Catching the early-season walleye

Former Lake Vermilion guide shares tips for fishing opener


Some of Paul Pollock’s earliest fishing memories were made with his dad Dave at their cabin on Pike Bay on Lake Vermilion. Submitted photo.

Some of Paul Pollock’s earliest fishing memories were made with his dad Dave at their cabin on Pike Bay on Lake Vermilion. Submitted photo.

My formative memories of walleye opener in northern Minnesota entail fishing from shore at the cabin on Lake Vermilion’s Pike Bay. At the inception of the season, shore fishermen can be on even footing with those fishing out of a boat.

The dichotomy of early season walleye fishing never ceases to amaze me. Anglers can find success bobber fishing from a dock, from a boat in the shallow spawning areas, or by jigging much deeper shoreline breaks in 30-45 feet of water. Areas to target are transitions from rock to gravel/sand bottom, and gravel/sand to mud. These are identified by the color changes on your sonar unit.

The Governor’s Fishing Opener in 2005, the first official trip of my burgeoning guiding career, dawned cold and rainy with taconite gray skies as I coasted my green Lund over a steep shoreline break.

The shoreline drop-off (breakline) fell quickly from boulders just below the surface to a gravel rock transition to a hardpan clay bottom. We employed a very simple presentation of a chartreuse 3/8-ounce jig topped with a fathead chub minnow.

My guest, a member of Governor Tim Pawlenty’s staff, waited less than a minute to feel his first “walleye tick” of the burgeoning morning. A crisp hook set later, the 17-inch walleye slid into the net, the first of the 36 walleyes we caught in three hours. Two limits of nice keepers hit the live-well for shore lunch, while the rest were released to swim another day.

Most folks were fishing much shallower water than the 30-40-foot range we were jigging. Discerning fishermen keep their options open, and try different depths and tactics based on the presence of walleyes on the electronics and wind and wave activity. In general, fish the windblown shore. Gut instinct based on past experience helps as well, but on Vermilion, the deep bite can be very good throughout the season.

Walleyes spawn in water 44-48 degrees, so a late ice out such as this year means copious numbers of shallow walleyes as well. Depending on the area of the lake and how recently the ice receded, fish will be found in pres-pawn, spawn, and post-spawn modes. Their corresponding feeding activity can range from aggressive to lethargic depending on which of the stages they are in. Spawn and immediate post-spawn walleyes can be lethargic for a period of time, before becoming aggressive again.

Here on Lake Vermilion and many other waters, a simple but effective presentation is trolling stick baits and shads such as Rapalas and Flicker Shads along shallow shorelines and across shallow bays. Vary the trolling speed, and when you find a speed that works, replicate it. One day 1.6 miles per hour is the speed du jour… the next day it’s 3 mph. That’s fishing. The angler who tries the same thing repeatedly and says, “The fish aren’t biting,” is missing the boat.

As a general rule, brighter colors such as orange and chartreuse are more effective in stained water, while “natural” colors such as blue, silver, and black work well in water with better clarity.

Targeting deep shoreline drop-offs (breaklines) with a jig/minnow or soft plastic combination or a Lindy-style rig tipped with a minnow or ’crawler, is productive for main basin shoreline spawning fish, particularly males in the “eating size” category. Walleyes in the soft bottom (mud) areas feed heavily on mayfly larvae. Keep this in mind, as a jig tipped with a soft plastic resembling a may fly will often turn the trick, especially on finicky biters.

Wind plays a huge part in this style of fishing. Keep the presentation slow. Stay as vertical as possible with jigs, and 1/2 to 1 mph with the Lindy rigs. Impart a light popping action on the jig, and a slow drift or troll on the Lindy-type rigs. Deploying a drift sock (basically a soft underwater umbrella) in tandem with an electric trolling motor is the way to go for slow drifts and vertical jigging.

A simple egg sinker/bead/double barrel swivel setup on the rigs with an 18-inch snell and number 4 or 6 hook is a good starting point. Try adding a bead or two above the hook, or a floater just above the hook. The bead between the sinker and swivel helps keep the sinker and swivel from becoming gummed up with bottom substrate.

As a general rule, early in the season, more big walleyes will be found shallow (2- 10 feet of water), as well as good numbers of smaller eating-size specimens. Deeper water generally holds more of the males in that 14- to 18-inch range; perfect table fare. There are exceptions to every rule though, as some bigger reef or shore-spawning females will slide back down into the deep water adjacent to their spawning areas. Try different depths. Find what works and stick with it.

Downrigging and leadcore line trolling are also productive options. Troll the deep flats and the ancillary structure areas with Rapalas and shad-style baits. Vary the boat speed and cover a lot of water. Early in the season, concentrations of fish over deep flats may be widely scattered, but with the amount of water covered, it can still be effective. If a concentration (school) is located, continue to work that area.

Opener 2006 dawned cold, dark, windy, and rainy. My group of friends and I were fishing a Boundary Waters lake, and the morning started out very good and got progressively better. A simple jig/minnow combination casted and jigged back to the canoe was turning the trick for us.

The last thing on our minds as my canoe partner and I reeled in walleye after walleye, was tipping over the canoe. Following a quick movement toward the minnow bucket, the canoe rolled sideways, and into the 41-degree water we went. To say it was an eye opener would be an understatement.

Luckily we were able to swim to shore, warm up by a fire, and salvage some of our gear. And the fish. It was a lesson learned in how quickly things can happen on the water, and how lucky we were to come out of our dilemma unscathed, aside from our pride. Life expectancy in the ice cold water in area lakes right now isn’t very long. Be careful and wear a personal flotation device!

Stay mobile, be flexible with your tactics, and ply varying depths, and catch some walleyes this opener! Release the bigger spawners and slot fish. Keep a few for the hot oil. Have fun and be safe and courteous.

Paul Pollock lives on Lake Vermilion near Cook, MN. He is a former guide and an avid fisherman and hunter on many area lakes, including Lake Vermilion, as well as Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. His articles and fishing reports have appeared in Hometown Focus and Esox Angler/The Next Bite Magazine, and LakeVermilion.com.

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