Walleye are probably my favorite fish to catch and most definitely the best eating of our freshwater fishes. Late winter and early spring is a great time to go walleye fishing in Washington lakes. The number of fish caught may not be as great as in late spring and summer, but the average size is greater and the fish are in great condition. There are many techniques for catching walleye, but these methods have worked well for me from year to year.
Tools of the Trade
There really isn’t one type of fishing rod that will fit all your needs when walleye fishing because you’ll want to try trolling and casting to see which yields the most fish. Trolling allows you to cover the most water to find elusive fish. You are allowed to fish two rods in most walleye lakes so with 4-6 rods in your boat, it’s a good idea to have a mix of short and long rods to spread out your fishing gear. A 7’ to 7’6” moderate action, medium power graphite bait casting rod works very well for the front and side of the boat. In the back corner of the boat, I like to run a 9’6” steelhead rod to get the trolling gear out as far as possible so not to interfere with the front rods. If you find concentrations of fish, I like casting jigs or blade baits with 7’ spinning rod with fast action and medium light or medium power.
Braided line is a must for me. All my walleye rods are spooled with 20 lb. test, green colored braided line. Braided line doesn’t stretch so it allows you to feel the bite very well. If you have never fished with braid, you have to learn not to set the hook as you would with monofilament. You can literally rip lips with braided line! Some of my friends prefer to top shot their spool with fluorocarbon to lower line visibility. My Kokanee and sockeye rods are top shot, but I’ve never worried about it walleye fishing and it doesn’t seem to matter in my opinion.
The selection of lures first depends on whether or not you’re jigging or trolling obviously, but more importantly on walleye forage. Walleye feed on small fishes, particularly perch or crappie fry, leeches, crayfish, or insect larvae. Lures that match the forage color will improve your success. Checking the gut contents can help you determine what forage walleye are targeting. Tipping lures with night crawlers is preferred by most anglers, but live or artificial worms or leeches are preferred by others. Scents can be used as well, but I personally think nothing beats a big night crawler.
I troll almost exclusively with Mack’s Lure Smile Blade lures because of the large range of color options and because of the action the Smile Blades provide. Dark colors on cloudy days or early in the morning work well, while lighter colors work well in bright sunlight. The new UV Glo Burst Smile Blades® have become my favorite color. In the winter or early spring, small profile lures such as the Smile Blade Slow Death or Smile Blade Spindrift® are perfect for slow trolling for lethargic fish. Double Whammy® Pro, Cha Cha® Crawler Harness, or the dependable Wally Pop® work well when fish are more aggressive. Regardless of my lure selection, I always run long leader lengths of at least 4’ to keep the lure back from the bottom bouncers and to allow the Smile Blades move the lure freely.
Walleye are gregarious and groups of fish will locate on bottom structure, so jigging can work very well especially as summer comes. A lead head jig with twister tail plastics and tipped with a night crawler is very effective. However, my favorite jigging technique is to use a Sonic Baitfish™ rigged so that it behaves like a blade bait. Perch colors or silver and blue have worked well for me.
Plugs can be very effective for catching walleye as well. Fish move into shallower water after the spawn and as the water warms. Plugs that imitate small fish work perfectly, especially when pulled at higher speeds (2-3 mph) along weed lines.
Walleye are largely found near the bottom so I use bottom bouncers or heal weights to keep my lures close to the bottom. In the late winter and early spring, you want to troll slowly at speeds 0.4-0.6 mph. As the water warms, faster speeds up to 1.0 mph work better when walleye are chasing bait. Walleye can be suspended at times, so don’t be completely focused on the bottom. Spring storms create the “walleye chop” and fish can move into the shoreline or along rock walls to find baitfish. I have run bottom bouncers on one rod and another rod off my downrigger to position my gear in the middle of the water column. Watch your electronics and position your gear where the fish are!
Rod position is important when trolling with bottom bouncers. The rod tip should be low near the water. Your main line should be at about a 45o into the water, so choose a bottom bouncer weight that will allow you to achieve the proper angle for your speed and water depth. A hook set should be a sweep of the rod tip parallel with the water surface. If you jerk the rod tip away from the water, you often will pull the gear away from the fish and you’ll miss the hook set.
Jigging technique is important as well. Lead head jigs should be dropped to the bottom lifted slowly and dropped back to the bottom without putting slack in your line. I like to lift the jig about two feet before I drop it. Walleye will often hit the jig on the way down. Jigging Sonic Baitfish is similar except the lift from the bottom should be short and quick so that the lure will vibrate and flutter on the way down. The bite on a jig is often aggressive and unlike a crawler harness, they often set the hook themselves.
Use a GPS to mark spots where you catch fish and troll back over those spots, or mark them with a small buoy and jig those spots. I find that my marked spots consistently produce fish year after year. I see lots of fishermen trolling all over the place and not focusing on any particular spot. My saying is “troll with purpose.” If you want to catch more fish, fish spots where fish are!
I hope these tips and tricks help you put more fish in your boat. The most important aspect of any fishing is to let the fish tell you what they want. Pay attention to the details. If you start catching fish on the outside rod when your turn, then consider speeding up your troll. Likewise, slow down if you catch them on the inside rod. Shorten your worms if you’re missing bites. Constantly be a student and you’ll become a better fisherman.