September 18, 2020

Targeting Pre-Spawn Walleyes

Intro

One of the biggest events of the entire ice/open water season is the transitional movements of big prespawn walleyes. These fish are highly targeted by millions of anglers for their difficulty to catch, their fight, but most of all their table fair. Walleyes are one of the most sought-after fish in the country, for good reason. The prespawn period presents anglers with high quantities and quality of fish funneling through small areas. This time of year, also presents anglers with the opportunity to catch their biggest fish of the entire year. The larger females move into shallower water and are full of energy and eggs. The bigger the female the more eggs she carries, which can create some absolutely giant fish. However, it can also be a very stressful time of year if you don’t know what areas and the baits to use to target these fish. In this article, I will go into detail on the time of year to start looking for prespawn fish, where they are going to be moving and staging up, the baits to use to give you the best success, and how to avoid/work through the crowds of people.

Time of Year and Location

The term “prespawn” has been used to describe anytime in a fish’s life from the winter period, to when the fish actually spawn out. The time period in which these fish begin to transition from their deep winter haunts to beginning their annual journey to which they will propagate the next generation begins around early February. Walleyes will begin to journey from their traditional feeding areas and deep winter holes to where they will spawn. This begs the question, where do walleyes spawn? The answer to this questions has two parts because not all of the fish spawn in the same areas. The majority of the fish will spawn in the larger rivers that lead into your body of water. While a smaller subset of the population will spawn on rocky shoals in shallower water in the lake. These fish need the proper gravel, depth, oxygenated water, and sunline on the eggs in order for them to be as successful as possible. So, the areas in which these fish spawn are going to be different for every body of water. You need to look at maps to find the areas that have everything these fish need and then scout them out. Not every creek and gravel shoal will have fish, so it is important to put the time on the water to really find out the hot spots.

The issue being that most all walleye seasons go out during the spawn. So, how are you supposed to find the areas in which these fish spawn? Great point, you need to fish the areas outside of these possible spawning locations to see if they gather here or not. There are going to be early fish to the spawning areas and late spawning fish, they don’t all come in one wave. This means you can catch fish moving to spawn before and after the season goes out. You will also see large numbers of fish while fishing these prespawn areas that will key you in on the hot spots. Another good trick to use, is looking for large numbers of fishermen around small areas. This can be a dead giveaway for spawning areas. The trick is to figure out how to beat the crowds at their own game.

Walleye Movements

So, how do these fish move from their wintering areas to where they are going to spawn? It is by no means a one-way, hell-bent trip in which they don’t stop. These fish are going to move methodically from one ambush area to the next until they reach their staging area outside the creek or in the deep access water near the shoals they plan to spawn on. All you need to do to intercept them, is find your favorite hot spots from early-mid ice season and then look at there they are going to go. It will become very easy to determine where they are going to stop on the way. Look for the same type of humps, drop-offs, points, bends in river channels, and rocky areas that they would normally use during their normal routine feeding. These are going to be the areas that these fish stop on to refuel at while they are on their journey. Think of it like when you’re going on a road trip. You need to stop to get gas at certain periods in the trip, thus you go to gas stations. Ambush points act as gas stations for these fish and they need to feed up in order to make the journey and spawn. The entire act of spawning is a stressful point in a fish’s life; thus, they need to feed up in order to survive the ordeal. You just need to get your baits in the right areas in order to capitalize on this bite. 

Baits

The biggest thing people get caught up in is what baits to throw? In all reality if you plan everything else out to perfection it almost doesn’t matter as much what you throw as to just being in the right area. However, it can be the difference between an ok day to being a phenomenal day. It does depend on a few things though as to what baits you use. Factors such as weather conditions, time of day, fishing pressure, whether you’re on ice of fishing open water, and water conditions. These all play a big factor into what you’re going to throw to the fish.

On Ice

If you are on the ice you are going to be stuck using vertical presentations, and there is nothing wrong with that. For prespawn, I like to start off with more in your face and attraction baits such as a Rapala Rippin Raps. The idea behind that being why would you use finesse baits for fish that will come in and eat a bigger meal more readily? This way you can cover water faster and potentially put more fish on the ice in a faster fashion. I will also use VMC Rattle Spoons and Rapala Jigging Raps as well to try and drum up the more aggressive fish. It always a good idea to check to see how aggressive the fish are before you downsize and start finessing the fish. My thought process is why use small baits when you don’t have too.

