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JIGGING SHALLOW INTO JUNE

Perhaps the single quickest abandoned pattern in a walleye angler’s arsenal is the shallow jig bite, and I plead “guilty” to the above charge.  Anglers that have six boxes with nothing but jigs in them for opener, forget what part of the garage they’re now in collecting dust.  Early in the season, shiners are purchased not by the dozen or the scoop, but by the gallon, as the simple act of just threading one on the correct-sized jig will instill confidence throughout the north-country and beyond.  One week later, anglers flee the shallow shorelines, developing weed lines, and near-shore rock piles for the hope of greener pastures out deep, and more familiar, longer-lasting summer patterns.  Rigging, slip-bobbering, pulling crankbaits, anything but jigs seem to get the nod as temperatures rise and fishing heats up.  Yet, there’s plenty reason to keep those jigs around, and even tip them with minnows in the weeks after opener.  What’s more, is that there are a number of developing shallow bites right now that keep jigs in play, just maybe with some different meat threaded onto the business end.

I asked famed guide Tony Roach last week what was getting him bit, and his response was simple.  “Everyone sees me up shallow in 4 -8 feet of water.  They think I’m bass fishing, but I’m whaling on walleyes right now.”  Truly, there are strong segments of the walleye population in most lakes that never leave the shallows for the entirety of the year.  That’s news for structure fishermen that use electronics to pick apart deep water structure and dissect off-shore features during this time of year.  As the lake system ramps up biologically, fish need food, cover, and oxygen, with the greatest limiter being food.  Developing weeds, especially cabbage, are magnets when interspersed with rock or other hard bottom.  These locations always hold some bait, and typically always hold some walleyes throughout the season.

My experience has seen some good shallow bites going right now too, with the best being a river run in 5 – 7 foot of water.  Current is the great equalizer, as high skies, bright sun, and no wind still translates into a great day when fishing current seams, eddies, and riffles in rivers.  The same conditions that absolutely kill other patterns, especially in clear water natural lakes, don’t seem to hassle the river fish that are taking advantage of current that sweeps unsuspecting invertebrates, bait, and terrestrials downstream and into their gullets.  Long-lining and lead core staples that typically produce good numbers of fish during this time of year were poor in comparison.  The bite ebbs and flows, with low-light periods still shining brightest, but moving water is a great savior to an otherwise weary day of walleye fishing.

In both scenarios, the classic pitch and run technique utilizing jigs and shiners were tweaked if only slightly.  “As the water warms up, there’s a transition to where plastics become just-as, if not more effective than shiners or other minnows,” mentions Tony.  “It’s something I see every year.  As people move to the mud or mid-lake structure to rig, I simply switch to plastics and get these fish to chase a bit more,” explains Roach about his shallow techniques, honed on the big waters of Mille Lacs, Leech, and Winnie.  Roach continues, “Plastics allow me to fish more quickly, cast further without losing bait, and keep on a hot bite without pausing to re-bait.”  Those valuable bite windows can be small and precious, especially in unfavorable conditions, so staying with the heavy part of the bite and not missing out on fish becomes crucial to making a decent day into a great one.  Visual cues put off by paddle-tails, curly-tailed grubs, and even minnow shaped flukes go well beyond your average minnow, especially in the colors and hues available.  Nowadays, our choices for colors to pique a fish’s curiosity are nearly limitless, and often we can mimic forage that doesn’t even resemble our offering just by switching colors.  For example, an orange jig and grub combination looks nothing like a rusty crayfish, but don’t tell that to Lake of the Woods walleyes that were coughing up blaze-orange crustacean parts all over the livewell last summer.  Those fish happily engaged that offering crawled near bottom on many of the rock reefs and points that we fished.

Plastics design has come a long way since basic Mister Twister varieties from days gone by.  Color and flash give way to vibration, flicker, and quiver all throughout the very lifelike baits on the market today.  The end result is an attraction based not just on visual cues, but key components in the way a bait pulsates that trigger fish’s predatory instincts.  As walleye’s lateral lines pick up these distinct tremors in the water column, I’m convinced that the heavy “thumpers” truly call in fish from a distance to warrant a close investigation at the very least.

Let’s say that for whatever reason, plastics just aren’t your thing, or they haven’t given you the confidence you need to reliably pitch them all day.  As larvae rise from the lake bottom in clouds, and the resulting hatch of spinners cover everything near your favorite fishery, crawler bites become stronger no matter what part of the water column you fish.  People pull them behind sinkers and on spinner-rigs, but don’t hesitate to thread one up a jig-head and pinch off the bottom half of the crawler.  This is a go-to river technique that produces walleye, and often, the unintended non-target species.  Few things that swim will offer a jig and nightcrawler safe passage back to the boat.

