Targeting Shallow Weed Walleyes
By Steve Weisman
Over the 40 plus years that I have lived in northwest Iowa, I’ve enjoyed fishing walleyes on the Iowa Great Lakes. My target lakes have included Big Spirit, East and West Okoboji. For many years, however, I missed a real opportunity during the summer months. After fishing the weed edges in mid-June into July, I would then move to deep water trolling bottom bouncers or pulling crankbaits. That was definitely good fishing, but I was totally missing a walleye gold mine: summer walleyes in the weeds.
I had avoided them because, well, fishing in the weeds can be a pain. Whether it is coontail, cabbage, sandgrass and curlyleaf pondweed, just looking at the weed growth can make an angler decide to head for deeper water. However, about five years ago that changed for me because of my son, Curt. It was mid-July, and he showed me a photo of six walleyes he and a friend had caught between 15’ to 16½ inches along with several slot fish in the 20+ inch range. After seeing that happen several times, I asked Curt to give his “old man” a lesson. Six keeper walleyes later, I was a believer.
We’re going to be trolling with 3/16 oz. bullet weight slip sinkers and Northland Tackle’s 48–60-inch holographic baitfish spinners. You can either use a single hook or a double hook, although I like the double hook, because it definitely increases the catch rate. There are 10 different colors designed to match the baitfish hatch in a particular body of water. Tip the spinner with either a nightcrawler or jumbo leech. When two of us are fishing, we will run two shorter rods out the back and two longer eight footers out the side. It’s your choice to use a spinning reel or baitcaster reel. We spool 4/10 Fireline on because it gets down better than monofilament does. We put the bullet sinker on the line and tie a snap swivel to keep the bullet sinker from sliding down to the spinner.
Why the weeds
First off, weeds are the perfect place for a predator like the walleye to be. By July, the weeds are alive with insects, baitfish and young of the year gamefish. Easy meals are just an attack away. At the same time, the green weeds offer shade and plenty of oxygen for walleyes to stay comfortable.
Key depth can be anywhere from five to 10 feet of water on Big Spirit. However, on a deep clear water lake like West Okoboji, the bite over the weeds can be anywhere from 12-16 feet of water. With all of the weed beds on these lakes, patience is a key. It takes time to find the active walleyes. Unless you have a friend who is on the fish or have areas marked on your locator from years past, it becomes a process of elimination. A good lake map will show the weed beds and structure, and the modern locators can help decipher the weed bed itself. Once you do get the game plan put together, however, you can set up a drifting (if the wind will push you in the right direction and at the right speed) or trolling pattern.
The idea is to keep the spinner in the strike zone but not in the weeds. It’s definitely a fine line. Don’t worry about not being on the bottom. These walleyes are feeding up and will aggressively attack the bait.
The idea is to keep the spinner in the strike zone but not in the weeds. That’s the nice thing about using the bullet weight slip sinker. It’ll pull through the tips of the weeds, while keeping the spinner clean of weeds. Optimum speed is 1.2-1.5 mph, and you are looking for aggressive, reactionary biters.
I’m not really scientific about how far back to let out the line. Unless the wind is blowing too hard, I will use my I-Pilot to move us at the desired speed. Once we are up to speed, I will let line out until I feel the tick of the vegetation and then reel up a couple of cranks. I will continue to play with the distance until I am satisfied. One tip about the trolling run, when you decide to double back on a stretch you have just trolled, make a wide turn. Otherwise lines can become a tangled mess!
When the “bite over the weeds” really gets going and we find the honey stretch, we will often have 20 fish days with fish ranging from 14” to 20-23” fish. Expect to catch a mixed bag: perch, crappies, bluegills, largemouth bass and northern pike. A word of caution. Do not just put the rod down. These shallow weed walleyes will explode and nail the nightcrawler or leech, and I have seen rods just about leave the boat! I remember early on when I set my rod down in the bottom of the boat. I barely saved a rod from going out the back of the boat, when a nice walleye nailed the spinner. Since I do this around here, there is always the chance of getting a northern pike to smack the spinner. It might be a small hammer handle, but it also might be a pike up to 10 pounds.
You can hold on to the rod, but I really like using the rod holder. In other words, trust the rod holder! When walleye smacks the bait, more often than not the fish will hook itself. The rod holder provides that cushion and the backbone of the rod keeps the tension on until you grab the rod.
Just as with other fishing presentations, there is a learning curve. It takes some time to get used to the feel of the bullet weight and the spinner and what 1.2 to 1.5 mph feels like. Don’t just try it for a few minutes and give it up. We have found that an early morning to about 10 a.m. and late afternoon to dark have been the best times. The most fun part is the jarring strikes that occur and the resulting battle of a shallow weed walleye.