Game Plan: Back Off
Where big walleyes lurk during the spawn.
When walleyes spawn in lakes, you can pick off one male after another by fishing jigs over shallow reefs. But the males tend to run small, and the bigger females rarely bite when they’re dropping eggs. The best way to increase the size of your catch is to back off the spawning flats and fish deeper water.
Even as some big females actively spawn, others that have yet to begin or have already finished will feed in deeper water near the spawning grounds, typically suspending over 20 to 30 feet of water. To catch them, troll short-billed minnow plugs, such as the Rapala Original Floater and Smithwick Rogue, behind in-line boards. These baits swim with a subtle action that dupes feeding females as they travel to and from spawning areas.
Ballasted in-line boards are excellent for this situation because walleyes are sluggish in the cold water now and will respond only to slow-moving baits. The ballast, usually a metal bar fixed to the bottom of the board, holds the board upright at the necessary .8- to 1.2-mph trolling speeds.
Several manufacturers, including Church Tackle Co. (269-934-8528; www.churchtackle.com), now offer ballasted in-line boards that you attach directly to your fishing line. These have a beveled nose that pulls the line out as far as 100 feet from a boat. With four boards in the water, you can troll a swath 200 feet wide and vastly increase your coverage.
Because most short-billed minnow plugs swim no deeper than 6 feet, you must attach a 1/2- to 3-ounce snap weight to the line in front of the lure to reach deeper walleyes. Use a simple, effective setup called the 50/50 program. Start by letting the lure out 50 feet behind a moving boat. Attach a snap weight to the line, let out another 50 feet, then attach the board to the line and place it in the water. Keep in mind, however, that big females may suspend anywhere from just above the bottom to within 5 feet of the surface, so be sure to run baits at different depths.
Although precise control is difficult to achieve, it’s not crucial to know exactly how deep a given lure is running. As long as you let out the same amount of line and troll at the same speed, you can put the bait right back at the depth that produced your first big walleye of the day-and then you can count on catching more.
It’s worth the effort: During the spring spawn, walleye pros routinely catch 7- to 10-pound trophies using this very method.