By Ray Schelble
"Something really weird's going on here, Doc!" I alerted my partner. It was the first weekend of May. Doc and I had spent the first day of a two-day walleye tournament beating our lures against the rocks on the Willard Bay dike with absolutely nothing to show for it. The air was cold, the water was cold and the fishing was really cold.
Now it was the second day. We decided we had nothing to lose and spinner-rigged our way into open water seeking anything that looked like a fish. Now we were seeing them but not catching them. In late morning, working our rigs along a slight drop-off far offshore, the graph mysteriously showed we were in only five or six feet of water even though an instant earlier the bottom was deeper than 25 feet. "Yeah, I see it," Doc replied, watching the event unfold on the graph in the back of the boat. We were on top of a dense school of gizzard shad. Almost immediately we hooked two nice walleye. And it wasn't over. We caught more that day, enough to end up taking home a nice check for the tournament.
Finding and catching walleye in Utah waters can be a challenge in the spring, when anglers become anxious to get out and cast off the winter cobwebs. On Utah reservoirs the time from late February to early June is a time of transitions and heavy stress for walleye, and in the still-cold water the fish's metabolism is so slow that they don't feed as much or as often as they do during warmer seasons. This means that even when you do find them you may not know it because they will be reluctant to bite. But there's good news. As spring wears on and water temperatures rise, walleye fishing gets easier.
Fish behavior is largely governed by biological urges, which are controlled by climate and conditions around them. These can be categorized into time periods called calendar periods. The spring to early summer months include the calendar periods of prespawn, spawn, post-spawn and pre-summer. Having an idea of what calendar period walleye are in can be a huge help in determining where to find them and how to fine-tune your lures and presentation.
Prespawn and spawn locations
During prespawn, walleye begin preparing to perpetuate their species. "In prespawn, walleye typically start migrating toward the areas that they'll be spawning in," says biologist Tom Pettengill, sport fisheries coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources and a dedicated, long-time walleye angler. "They are feeding at that point, probably up until close to spawn, but because of the cold water temperatures they don't have to eat as much as they do later on in the late spring and early summer."
To improve your chances of finding prespawn fish, pay attention to history. "If you know where the fish have spawned in the past in the water you are going to fish, start looking in those areas as it gets closer to spawning time," Pettengill points out. "I've caught fish at Yuba in February in early morning and late evening in 10 to 12 feet of water, right up against the brush line, like where you might find them later in the year. During the middle part of the day the fish are out in 30 to 40 feet of water."
Spawning begins as water temperatures approach 50 degrees F. Walleye move to shallow areas where there is rock or gravel. Spawning areas may be near an inlet, along a shoreline or out in the lake on the edge of an island or bar. Many walleye spawning areas in Utah waters are well-known, particularly at Utah Lake and Willard Bay. To find out specific locations ask other anglers or at tackle shops.
"Once the spawn starts, the males move into the spawning area and stay there," Pettengill said. "There may be some movement shallower during the night than they are during the day but they stay real close to the spawning area. The females only come in when they are ready to spawn."
Traditionally, when many Utahns think of "prime time" for walleye fishing they think of these several weeks in spring when walleye spawn. Experienced walleye anglers such as Pettengill do not share this opinion. "I think the spawn is one of the worst times to fish for walleye," he says. "Occasionally there is a time when fishermen will really get into some fish during the spawn. People catch limits at Willard during the spawn, but I think post-spawn and pre-summer, when the water temperature is 60 to 70 degrees, is a lot better time to fish for walleye."
During the spawn, walleye can be more accessible to shore anglers than during other times of the year. Also, big walleye can be caught during the spawn, but more big walleye are probably available to anglers during the fall. Because spawning walleye are vulnerable to illegal and unsportsman-like methods such as snagging, certain areas are closed to fishing during this time. Check your fishing proclamation.
Post-spawn and pre-summer locations
The post-spawn period immediately after the spawn can be the toughest time of the year to find walleye. After spawning, females move away from spawning areas, but spawning areas may still produce. "The males may still stay close, but typically the females pull back out into deeper water," Pettengill says.
