By Joel Nelson
Oh, what a year to chase walleyes on the fishing opener. As of late April, a photo of a few guys in a boat, dropping jigs on top of a frozen lake, is circulating, and there may be some locked-up lakes come the Minnesota May 14 opener.
Or, for many more, the fishing opener could just be cold, or at least be christened in cold water.
But that’s a common scenario for opening day throughout the Midwest, and most of us have adjusted to what that can mean: Shiners will be sold (where available) and jigs will be pitched. It’s a classic way to fish that we’ve come to know and love in early May, when the fishing can be slow at best.
Yet, other game plans can work wonders.
I remember an opener on Upper Red Lake not that many years ago when we were trolling No. 5 shad-style crankbaits at about 2 mph just 50 feet or less behind the boat while catching all the walleyes we wanted.
It’s not that fish limits are always the goal, but a first-of-the-season fish fry was in order that night, and all members of our party from both boats caught walleye limits in an hour. How can you beat that for being both unorthodox and efficient on an opening day?
Still, oddballs like that are usually the exception rather than the rule, so it’s good to have a few proven options for catching walleyes. Of course, everything is dependent on water temperature and the progression of the spawn, which for some lakes could potentially still be happening. It’s rare for such a late spawn to occur, but fish have been finishing up their reproductive duties on shallow sand flats at night in past years. But let’s talk center mass rather than out to the edges.
If you’ll be heading out for opening-day fishing, it’s worth considering what part of the “day” to do it. Many prefer the midnight-bell opening, and if you’re fishing a tried-and-true area, on a lake you know well and where navigation isn’t an issue, by all means, be the early bird that delivers the worm that gets the fish. It’s pretty satisfying to be off the lake at dawn, to take a nap, and to clean some fish eventually and reminisce with friends about your fishing prowess.
It’s often better, however, to sleep in, have a late breakfast, then hit the water when the initial frenzy at the ramps has subsided and water temps are at their warmest of the day. This also allows the daily wind pattern to set up. You can get some hefty spring winds, and, especially in shallow water, that can drive the bite.
Clear-water pitching plans see me tossing bait if water is less than 55 degrees, and jigs and plastics if above that mark. Either way, I tend to work the bait slowly in developing weeds, keeping the boat away from the edge at first, then pushing my way inward.
It’s amazing to me how many people drive their boat right into pods of walleyes that are readily apparent on side-imaging. When these anglers could stay off of the fish and make longer casts, even with bobbers, they tend to want to be “in them.” And in the process, they push the fish all over the place and make them more difficult to catch.
In water temps flirting with 50 degrees, especially at night, it’s really fun to pull into shallow water and bomb-cast some suspending stickbaits. Cranks such as the Rumble Shiner will dive to a 4- to 8-foot depth, depending on lip size, and when “killed,” just sit in a trailing fish’s face. They’re loud enough to draw fish from a distance, especially in clear water, but they’re subtle enough not to ping them to death with aggressive rattles.
There will be a time for those kinds of baits, but the fishing opener is not it.
I love throwing these on sand and gravel where there’s developing weeds. Slowly pull, sit, and pull again. It’s hard for fish to resist a bait fished that methodically when it suspends at the proper depth.
Of course, the best way to not be beaten by walleyes is to avoid fishing for them. We’ve all had those kinds of openers, when it just wasn’t happening.
Usually, that’s a function of weather, timing (full moon), or myriad other factors. But no matter the cause of the problem, crappies are often the solution.
In many lakes in walleye country, the crappie bite in the shallows will be just firing up or in full swing. That’s true for northern lakes, where fish may be in transition from winter spots to black-bottom north bays, or in the south, where black and white crappies will be up shallow, looking for spawning sites and eating whatever they can find.
Crappie fishing continues to be one of the best ways to enjoy an otherwise joyless opener, and those fish have saved many a trip when all has not worked according to plan.
This often involves a bit of bobber fishing, with jigs and plastics if the weather is comfortable, or with jigs and minnows if it’s cold enough to hurt your hands in doing so.
Again , fish the edges first so as not to disturb fish you have yet to contact. It’s better to pick them off from afar than it is to blow them out of an area entirely because you want to be right on top of them.
Work to locate fish in developing bulrushes, the edges of cabbage and coontail beds, or even lily pads in the absence of other aquatic vegetation. Especially in the south, good timber, brush, or other woody material will hold fish throughout the spring.
No matter what you fish for or where, the fishing opener is a special time to enjoy some “firsts” of the season. Make a plan, stick to a pattern, but don’t be afraid to bail on Plan A and resort to Plan B.