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Going Buggy Over Early-Season Walleye

By Mark Martin

Are bugs the first thing that comes to mind when you think about fishing during the early months of summer? They should be. And I’m not just talking about the pesky little fly-in-your-face bugs that swarm over you at the boat launch—although they do play a huge roll with the walleye bite this time of year. I’m talking bugs of all kinds, including aquatic insects. Key in on bug hatches and you’ll find feeding game fish.

Lakes and rivers come alive as late spring turns to summer. Bugs hatch, small fishes, minnows, and crustaceans feed on the molting insects, and then predator fish feed on them all. Walleye, one of the main predators, are done spawning and are now focused solely on filling their bellies with the smorgasbord before them.

Seek, and yee shall find

Finding just where it is the bugs are hatching is not hard. I watch the water’s surface with nothing more than my eyes, or use my Lowrance sonar and Aqua-Vu to find submerged insects.

Ever sit on shore, hot coffee in hand, and take in the lake as the morning mist rises off the flat-calm surface? You almost always see little dimples—looking like rain drops hitting the surface—forming from seemingly nowhere in certain areas of the lake in the early morning light. Those are bugs—nymphs that wiggled their way from the bottom and are now hatching on the surface. I guarantee you there are more than just those insects in those areas—there’s the aforementioned small fish, minnows, as well as predator fish. Better grab your rod and reel—the bite’s on.

Mark Martin Pro angler and guide

When the water’s calm, I look for these little rings on the surface over deep water, and then set a course for them. But I don’t run my boat right through the mass of hatching bugs as that would not only spook any game fish, but would also riel the environment enough to stop the hatch all together in that spot.

When I’m trolling, I quietly motor my Lund with either the Mercury 9.9-hp 4-stroke kicker or with the bow-mounted MotorGuide electric towards, but off to the side of where the hatch is taking place, and pull my spinner harnesses or crankbaits through the hatch area with Church Tackle in-line planer boards. To keep as stealthy as possible, I like to use Church’s smaller TX-12 or TX-6 boards rather than the larger boards. These little boards won’t churn the calm surface and put down the bite or emergers.

I also like to cast to bug hatches when I see them occurring in the shallows. I use only the MotorGuide electric to position my boat. I make sure to stay well enough away from the hatching insects, yet within casting distance.

How do I find insects when they are not in the process of hatching? With my Lowrance sonar, of course; and when I add a Navionics mapping chip to the unit, I not only know where the submerged bugs are at the moment (with the Lowrance), but am also able to decipher where the bugs may be in other areas of the lake.

What do bugs look like on my Lowrance? Any number of things, really. That surface clutter the Lowrance is marking high in the water column is dust and plankton. There are insects in there too. Or I may see a strange mass on the screen. That, too, is probably bugs. Sometimes individual nymphs look like thin streaks going diagonally on the screen. They look like this as they are wiggling their way up off bottom, and the signal shows as a line as the screen scrolls.

I know that if I get my lure down into the same zone the masses are, I’ll also be getting it into the fish zone. I may not be marking fish on the Lowrance (only because they tend to scoot out of transducer range when high in the water column) but they are there. Again, walleye follow food this time of year, and insects are not just a food source, but the food source.

Certain insects tend to be in particular areas of a lake—over soft bottom, for example, or within the thermocline over specific water depths. When I mark a mass of bugs on my Lowrance sonar I not only pay attention to what depth they are at in the water column but how deep the water is and the type of bottom (hard, soft, flat or drop off). More than likely, other places on the lake with comparable characteristics will have similar bug masses.

With the information from a Navionics mapping cartridge telling me exactly the lay of the underwater land, I can check out other places of the lake where bugs, thus walleye may be found. On the Great Lakes , Navionics new Platinum chip will show me in 3-D how the lay of the bottom. This really helps me key in on similar structure, especially in such a large body of water. As time wares on, there will be more inland lakes on the Navionics Platinum chip, I’m sure.

In shallower water (15 feet or less) I use my Aqua-Vu underwater viewing system to spot insects. I stick to structure when using the Aqua-Vu, such as weeds and wood, and watch for insects scouring about. This is when I break out the jigging rod.

Match Maker

Walleye tend to get very size specific in their feeding when insects are hatching, zoning in on the tiny insects themselves as well as the small fishes and minnows that are feed on them. During a bug hatch, I use small spinners, crankbaits, and jigs to best match the hatch.

When using spinners, I reduce the size of my Northland blades to number 1, 2 or 3’s, and then only use a small portion of a live night crawler or small piece of Berkley Gulp! or PowerBait Night Crawler, rather than a whole one. Blades with a gold or copper hue to them are always a good choice as they best match the natural color of many insects.

When trolling crankbaits, I like to use size-5 and -7 Rapala Shad Raps and the same size Tail Dancers. If I’m casting, I’ll throw size-3 and -5 Rapala CountDowns, size-5 and -7 Original Floaters, and Jointed, as well as size-6 and -8 Rapala Husky Jerks and size-8 and -10 X-Raps. As for lure color, I like to match the color of the forage when fishing in clear water, and go with florescent colors when fishing stained water.

When tossing jigs in shallow water, I reduce the size of the jighead down 1/16- to 1/8-ounce Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Jig and a 2-inch Berkley Ribbontail Power Grub. The color spectrum of jig and plastic combos is endless—I like to take several different ones with me and try them all until I find the one color that works best.

In the end

Do insects drive you buggy during late spring/early summer? I hope so. Ignore them and you’ll be missing out on some of the best fishing of the year. Find them with your eyes as they hatch off the surface, or with electronics when their submersed, and reduce the size of your lures and bait, and you’ll catch walleye, for sure.

Mark Martin is a walleye tournament pro and fishing school instructor who lives in Michigan ’s southeastern Lower Peninsula . Check out www.markmartins.net for more information on up-coming schools.

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