Weeding Out Walleyes
Aquatic vegetation can be a fisherman's best friend.
Before my favorite lake became infested with Eurasian water milfoil, I rarely gave a thought to fishing for walleyes in the weeds.
After all, walleyes prefer a clean bottom, don’t they? That’s what most folks think. And that’s what I believed too, until my most productive clean-bottomed structure began to fail me. Within a couple of years of when the milfoil gained a foothold in my home waters, the clean humps and points that had been so reliable became barren of walleyes.
A Lesson Learned
When my fishing success began to slip, I assumed that the problem was a lack of walleyes. My thinking began to change on a hot summer day when I was exploring some new spots after blanking out on all my old ones. While motoring along the outer edge of a large weed flat, I noticed a young boy fighting a large fish while an older man attempted to net it. I slowed down to watch the battle, which went on for several minutes. The kid had a bobber rig set to fish only a few feet deep and I suspected that the pair had been trying to catch sunfish using leeches or worms. Because they were fishing in shallow weeds far up on the flat, I figured the old gent would eventually scoop up a good-sized pike or bass. To my amazement, he netted a 4- or 5-pound walleye instead.
After they landed the fish, I hung around for a few minutes to work the breakline along the weed edge, but my luck didn’t change. Then I looked up to see that the older bank-fisherman was fighting a fish. Yup, you guessed it-another chunky walleye. Here’s what surprised me most: It was the middle of a sunny day, the lake was glassy calm and those two anglers were pulling nice walleyes out of water no more than 4 feet deep.
Despite numerous tries to duplicate their bobber-fishing method since then, I’ve never succeeded, probably because I don’t have the patience to sit still and stare at a float for more than a few minutes. However, the experience convinced me that there are times when walleyes are weed-oriented, and it led me to spend more time working on methods to take advantage of this pattern when it occurs.
Don’t get the idea that walleyes spend a lot of their time buried in weedy cover. Although walleyes will occasionally behave like bass, hiding out beneath a canopy of heavy weeds, that pattern is the exception rather than the rule. Bass anglers spend a lot of time dunking jigs into holes in the weeds, but they don’t set hooks in walleyes with any degree of regularity. Most of the time, walleyes hold in the outer fringe of the weeds or right along the weed edge, where they can easily dart into open water to grab unsuspecting baitfish.
How far walleyes retreat into the weeds depends mainly on weather and time of day. I’m convinced that bright sunlight drives walleyes deeper into the weeds, especially when the sky is extra clear following a cold front. Such fish are generally in a resting mode, but they might feed sporadically through the midday hours. Walleyes are most likely to leave weedy cover to feed when skies are overcast, when the wind is blowing into the weed line and at night. Most anglers believe that bright sunlight drives walleyes deeper and dim-light conditions draw them shallower; after all, that’s what the “book” says. While this might be the case in some waters, the opposite is often true in weedy lakes, so you’ll have to adjust your thinking.
[pagebreak] Narrowing the Search
If you have a good electronic fish finder, locating walleyes on clean structure is not much of a challenge. Unless the fish are in a funk and locked tightly to the bottom, you can easily spot them as you motor along the breakline. But how do you find walleyes along an endless weed line, especially when they’re in the weedy fringe?
You could simply fish your way along the weed line until you find the walleyes, but there’s a much faster way. While motoring along theeed line, look for large schools of baitfish. In most cases, the bait is relating to a structural element, such as an underwater point, or a place on the bottom that changes from mud to sand. The bait forms the foundation of a food chain and usually attracts a variety of other fish. In one of my favorite lakes, sunfish and perch often congregate on certain hard-bottom extensions along the weed line, and walleyes are almost always nearby. It’s not unusual to find northern pike and largemouth and smallmouth bass-even muskies-in the vicinity as well. The beauty of this method is that the bait and the walleyes will always be attracted to these spots, so be sure to find good landmarks for future reference or store the spots in a GPS unit.