Stay shallow a bit longer and see if those same opener fish aren’t near where you left them.  Fishing a jig is a rewarding way to get bit, and offers a few more weeks of great near-shore fishing for walleyes.

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ICE-OUT CRAPPIES

    

It’s been an odd spring, and for that matter, and even more peculiar winter.  Open water in the southern part of the state has been around for a few weeks, while in the north, there’s still ice, albeit a poor version of it, clinging to memories of a winter that wasn’t.  Early season panfish bites are a rite of spring, typically happening in mid-late April for most lakes in the state as a precursor to the May opener.  This year due to the unseasonably warm weather, I’m happy to say, we’ll probably have some bonus time, with crappies already snapping in the shallows of Southern MN.  Here’s a few things to keep in mind when tracking down a good spring crappie bite.

Water temperature is a key contributing factor to everything crappies in the spring.  Cold nights below freezing, cool-water runoff from melting snow, and heavy cloud cover can all contribute to the death of a seemingly un-killable bite.  As black-bottom bays and rock-laden shorelines store what solar energy they can, crappies flood to the shallows as water temps hit 45 degrees and above.  In most of the lakes I fish, this seems to be as close to a “magic number” as I can find in helping to predict not only locations, but mood of the crappies I’m after.  Anything south of that value, and shallow water crappies become much more rare and hard to find.  Even after locating them, you just don’t see the large congregations of fish that are willing to eat like you do in the 45-50 degree range and above.  That said, spring is a roller coaster of conditions, full of false-starts, short intense feeding periods during warm weather, and then eventually spawn and post-spawn behavior.  Your best bet is multiple trips that allow you to track changes in water temperatures, such that you don’t hit before the front end, or after the spawn.

Regarding location, when warm water is scarcer in the early season, those shorelines that are even a few degrees warmer can be full of fish.  This is true even when they lack good cover, provided you’re fishing the warmest water in the lake and it’s still early.  Black bays on the north side of a lake are a good start, and don’t hesitate to fish shallower than 5 feet, especially in systems with poor clarity.  Even as water temps rise into the 50’s, fish remain shallow, feeding on baitfish drawn to the warm water and emerging life that’s brought upon by warm afternoons and an even more aggressive sun angle.

Cover is king for pre-spawn crappies, and while any wood or timber is good for finding them, brush is better.  An isolated log or stump may hold a few fish, but large concentrations of fish will be found where they can bury themselves within and along brush piles.  Unfortunately, most anglers miss the bonanza by fishing only around the edges, rather than within the heavy cover.  Occasional fish are to be had this way, but to do well in these situations, you’ll need to be prepared to fearlessly fish inside of the heavy stuff, not just around the edges.  For that reason, especially in darker, more turbid water, I’ll fish 8lb test mono or heavier, as small jigs and small line are an exercise in brush-fishing frustration.  In northern natural lakes with broad and shallow shorelines, timber can be hard to find, so crappies focus on bulrush and pencil-reeds for cover.  Whether wood or vegetation, getting in the middle of it seems to pay dividends.

What to use is an important factor during this time of year, with water temps again dictating presentation and lure selection.  Especially early, the temptation is to fish fast and cover water to find larger schools.  Just coming out of winter, locations can be a mystery, and bobber-fishing shallows is simply too slow for most anglers.  That said, especially during the early season, crappies will rarely chase to eat moving baits presented on the edges.  Fish with floats, and use meat.  Crappies are carnivorous little beings, and you’ll be surprised how savagely they’ll strike a minnow offered on a jig with hair, tinsel, marabou, or flashabou.  This larger profile requires some aggression, and hookups seem much more sure as crappies are required to fully inhale such a presentation.  Keep in mind however, that bluegills which can be found in the same areas this time of year, are less likely to be able to eat such baits.  I have been pleasantly surprised by large perch, especially when fishing backwaters bites, that will be more than happy to eat a 1/32oz jig with a minnow.

Plastics bites are still to come, but typically require warmer conditions yet.  It’s unfortunate that minnows are best fished when your freezing fingers would otherwise want you to use artificial bait-only, but it seems like warm weather and glove-less hands are about the best predictor on when to start looking to retrieved plastic presentations.  For this reason, bring bait until moving presentations readily out-perform more stationary live-bait options.

It’s a great time of year to be on the water.  Wait till a warm afternoon, and pick apart the shallows until you find some fish.  Keep it simple, have fun with it, and save the ultra-serious stuff for later.

