August 27, 2003 by Dave Landahl
An in-depth discussion on a shallow subject
When most anglers think of muddy bays, shallow weed flats or pitching a jig behind a current break in less than a foot of water, visions of feisty smallmouth or brutish largemouth bass fill their heads. Sure, some bass are almost always available in shallow water, but so are walleyes, and plenty of them. In fact, some of the top pros on the Wal-Mart RCL Walleye Tour fish for shallow-water walleyes more than they do for deep-water fish. While many walleye anglers are still under the impression that walleyes are only in the shallows early and late in the year, there are growing numbers of anglers reaping the rewards of fishing shallow and hooking hogs while other anglers are dredging the depths with no results.
"Too many anglers go fishing for walleyes with the preconceived notion that they are always in the deep water," said Ranger pro Rick LaCourse of Port Clinton, Ohio. "Sure, you can find walleyes in deep water, but you can also find plenty of them in the really shallow stuff, too. Always remember to let the fish tell you where they are, and change your fishing style to accommodate the fish. If this means fishing in less than a couple of feet of water for walleyes because they are there, then do it."
Shallow-water hot spots
Lakes: Casting to shoreline lips
In many of the shallow inland lakes throughout the Midwest, there are schools of shallow-water walleyes that go overlooked by many anglers. One of the key spots for finding them is along a shoreline lip. A shoreline lip is a sharp drop-off close to the shoreline, as opposed to a slowly tapering point or drop-off. These areas are magnets for walleyes.
"In our shallow dish-pan prairie lakes in Iowa and southern Minnesota, one of my favorite presentations for catching walleyes is casting jigs and Power Bait tackle to shoreline lips," said Crestliner pro Eric Naig of Cylinder, Iowa. "In many instances, this shoreline lip is the only structure on the lake, and it allows the walleyes a place to chase baitfish and pin them against the lip. The best shoreline lips have rock or other hard-bottom cover like man-made riprap."
A favorite approach of Naig's for fishing lips is to toss a 1/8- to 3/16-ounce Gopher Tackle mushroom-head jig dressed with a 3- to 4-inch Power Bait grub, a 3-inch jig worm or a 4-inch minnow in smelt color with a black back and light gray belly. Color selection for grubs and worms in muddy water should include chartreuse and orange. White, pink and pumpkinseed get the nod in clearer water.
Use a swimming retrieve, keeping the jig a foot or two off the bottom. A lift-and-drop retrieve can also work at times, but Naig feels the swimming retrieve is generally more effective.
So many walleye anglers think of pristine Canadian Shield lakes when they think of walleye hot spots. Shallow muddy bays rarely come to mind. In the spring and early summer, however, and occasionally the fall, walleyes can be drawn to shallow muddy bays. There are several factors that draw walleyes to these areas. Early in the year, these bays often warm faster than the rest of a lake, so they draw baitfish and, of course, walleyes. Muddy bays will also have various fly hatches throughout the year that can also bring in baitfish and walleyes.
"Many times the water I fish in these shallow muddy bays is less than 5 feet deep," Naig said. "If you can find a mud bay with emerging weed growth or scattered hard spots, all the better - both are fish magnets. The best bays seem to be near some kind of migration route that the walleyes are following, like bays with narrow inlets or outlets or bays near river mouths."
Trolling "bugs" is tops for hooking muddy walleyes.
"One of my favorite shallow-water patterns for walleyes is trolling what I call `bugs' - small crankbaits in mud-bottom bays," Naig said. "In the spring and early summer, and sometimes in the fall, these little bugs are great for taking walleyes."
The key to fishing these bays is selecting the right gear. You need planer boards, the correct speed and the "bugs." In this case, the "bugs" are small crankbaits like a No. 5 Shad Rap, Baby Thundersticks, and the 1/4-ounce Frenzy Rattlers.
Planer boards are important to get the baits away from the boat, because you are fishing in such shallow water. Speed seems to be the ticket for triggering walleyes to bite in shallow-water bays. Start trolling in the 2.5 to 3 mph range and speed up from there, if necessary. The walleyes in the shallows are usually very aggressive and in a feeding mode. A fast-moving bait will often draw a reaction strike, whereas a slower-moving offer can be ignored.
Rivers: Shallow current breaks
The term shallow can be a relative thing when it comes to river fishing. You can be in shallow water when you are fishing in depths greater than 5 feet on the Detroit River, but 5 feet of water can be considered deep in some of the southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois walleye rivers. With that in mind, shallow-water current breaks play a major role in many walleye rivers.
