I’ve heard it said many times, often by Terry himself on Terry Wickstrom Outdoors, “ God did walleyes a disservice when he made them taste so good.“
When spring approaches, I get an early spring, cold water jerk bait bite on the brain. It seems year in and year out that some of the best walleye action of the year is when the ice is just getting off the pond and those toothy critters move shallow looking to feed up before and after the spawn. While you’re not going to catch me looking to harvest any of those big girls that move shallow this time of year, I will from time to time drop a few of those spunky, ill tempered, little males into the live well as they just make such great table fare.
In recent years, those who manage the fishery I guide on, Horsetooth Reservoir in northern Colorado, are encouraging the harvest of some walleyes in order to thin out the herd a little. They have even taken the bottom off the size limit and are allowing the harvest of the smaller fish. I’ve personally done my part and harvested a fish or two. I opt to keep fish in the 14 to 16 inch range due to the mercury advisories that have been put on the reservoir. I feel better about eating the younger fish as they hopefully have had less time for the mercury to build up in their systems.
It’s no secret that one of the best ways to approach catching walleyes in early spring is a deep diving, suspending jerk bait. It’s also no secret that walleyes are some of the best tasting fish swimming in fresh water. The following is a recipe for walleye successes both in and out of the kitchen.
When the ice finally gets off the lakes and the boat inspectors are clocked in at the boat ramps, its walleye time here on the Colorado Front Range. This time of year I’ll often have as many as eight rods rigged with a jerk bait of some sort ready to go in my Champion boat. My basic deep diving jerk bait set up will usually consist of a 6’6” to 7’medium power, fast action spinning rod loaded with 14 lbs braid and a 20 inch long 10 to 15 lbs fluorocarbon leader connected with a back to back uni knot. Sound familiar Fishful Thinker fans? The lure selection varies in things like lure size and length, diving depth, colors patterns, profiles, as well the over all action of the baits. I usually opt for the more natural color patterns like black and silver, white, olive and silver, purple or blue back with white or silver, perch patterns, and if I want something really bright, maybe fire tiger. While I do, a lot of time, try to match my color choice on any given day for conditions by noting things like water clarity and sky cover, I’ve found some days it’s better to fish with an open mind and just try out different colors as I go. Most days it seems the color isn’t nearly as important as the overall action of the lure. Still on other days it seems like the fish didn’t read the book, so it’s always good to have a selection to play with.
A sampling of jerk baits
After the set up and lure selection is taken care of it’s time to go about the business of locating some fish. Electronics of some sort, like the Lowrance HDS setups with Structure Scan strapped to the front and back of my Champion helps to narrow things down a little. I’ll often run spots in early spring and not even get a line wet unless I see signs of fish on my graph. It may seem simplistic, but I start off looking at the same areas I have caught walleyes in the past during early spring. I pay close attention to water temps and start my search in the areas of the lake with the warmer temps and proper structure. It seems when it comes to walleyes there’s usually a progression as far as their movement and locations that happen this time of year. They tend to spawn in the same areas year after year and will often hold on similar structure throughout the lake, so a lot of time spent on the water tracking and mapping pre spawn, spawning and post spawn fish each spring is time well spent.
Each lake can be a little different as far as this goes, but if I can, I’ll start out looking at the steep stuff like bluffs and points, especially the steep areas near or adjacent to banks I know from years past walleyes like to spawn on. These are good holding areas for pre spawn fish just starting to move shallow. They mostly relate to the main lake and perhaps just off the main lake on some of the secondary stuff, but they are seldom in the back of the coves, with the one exception being an inlet area where walleye also like to spawn. As they get closer to the spawn I’ll shift to looking at semi-steep sloping banks that are covered in medium sized broken chunk rock and/or riprap areas like a dam. On a lake that has several different kinds of rocks on its banks it often seems like walleyes will pick a particular size, shape, or type of rock where they prefer to do their business on. I tell clients to pay attention to what the rock looks like when they get into fish and look for other banks with similar size, shape, and type of rock throughout the lake. There will often be fish on other areas with similar structure.
It often takes some sort of current to really get walleye fired up and pushed shallow. So the banks that have the right structure and slope with the wind blowing on them are often going to be my first choice. I’ll run those banks before looking at the non-windblown ones. Boat traffic can also create current. If there are boats moving around the lake then I might look for banks with boat wakes breaking on them as well. I pay close attention to my electronics while fishing any of these banks. If the fish are shallow, then they’re often pretty cooperative and after few casts I‘ll know if they’re willing to play. I also like to take my boat shallow from time to time to take a look for fish with my HDS set on sonar and down scan split. If I start seeing a lot of fish suspended out in deeper water under the boat or pinned tight to the bottom out deeper then I’ll position my boat out a little deeper and give those fish a look.