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EARLY RIVER WALLEYE TIPS

How to catch river-run spring walleyes

Winter’s waning moments signal the start of an annual rite of spring, as schools of spawn-minded walleyes surge upstream in rivers across the continent. Don’t let the cool water temperatures fool you, the spring run can produce some of the year’s best fishing for walleyes and sag-bellied saugers.

Team Northland Pro Chip Leer of Fishing The WildSide knows the drill.

“My favorite fisheries are good-sized rivers flowing into larger bodies of water, like the Detroit River on the western end of Lake Erie, or the Rainy River at Lake of the Woods along the Minnesota-Ontario border,” he says. “Walleyes from the main lake congregate around the river mouth in late winter, then swim upstream to spawning areas—thereby boosting the walleye population into the stratosphere.”

To find fish fast, Leer often begins his walleye quest at the river mouth and works up from there, prospecting prime lies like channel edges, eddies and all sorts of likely-looking seams and current breaks.

“Virtually anything that breaks the current or otherwise offers walleyes an opportunity to rest or feed is worth a try,” he says. “Main-channel holes rank high on my hit list. Holes are magnets for fish moving up and down the river, and often ‘recharge’ throughout the day as fresh waves of walleyes roll in.”

A variety of tactics take spring walleyes, from three-way rigging to trolling crankbaits along the bottom. For Leer’s money, vertical jigging is hard to beat. “You can jig from an anchored position or while slipping down-current, using your trolling motor to keep the line vertical,” he says.

Leer’s go-to leadheads include Northland Fishing Tackle’s Slurp! Jig, UV Whistler Jig and round-head RZ Jig. “These jigs hold live bait and plastics in place, and allow me to get a solid hookset,” he explains. “That being said, the relatively new Swivel-Head Jig is an up-and-coming choice. I like the way the jig’s rotating hook gives live bait and plastics more action than traditional fixed hooks.”

Leer recommends tipping your jigs with a flavorful artificial trailer like Northland Fishing Tackle’s IMPULSE Paddle Minnow, Smelt Minnow or Ringworm. “Three- to 5-inch baits give walleyes a target in the low-visibility conditions common in spring rivers,” says Leer. “For added scent and taste, skull-hook a fathead or shiner minnow on top of the plastic bait.”

For best results, Leer advises keeping your jig strokes on the down low, especially early in the spring run. “Slow and methodical lift-drop moves tight to bottom trump crazy ripping maneuvers,” he says. “Some days, holding the jig still, within an inch or two of bottom, gets the most bites. As the water warms up and walleyes gravitate to shallow water near the bank, pitch your jig toward shore and experiment with different dragging, swimming and pendulum presentations,” he says.

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What’s driving the

Wisconsin walleye

decline?


by Associated Press

Arguably the most prized fish in Wisconsin, walleye hold a cultural significance that reaches far beyond being a thrilling fish to catch and a delicious fish to eat for the spear fishers and recreational anglers who harvest them.

But walleye populations have been declining for the better part of two decades.

While walleye at a Friday night fish fry haven’t come from Wisconsin in many years, they remain an important food source and tradition for Wisconsin tribes and part of an economically significant pastime – recreational fishing brings in more than $2 billion annually to the state.

Estimates say the sharp-tooth predator’s production dropped nearly 30 percent between 1990 and 2012 and takes 1.5 times as long to grow to the same size and weight as it did in 1990.

The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) identified walleye as a moderately to extremely vulnerable species in Wisconsin in its recent vulnerability assessment report.

What’s driving their decline?

Researchers point to climate change as a pervasive culprit, but it’s a complicated story with a lot of question marks, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Lakes are complex ecosystems and Wisconsin is home to a diverse variety – lake size and depth, water clarity and surrounding tree cover all influence how lakes respond to climate change.

And temperature affects every corner of a lake ecosystem.

Researchers know Wisconsin lakes aren’t too warm for walleye, a cool-water fish, to survive. They suspect it’s a recruitment (surviving to maturity) issue that has more to do with food sources and what species has the competitive edge.

Challenges in early life

Just how rising temperatures and shorter winters are affecting walleye reproduction is an open research question, Gretchen Hansen, assistant professor in the Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, said, but it’s clear the first summer of a walleye’s life is the most precarious.

The walleye hatch early in the summer, but by the end of the summer large numbers have disappeared – what happened between those events has confounded researchers.

Timing is everything. Hansen said there are theories that young walleye aren’t matching up with their food source at the correct time because of changing lake ice patterns, driven by an increase in erratic warm and cold snaps during winter and spring.