The next step is harder however. When you draw fish in, and you will, now you have to try and read their level of interest and adjust baits accordingly. If the fish come in and stay low and don’t make any kind of run at the bait, then you are too aggressive and you need to switch to something that is a little less aggressive. I like to go to a Tingler Spoon at that point, or a Jigging Rap or something with less sound. I will work all the way down to a jig and a minnow if I have too. The test being you have to read the fish. That is a huge key, reading the fish. If they make a run or follow it up at least once then you’re on the right track and now you have to play with size and color. Going to something in a duller or brighter color, depending on what you started with. It really depends on what baits you already have confidence in on the water. These are just baits that I have had and seen a lot of success with. There are thousands upon thousands of baits out there that no doubt all catch fish. So, it’s up to you to experiment with the companies you like and use the baits you like. The general guidelines for switching during these situations remain the same however. You need to just feel the mood of the fish and adjust accordingly. Always assume that there is always a better way to catch them then how you currently are. This will keep you always on your toes and always thinking about what to try.

Some of my other favorite in your face baits include a Rapala Slab Rap, a Rapala Jigging Shad Rap, and a Silver Streak Blade Bait. These baits, including the other baits listed above, are going to be my go-to baits for when I first show up to a body of water. After I strike out with these baits then I am going to go to more of a finesse approach. That is when I will break out a VMC Tumbler Spoon and a VMC Flash Champ, along with the others listed above. These baits will be my staples when it gets technical and the fish are being finicky. 

Open Water

The beauty of open water is that you can cover a lot more water in a lot shorter amount of time. This will allow you to locate fish in a faster time frame, in general. When it comes to open water baits there are two approaches, you can either troll baits or you can cast and retrieve. It really depends on the size of the area you are targeting. Trolling is a way to cover vast amounts of water using a variety of different crankbaits, worm harnesses, spoons, etc. Trolling can also be used as a method to simply locate groups of fish and then you can go back through and work them over with casting baits. During the prespawn period however the water is still around that 40-degree Fahrenheit mark. This means the fish activity is still going slow, as far as their willingness to chase down baits. I generally prefer casting for these fish because you can present slower but reactive baits that trigger these fish into eating. However, a slow trolled bait can still produce good numbers of fish. 

Casting

So, for casting baits I have a general few that I go off of. The categories that I like to throw include plastics, crankbaits, lipless crankbaits, blade baits, jerkbaits, hair jigs, swimbaits, and live bait. As you can see there is a large variety of different baits that you can throw. It really just comes down to the action that the fish prefer and what the body of water allows you to throw. I look at the area that I am fishing before I decide what I am going to throw. If it is full of brush and stumps then often times, I will lean more toward a jig with a soft plastics trailer such as a Worm, a swimbait, or a live minnow. Something that I can work slowly over and around the cover with lower risk of getting hung up. A slow retrieved crankbait or a jerkbait is also a good option to tick the tops of the wood or suspend just over the wood. I want something that I can pop off or deflect off the wood to trigger a reaction out of these fish. A few of my personal favorite casting crankbaits include an Original Floating Rapala, a BX Minnow, and a Shad Rap, an X-Rap, a Shadow Rap, Rapala Flat Rap, and a Rapala tail dancer. Those baits are going to cover every casting scenario that I am going to run into. These baits are also made of balsa wood which will allow you to get your bait unstuck from rocks, brush, etc. easier. 

The idea behind casting these baits is to cover water and imitate whatever baitfish the walleyes in your lake are feeding on. You can never go wrong with perch colored baits, or a generic shad colored bait. These forage species are going to be in every body of water you are going to come across. To retrieve these baits, you are going to start with a steady retrieve and see how the fish react to that and then depending on the results you are going to mix it up and start adding stops and pumps into the bait. This will act as a triggering method if any fish follow or track your bait as you are retrieving them. 

