. Even if they’re not quite ready to spawn, walleyes seek out warmer water to help facilitate the process and relieve themselves of that heavy burden of eggs. Because these fish may scatter when a boat passes over them, Humminbird’s side-imaging technology gives me a look at what’s around my Triton as well as underneath it.

In many locales, the mouths of creeks and rivers provide some outstanding April fishing.

Because all walleyes don’t spawn at exactly the same time, it’s the best of all worlds. You can intercept fish that are moving into a river system to spawn, while you can also catch others that are leaving the system after taking care of their business. And in many situations, you will find pockets near river and creek mouths where postspawn walleyes stack up in shallow water to recover from spawning.

A great way to target these fish is vertical jigging along breaklines that serve as travel corridors where rivers and creeks dump into the main lake. Trolling is another effective way to work these areas thoroughly.

And if the water temp has climbed into the upper 40s and you are looking at more of a post-spawn situation, don’t be afraid to break out the crawler harnesses and target the shallow, muddy flats and bays post-spawn walleyes seem to favor because of the warmer water and availability of easy forage. Some of the biggest walleyes of the year are caught in 2-4 feet of water this time of year.

April is definitely transition time in the walleye world, but it’s also a time when large concentrations of fish can be found in predictable locations.

Rivers are great if you can hit a knuckler, but don’t forget about your lakes and reservoirs.

You might just Knock one out of the park.