I frequently refer to the spring spawning run as “the rut” of walleye fishing. This is the time of year when males and females cohabitate and let their guard down more than any other season. A few basic concepts are all you need to know in order to locate and catch walleyes during their spawn.
When Do Walleye Spawn?
Biologist and grizzled walleye anglers like to debate whether the walleye spawn is triggered by temperature or by time of year. At the risk of playing Switzerland, it seems both can be true and the exact answer varies from one body of water to another. In most rivers and lakes, from the end of March to the beginning of April is when the bulk of spawning begins. The farther North you go, the later this occurs.
On Lake Erie, my home water, our walleyes spawn in waves due to the large population. It’s almost like the bathroom at a busy sporting event—you just have to wait your turn. The largest fish in the system seem to do their business first and then quickly move out when finished. I’ve seen this merry-go-round start as early as February during extremely warm winters and go as late as May on cold ones.
Ohio Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Travis Hartman believes that lake ice plays a role in the spawn, allowing fish to do their business over a longer period of time. Simply put, there isn’t an exact answer or date that is always right. However, that end of March into early April time period is as good of a rule of thumb as any.
Speaking of rules of thumb, Hartman says that 40 degrees is the point at which walleyes typically start the spawn. The fish are almost always finished when the temps reach the mid-50s. “It’s difficult to give hard numbers with so many variables that change year to year,” Hartman said.
Grizzled anglers without a biology degree will tell you to simply start fishing within a few days of the first new or full moon in this same time period. If I’m being honest, it’s actually a pretty accurate gauge. While we know a lot more about spawning walleyes now than we did 20 years ago, there’s still no exact science.
Where to Catch Spawning Walleye
Knowing that they are spawning is important, but knowing where they will be is arguably the most critical piece of information you can get. It should be noted that it’s necessary to check local game laws at this time. Some states have special regulations in place during the spawn with restrictions that aren’t mandatory the rest of the year. These can range from hook gap and type restrictions, bag limits, size limitations, no nighttime fishing, all the way to complete closure of certain areas.
Rivers It’s no secret that walleyes like current. A hard-bottom river channel with both current and the option of slack water nearby is a great place to look for spawning walleyes. Creeks that feed into a larger body of water or discharges from industrial plants will also provide the warmer water that walleyes seek when the spawn first begins.
If you aren’t finding walleyes at this time of year, you probably aren’t looking shallow enough. It’s not uncommon to find walleyes in less than two feet of water on current seams when they’re spawning. It’s also important to remember that water clarity and light levels significantly change the depths at which fish can be found from hour to hour.
Reefs The importance of hard bottoms for spawning walleyes is a steadfast rule across nearly all walleye waters. Look for both male and females to move up and down a reef, rockpile, or other isolated structure like a staircase as temperature and light conditions change.
Females will often stage out off of the reefs, only moving onto it during night and low-light conditions or when actively dropping eggs. Males can typically be found on the reef’s base, edges, and crown as they follow females. While the females are typically preoccupied with the task at hand, the males can be caught very easily around the spawning ground.
How to Catch Spawning Walleye
It’s hard to think of spring and walleyes without a jig coming to mind. Though there are so many different options on the shelf today, here are some popular choices and the best times to utilize them.
Lead Jigs The straight old lead-head jig is tough to beat, but today’s tweaks make them so much better than those of yesteryear. The Northland Deep Vee has a tapered head design with large eyes and a high-quality hook. The slightly oversized hook is perfect for using large minnows, rigging with a plastic tail, a swimbait, or a combination of both. Jigs like this can be cast and retrieved or worked vertically. In rivers, don’t be afraid to rig the jig with a worm or crawler-style plastic. In super cold water, I typically opt for a dressed version such as the Deep Vee Bucktail. The hair holds scent well, slows the descent, and seems to provide an action that cold water fish just like.
Floating Jigs These are not strangers to walleye success, but are way outside the box compared to the traditional lead head jigs. A floating jig stays above the bottom and the lack of weight increases hookups and decreases snags. The Northland High-Ball Floater jig can be rigged just like a traditional jig, and I have consistently found better success with small plastic trailers. Use it on a Carolina rig in areas where snags aren’t prevalent. If there are snags, use a modified version of this rig by leaving a long tag end off your swivel. Crimp enough split shot on the tag end to fish the given depth and current. When the rig becomes snagged, you only lose the split shot and not the entire rig in most cases.
Metal Easily among the most overlooked spring walleye tools are spoons and blade baits. The Silver Streak ½ and ¾ oz. models are the two most frequently employed in my arsenal. They work just as well in cold water as they do in the warmer water found towards the end of the spawn. When you’re fishing deeper, look to go vertical. Switch to a cast and retrieve when targeting shallow-water fish.
If there is one mistake anglers make when fishing blades, it’s moving or ripping it too much. You don’t need to feel the vibration of the blade for it to work. When you feel a distinct wiggle, you have moved the bait farther than you need to—often right out of the strike zone.
Walleyes are definitely easier to catch during the spawning season, but if you don’t know where to look or what to use, they still can make you look silly. Keep moving and experimenting. You’ll know it when you’ve arrived.