Lake Erie Walleye
Spring 2004 Issue
Making a Pitch for
Spring, walleyes and jigs … they go together like "eggs and bacon". Every year hordes of winter weary anglers put so much emphasis on the spring walleye bite, and for good reason … it’s a great way to start off the fishing season! Naturally, since rivers are typically the first areas that loose their ice cover and become accessible to anglers, coupled with the fact that walleyes intent on carrying out their annual spawning rituals congregate in predictable areas in rivers, fishing pressure can run high. Often times, because of the concentration of anglers and the relative single-mindedness of the spawn drawn walleyes, anticipation of great fishing often runs higher than actual angler success rates. If you’d like to cash in on some great early season walleye fishing, and bypass the majority of the crowds, begin searching out the fish that are all but ignored by most other fishermen … the walleyes in the skinny water.
Most spring river fishing is done by vertical jigging while drifting in the current … at least that’s what you’ll see the biggest number of anglers doing … and that can be very productive at this time. It’s not the only way to catch spring walleyes however, and many times it not the best way to score on these fish. Pitching jigs can be very productive in the right circumstances. Holding the boat on the downstream side of a mid-river sandbar and pitching a jig into the slack water of the current break can yield great results. Pitching to small eddies formed around wing dams, shoreline breaks, rock piles and other similar obstructions can also put walleyes in the boat. During periods of high water (not uncommon in the spring after a heavy run-off), flooded timber and willows can also provide good jig pitching opportunities.
Although rivers get the bulk of the attention in the spring, they aren’t the only places to catch early season walleyes. You can avoid a lot of on-the-water competition if you can find lakes or reservoirs free of ice cover in the early spring.
Remember, early in the season, shallow water warms up first. This draws in the baitfish, which naturally attracts and congregates walleyes. It’s imperative to keep in mind that not all the walleyes will be in the same stage of spawning at the same time. Those fish that are not zeroed in on the actual duties of spawning will be driven more by feeding opportunities than by their instinct to procreate. That puts these fish in prime position to be picked off as they feed in shallow water.
On a natural lake for instance, early season walleye location may center around rocky shoals with scattered weeds. Those are the types of places lake dwelling walleyes go to spawn. Pitching a sixteenth ounce jig tipped with a minnow and swimming it through sparse vegetation can be a dynamite pattern for catching early season fish. Mid-lake reefs, rocky points and gravel bars at the mouths of incoming creeks are also good spots to explore.
Reservoirs can be tough puzzles to crack for many walleye anglers in spring. The fact that reservoir walleyes often exhibit characteristics and behaviors seemingly hybridized from their lake and river cousins seems to confuse many fishermen. It shouldn’t. Because most popular walleye reservoirs are large bodies of water, the key is to not be intimidated by the lake’s size, and concentrate your efforts on smaller areas that are likely to harbor most of the fish. Early in the year, walleyes migrate "up stream" much like they do in rivers, putting the majority of the fish in the upper ends of the reservoir, or in the furthest reaches of larger arms. Structures such as "stair-step" banks consisting of gravel and scattered rock are prime locations to try. Spots like this are especially good if located close to old river channels. Get a good contour map of the lake; find an area where the river channel bends close to shore, match that area up with the map on your GPS system, and you can drive your boat right to a potential walleye "hot zone".
Much of the success with pitching jigs depends on finding fish, and that’s the tough part. When fish are relating to shallow water … that is water 1 to 4 feet deep on average … you may not think you can rely on electronics to locate them, but a good locator does play a key role in finding these fish. As you approach an area you suspect to be good walleye pitching water, make a couple passes over deeper water adjacent to the spot. Look for signs of baitfish in particular, but keep an eye out for "arcs" as well. If there’s bait meandering just off the shallow structure, it’s a good bet that walleyes will herd the forage into the shallows at chow time. Other factors to consider when searching out good spots to pitch for spring walleyes would be to concentrate your efforts near likely spawning areas of the lake where water warms the quickest. These would include areas such as the northern portion of a body of water (where the water gets the most sun penetration) and protected bays … especially those with dark bottoms (which absorb heat better) and also offer sufficient hard bottom spots such as gravel, rocks and/or sand for spawning habitat.
Pitching jigs is a technique very few walleye anglers practice with any regularity. This is a precision, finesse presentation that takes the right gear and the right touch to be successful. A pitch is not a cast … it’s more of an underhanded toss. This is not a situation where you’re looking to cover a great deal of water. You’re straining small areas that are prime for concentrating walleyes. Walleyes in shallow water are usually aggressive feeders, but are still cautious and easily spooked. Stick with small jigs, 1/16th to 1/8th ounce tipped with either a minnow or half nightcrawler. Pitching is also one tactic that lends itself well to using soft plastics such as Berkley Power Jig Minnows or half a Gulp Nightcrawler. The small jigs enter the water with minimal splash, and provide a very natural action in the water. Retrieves will vary from angler to angler, but a basic "lift-pause", allowing the jig to settle back to the bottom and reeling up slack before lifting again, is a simple yet deadly action to impart on the bait. The key here is the "pause" which allows the jig to "swim" on a tight line making bite detection easy. Because the jig is being pulled along the bottom throughout the retrieve, short strikes are not uncommon. To remedy this, short shanked, wide-gapped jigs like Northland Tackle’s FireBall Jigs, create a compact package that is easier for the walleye to engulf and contact the hook.
Line choice is also a key factor to the presentation. No-stretch Berkley FireLine in 6 pound test (2 pound diameter) offers the ultimate in sensitivity. The bite of an early season walleye can be very subtle, and using a line that telegraphs a light bite all the way to the angler’s fingertips is a real asset. Many jig-pitching aficionados prefer using highly visible line like Flame Green FireLine, which helps to increase an angler’s ability to "line watch", actually seeing the line move as a fish sucks in the offering before the bite is even felt. In ultra-clear water situations, another good choice would be Berkley’s Vanish Fluorocarbon, again in 6 to 8 pound test. The chemical composition of Fluorocarbon makes it virtually invisible under water, and because it has less stretch than monofilament line, it also telegraphs bites very well.
As for the best rod and reel combos for jig pitching … the same spinning combo you’d use for vertical jigging will also fit the bill for pitching jigs. A good sensitive graphite rod like the Bass Pro Shops Walleye Angler Signature Series model WX60MLJSH (6 foot, medium light action) does a nice job.
We know it’s been a long winter and getting in on the spring walleye bite has been something you’ve thought about plenty over the past few months. But there’s no reason to have to fight the crowds floating down the river in order to boat yourself a bunch of nice walleyes. Follow the path less traveled and head for the shallow water. You just might pitch your way to the best start to the fishing season you’ve ever had.