Gargantuan Month - April Walleye Fishing Tactics

By: John Campbell


If you mention the month of April around me, my first thoughts are going to be of the thousands of monster walleyes caught during that month. There’s nothing quite like your first big trip of the season being to one of the Great Lakes or its tributaries in April with the promise of gargantuan walleyes wailing on your offerings.

Because April is the tightest spanning transition time of the year for these Great Lakes fish, you need to game plan for the probable and have a backup if you want to be successful. The month actually transitions from pre-spawn in the beginning of the month, to spawn in the middle, to post spawn towards the end in most years. By identifying which particular phase you are currently residing in, you can come up with at tactic for success.

In the Great Lakes, two major migrations occur during the early phase of pre-spawn. The most known is the migration of fish from the lakes themselves into their natal spawning streams. The other is for a different population of fish that forego the rivers and migrate towards open water shallow reefs as their preferred spawning area.

In rivers, look for fish to be moving upstream at a fairly rapid clip. The migration can be as little as several miles but may be as long as 30 to 50 miles. Many fish will migrate up to the first barrier, whether that is a dam or rapids, and hold there. Another segment of fish will either not migrate the entire way, or migrate there and drop back to other optimal spawning grounds. Identifying prime spawning habitat is the first step in our journey. The perfect spawning habitat would be a shallow rocky flat adjacent to a deep water hole with nearby access to a shallow slack water muddy bay. The terms shallow and deep here are relative. Flats that are 2-4 feet are considered shallow because the nearest deep water hole may be only 8 to 10 feet. Flats that are 7-9 feet deep can be considered shallow if the adjacent hole is 15 to 18 feet. A nearby slackwater, shallow, bay is where the post-spawn fish will move once recovered and is not required for a spawning area but enhances the likelihood of walleyes preferring that spot over others.

Pre-spawn is the time that I crank up the big Mercury Optimax and cruise the upstream holes keeping my eyes glued on my Bottom Line NCC6500 depthfinder in search of walleye marks and pods of bait. The fish will be using these deep holes as staging areas until the final move to the spawning ground. If they are in the holes in pre-spawn, I almost always prefer to use a vertical jigging attack with light Fuzz-E-Grub jigs on Hi-Vis 6 lb. test Stren Gold line. I tip the jig with small minnows and slip back through the various depth levels of the holes trying to determine which depth the fish are using that day. I keep the bow of my Ranger 619VS pointed into the wind or current and have one 6 foot Shimano spinning combo in each hand using a 4 count, do a lift, drop and touch bottom, and hold above bottom, keeping the bait within inches.

Once the fish move up to the flats and begin to cruise there, spawn is close at hand. These fish can still be highly aggressive if pre-spawn but if in full spawn, you’ll find yourself with a bunch of hungry males, as the females will be off the bite. The tactics I employ for flats fish vary depending on the depth of the flat. On those shallow flats that are less than 5 feet, you’ll generally find me pitching 1/8 ounce Fuzz-E-Grubs and hopping them in just off the bottom. On deeper flats, I’ll generally have the Minnkota Maxxum motor keeping me hovering over my line to maintain a vertical jigging presentation.

Fish that are using main lake reefs to spawn will find areas near a deeper basin, and use rocky/gravel structures that come up to within 2 to 8 feet of the surface. The one difference between these fish and river fish is that you can fish off the deep sides of the reef with jigs or blade baits and contact numbers of walleyes. Many of these deeper fish will be neutral to inactive and the fish using the top of the reef tend to be more active. Use the same thinking as you did in the river for presentations to the fish on top of the reef but look for points and inside turns that will concentrate the fish in one area of the reef to maximize your results.

The spawn can be a difficult time if 70 to 80% of the fish are participating at one time. There may be a couple of days that all you’ll be able to catch are small males, but there could be alternatives if you can recognize them. If you are looking for big female walleyes, try to target either the late spawners that are still in pre-spawn stage or go after the early spawners that are now just recovering from their spawn.

Post-spawn can actually be broken down into two sub-categories. The fish that are immediate post spawn are going to tend to head for the bottom of the deep holes in the river. Once there, they can be triggered, but finesse presentations are required to tempt them. Moving slowly downstream vertical jigging or moving upstream trolling 3 way rigs or crankbaits like #5 Shad Raps with lead core line are the best ways to trigger those fish.

Once the fish have begun to recover they will move up the edges of the hole and then seemingly desert them overnight. As the fish move up the edges, you can begin to speed up your presentations slightly, as the fish are more inclined to bite. Once they desert those holes, they’ve headed for ultra shallow water to warm up and feed. When they stack up in this position, I’ll generally be casting light 1/8 ounce Fuzz-E-Grubs tipped with a minnow and the hits in this area will feel like a freight train. Work the areas over thoroughly and repeat through the area continually if there are active fish there, as they are moving around and more fish are probably coming into the area all the time. Remember that these fish are going to be dropping back out of the river and into the main lake, so dark, slack water areas down stream of the spawning area can be magnets.

Post-spawn out on the reef complexes mean an abandoning of the reefs and a movement towards the deep basin areas that could be as far as 10 miles away. Because of the distances these fish can move so rapidly, trolling is the most viable option for us. These fish can recover quite quickly and because of this they can be scattered anywhere from the surface down to the bottom in 45 feet of water. Break out the Cannon Rover Boards and the Shimano Convergence trolling rods and you are ready for some incredible Great Lakes walleye catching.

If the fish are tight to the bottom, I generally think slower. Spinner rigs with bottom bouncers both on flat lines and Cannon Rover Boards at slow speeds with crawlers are just the ticket here. If the fish are suspended up off the bottom, then it’s total Cannon Rover Board action with crankbaits. Try long minnow baits like Rapala Husky Jerks in both shallow and deep lips, Rapala original floaters and also Shad Raps in size 8 and 9. If you are not marking fish near the bottom or suspended, there may be a good chance the fish are so high in the water column that you aren’t marking them on your depthfinder. These fish are generally very active and can be caught easily if you run baits up high enough for them. The general rule of thumb is troll crankbaits faster than spinners and the higher the fish in the water column, the faster you can travel. Remember that this is a general rule though and many a day has been saved by cranking up the speed for deep crankbait fish and slowing down for high fish.

Now go ahead and have someone mention April to you and see if your thoughts don’t turn to the millions of Great Lakes walleyes that are concentrating themselves right now waiting for you to come catch them. Not the run of the mill eaters either, but super fish that tip scales only rumored about in the cold winters around a hot stove. If you’re looking for me this April, you better launch somewhere near the Great Lakes. If you are that lucky, I’ll see you on the water.