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Spring walleye fishing tips from a longtime fish manager

Published by Central Office April 17, 2018

Contact(s): Local fisheries biologists

MADISON - Walleye will be high on anglers' target list when the regular fishing season opens May 5. It's a good bet many anglers will be stalking ol' marble eyes whether from a boat, shore, or they may even need tip-ups in the still frozen northern lakes.

Steve Gilbert, a longtime fisheries manager and now a fisheries supervisor in northern Wisconsin, shares his walleye fishing tips. He displays a 27.9 inch walleye he caught on the Peshtigo River in  2016.  - Photo credit: DNR
Steve Gilbert, a longtime fisheries manager and now a fisheries supervisor in northern Wisconsin, shares his walleye fishing tips. He displays a 27.9 inch walleye he caught on the Peshtigo River in 2016. Photo credit: contributed

Longtime fisheries manager and supervisor Steve Gilbert shares his walleye fishing tips honed over three decades of fishing for the species and managing walleye populations in northern Wisconsin.

His overarching advice?

"There is no substitute for time on the water," he says. "Experiment to see what they want and when they want it. The rewards of catching Wisconsin's most popular fish are well worth the effort!"

Walleye can be a challenging species to fish for because they require finesse fishing at many times of the year. Early spring is an exception as spawning fish congregate in specific shallow water habitat or shortly after spawning they move in to newly emerging plant beds to feed.

Try Gilbert's tips to improve your success.

Why to fish walleye in the spring

Wisconsin's regular fishing season opens the first Saturday in May and that's a good time for walleye anglers to hit it hard. Walleye have typically finished spawning when the opener rolls around, and post spawning is a good time to go. This year they will likely still be in spawning mode in the northern third of the state unless we get some warm weather soon.

The fish are hungry and there's not a lot of food available, both of which make them vulnerable at that time, and can increase angling success. DNR creel surveys show May is when the biggest proportion of walleye is harvested by anglers.

When to fish

The May bite usually occurs early and late in the day. You'll want to fish morning hours until about 9 a.m. or get out on the water after 5 p.m. for the best bite. The males will congregate next to the best spawning habitat (rock/cobble) at this time. If you plan to fish in the middle of the day the male fish will be congregated just off the spawning areas in slightly deeper water especially on sunny days.

Where to fish

Look for rocky areas along wind swept shorelines and points on the main lake. As spawning comes to an end, bigger fish move into shallower, warmer bays looking to feed. Fish weed lines in these areas. Wading shorelines in the evening or early morning can be effective at this time of year when fish are in the shallows. Use a hydrographic map of the lake you plan to fish to identify these key areas in advance. Once on the water, don't waste time in unproductive spots. If you don't get a bite in 15 to 20 minutes, move on to the next spot.

Wisconsin Fishing Report walleye forecast [PDF]

What gear to use

A jig and minnow combination works best early in the season. Use a 1/16-ounce jig, live bait rigs or crank baits. Try using different color jigs - yellow, green, chartreuse or red - because on some days, the color can make a big difference. You will need to use slightly heavier jigs under windy conditions to keep the bait in contact with the bottom where the fish are. Select a 6 1/2- to 7-foot spinning rod and reel combo filled with light line. A mistake many people make is they use too heavy a line. Use 4- to 6-pound test line except when you're using crank baits. Most of the time when I'm using crank baits I use 10- to 12-pound test line.

In June and the summer months as water temperatures rise, night crawlers are best on the weed edges. Also slip bobbers or a light jig tipped with half a night crawler can work great just before and during the spring mayfly hatch. As the water warms into the 70s, leeches work great and are durable at these warmer temperatures. During mid-summer anglers will need to start looking for walleye in deeper water using these same methods.

How to fish

Work the jig and minnow slowly right along the bottom. If you're using a minnow imitating crank baits, casting shallow running crank baits after dark along rocky shorelines or outside weed edges can be very productive.

Last Revised: Tuesday, April 17, 2018

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