Whereas, if I am fishing something with a sandy and rocky bottom then I am going to lean more toward a blade bait, a lipless crankbait. I need to use the action of the bait in order to trigger these fish into eating. Since the bottom is fairly clean, I depend upon the bait to draw the fish in and close the deal. This is where is really play with the cadence I use when I retrieve these baits. I use both blade baits and lipless crankbaits as a bait that I jig off the bottom. I will not steady retrieve these this time of year. I will simply hop them along the bottom, while varying the length of the hop and the speed of the hop. Generally, you will find a specific speed and type of hop that these fish key in on. My favorite go to casting baits for this type of scenario are going to be a Rapala Rippin Rap, a Rapala Jigging Rap, and a Steel Shad Blade Bait.  

As far as a swimbait, a hair jig, and a minnow on a jig head are concerned I really use these to cover water and try to locate groups of fish. All of your time on the water is precious, so using faster search baits to really try to locate fish and eliminate water can help you spend more time putting fish in the net. 

Trolling

Trolling is going to be a different animal all together when it comes to prespawn. Since the water temps are so cold it is going to be hard to get these fish to chase a bait unless you put it right in their faces. It is also really going to depend on the bodies of water you are fishing. If you are fishing lakes such as Lake Erie, then trolling is going to be the most effective way to catch fish and cover water. This can also be an extremely effective tool in larger river systems, to cover break edges of the river channel. However, if you are fishing smaller bodies of water that have smaller populations of fish, then casting baits are going to be a better choice. Bait selection and trolling speed are going to be critical no matter whether you are in a river system or a large body of water. The fish are going to be up in shallower water, so your trolling gear is going to be relatively very simple. Longlining crankbaits and crawler harnesses is going to be the most efficient approach as far as covering water while being able to fish slow. Night crawler harnesses are always a good option because they can be fished as slow as the user wishes, which is ideal for targeting sluggish fish. The choice of crankbaits is going to depend on the water depth you are trying to target. If you are on Lake Erie then you are going to be fishing deeper than if you are fishing a small local lake or a shallow river system. It is all about finding those travel routes that were discussed above and using your search baits to effectively and efficiently cover water. 

There are thousands of different crankbaits on the market today and all of them will catch fish, given the right conditions. So what crankbaits are going to work best for the prespawn? I like crankbaits that have a tight action, this imitates that action of the baitfish during the colder months. I also like running baits that dive deeper than the water I am fishing, when fishing 15 feet or less. This will allow you to slow your presentation down and really get a reaction out of those fish. A few of my favorite baits to troll this time of year are going to be Rapala Tail Dancer, Rapala Shad Rap, Bandit Generator Walleye Deep Diver, Strike King Walleye Elite Bonzai Shad, Storm Deep Thunderstick Madflash, Storm Thunderstick Madflash, Bandit Walleye Shallow Diver, and Bandit Walleye Deep Diver. These are a few good starter baits that will also cover you as far as hard baits are concerned. For worm harnesses I like a couple different types. If the water has good visibility, 3 or 4 feet minimum, then I like a Dutch Fork Stainless Steel Willow Leaf Blade Harness. If the water has more stain too it then I’m going to go with a Dutch Fork Stainless Steel Colorado Blade Harness. The Colorado blade is going to provide more water displacement and more thump to attract these fish from more of a distance. I also really like the Mack’s Smile Blade Double Whammy Walleye Rig for doing more drift fishing or slower trolling. This bait has a better action at slower speeds. 

As with anything you’re going to need to experiment with baits, depths, the amount of line you have out, colors, etc.. This is done in order to figure out the best combo for the fish during the time of day you are fishing. You might run one of each of the baits listed or you may end up running all of the same lure. It is just going to depend on what you are getting bites on and what depths you are fishing. 

Bait Color Choices

There is by far no shortage of different color patterns on the market these days. You could literally spend thousands on one bait but getting every color they make it in. So, what colors are going to give you the best chances of success? As a general rule of thumb, you want to match the conditions outside to the color of your bait. So, on cloudy days you want to throw darker, more drab colors and on bright sunny days you are going to want to throw brighter baits. This is going to match what the forage looks like during these different weather conditions.

Color choices are also going to vary depending on the depths of water you are fishing. In shallower water the colors that are going to show up the best are going to be your pinks, oranges, and your yellows. As you get down deeper your colors are going to want to switch more toward your reds, chartreuse, blues, purples, and your blacks. These colors stand out better at deeper depths. As with anything else though I encourage you to play with different color combinations to see what works best for you.  

