Opener is upon us, and finally the chance to connect with friends and family, all while catching fish at the same time. Each year the water and air temps may dictate the willingness of walleyes to eat, but there’s usually an effective pattern going on somewhere. That’s true in early ice-out years as well as the late ones; you just might need a handful of tricks up your sleeve to keep throwing at them.
With fish holding generally shallower, it’s a good chance to drop the bow-mount and fish them a bit like bass, at least to a point. Main lake shorelines, especially with twists, turns, and larger features like points can be great places to start the hunt. As are some nice flats with quality weed growth that’s just starting to peek from the gradually warming lake-bottom. While it’s true that the sun-exposed northern shorelines tend to warm fastest, they’re not the only places that hold walleyes. Think about where you were catching them during the ice season, and follow a natural path shore-ward to get a hint as to where they may butt up closer to land.
Depending on timing, your location, and what aggressive presentations are allowed given water temperature, here’s a few patterns to work come opening day (or night):
Jigs – You’re not surprised are you? Could there be a better bait delivery method? You can pitch and cast, hop, skip, drag, troll, and finesse your way to shallow walleye bites. If you’re looking for a short-shank jig to thread on a simple fathead, the Northland Fireball has caught more walleyes than any other. There’s a convenient second tie-eye for you to clasp a stinger hook onto as well, making it a great option for short striking fish.
Northland’s new Deep Vee and Deep Vee Bucktail will be winners with the southern-most walleye folks, as they’ll likely be into water temps conducive to huck plastic-tipped jigs. Both the standard Deep Vee and Bucktail versions have a keel to keep those plastics tracking straight, even if rigged improperly, all while having a great wire keeper to keep baits snug against the jig itself. Power fish the Bucktail version for reaction strikes, while doing the same or free-swimming the standard series. There’s no wrong way to fish this bait provided you keep it low and in the walleye’s zone.
For the classic northern shiner bite, consider the Northland Long-Shank Fireball. This jig gives anglers an option to thread a full shiner or other large minnow while still having a hook back towards the end. The result is more hooksets and less half-eaten, expensive bait. Of course, in turbid water, the Whistler and Thumper jigs offer some great flash and vibration when fish need some help finding your bait. Whether tannic stain or muddy river bottoms, these jigs are welcome additions when water clarity is off.
Crankbaits – The new Northland Rumble Series has two baits in the lineup that will be perfect for opener, and really serve dual threat as casting and trolling baits alike. The first is the Rumble Shiner, which mimics adult shiners known to be in the shallows spawning during this time of the year. For covering large flats and open shallow areas, cast and make long pulls with pauses mixed in. The slowly rising balsa action makes this a tough bait to resist as walleyes roam these flats in search of large minnows.
The Rumble Shad will be another great opener bait, casting or trolling. An increasing number of anglers are fishing the evening opener, starting at midnight, to take advantage of actively feeding shallower fish. That’s where thrown or pulled, this shad-style bait will excel. During the daytime, use it to fish the first break in more southerly locales, where walleyes have long finished spawning and are hanging just off of the first appreciable drop-off. A good wind can kick off a casting bite on this bait as well, so allow it to be the versatile crankbait it is while using it in multiple locations and scenarios.
Rippin’ Minnow – This bait is a great opening-day wild-card. Think the glide and action of the puppet minnow, with the tactile feel and finesse of a soft plastic. Just like the Rumble Series Crankbaits, the Northland Rippin’ Minnow will be a search and destroy type of lure to find fish fast along long breaks and other massive structure. It’s difficult to find baits that both cover water, yet still trigger inactive to neutral fish into striking, which is why the Rippin’ Minnow will be a great ‘tweener bait to pitch around while in “hunt-mode.” Find the active fish, hone in with more finesse tactics, and repeat until you’ve had a great day on the water.
So there you have it, three patterns to get you bit in early May no matter the conditions or water temperatures. As a general rule, if it’s ridiculously cold to dip your hands in a minnow bucket, you should likely be using them. At the same time, don’t be afraid to get aggressive and let the fish tell you if they’re not buying it. You can always scale back and slow down, but without trying the faster approaches, you may never know what you missed.