When weather conditions become too iffy for ice fishing and wide-open water is yet a few weeks out, avid Midwest walleye anglers refuse to remain in limbo. They trade in the sleds, shanties and short sticks for traditional tackle and a boat that can take a bit of a beating to partake in a fishing op that offers the largest walleye of the season.
Fishing For Walleye After-Ice
Named for the annual break-up across the North Country that heralds the spring to come, ice-out fishing for walleye is a ritual for those who realize the payoff for braving the bitter conditions: fat, egg-laden walleye staging for the spawn. Their finned quarry are often stacked at river headwaters, off rocky shorelines and over shallow, mid-lake reefs, concentrating the action for the anglers who know how to locate the pre-spawn fish and how to fool them once found.
Minnesota-based walleye angler Sam Anderson is just such an angler. He learned the early spring sport from his fishing father, who got the boy started walleye fishing early in life and early each spring in their home waters around St. Paul. The junior Anderson got good enough at catching walleyes to hold his own in local tournaments, and has moved up the ranks as a professional angler competing in major walleye circuits.
Fishing Season Begins When The Ice Breaks
Anderson’s fishing season begins at the tail end of winter into early spring – or whenever the waters start to inch their way above the 35 degree mark and ice breaks up on local lakes and rivers. He prepares to tackle waters that may offer everything from shore ice to full-size ‘bergs bigger than his fishing boat, and is often joined by anglers who fish from open aluminum boats light enough to be pushed across shore ice to reach open water and realize the risk is worth the reward.
A Rigged-Out Walleye-Focused, Multi-Species Fishing Boat
This time of the year, Anderson loads his versatile Merc-powered 620 VS Ranger with spinning rods measuring six- to six-and-a-half feet long with reels spooled with six-pound-test braid. A solid mainstay for serious walleye anglers, Anderson’s Ranger 620 VS fiberglass fishing boat has since been improved upon by the builder’s newer FS models (including the 622FS Pro, 621FS Pro and 622FS Pro, as well as the “Ranger Cup Equipped” editions with tournament-ready rigs for walleye anglers). And although we’re talking about walleyes here, Ranger’s Fisherman Series offers the most prestigious multi-species fishing boats in the world – so these are affordable boats that aim to be versatile above all else when it comes to fishing a variety of species from bass to walleye and perch, rather than focusing on one fish species alone.
The Best Walleye Jigs And Lures
If the water is clear, he’ll use a nail knot to attach a monofilament leader of the same breaking strength; but often, he explains, ice-out waters carry enough ‘color’ to allow him to knot his lures directly to the low-stretch superbraid without spooking the fish.
Like most ice out walleye anglers, he uses lead-headed jigs trimmed with hair or twister tails, often tipped with minnows or worms. He matches the size of his baits to that of the local walleye population, using plastic tails, hair, minnows or worms measuring two inches for most of his pre-pawn jig fishing. When dredging depths known to hold big walleyes, he’ll move up to baits offering three-inch profiles. That said, he advises that anglers fishing the pre-spawn not focus all their attention on the bottom.
Walleye Spring Fishing Techniques
If the water is really roiled, however, he’ll target walleyes suspended in the water column, casting jigs or using a spinner behind a bottom bouncer to locate pockets of active fish.
Anderson claims that such rigs allow an angler to present a bait to the fish in a natural, life-like manner using nothing more than a hook, snell, and sinker. In some circumstances he will add a colored bead like a stealth rig, an adjustable sinker, or a spinner, like the Lindy spinning rig, or a float like a Lindy floating rig, which makes the bait ride higher off the bottom.
No matter what he is using to fool them, Anderson keeps track of the size of the walleyes he is catching. If he starts catching all small fish he’ll move deeper, as deep as 35 feet. He explains the small walleye signal the spawn has taken place and the small males or “jacks” as they are called, have moved in, and the females have moved off the shallows into deep adjacent water to feed.
That move off the spawning reefs and shallows by the big females calls for a change in tactics required to catch the bigger walleyes – as well as the end of what can be a frigid, fast and furious ice-out fishery.
Sidebar: Size Data – Early Spring Records
The walleye that are available at ice-out across their range often represent the largest fish caught each season. Over the years, several state record fish have succumbed to anglers’ efforts during the pre-spawn period, not to mention a world record. Al Nelson caught that walleye, weighing 22.11 pounds, in Arkansas’ Greer’s Ferry Lake in March. Other state records caught during the third month of the season include a 21.1-pound Missouri catch and an Oklahoma walleye that weighed 12.10 pounds. A South Dakota record walleye, weighing a 15.3-pounder, was caught in early April, and in Texas, an 11.14-pound state record fish was caught in late February.