Where’s the fun in a continuous walleye season? When do you start, what triggers your anticipation, and – by the way – how do you get anything else done in the springtime? For anglers in states that close the walleye season in late winter and reopen it in May, there’s a certain, special level of excitement derived from not just fishing opening weekend, but actually being there on the water for the midnight bell. Pent up angst and longing to use the long rods often gives way to limits before sunrise, leaving such anxious anglers the rest of the day to nap and tell tall tales.
Regardless of their actual starting time, walleye anglers have had this day on the books for some time now. Opening weekend is legendary – blacked out on the calendars of anglers throughout the North Country and much of the Midwest. For many, it’s more of a tradition and rite of passage than it is a simple fishing trip. Others use it as a reason to open up the cabin, make sure the boat is still working well, or to prove their hook-setting skills haven’t gotten too rusty. Which begs some more detail on how to find walleyes to drive a hook into. Ultimately, finding fish for opener and presenting the right baits is the stuff memories are made of.
In most parts of the U.S. walleye range – in all but the iciest of years – walleye-opener anglers are likely looking at a post-spawn pattern. Females have dumped eggs, and while males may still be up fertilizing, a lot of those better fish have slid off. That’s not to say they’re deep; in many regions we’re still talking less than 10 feet of water, especially if some good early weed growth has made a few nice resting spots for beleaguered walleyes. In southern regions, weed-growth is in full swing and fish can even be establishing pre-summer patterns. Looking north, however, anglers might still find females finishing up the spawn in the shallows, where evening fishing on sand and gravel flats can be absolutely lights out.
No matter the region, stage of the spawn or bite, you’ve got a couple of standards to break out, along with some new wrinkles that are sure to put something in the boat. The bedrock foundation of that bite for most is a jig and minnow presentation. Not just any jig, but one designed to handle the bigger shiners and redtails you’d love to be slinging. That’s where a far-reaching system like the Northland Long Shank Fire-Ball Jig comes in. Thread the minnow on the unusually long hook stem, and seat it against the base of the round ball. Lethargic fish still in cold-water finesse situations are notorious short-strikers, and a hook point that protrudes on the back half of the minnow sticks unsuspecting fish top shelf. Anywhere in that 1/8 – ¼ oz. range, depending on depth and wind, is a staple in any opener tacklebox.
You’ll want to fish it on a rod that has a forgiving tip that quickly transitions to backbone for a solid hookset. Any of the St. Croix spinning rods in 6’6” to 7’ lengths, medium-light or medium power, with an extra-fast action will fit that bill. Expect a bit more response and feel as you work your way up the chain from Eyecon and Premier, to Avid and Legend Tournament Walleye, and beyond to Legend Elite and Legend Xtreme models. In slow, cold bites especially, higher-end rods, paired with ultra-lightweight spinning reels like the Daiwa Tatula LT 2500 series, simply detect more bites. Feeling those fish before they feel you means more fish caught. All of this is made easier with Daiwa’s J-Braid x8, giving you feel that only quality hard line can. Don’t forget to tie in a 4-5 foot chunk of 8 – 12 lb. Daiwa J-Fluoro Samurai in clear water. It’ll help the jig sit better in the water and fish more naturally, all while being nearly invisible to the fish.
In southern waters and in warmer years, rigs like the Northland Butterfly series start to take fish when water temps approach the 60-degree mark. Whether the popular Wingnut Butterfly Rig, or the Wingnut Butterfly Super Death Rig spinning crawler configuration, the Butterfly Blade series can be slowed down to well below ½ mph GPS speed, while still keeping that polycarbonate blade spinning. That makes it the perfect ‘tweener presentation for fish that are starting to disperse along weedlines and near-shore structure like points and first breaks. Cover water, while still having the ability to slow down and really dangle that bait when fish are seen on the electronics.
This trolling application fishes best on baitcasting equipment, with the St. Croix Eyecon ET76MMT and Legend Tournament Walleye LWC70MHM being two great choices. Moderate action and a great length make them forgiving for pulling bottom bouncers with Butterfly Blades, earning them the internal nickname “Bounce ‘N Troll.” Pair that with a quality line-counter reel like the Daiwa Sealine SG27LC3BW or a Daiwa LEXA-LC100H so you can dial in the perfect boat speed, bait, and amount of line behind the boat. Repeating that winning formula is a big part of early success, so line-counter options can really make a difference.
Hungry fish eat crankbaits, and anglers are increasingly learning that it doesn’t need to be sunny and 80 degrees for them to produce. That goes for early spring on rivers, and especially for the walleye opener in natural lakes and reservoirs. Warmer water just accelerates the crank bite, which can be fished two ways. First, think shallow casting over and around developing weed beds with baits like the Northland Rumble Shiner. Next, consider trolling that same bait, along with the Northland Rumble Shad. Both baits scream productivity and efficiency, while so many others are dink-and-dunk fishing with slip floats.
In northern systems, fish the Rumble Shiner with a 7’ or longer medium to medium-heavy, moderate action spinning rod, focusing on slow sweeps and slight pauses. The St. Croix Eyecon ECS70MM is a great rod for this style of fishing, but the ultimate way to best handle balsa baits like the Rumble Shiner is to fling them like a dart on the St. Croix Legend Glass LGS72MM. The Legend Glass’s knack in keeping balsa from bailing and flailing is nothing short of amazing, allowing both distance on the cast and control on the retrieve. The ability of the Rumble Series baits to casually float up on brief pauses can be a trigger for these early season fish. Don’t burn it over their heads, instead, find a rhythm and let the rod and bait do the work. Pair either with a larger-arbor Daiwa reel that holds more line and casts smooth, all while providing some heft to balance the longer glass rod options.
When trolling the Rumble Shad, keep it simple and focus on first breaks and long initial pulls. You want to establish a milk run, such that you can mark fish locations on the graph and tighten up those passes until they’re primarily full of fish. As a bonus, you can use the same St. Croix Eyecon and Legend Tournament Walleye Bounce ‘n Troll rods to present these baits as you did the Butterfly Blades, giving you some flexibility in presentation without more rods in the boat. Line counter tracking is important in this game, too, as you’re looking to present the bait near bottom without fouling until you find that magic number to lock in on all rods.
With all the hardbait action, don’t forget to look for pods of fish on SideVision while trolling. Small groups of fish can more easily be dissected with jig and plastic combinations like the Z-Man MinnowZ and StreakZ Curly TailZ. Focus on these plastics when water temps near 60 degrees and remember to fish them a bit more quickly than your jig and minnow counterparts. You’re looking for reaction strikes and efficient placement, then repeat by moving on to the next pod. Lightweight rods like the Eyecon are excellent all around sticks when pitching plastics, again in the near 7’ medium-light or medium power, extra-fast category. Consider pairing it with a Daiwa Fuego LT 2500 for years of maintenance-free service and a reel that fishes so well with a variety of midsized walleye rods.
Opener looks a little different depending on your locale and the water temperatures, but among these tactics are proven winners to cover a variety of situations. Often, multiple presentations will be in play during the opener and it comes down to which is the most efficient, or simply which one you excel at and prefer. So go out, get your fish, and enjoy the kickoff to another incredible fishing season by starting it out right.