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Shallow Water Walleye
Article By: Nathan Zelinsky, Tightline Outfitters
When talking about fishing in shallow water for walleye, I’m not talking about 10 to 15 feet of water. I’m talking about fishing for them in bass-shallow water, anywhere from 2 to 6 feet. Throughout the course of a year, there are many different times in which walleye are in very shallow water, either to spawn or feed. A good friend of mine and one of the best walleye anglers in the nation once told me, “Walleye are like married men, they breed once a year and eat for the rest of it.” I follow this advice like it is walleye law. When it comes to patterning walleye, they are going to be in one of two places, either where there’s lovin’ or feedin’. Shallow water walleye are far too often overlooked on our Front Range reservoirs. Many times, these shallow fish are the mature fish we’ve been on the lookout for.
We’ll start in the spring with the spawn. This is the time of year that every body knows the fish are in shallow, even moving into the 1 to 3 foot range. But I want to focus on the times that aren’t as well known. On our local waters in May and June, when the water temperature is 55 degrees to upper 60’s, most anglers are into the fish. Then comes late June when the water has reached its boiling point in the 70’s and the rumors start flying. You hear about the walleye feeding only at night or how they moved into deep water to find cooler temperatures. Although you may sometimes find these fish in these situations, the bulk of the walleye are somewhere else. As mentioned before, food is a big factor. Walleye’s will always be near their food source. Ask yourself; what are they eating and where is it? In most of our Front Range lakes, shad is the main food source, so then the next question would be where the shad in this warm water are? Shallow. Whether they are on the surface or on the shorelines, they are shallow either way. So if the food is shallow, where will the walleye be? Shallow. The first instance we encounter frequently is ghost fish. Ghost fish are fish so close to the surface, they do not appear on your graph and more importantly, spook and scatter from any approaching boat. These fish are active and aggressive, but the only problem is they tend to roam with the food. In many cases, there is nothing to really hold these fish to a certain area. When these fish are feeding, they are typically in the top 5 or 6 feet of the water column. Sometimes they will be in 5 feet over 30 feet or 6 feet over 60 feet. The depth does not matter.
The main techniques used to catch these fish is either casting to them or trolling planer boards. Using planer boards is the technique I use to produce the majority of my fish. This way you can cover a lot more water and you do not spook the fish with the boat. Depending on water temp, I decide what type of bait to select. If I’m in cold water, usually 55 degrees or cooler, I use subtle, slow stick baits, such as an Original Rapala or Berkley Frenzy Firestick. If the water is in that 55-65 degree range, I use shad profile baits like the Berkley Frenzy Flicker Shad. If the water is really warm, like 65 degrees or warmer, I will use high action baits such as Storm Hot N Tot’s or, my personal favorite, a Tasmanian Devil. I set these baits to where they will just barely slice through the water’s surface. I find myself trolling from anywhere from 1.5 mph to 3.5 mph GPS speed, I then set my lines and go.
The next situation is shallow shoreline fish. When walleyes decide to go shallow, you will find them in situations like a bass would be in, 1 to 2 feet of water in the trees, grass or where ever you will find shad, those walleye will go in after them. This is something that I struggled with at first, convincing myself to throw baits in a foot of water for walleye. At first it just wasn’t natural. I picked up this technique on Devil’s Lake in North Dakota; I have also fished these depths in Minnesota. Once I started looking shallow I then found fish everywhere I went. I use a variety of baits. For one, I like to throw a jig that I can work fast. Gulp! Alive minnows or the Realistix Power Minnows do the job well. I like these because I can pitch them shallow and work them slower like a normal jig, or I can snap it aggressively and work it almost like a jerk bait. This is neat because I can use the same bait and get two very different actions out of it. If jigs aren’t working, I then like casting baits, like a Tasmanian Devil or Flicker Shad. The Tasmanian Devil and Flicker Shad are nice because you can cover more water with these baits. Don’t be afraid to get in there. Most of the time it’s when you tell yourself there’s no way a walleye will be there, that’s where they are.
The last situation you might encounter fish being shallow is the fall. These fish usually don’t go shallower than 2 feet of water, but 2 to 4 feet can be deadly. I usually work these fish with jigging spoons. These fall fish typically hold on sandy points or sandy flats. So to work these fish, keep your boat in deeper water and bomb your spoon up shallow and snap-jig your bait back. There have been times where when I snap my spoon I can ripples from where it almost came out of the water and then as it fluttered down wham!!!! There they are.
These concepts work and if you fish for walleye, they will be in shallower than you think in many situations throughout the year. So be prepared for it. Never exclude any patterns for a walleye. Always think about deep and shallow, night and day, winter and summer. This is what makes walleye fisherman the best on the water.