Spring is no doubt one of the most highly anticipated times of year for walleye anglers. In most parts of the “Walleye Belt”, it means fish moving into traditional spawning areas, and the concentration of fish into defined spots can make for some dynamite fish catching action. Of course, vertical jigging river structure is typically the first thing that comes to mind when anglers think of spring walleye fishing. But that doesn’t mean that vertical jigging is the only, or in some cases even the best pattern going. There’s another spring pattern that gets over looked by most walleye fishermen; trolling cranks in skinny water … and by skinny we mean shallow … and it’s a pattern that can offer up some absolute fantastic fish catching.
It used to be thought that the springtime skinny water crankbait trolling pattern was a very isolated deal that was only prevalent on lakes, mostly in the southern reaches of the walleye belt. However, like so many fishing myths, this one too has been busted wide open in the past few years. Advances in equipment along with a growing population of walleye fishermen willing to think outside the box and try new tactics on old waters has opened a lot of minds to what the skinny water can produce in the early season. Like any puzzle though, all the pieces must fall into place for this to work.
When we’re talking “skinny water” we are talking water that’s 6 foot deep or less. In some cases we have fished this pattern in water so skinny we have had to trim up the big engine just to keep it from dragging the bottom. The key is water temperature. You want to find the warmest water available in the lake, either in the backs of bays, or where wind is blowing warmer water into a shoreline. Normally this pattern works best if the shoreline drops off rather quickly, like where it tapers out to about 2 feet then quickly drops to 4. The classic “stair-step” type shorelines found on many reservoirs are perfect examples. But don’t overlook slowly tapering shorelines, especially if they have some rock or rock rubble on the bottom.
Trolling in such skinny water takes a much different approach than you might normally use when trolling for walleyes. First of all you’ll want to use use smaller, more subtle action crankbaits this early in the season. Lures like the Berkley Flicker Shads in size 4 cm and 5 cm are ideal. These lures in particular are good because they feature rattles, which can be a great advantage since you are often dealing with dingy water conditions early in the season caused by spring rains, run-off and/or wind. The rattles will draw in the fish, the profile and color of the bait will tempt them to bite.
There are basically two ways to approach this skinny water trolling pattern. One is to troll using your bowmount trolling motor. This gives you a stealthy presentation right tight to the shallow break. In this scenario you want to use long rods like the Bass Pro Shops Walleye Angler Series 10 and 12 foot trolling rods (models WA10T-2 and WA12T-2) and run your cranks on long lines to try and keep the spooking factor to a minimum. If you find your lures are digging into the bottom too much long-lining behind the boat, you can try running them on shorter lines or raise your rod tips. For these light action baits you typically do not want to go to a heavier pound test line (while it would reduce their diving depth) as that heavy, stiff line can dampen the action of these subtle crankbaits.
A second way to tackle this presentation is to use your kicker motor. Since the kicker motor is not as stealthy an approach as the electric bowmount, keeping the boat a little further out from the targeted depth contours and using planer boards, like the Off Shore Tackle OR12 Side Planers, to carry the lures to the fish zone can be effective. This is good way to go if you are in a situation where wind conditions make it difficult to maneuver in the shallow water with the bowmount motor. Normally when fishing this technique, you want to run the baits on shorter leads behind the boards for more control. It’s very important to know how deep your baits run with various amounts of line out in order to troll effectively. We like using the Precision Trolling Data either from the Precision Trolling App (currently available for iPhone) or the Precision Trolling Data stickers available online at www.precisiontrollingdata.com. For instance, using the Precision Trolling Data for the size 4 cm Flicker Shad, it will go 5 feet deep with 50 feet out, and 3 feet deep with 12 feet out. Good info to know when targeting walleyes in skinny water.
It’s also important, whether you’re trolling with the electric bowmount or the kicker, to keep your trolling speed slow this early in the season. A good rule of thumb is to troll at about 1 to 1.2 mph. If it’s really windy and maintaining a good trolling speed becomes difficult, we have often done well switching to a more “controlled drift” presentation. In the past, the use of a drift sock might have been employed, but one tool that has become increasingly helpful to us for this type of boat control in recent times is the Power-Pole Drift Paddle. Now, while Power-Pole anchoring systems have obvious benefits for anchoring a boat in shallow water, the addition of their new Drift Paddle to the system gives walleye anglers a new boat control tool that’s sure to pay big dividends. The Drift Paddle is nice when you can’t quite get your boat going slow enough. You just simply drop down the Power Pole (with Drift Paddle attached) and it will act like a drift sock and slow the boat down. It is also nice for reducing the “surge” effect you get when trolling in windy conditions. Often in dirty water a bait that is pulling at a steady speed is easier for the fish to track and attack. The nice thing about the Drift Paddle is that based on how far you put it in the water it slows the boat more (or less) so unlike a sock it is very adjustable as far as speed.
Now while this pattern has been primarily used in reservoirs, adaptations to the basic presentation are also very effective in rivers where walleyes often set up along long stretches of rip-rap shoreline in the spring, or even in The Great Lakes, where some savvy walleye anglers have adapted the skinny water trolling pattern to target walleyes at night in the clear waters of the “big ponds”.
Bottom line is, jigging in moving water is not the only way to catch walleyes in the early season. Hit the water with an open mind this spring and go explore some “skinny water” for your Next Bite.
If you have questions or comments on this or other articles from Gary Parsons and Keith Kavajecz, visit their website www.thenextbite.com.