David Bissonette, a Lac Courte Oreilles Tribe member and spear fisher, said spear fishers see lakes in a different way than others. They go out at night, with headlamps, in the springtime right after the ice melts.

When Bissonette was a kid, he associated walleye harvesting on Lake Chetac in Sawyer County with his cousin’s birthday, April 19, he said.

Walleye in Wisconsin generally spawn between mid-April and early May, and when the timing has been off, he hasn’t reached his walleye quota, he said.

Shift in balance of power

At the same time walleye are struggling, another predator species appears to be thriving: the largemouth bass.

Small changes in temperature have a big impact, said Hansen.

But exactly how those changes in temperature affect walleye habitat and reproduction are difficult to tease out. That’s the nature of climate change, she said, it isn’t straightforward.

Wisconsin has already warmed by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1950, and is expected to rise an additional 2 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit by 2050. Increases in extreme and unpredictable weather events and seasonal variability have already shown themselves to be side effects of climate change.

Water temperatures are slower to rise, but some Wisconsin lakes have seen temperatures increase by more than 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 1980. And as water temperatures continue to climb, a relatively small number of lakes are expected to support walleye natural reproduction.

The same temperature changes that are making natural reproduction more risky for walleye are tipping the scales in favor of largemouth bass.

Walleye have a competitive advantage in low-light, stained water with limited plant growth. Largemouth bass thrive in warm water and prefer clear water with an abundance of aquatic vegetation.

And while it may not be intuitive, rising temperatures are tied to clearer lakes _ warmer and clearer lakes force walleye to swim deeper to be comfortable and reduce their habitat and range for food.

Largemouth bass will likely become more abundant as the climate changes, said Aaron Shultz, climate change inland fisheries biologist at GLIFWC.

But to date, there’s no direct evidence walleye’s decline comes down to competition between the two predator species.





 

‘EYES OF SPRING'



 

Catch the early season river bite

Winter’s demise signals the beginning of an annual rite of spring, as schools of prespawn walleyes surge upstream into rivers across the Walleye Belt.

Although the water is cool and fish location often changes day by day—even hour by hour—savvy anglers can enjoy some of the year’s best fishing.

My favorite scenarios are rivers that flow into larger bodies of water, such as the Rainy River at Lake of the Woods or Detroit River at western Lake Erie. In these situations, walleyes from the main lake gather at the river mouth in late winter, then move upstream toward spawning areas as the ice recedes, boosting the river’s walleye population to its highest point of the year.

I typically start my search at the river mouth and work my way upstream, checking channel edges and a variety of current breaks. Main-channel holes are among my favorite stops, because they attract waves of migrating fish and often “recharge” several times during a day of fishing.

Current seams and shoreline eddies also hold fish, but don’t overlook anything that blocks the current or offers winter-weary walleyes a chance to rest and feed.

Top tactics include vertical jigging, either from an anchored position or while slipping your boat downstream with the trolling motor, keeping your line as vertical as possible.

Long-shank leadheads like Northland Fishing Tackle’s Slurp! Jig and round-headed RZ Jig are hard to beat because they hold live and artificial tippings well, while yielding solid hooksets. Northland’s new Swivel-Head Jig is another great choice, because the rotating hook gives plastics and live bait extra action you don’t get with fixed-position hooks.

Tip jigs with a 3- to 5-inch scented soft plastic trailer, which gives walleyes a target in the turbid, relatively dark waters common in spring river fishing. A variety of softbaits attract fish and trigger strikes, including Northland’s Impulse Paddle Minnows, Ringworms, Smelt Minnows and even old-school creature designs. Sweeten the presentation with extra scent and flavor by skull-hooking a shiner or fathead minnow on top of the plastic piggy-back style.

Since the water is still very cool, keep jig strokes to a minimum. Often, a slow and methodical lift-drop cadence within a few inches of bottom is all it takes, but sometimes simply holding the jig as still as possible an inch or two off bottom is the best approach.

As the water warms, walleyes often shift into shallower water near shoreline spawning areas. Pitch the same style jigs and tippings toward the bank and swim, drag and pendulum them back to the boat, keeping the jig close to bottom on the retrieve.

Based in Walker, Minnesota, noted fishing authority and outdoor communicator Chip Leer,www.chipleer.com, operates Fishing the WildSide, which offers a full suite of promotional, product development and consultation services. For more information, call (218) 547-4714 or email Chip@fishingthewildside.net. For media requests or transcripts, please contact us HERE.

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