It’s springtime, and open water has arrived throughout all but the uppermost reaches of North America. For walleye anglers, it’s a yearly ritual that’s hard to beat. Hordes of fish are heading to pre-spawn and spawn locations, bringing on some of the best bites of the entire year – especially in some of the more well-known walleye factories like the Mississippi River, Lake Erie, the Detroit River, the Missouri River, Wisconsin’s Menominee and Fox Rivers, the Rainy River and lots of other river systems in the Midwest.
There’s a good deal of information out there that will tell you where fish tend to congregate and spawn; those are good starting points. But to get away from the crowds, start searching for your own honey holes.
John Balla’s Springtime River Jigging Primer
For Illinois-based St. Croix walleye pro John Balla, that’s a big part of his program. Rather than fighting for position with other boats in community areas, he searches out his own spots. “I tend to use electronics to look for fish on either Down or Side Imaging that are near or around some spawning flats or channel edges where there’s a good current break and a hard-bottom area where those fish might be staging to spawn.”
Balla generally starts by vertical jigging ½-ounce to ¾-ounce jigs and looks for current edges. “Here’s my rule of thumb: for low flows I start in the main channel and during higher flows I start working up channel edges into the shallower breaks. I tend to start deep because the walleyes are wintering in the holes and they start migrating upstream and up along the channel edges looking for food before they start thinking about spawning. The males come up first and the females follow and dump their eggs. The males hang around a lot of those channel edges, spawning flats, and current seam and current eddy areas – and that’s on any river system, whether it’s the Mississippi, Detroit, Missouri, Menominee or the Fox.”
Another technique Balla likes is Spot-Locking or anchoring and casting jigs downstream and slowly bringing them back to the boat. “Generally, that’s a good bet in clear-water situations like out in Chamberlain, South Dakota on the Missouri River, on the Fox River, or on the Wolf River,” he says. “In clear water, it seems like the walleyes like the jigs dragging, so I’d say it’s always a good idea to experiment with slipping with the current and dragging your jigs vertically or anchoring or casting downstream and reeling up. And there’s also dragging jigs downstream,” notes Balla.
In terms of presentations, Balla’s repertoire of jigs includes various size hair jigs and plastics like split-tail minnows, skinny paddletails, twister tails, and the Wyandotte Worm. For tougher bites, he recommends jigs with live minnows on a stinger hook.
Any of these techniques equate to having a spinning rod in hand. For Balla, that’s been St. Croix’s new 5’8”, heavy power, fast action Eyecon (ES58HF) Heavy Metal rod, which fills a gap for heavier jigs in the 3/8- to 1-ounce range that are often needed in heavier current or when dragging jigs upstream.
“It’s perfect for the techniques anglers need right now to score on river systems. You tend to have higher current levels in the spring so you need a heavier jig to get down and maintain bottom contact. The new Heavy Metal stick is an incredibly effective tool designed specifically for methods anglers need to have in play to capitalize on spring walleye opportunities—whether that’s jigging in the rivers or on the reefs like on Lake Erie,” says Balla.
“The very design of the rod helps maintain bottom contact and set the hook, and really caters to those fish in the spring that tend to be a little bit larger in their pre-spawn phase. On the Detroit River, you have fish into the teens and on the Mississippi River you have fish in the 10- to 13-pound range, so you need a beefier stick to handle the heavier jigs and bigger fish in current, but you also need a little bit of forgiveness for those bigger fish when they shake their heads on braided line,” says Balla. “The new Eyecon Heavy Metal fits the bill. It has the backbone to handle the heavier jigs, hooksets in deeper water and the power to handle bigger fish, but the inherent characteristics of the SCII blank give it a subtle forgiveness in its fast tip to provide that cushion when the fish start getting closer to the boat and are shaking their heads in heavier current.”
Balla continues: “What I found test-driving the new Eyecon Heavy Metal is that the heavy power tends to extend the backbone a little farther forward to make it act more like an extra-fast tip versus a fast tip. It provides that added forgiveness, but it also helps with bite detection and bottom feel. I can tell the difference between rocks, gravel, clam beds… because that’s the stuff you’re targeting. The heavy power might intimidate some anglers and trick them into believing this rod is going to be too stiff, but it’s just not. The properties of the SCII blank give it just the right amount of deflection. Ultimately, it’s very well-balanced and the handle is super comfortable. It’s a powerful and sensitive rod and it’s priced very affordably. It simply cannot be beat for walleye anglers looking for their next jigging rod, especially one to present heavier jigs to big, springtime fish.”
Chuck Mason on Michigan Opportunities
For Ida, Michigan-based St. Croix walleye pro, Chuck Mason, the bite’s already been epic on the Detroit River and the western basin of Lake Erie, which he says has been producing a lot of 8-, 9-, 10-, and occasional 12-pound walleyes.”
“Right now we’re either trolling on Erie or jigging the reefs,” Mason says. For trolling, Mason recommends a longer, medium action, moderate power rod like the 7’- to 10’-models available in St. Croix’s Eyecon Trolling Series. “We’re trolling deep Husky Jerk 12s and the newer 14s,” Mason offers. “For jigging, I’m using the Legend Tournament Walleye 6’8” medium power, extra-fast action (LW68MXF) Snap Jig rod with Daiwa 2500s, 10-pound braid, hair jigs, Rippin’ Raps, Rippin’ Shads, and assorted lipless cranks. I do use a fluorocarbon leader when I’m jigging on Erie; it’s not like the Detroit River where you can get away with straight braid. I use a three-foot 10-pound fluorocarbon leader tied to a ball-bearing swivel with a #1 snap on some of them. I tie direct to 5/8-, ¾-, or 1-ounce hair jigs, depending on the waves.”
