Top Two For Pre-Spawn ‘Eyes
Not all offerings are seen equally in the eye of the fish this time of year
By Mark Martin

No matter how brutal or mild a winter, one thing will hold true as the season wanes: Walleye will gather in great numbers in particular areas right before they spawn; sometimes in such huge quantities that dropping or trolling a bait through the masses is reminiscent of fishing in a barrel filled to its rim with fish.

Yet even with such an immense gathering of white-tipped tails, many anglers go without a bite this time of year.

It’s not that these anglers are awful at catching these fickle critters, but more that they are not offering them just the right bait or lure or are using equipment on the low end of the sensitive side and are missing strikes.

In short, not all offerings are seen equally in the eye of the fish this time of year. Jigging and trolling are two sure techniques for getting the right baits in front of them.

Meltdown

No matter where in the Midwest you’re fishing walleye, sauger (cousin to the ‘eye) and saugeye (a cross between the two) in late winter and early spring, the fact of the matter is millions are migrating towards their spawning grounds. The relocation starts while ice still covers a waterway and continues throughout the meltdown and beyond.

Although the structure walleye will use to spawn upon varies greatly, pinpointing where their preferred procreation stations are is not as impossible an endeavor as one may think.

The shallow gravel runs of creeks and rivers are one such favored egg-laying locale when the water hits the low- to mid-40-degree mark; thus the flats and main-lake basins very near where these flowing waters dump into a lake are where walleye tend to congregate before the temperatures reach these warmer levels.

Rock-strewn reefs and underwater points layered with gravel also see their fare share of spawning walleye, as well weed beds that are starting to grow upon harder bottom. These areas, and the aforementioned river and creeks, see the most fish during the times those above-mentioned, just-right temperatures coincide with a full moon showing overhead.

It’s bellied up to bottom in the deeper water adjacent to all these spawning sites that you’ll find masses of fish migrating to before water temperatures and full moon periods meld.

On the spot

Whether I’m fishing pre-spawn walleye on last ice or in open water via my Lund Pro-V, I pinpoint the areas I want to fish with a Lowrance sonar/GPS unit with SD card filled with a Navionics mapping program in its card reader.

With a high-definition Lowrance GPS coupled with a Navionics program running in the background of the screen, I’m able to find the areas, as well as knowing I can stop and fish directly over breaklines very near those structures—the perfect places to find the most fish.

Lift and drop

Whether I’m ice fishing from within my Otter portable shanty or in open water via my Lund, jigging is a great way to catch all species in the walleye family when I’m marking a lot of fish on my Lowrance—which the smaller males tend to gather in large schools over the bigger females who spread out.

When jigging through a hole I’ve carved out with my StrikeMaster in the ice, my go-to lures are a Rapala Jigging Raps or Jigging Shads, as well as Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Jigs and their Live-Forage Fish-Fry Minnow Spoon.

Walleye use their olfactory (smell) senses as well as their eyesight and lateral line to zone in on a lure; thus, I’ll tip my jigs with a lively minnow hand-picked from my insulated Plano minnow bucket, or, with a Berkley Gulp! Minnow or Minnow Head. Both live bait and Berkley softbaits give off a natural smell that walleye can’t refuse.

The bite of a walleye in cold water is light, so I use equipment that allows me to feel the slightest “tick” of an ‘eye sucking in my bait. Spooled onto my ABU Garcia spinning reel is 10-pound-test Berkley FireLine Crystal Micro Ice, which is manufactured specifically for brutally cold temperatures and won’t freeze to the spool as easily as standard line. I’ll then attach a one-foot, 10-pound-test Berkley 100% Fluorocarbon leader to the FireLine with a tiny Berkley size two ball bearing swivel, and to the other end a size one Berkley Cross-Lok snap for connecting the lure.

Both FireLine and 100% Fluorocarbon have very little stretch (unlike monofilament) and every wiggle of the jig can be felt through my ice rod’s handle as it’s telegraphed through the line. And the main reason I use a short, fluorocarbon leader and ball bearing swivel is to ward off line twist. 

The same lures work well when I’m vertically jigging in open water, as well Northland’s Eye-Ball Jig, which I also nip a live minnow just through its lips or skewer on a Berkley Gulp! Minnow or Minnow Grub. During open water periods, however, I’ll use eight-pound-test Berkley Flame (colored) Berkley FireLine. But I don’t use a fluorocarbon leader; rather, I tie the jig directly to the superline via a Palomar knot.

Using an ultra-sensitive rod is crucial when jigging in open water. I use Fenwick’s six-foot, nine-inch Walleye Elite Tech in medium-light action. Their six-foot, six-inch medium action I use when casting crankbaits.

Back and forth

Trolling with crankbaits is another great way to catch pre-spawning walleye, especially when targeting the trophy-sized “hens” that tend to scatter across the bottom rather than pack up like the males. My Plano tackle totes are filled with Rapala crankbaits, which come in an array of models, sizes and colors to match the water conditions and depth.

Rapala’s Trolls-To Minnow and Trolls-To Shad come in three sizes that dive to 10, 15 and 20 feet on 10-pound-test Berkley XT monofilament line, which are all good depths for trolling pre-spawn walleye. When using other Rapala crankbaits, such as the Shad Rap, Tail Dancer and Jointed Deep Husky Jerk, I’ll use 18-pound-test Sufix 832 Advanced Lead Core to get the lures down into the strike zone.

And any time I’m trolling, I spread out my lines by using Church Tackle in-line planer boards, which keeps my lures tangle free and allows me to pull the maximum amount of lines allowed by law.

From the time of last ice, beyond melt off and until the perfect water temperatures mingles with the light of a full moon, walleye of all shapes and sizes will congregate very near where they are going to spawn. If you see lots of fish on your sonar, toss ‘em a jig; if not, cover water by pulling crankbaits.

Either way, you’ll find pre-spawn walleye will have a hard time passing up offering.

Mark Martin is a touring walleye tournament pro with the AIM Pro Walleye Series (aimfishing.com) an instructor with the Mark Martin Fishing Vacations Schools (fishingvacationschool.com) offering both ice-fishing and open-water schooling. 

For more information, check out his website at www.markmartins.net