By USA Guest Columnist and Pro Angler Mark Courts
Once May rolls around, either you’ve already been on the water or plan to do so very soon. With springtime here, there’s no doubt that you’re ready to go after big walleye. With the water temperatures in the low 50s, this is definitely a transition time of year. Plenty of big fish can still be caught, but the key is going to be slowing down your presentation with some slow trolling, staggering your baits at different depths and paying close attention to your electronics.
The two best ways I’ve found to catch walleye this time of year involves slow trolling both spinners and crankbaits. A lot of these fish are going to be caught during open-water basin trolling, but finding where to start means that you will have to rely on your electronics. Basically, you need to use your electronics to find structure that the fish will be relating to. This type of structure can vary, for example, like a mouth of a river in Green Bay or the big, expansive reef complexes in Lake Erie. These fish, coming off the spawn, are going to be somewhat lethargic—that’s why you need to slow down your presentation—but they will still be feeding aggressively. Sometimes the walleye will be holding close to the structure or they could be in open water adjacent to structure.
Most of the fish are going to be suspended this time of year in 12 to 30 feet of water. They can be found anywhere from two feet below the surface down to about 10 feet, as well. Setting out a lot of different baits is key to finding them. Setting bait staggered anywhere from two to five feet apart in the water column and having enough people in the boat to run four boards will help you cover the water column more thoroughly and will help you figure out more quickly how to catch them.
When gearing up for this style of fishing, my equipment selection stays pretty much the same. For rods, I use a new Berkley Tactix Planer Board rod, an 8-foot-6-inch rod that is designed specifically for planer boards. On the rod, I use a counter reel spooled with either 10-pound/4-pound diameter Fireline Crystal or 10-pound Trilene Maxx. With the Trilene Maxx, I can run the line straight to a cross-lock, ball-bearing swivel on crankbaits; for spinners I use 6-foot leaders of 15- to 17-pound Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon. My trolling speed varies from .8 to 1.2 mph and I run different sized weights, from ¼- to ¾-ounce, running them back 40-80. By knowing the depth curves of different weights, you can then know at which depths you are catching walleye.
When you catch a fish, make sure that you punch the location into your electronics every time with either an icon or a waypoint. What you end up seeing is fish are migrating from the spawning areas to their summer haunts and might move a half of a mile a day. Over the course of three or four days, you can keep up with these fish and see their migration pattern on your electronics.
Colors selection this time of year is really basic, depending on water clarity. For spinners, I use silver, gold blades—standard colors. For bed selection, whites, blues, pinks and greens all work, anything that imitates the emerald shiner. On crankbaits, I prefer a bigger-profiled bait, like the 7-cm Berkley Frenzy Floating Flicker Shad in gold, blue or silver patterns. Again, these fish are feeling a little lethargic but are still actively feeding, so keeping these baits slow and in the right strike zone are key to getting bit.
Soft plastics work phenomenally this time of year, especially when you run into issues with white perch or sheepshead or things like that stealing real crawlers. Typically I stick with imitation crawlers. You can switch up the colors a little, green pumpkin works well, also natural with black flake. I don’t have an issue with fishing artificial baits over real crawlers because of what the artificial baits are able to do these days. What we have now is basically something that doesn’t make you have to use live bait anymore, especially with spinners. As you speed up, you don’t have worry about losing baits and you still have that scent trail. Typically when I tie my spinners and I know I am going to be using artificial bait, I like to get a small treble (No. 12) on the back for those short bites that those fish sometimes take.
One of my favorite things about using artificial baits like PowerBait and Gulp! is that I no longer have to tend live bait. Keeping nightcrawlers or leeches or minnows alive can be a real pain, especially during tournaments. If you’re only heading to the lake for weekend, there’s a chance your local bait shop can be sold out or the live bait that they do have could be selling for premium price. By using artificial baits, you can reseal what isn’t used one day and use it the next. Plus, artificial baits are more durable than live bait, meaning you can catch more fish on one crawler than you can on the real thing. Once you see how the fish hold on to one of these artificial baits, you’ll never have to wonder again if they are as effective as the real thing.
There are a lot of big walleye to be caught in May. Before the summer crowds begin to flock to the lakes, you can be out there reeling in your limit every day. All it takes is knowing where to start looking and slowing down your presentation.