On the Detroit River, Mason is fishing 10-pound braid, Daiwa 2000 reels, and St. Croix’s new Eyecon Heavy Metal jigging rod, which – like John Balla – he has fallen in love with for its versatility and sensitivity.
“Primarily I’m trying to get away with ¾-ounce jigs whenever I can, like up by Belle Isle. In some of the slack water on the Canadian side I can drop down to a 5/8-ounce jig. But in the main channel or up by Ambassador Bridge, you need to break out the one-ouncers. We’re using split tail minnows and the Wyandotte Worm to tip the jigs, although sometimes when there’s a lot of competition we’ll tip them with emerald shiners and a 3-¾-inch stinger hook. The Eyecon Heavy Metal jigging rod handles all the approaches—from the heavy current and deep water of the Detroit River to the Saginaw River where there’s a lighter current. I’ve been able to drop down to a #5 Jigging Rap with it, too – it’s weight range is 3/8- to 1-ounce and it does every bit of that, but it doesn’t lose any sensitivity if you go a bit lighter. It’s just a great jigging rod, something I’ve been waiting a long time for!”
Jimmy Bell on Bladebaits and Wading
Minnesota-based St. Croix walleye pro, Jimmy Bell is President and COO of the MN Student Angler Tournament Trail. He says figuring out where the walleyes are at with respect to the spawn on the specific water you’re fishing is the first key to getting on a great spring bite.
“You can do a lot of research – spend time talking to other anglers or to the DNR – or you can get on the water and figure it out by seeing where the best numbers of fish are,” says Bell. “The pre-spawn fish are going to be moving more. They’ll move up then drop down a bit to find areas where they’re going to spawn. Post-spawn fish are going to drop out into those first breaks, so they won’t necessarily be in the shallows. The males may stay there for a while, but the females are going to dump off. Of course, these fish are moving around in relation to forage, too.
“If the fish are up shallow, a lot of times they’re around brush, reeds or cattails so their eggs can stick to something. Sandy breaks where there’s a little less current are critical. One of the first tournaments I ever fished as a professional was down in La Crosse on the Mississippi,” Bell recalls. “What I learned there was the DNR was putting out trap nets and catching the females around the trees. They know where the big females are. You could look and there were little blue flags in the trees wherever the trap nets were. All we did was go down the river and pitch jigs up into the shallows around the flags.”
Bell primarily pitches jigs and plastics, but also deploys bladebaits, especially if walleyes are in the spawn on sand flats. He looks for sandy areas that are five or ten feet from shore that start as sand and go back to rock, or vice versa. “The fish will be in those sandy areas, obviously first thing in the morning and evening as well,” offers Bell. “The key with a bladebait is you want to toss it on mono, not on superline. You aren’t working the bladebait so it wiggles at maximum. You’re trying to pull the bladebait so it barely wiggles and those females will pick up on that and grab them on those sand flats.”
Bell has two favorite rod options for spring walleye fishing. “I like the St. Croix Avid X 6’8”, medium, extra-fast (AXS68MXF) rod for pitching jigs and everything in general,” he says. “I like having that front hood that tightens down on my reel. That rod covers roughly 90% of my jig fishing and then I go to the Avid X 7’, medium power, fast action (AXS70MF) rod if I’m throwing bladebaits. I like to have a little more sweep when I’m fishing bladebaits and that extra length, the medium power and fast action gives me that. Avid X’s sensitivity is phenomenal, too. I chase a lot of smallmouth bass and those two rods are pretty much what I’m using for them all the time, as well!”
Because walleyes can be relatively shallow, wading opportunities abound during spring. “I do a lot of wading, especially on the Mississippi,” says Bell. “It’s a great opportunity for anglers who don’t own a boat, and getting into areas where there are large numbers of fish isn’t super difficult. You can get into some of these areas with a set of chest waders, maybe where you have a little point sticking out and it flushes that sand and mud downstream and you get kind of a slack water area where the fish like to come up and sit because that’s where the baitfish are. If you learn where the forage is, that’s where the walleyes are going to be. I’m almost always using that 7’ AVID AXS70MF – a little longer rod helps in the current – with a #2 or #3 split-shot a plain hook and a minnow on monofilament while wade fishing,” says Bell, who adds that anglers needn’t be overly concerned about hooking fish too deeply with the described live-bait technique. “The line is taut all of the time and you’re just letting it run down the river. You feel a fish pick it up, drop the rod tip, and set the hook. Because you’re on a tight line all of the time the fish can’t engulf it like they might in lake where they come behind it and try to breathe it in. Because of that, I’d say that 95% of the fish we catch are hooked right where you want them to be.”
Whether you’re new to the game or a seasoned stick, it’s hard to beat the springtime walleye bite, and now is the time to get geared up and hit the water. Take the tips of our experts to heart, match the right rods to the presentations, and get ready to experience some of the best walleye fishing of the year.