Dealing With Crowds

The worst part of prespawn walleye fishing is the crowds. There is a large number of anglers that will go out and simply look for crowds of people and go fit themselves right in assuming they are on fish. I like to be that one guy that is far away from everyone that leaves everyone guessing if I’m catching fish or not.

The number one way to be able to beat crowds is to truly know the area you are fishing. I mean knowing all the contour changes, the bottom composition changes, little irregularities on flats, etc. This will ensure you are always on the primary “spot on the spot”. You will be that one guy smashing fish while everyone 20 yards from you is left without a bite. This requires time on the water though. Hours and hours of scouting go into having a really good idea of what the bottom looks like. If you are ice fishing that can mean using an underwater camera, visibility permitting, and using this to look for rock piles and distinct and subtle edges. When there is open water it can also mean using your graphs and side imaging to make laps around these areas in preparation for the long winter months. It all depends on the amount of time you are willing to put into the game, just like any other sport. 

The next best way to outsmart the crowd, is to be the guy who is not afraid to move and change things up. Most anglers have a bait tied on that will be tied on from the time they get there to the time they leave. They will work it the exact same way all day/night. You need to be willing to switch up how you are working your baits, what baits you are throwing, and where you are fishing. If you are fishing areas that have large flats that have big crowds of people, Lake Erie for example, then you can use this to your advantage and place yourself on the outside of the group. Moving yourself slightly away from everyone will help you get on top of the fish that avoid all of the commotion brought on by the other anglers. Fish aren’t as dumb as we think they are, however they aren’t as smart either. They aren’t going to do some drastic move. They are simply going to slide around all the noise and commotion. This will set you up nicely for all the fish moving through.  

As far as baits and how you work them, this goes back to what I talked about earlier in being able to read the fishes level of interest. Most of the time in a crowd I like to go either really small and bland or really big and bright. This will make your bait stand out from the droves of other baits in the water. Experiment with the action, the color, and the size until you find something that seems to fit the bill. 

Understanding Movements Related to Weather

One of the biggest overlooked aspects of targeting specific species of fish during different times of the year is the weather patterns and how they affect the specific species that you are targeting. During the prespawn period, with any species of fish, the weather patterns can really control what the fish do in major ways. Some of you may say, but my fish are under ice. How is the weather above going to influence the fish? Even under feet of ice, the fish can still see changes in light and adjust to the different light periods. This is why morning and evening bites are still hot even. So, the first thing to look at is the weather pattern out. On cloudy days, the primary bite window is going to be drawn out even longer than it normally would be due to the reduced light from the cloud cover. On clear sunny days the primary bite windows are going to be the shortest due to the increased light. So, fish are going to be more active on days with a lot of cloud cover, meaning they will be moving in the shallow areas more. This is especially true for the prespawn period.

If you have open water situations, then the word everyone hates comes into play, wind. Personally, I love wind. It can create some of the greatest bites you’ll ever see, while also making you wish you never went fishing. So, what does wind do? Wind breaks up the surface tension on the water and creates a scenario in which the fish cannot get a great look at your bait. It also moves the surface around water and creates current. This current moves the small microorganisms around, which then get followed by the bait fish. This current also creates current breaks in which fish will also stack up in. Either way you look at it, it can create some great scenarios in which you can load the boat with fish fast. So, what do you need to know for prespawn? Wind can push the warmest surface water away from where it is supposed to be. this will stack up warmer water in smaller coves or along windblown banks. It may only be two or three degrees but that two or three degrees will attract those fish like flies to a light. The first thing I look at when looking for prespawn walleyes, other than where they are going, is what way the wind is blowing. That will be the first area that I will check for signs of life.

The next thing to look at is the different moon phases. The greater the light during the night period, the more active fish are going to be. This means fish are going to have the most nocturnal activity during full moon phases. This creates large waves of fish that move up shallow during the prespawn period. So, if you have limited days to fish it can be important to look at this information in order to try and have the most success possible.

Jon Dietz

Jon Dietz

Corry, Pennsylvania A member of the United States Youth Fly Fishing Team at a young age, Jon has always been a member of the angling community. Jon currently competes in multiple divisions of tournament bass fishing including the Bassmaster Open as a Co-angler.

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