Often the jerk bait isn’t good for getting at those deeper fish. This is when I’ll opt for something like a jig to reach those deeper fish. Sometimes those deeper fish down near that 20 to 30 foot range can be a little tough to get going, but I’ll make a note of those banks with deeper fish and look for them to push up onto that bank at a later time. Sometimes I’ll see this movement happen in the next couple of days or perhaps later that night and at other times they might move shallow and get active later on the same day. This seems especially true when the wind kicks in and starts blowing onto that bank. I can’t count how many times this happens in early spring. The winds are not blowing early in the morning and the graph shows suspended fish out deeper in that 20 to 30 foot range that are just not willing to play no matter what is put in front of them. Then the wind kicks up and after an hour or so all those suspended fish move up into the 1 to 15 feet range, easy pickings for a good jerk bait presentation.
It’s also no secret that areas leading in and out of an inlet can be good in the spring as the incoming water creates a current that causes these fish to move in and get active. So this can also be a good place to start your search as well. They buoy off the inlet area at Horsetooth, there’s no fishing/no boats in spring so as to protect the walleye spawn. However, the transition areas coming in and out of the inlet can are key spots that I always pay attention to as they can often hold good numbers of fish both pre and post spawn.
As far as times of day I like to do my walleye thing, in general in the spring it’s very common to find the smaller males shallow during the day with the large females holding a little deeper in the same areas waiting to move up at night. It’s been my experience that if conditions are right walleyes in early spring can be caught all day long. So I don’t have to stick to fishing early and late in the day. If there’s some cloud cover and/or wind that usually means jerk bait walleye weather to me. I’ve often seen the bite at its best in the afternoon once the water has a chance to warm just a little. It might only take a difference of a few degrees to turn the bite on when the water temperatures are cold.
I tell clients on the boat, that dialing in a jerk bait bite is like a puzzle of sorts and once you get that puzzle put together then the fishing is often easy from there on out. The puzzle consists of things like the depth the fish, are they suspended or pinned to the bottom, the colors, pattern, and/or profile they will respond to on that day, and the action of a lure that they’ll key in on. One day it might take a lure with a tight fast wobble and on another day it might call for a wider slower wobble. I try to determine if they want a lure that carves a narrow path or one that carves a wider path and if they want a slower moving presentation or a faster more erratic one. I’m also going to try to figure the type of retrieve that works best on any given day. Some days it’s a pulling action with very little slack in the line that is the deal. This will move the bait in a relatively straight and narrow path and will impart a more rhythmic vibration and sound to the bait. Others days it’s a hard jerking or ripping action with a bait worked with a lot of slack in the line. The slack in the line will allow the lure to plane off to either side and thus carve a much wider path. This also allows for a more erratic action with less of a rhythmic vibration and sound.
Author with a nice walleye
Cadence or timing of the retrieve is often the biggest piece of puzzle. Some days it’s a rip or two with a long pause between rips or pulls that is needed. A long pause might be anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute or two. Other days it’s a shorter pause of just a few seconds, and still others, it’s almost no pause at all. Some days it might just be a plain old reeling retrieval that does the most damage. Other times it’s a rip, rip, pause, rip or maybe a rip, pause, rip, pause, and so on, and so on. It’s the small variation in the retrieve and cadence that can make the difference on any given day. There’s often a magic combination that on any given day can be the ticket. I tell clients to try out several different patterns as far as cadence and always pay attention to what they were doing the last time they got a strike. Dial in that cadence and lure and run with it from there.
To me, a jerk bait is a lure that can be worked in vast variety of different ways and it’s a presentation I look at as being far more versatile then some would have you believe. It’s often my go to day in and day out and if there’s a species of fish that won’t take a jerk bait, I haven’t found it. It’s great for covering a lot of water and locating fish. It’s also is a presentation that is good at eliciting strikes from fish that are on the feed as well as straight reaction strikes from those fish that might not be in a true feeding mode. I’ve found on tough days throughout the year it can often end up being the only thing I can get steady action on so by no means is it just an early or late in the year cold water thing on my boat. Odds are if you look at the rods in my rig year around there’s usually a jerk bait or two rigged and ready.