Depending on where you live, the spring walleye season is already underway…or you’re eagerly awaiting for the opener. In Minnesota, the magic day is Saturday, May 14. In either case, here are a few great fishing tips that’ll help you put tasty walleyes in the boat this spring.

1) Fish Shallow Water for Walleyes

This spring has been much cooler and windier than normal across much of the walleye belt. In fact, many of the nation’s best walleye fisheries are still ice covered. One of the biggest mistakes made by early-season walleye anglers is fishing too deep. You should expect to find fish shallow this year and most years.

In turbid or stained waters, fish depths of just 2 to 8 feet on opening day, especially when targeting wind-driven points and shorelines. Just last week in South Dakota, nearly every walleye we caught on the Missouri River came while casting cranks or jigs tipped with plastics to shoreline rock.

In clearer lakes, weed flats 4 to 8 feet deep are home to roaming schools of walleyes, as are the inside weedlines of many lakes. Shallow rocks will also hold fish, as will areas of current. Forward-facing sonar like Garmin LiveScope and side imaging are both outstanding for helping locate shallow fish.

The key when targeting shallow-water walleyes is to make long casts, and keep noise to a minimum. That means shutting down your outboard before arriving at the spots you plan to fish. Braided line makes it easier to cast farther, especially with light minnow baits and jigs.

Shut down the big engine and go with a subtle approach early in the walleye season.
Shut down the big engine and go with a stealthier approach early in the walleye season. Steve Pennaz

2) Lures vs. Live Bait for Walleyes?

There was a time when I believed walleyes could not be caught on anything but live bait. I’ve since learned that as good as live bait is, there are times artificial lures are much better, and that’s especially true when searching for opening day walleyes. Artificial lures are much tougher than live bait, of course, which makes them more efficient for covering water as you search for active fish.

Great artificials for early-season walleyes include 1/8- to ¼ jigs tipped with a variety of soft-plastic or Gulp! trailers. Three- to 4-inch swimbaits, swimming grubs, and minnow imitators are all good options for opening day, as are smaller plastic worms. Hair jigs fished plain are also outstanding.

Soft-plastics as a game changer early in the season.
Soft-plastics as a game changer early in the season. Steve Pennaz

The key with plastics is fishing a bit faster than you do with live bait as movement is what activates the plastic. With hair jigs, slower is often better. Also, when using paddletail baits, make sure the jig head you use is heavy enough to keep the bait down in the strike zone. Paddle baits move a ton of water and that can lift the bait too far above the fish to be effective.

Crankbaits and minnow-imitating baits are also outstanding options. Berkley’s new Hit Stick in sizes 9 and 11 are great for casting or trolling, and shad-style baits like the Shad Rap and Flicker Shad are also deadly. I like size 5 for super-shallow areas and size 7 for slightly deeper water.

3) Find Walleyes Away from the Crowds

It’s pretty easy to find fish on opening day—just look for the crowds. I’ve found it’s better to study maps of an area that I know have active fish—then look for other spots with the same characteristics that are typically away from the crowds. Not all of them will hold fish, but many do, and I often have them to myself because no one else thinks to look there.

When studying a spot, ask yourself the following:

  • Is the area connected to the shoreline or in the main basin?
  • What type of bottom does it have? Rocky, sand, mixed? And does the bottom break quickly or slowly? (In most cases, slower breaks are better than fast in early spring.)
  • Finally, is there something that makes the area unique like current, certain type of grass, etc.?

One final tip that has helped me patterns walleyes fast: When fishing with others, make sure everyone is fishing a different bait or lure until you are seeing a pattern. Years ago, I missed a hot jig-minnow bite simply because everyone in my boat was fishing with leeches exclusively when the fish wanted minnows. That’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

Each angler should fish different baits until a bite pattern emerges.
Each angler should fish different baits until a bite pattern emerges. Steve Pennaz