Transition Walleyes: Post Spawn Behaviors and Tactics
By Nick Johnson
Many walleye anglers define this time of year as the post spawn blues. Depending on how the spring has gone, whether warm temps have held or cold temps prevailed this can hold some truth. I like to think of this time of year as an opportunity to intercept walleyes in their transitional movements between spawning areas and summer haunts. Either way it takes some patience, covering lots of water and willingness to change tactics.
I’ve heard a lot of anglers describe the post spawn period as a “dead” time when the fish are recovering from spawning. This often falls around the walleye opener on bordering lakes when air temperatures may be somewhat warm but the lake lacks an established thermocline and full weed growth. I don’t like to hear the term recovering because that period is actually very brief or nonexistent, especially if a walleye does not spawn. What really happens is a transition where walleyes move from their spawning areas and forage on bait before making the adjustment to their summer locations. This often means frequent roaming followed by periods of inactivity which incorporates the challenge of catching walleyes this time of year.
Anglers must keep their wits about them. Think about the weather. Is it sunny? Is it overcast? Which shoreline or flat is receiving the wave action? Where has the new weed growth started to emerge and at what depth? Where is the first major break in depth and is there a flat with weed growth or rocks nearby? These are just a few of the questions that run through my mind when tackling late spring and early summer walleyes.
What Do the Walleyes Seek?
After the spawn, fish are seeking food and cover. Often times these two occur together, and a lot shallower than some fisherman think. Forage species in Iowa like Yellow Perch, Shiners and Blunt nosed minnows can be found shallow this time of year seeking warmer water and weed growth or rocks where they too find their forage. The walleyes will be right there with them and given the right conditions, hungry! On bright sunny days the eyes may pull out a bit deeper or tuck into the new weed growth but during overcast days, windy days and especially during low light periods, these walleyes strap on the feed bags. They will likely be a little more spread out than in the summer but shallower depths in the 3-10 foot range with new weed growth and forage can hold a large percentage of fish in a given body of water.
Wind Blown Weedy Flats
If the body of water you are fishing has this type of structure then this can be a gold mine. Flats like this often warm quicker and hold a lot of forage species. The new weed growth offers cover and oxygen and also provides ambush opportunity for walleyes. In clearer lakes these flats may occur in shallow environments out to the first major depth break. In dirtier lakes these flats may simply be shallow as the weeds haven’t established in water deeper than six or seven feet.
When fishing weedy flats I like to work the shallower portions first with crankbaits either trolled or casted. This will tell me if fish are in this zone feeding before moving deeper. Baits in this scenario like the Rapala Flat Rap or Shadow Rap are great seek baits and do not dive too deep. In depths of 4-6 feet these baits often strafe the tops of the new weed growth which is ideal. If the water is clear enough I will often utilize a three foot section of 10-15 lb fluorocarbon leader. This can be a game changer if the fish have seen some pressure or if the water happens to be ultra clear.
If the bite is not happening in shallower water I will move out a little deeper to the first break or edge of the weeds if they are visible on the depth finder. Here I like to cast a jig and minnow, jig and swimbait, blade bait or troll a deeper diving crankbait. Once a pattern is formed then you can fine tune the approach. When jigging I like to keep aggressive action aside and rather snap the bait off the bottom slowly, letting it fall, all the while keeping my line tight. Ninety percent of the time you will get the strike on the fall or when the bait just hits the bottom which is why no stretch line and a fluorocarbon leader can be a big help in this situation.
Trolling will cover more water but jigging will entice more fish if they are localized, especially if the water is cooler. Try multiple approaches and cater to what is working on that given day. I have often noticed that on overcast windy days the walleyes tend to be on the topside of the flat whereas on sunnier days they tend to pull back towards the breaks. Night time is definitely a time to be on the topside of the flats or even the pinnacles of points.
When I look for flats to key in on especially in waters that I haven’t fished before, I like to use my Navionics app on my phone or a lake topo map and find flats that are somewhat “U” shaped and have long tapers out to the first break. Ideally deeper water will exist on more steep drops to either side of this flat but in Iowa that can be rare to find. Flats out in front of points or on inside bends of bays are a good place to start. You are looking for depths in the 4-12 foot range for clearer lakes and 3-6 foot range for dirtier lakes.
This is the time of year when night fishing can really shine through, especially if the body of water is somewhat clear. I like to start out focusing on the flats as described above and long line some shallower diving crankbaits. Keep trolling speeds slow and help troll the bait in a jerk-pause fashion.
If you catch a walleye, continue trolling the same flat and try to come back and touch the same area again. If you repeatedly get bites in a certain location then it might be time to settle in and quit trolling. When this occurs I love to get out the lighted bobbers and drift a leech or a chub.
While attending college for my fisheries management degree a few years ago I had the opportunity to help the Iowa DNR sample walleyes at night around mid-spring. What surprised me was the number of big fish that we gathered from water far shallower than I would have guessed. I’m talking 5-8 pound fish coming from water that would barely touch my waist if I were standing in it. This has made me a firm believer that it doesn’t hurt to try shallow.
With cooler water temps the trolling speed should be minimized as much as possible. If you have a means of reading boat speed then my suggestion is to stay in the 1-1.8 mph range if at all possible. Anything more than 2 mph and you are going too fast. The fish this time of year may be hungry but not ravenous.
Covering different depths by focusing on one range of contour first then switching to another is a good game plan. If I get out in the morning I will be shallower first and then move deeper as the day progresses. If the clouds hold and wind blows then I may find myself staying shallow. Switch the depth every 20 minutes or so and let the fish tell you what they want.
Sometimes it helps to utilize planer boards to cover more water. If I am using planers I am looking to develop a depth and pattern. Use a board to keep one bait up on the top of the flat, troll some behind the boat close to the depth drop and then possibly a second board out off the edge of the drop off depending on how many rods you can fish onboard.
This time of year can be challenging indeed but the fish are definitely willing to bite if you can find them. Focus on new weed growth, rocks and hard bottom flats where bait is present and you will find the fish. If you catch them in one spot one day they may not be there the next as this is a time of transition and roaming. Keep an open mind and pay attention to weather along with low light periods. Good luck on the walleyes!