Oh what a year to chase walleyes on the opener. As of now, the 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 opener. Or, for many more, the fishing could just be cold, or at least in cold water. That’s a common scenario for opening day throughout the Midwest, such that we’ve all adjusted to what that can mean. Shiners will be sold (where available). Jigs will be pitched. It’s a classic pattern that we’ve come to know and love in early May where the fishing can be slow at best.
Yet, other plans can work wonders. I remember an opener on Upper Red Lake not that many years ago when we were trolling #5 Rumble Shads around 2.0 mph just 50 feet behind the boat or less to catch all the walleyes we wanted. Not that 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 were done in an hour. How can you beat that for being both unorthodox and efficient for an opening day?
Still, oddballs like that are usually the exception rather than the rule, so it’s good to lay out a few options for walleyes that have stood the test of time. Of course, everything is dependent on water temperatures and the progression of the spawn, which for some lakes, could potentially still be going on. It’s rare for such a late spawn to occur, but fish have been finishing up on shallow sand flats at night in past years. Again though, let’s talk center mass rather than out to the edges.
If you’ll be heading out for opening day, it’s worth considering what part of the “day” to tackle. Many prefer the midnight bell opening, and if you’re fishing a tried and true area, on a lake you know well, and navigation isn’t an issue, by all means, be the early bird that delivers the worm and gets the fish. It’s pretty satisfying to be back at dawn, take a nap, clean some fish eventually and reminisce with friends about your walleye fishing prowess.
It's often better however, to sleep in, get a late breakfast, then hit the water when the initial frenzy at the ramps has settled down and water temps will be at their warmest that day. This also allows the daily wind pattern to setup as well. You can get some hefty spring winds, but especially shallow, that can drive the bite.
Clear water pitching plans see me tossing bait if water is under 55 degrees and jigs and plastics if over that mark. For bait, I’m using RZ jigs, threading the hook through the gills, out, and re-hooking the bait near the back end. If lively bait isn’t require, you can try threading too, but the whole point is to use that longer shank to stick short-striking fish when they’re only slurping. For vertical presentations, a standard Fireball could be the most popular bait of all time. For plastics, I’m using Deep-Vee jigs. All of the above have proven themselves again and again for me.
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 they could stay off of them and make a longer pitch, even with bobbers, they tend to want to be “in-them” and in the process, 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 in shallow and bomb cast some suspending stickbaits. Cranks like the Rumble Shiner will dive to a 4-8 foot level, depending on size, and when “killed” just sit in a trailing fish’s face. They’re loud enough to draw fish from distance, especially in clear water, but subtle enough not to ping them to death with aggressive rattles. There will be a time for those kinds of baits, but opener is not it. I love throwing these on sand and gravel where there’s some 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 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 a myriad of other factors, but no matter the cause for problem, crappies are often the solution. In so many lakes in walleye country, the crappie bite in the shallows will be just firing up or in full swing. That’s true in 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 a joyless opener, and has saved many a trip when all has not worked according to plan. So often, this involves a bit of bobber fishing, with jigs and plastics if the weather is comfortable, or with jigs and minnows if its cold enough to hurt your hands in doing so. Rarely, with warmer water temperatures, you’re able to cast and retrieve small plastic boot and curly tail designs just slowly enough to feel that “tick” and set the hook.
Again you’re fishing edges first so as not to disturb fish you have yet to contact. Better to pick them off from afar than 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 is a premium and will hold fish throughout the spring.
No matter what you fish for or where, 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 for a fish-fry and Plan B.