"I really like to fish shallow-water current breaks in the spring and early summer," LaCourse said. "You want to look for a break close to a shallow spawning flat - something like a rock, wood, brush, weeds or something man-made. Any of these covers can provide enough of a break to hold a fish or two. You are really looking for a spot on a spot."
To effectively hook walleyes from shallow-water current breaks, many methods can be employed. There are, however, few techniques as simple to use as pitching a jig with a bait or soft plastic.
Let the current flow dictate the weight of your offering, but a general rule of thumb is to use the lightest weight jig you can get away with while still maintaining contact with the bottom.
Big Water: Reefs and beaches
The Great Lakes are the great intimidator for most walleye-fishing enthusiasts. These massive bodies of water provide a haven for enormous schools of walleyes that can roam freely and gorge themselves on a variety of bait. So where do you start your search for shallow-water walleyes with so many thousands of miles of shoreline?
"I feel that the vast majority of the walleyes in big water, especially the Great Lakes, relate to shallow water early in the year," LaCourse said. "So many anglers make the mistake of looking for walleyes in deep water all the time, but they have to spawn sometime, so of course they can be caught in the shallows.
LaCourse feels that walleyes generally hold in these shallow areas for about a month before heading out to deeper water. April into May is usually the prime time to fish the shallows for Great Lakes walleyes.
You can troll crankbaits through the shallows to hook big-water walleyes in the spring, but one of the most effective approaches is to cast a jig-and-bait combo.
"To most anglers' disbelief, walleyes holding in the shallows on the Great Lakes can be regularly caught casting a jig and bait," LaCourse said. "Some anglers seem to think you need to troll to catch walleyes in the Great Lakes. Sure, most of the year you do, but when they are on the shallow reefs, it is tough to beat casting a jig and bait."
The night bite is almost always the right bite if you are searching for shallow-water walleyes. Whether it is the classic spring or fall bite or even fishing over submerged vegetation during the dog days of summer, fishing at night can be awesome, especially for big walleyes.
"In the spring and fall on clear-water lakes, rivers and reservoirs, trolling crankbaits at night is a great technique," Naig said. "Clear water is the key here, because it seems that walleyes in these clearwater environments are more accustomed to feeding at night than a walleye in a stained or muddy body of water. A great springtime technique, especially on my home lake Okoboji, calls for long-lining minnow-imitating crankbaits at night over emerging weeds. The perch are in the emerging weeds, feeding and preparing to spawn, and the walleyes are in there eating them. It is the same situation in the fall when the weeds begin to lay down; the baitfish don't have the escape routes of the standing weeds and are easy pickings for the walleyes."
Naig feels the best water temperatures for nighttime trolling seem to be from 45 to 55 degrees. Naig also feels a slow troll, 1.2 to 1.8 mph, is best.
Late-season big-water monsters
If you are just dying to try shallow-water walleye fishing, you need to make sure to plan a late fall night-fishing trip. During late November and early December, just before the ice settles in, some of the biggest and baddest walleyes that the Great Lakes have to offer cruise the shallow sandy beaches and gravel flats, feeding on baitfish and fattening up for the winter months.
"There are some real piggies that are caught in the later part of November and early December from the Great Lakes," LaCourse said. "Where I live on Lake Erie, this is by far one of the best times of the year to hook a trophy or possibly even a few trophies in one night. It is so peaceful at night. Sure, it can be freezing cold, but if you want big walleyes - I mean 10-,11-,12-pounders and larger - this is the time to be out, especially on Lake Erie."
One of the tried-and-true methods for hooking shallow walleyes after dark on the Great Lakes is to cast or troll large stick baits, like a size-13 Rapala, parallel to the shoreline. Many anglers will work for these beasts from the shoreline and wade into the frigid water to retrieve their trophies. Be prepared to be cold!
Why are walleyes in the shallows?
With the lore of dragging a live-bait rig along the deep-water edge of a rocky point or submerged island still deeply ingrained in the minds of many walleye hunters, why should we believe so many walleyes are in the shallows? LaCourse feels he has an answer.
"Walleyes have two primary functions while they are alive - to reproduce and to eat," he said. "When the fish are reproducing, they are of course in the shallows of their local environment. Most anglers can grasp that concept. However, too many anglers forget about the second function of the walleyes, and that is to eat. If the primary baitfish in a body of water lives in the shallow weeds or rocks, that is where the walleyes will be. They either adapt or die. If you can learn all you can about the habits of the local forage fish on a body of water you plan on fishing, that can pretty much point you toward the right depth selection."