Kevin Lund, a seasoned walleye tournament circuit veteran and member of Rocky Mountain Anglers, has some advice to help find these deeper, post-spawn walleye: "Move away from the spawning beds and get out on flats or a shelf off the spawning areas. The walleye move off to rest in some spot they can feel pretty safe, a ledge or around a sunken island."
Walleye will not feed for a while after the spawn, but this soon changes. From Pettengill's experience, the females start feeding before the males. He observes, "At Willard last year from late March to the middle of May all I caught was females. I didn't catch a male until the middle of May. I was fishing deep water. I think the people who were pounding the dikes were probably catching males because they hang on there longer."
The transition from post-spawn to pre-summer is gradual and not well defined. Simply put, as fish start feeding and water temperatures rise, walleye fishing starts to get better. "It depends on the weather a lot of times," Lund says. "If you get a few warm days the water starts warming up and they get a little more active." Spring storms and cold snaps can really put a damper on walleye fishing. The deep-water bite Doc and I experienced were females most likely in this transition time between post-spawn and pre-summer.
"Above 50 degrees (water temperature) you can get into a decent bite on any given day," says Pettengill, "But it's not going to be consistent fishing for walleye until you get up to 60 to 70 degree water temperature. At that point their metabolism really speeds up and they have to feed a lot just to maintain their body condition."
Time to catch 'em
After you've located them, what do you need to do to catch these fish? During the prespawn Lund takes it easy. "You have to slow everything way down," he advises. "When they're slow and sluggish you've got to be just barely moving your rig. You almost have to go to a standstill. If you're jigging you just barely move it. None of that dragging and hopping stuff." He also recommends downsizing lures during the prespawn. He usually uses a 1/8 ounce jig head with a 1 1/2 inch or two inch grub and, "If I do spinner rig I use a little, teeny blade, size two or three. Just the little stuff."
During the spawn he casts jigs and small Rapalas, Shad Raps and Wally Divers on likely spawning grounds and retrieves them slowly. Post-spawn he likes spinner rigging around features in deeper areas of the reservoir. "Sometimes I put on a great big blade, a real thumper that makes a lot of noise and gets their attention," he says.
The fun begins as post-spawn transitions into pre-summer. Troll spinner rigs and crankbaits, or cast and retrieve jigs. Trolling is a good way to locate walleye or catch scattered fish, and jigging is a good way to fish them when they are localized in a smaller area. Lund says, "I like to rig until I get a bite. I throw a marker out and go back. If I catch two then I'll stop and drop jigs on them." Don't be afraid to troll fast, try different depths and experiment with colors.
When its time to cast off the winter cobwebs hunting walleye, finding out what the walleye are doing will give you a better idea of where to go and how to fish.
General fish location and behavior varies seasonally according the biological needs of the fish, and can be categorized into general time periods called calendar periods. Developed by In-Fisherman, calendar periods do not cover a specific time of year, but rather they identify predictable periods of fish behavior patterns that occur throughout the year.
Associated with each calendar period are unique fish behaviors and locations. Prespawn, spawn, post-spawn and pre-summer are the calendar periods of spring.
Calendar periods can be affected to some extent by weather patterns and water temperature, which may determine their length and their exact timing from year-to-year. Also, the timing of calendar periods for different lakes varies depending on the lake's location and elevation. "In Utah Lake and Willard Bay, typically the fish are spawning by St. Patricks's Day," Tom Pettengill explains. "Lake Powell spawning is late February to the first part of March; Yuba is probably next after Utah Lake and Willard, usually the first part of April; Deer Creek is probably the last part of April; and then Starvation is right on the heels of Deer Creek, probably during the last part of April."
The timing of calendar periods varies for different fish species. For example, the spawn period for walleye will occur earlier in the spring than for perch or largemouth bass.
Finally, all walleye in a water will not necessarily be in the same calendar period at the same time. Where the spawn lasts for several weeks, some walleye will spawn early and be in post-spawn while others are actively spawning and others are still in prespawn.
Copyright Ray Schelble