The depth of the weed line (maximum depth of submerged weed growth) varies greatly from lake to lake, depending mainly on water clarity. Aquatic plants require sunlight to grow, explaining why the weed line is deeper in a clear lake than in a murky one. In a lake where you can see a white jig in 10 feet of water, for example, the weed line might be 20 feet or deeper. But if the jig disappears at 2 feet, the weed line will probably be no deeper than 10 feet. The type of vegetation makes a difference, too; some plants require more light than others. In the same lake, for instance, cabbage might grow to a depth of 10 feet; milfoil, 17 feet; and coontail, 25 feet.
Although weed lines should be your focal point, there are times when walleyes will be scattered on weedy flats. In early spring, for example, when the weeds first start to emerge, you’ll often find walleyes feeding among loosely spaced weed clumps in water less than 10 feet deep. These flats are baitfish magnets because they warm earlier than deeper areas of the lake and provide the cover that the small fish need. Baitfish (and walleyes) might be difficult to graph in this situation because you can’t distinguish them from the weeds, so you have no choice but to take it slow and locate fish with hook and line.
If your lake has a variety of submerged vegetation, concentrate your efforts on either broad-leaf weeds, such as cabbage, or bushy-leaf weeds, such as coontail. These aquatic plants provide much better cover for baitfish than stringy or narrow-leaf varieties.
Mining the Weeds
If you have no idea where to start fishing, tie on a crankbait and begin trolling the weed line. A crankbait might not seem like the best lure for working the weed edge, but fished correctly, it can be remarkably effective. Select a bait that will run as deep as the weeds grow, and then hug the weed edge as closely as possible. If you’re not bumping weeds from time to time, you’re not in the fish zone. Of course, you don’t want to be pulling gobs of weeds from your lure every few minutes, either. The large lip on a deep-running crankbait will run interference for the hooks to minimize fouling . Reduce fouling further by clipping the leading hook from each treble.
Another good bait for trolling the weed edge or a weed flat is a tandem-hook spinner rig tipped with a night crawler. To reach bottom with this unweighted rig, attach it to a Ã‚Â¾- to 2-ounce bottom bouncer that has a long wire extending from the weight to keep the bait riding well above bottom and reduce fouling in the green stuff.
As you troll, carefully note any location where you get a strike or hook a fish, even if it is not a walleye. Concentrate on that area to determine whether you’ve found structure that is holding large numbers of various fish. For a slower, more thorough presentation, try casting to the weed edge using a jig tipped with a minnow, leech or soft-plastic trailer with swimming tail.
Once you zero in on a school of walleyes, switch to a slip-sinker rig baited with a leech, night crawler or minnow. But don’t use the typical walking sinker or egg sinker because it will catch bits of weeds. A bullet sinker will slip through the weeds with no problem. If your hook is catching too many weeds, try one made of lighter wire, or thread on a small float just ahead of the hook to keep it above the weeds. Or tie on a floating jighead. You could switch to a weedless hook, but sometimes the wire weedguard impedes the hookset.
Sunset Is Prime Time
As the sun goes down, walleyes that were hanging along the weed line begin roaming a little farther into open water and you’ll have to move to stay with them. But another pattern that’s very easy to miss might occur simultaneously. Some walleyes, presumably those that spent the day buried in dense weeds, rise above the weed tops and feed heavily for an hour or so after dark. Try casting to these fish with a shallow-running minnowbait. If you’re like most other walleye fishermen, “weeds” is a dirty word because some days you seem to spend as much time pulling vegetation from your rigs as you do fishing them. But bite your lip-even though you might hate weeds, walleyes love ’em. eeds. A bullet sinker will slip through the weeds with no problem. If your hook is catching too many weeds, try one made of lighter wire, or thread on a small float just ahead of the hook to keep it above the weeds. Or tie on a floating jighead. You could switch to a weedless hook, but sometimes the wire weedguard impedes the hookset.
Sunset Is Prime Time
As the sun goes down, walleyes that were hanging along the weed line begin roaming a little farther into open water and you’ll have to move to stay with them. But another pattern that’s very easy to miss might occur simultaneously. Some walleyes, presumably those that spent the day buried in dense weeds, rise above the weed tops and feed heavily for an hour or so after dark. Try casting to these fish with a shallow-running minnowbait. If you’re like most other walleye fishermen, “weeds” is a dirty word because some days you seem to spend as much time pulling vegetation from your rigs as you do fishing them. But bite your lip-even though you might hate weeds, walleyes love ’em.