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Brad Laabs: Water temps, food keys to finding early walleyes

We are setting up nicely for this year’s fishing opener that begins at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday May 10. We are already way ahead of last year as we now have open water. The rain this last week has also helped raise lake levels and should make getting in and out of area lakes much easier than the way we finished up last fall.

The DNR wrapped up the walleye spawn harvest on Tuesday, but many walleyes around our area will continue their spawning ritual over this next week, soon to be followed by crappies.

We should have an active pan fish bite going in shallow water during the first couple weeks of walleye/northern opener. Look for the crappies to be in shallow water bays that hold weed cover, north shoreline areas, darker stained shallow water lakes, as these areas warm first. These warmer water areas also draw baitfish and provide areas for crappies and sunfish to spawn.

You will make contact with northern pike and bass in these areas also. Please remember that bass season does not open until May 24 in our area.

Locating walleyes for opener will depend on what happens with our weather. If Mother Nature starts warming the water, spot tail shiners will come to shallow flats for their spawning turn. Shiners become very vulnerable to walleyes looking for easy pickings of a high protein meal. If the shiners are shallow, the walleye will be shallow. If the lakes stay as cool as they are now, many of the schools of shiners are laying off the sharp breaks in deeper water waiting to come up and do their thing. The walleyes will be close by. I have caught opening day walleyes in 4ft. of water and I have been on active fish as deep as 24ft. of water.

Water temps and food are the big keys to unlocking their location. Many times, it will depend on the lake you choose. Lakes that are ice free early will tend to warm more quickly, as will darker shallow lakes and lakes with current areas.  Lakes that have inlets and outlets of rivers and creeks will have warmer water in those river delta areas as well as a supply of baitfish that will draw walleyes. The deeper clearer lakes will tend to have fish deeper and off the breaks until they warm.

Lakes that are ice free early will also develop early weed growth. Weed pockets and edges are fish holding areas and the baitfish love to use them for cover to hide from the mean predator fish that want to eat them.

For anglers that need to get out after midnight to scratch the walleye opener itch, pulling or pitching crank baits in shallow water will produce, as will lighted slip bobbers with a meal offering on a hook or small jig. Some anglers will cast jigs or crank baits into river mouth areas of lakes as nighttime walleyes will come to these shallow current areas to feed.

For the non-vampire walleye anglers chasing daytime walleye, start shallow and work deeper off of large flats or points. Hard sand bottom areas with gravel are usually best early in the season. Jigs or live bait rigs (sometimes referred to as “lindy” or “roach” rigs) are an early season staple for catching walleyes.

Shiners can be one of the best baits until early June. Many will also contact fish on leeches or night crawlers so it never hurts to have all of the baits in your arsenal. The new generation of minnow imitating plastics are continuing to play an increasing role. I recommend sticking to your confidence bait until you contact fish, then experiment to see if one starts out-producing the other.

Openers can be a challenge with fish in transition, and many times inconsistent weather that early May is known to provide. Many times, the bite improves as the weather improves in the weeks following the “opener.”

It is always great to get out and get the open water season started. Opening weekend is also officially “take a mother fishing” weekend, just so you know. Good luck chasing pan fish this next week, and have a great “opener” next weekend.

(Laabs runs Brad Laabs’ Guide Service in Detroit Lakes.)