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Early Spring Trolling Patterns
By Jason Mitchell

There are general rules of thumb to follow while fishing. Some areas are good each spring and some patterns emerge like clockwork. Early in the season, you can often find walleye in shallow water on many lakes and reservoirs… that might be a general rule of thumb, a starting point. Another starting point might be the back end of bays and creek arms. Some patterns and locations click when everything goes according to plan. If we were to play the odds, these shallow and warmer locations are going to hold fish most of the time. Other factors emerge as well. Gravel or rock might attract spawning fish for example and the males might hang around these areas for much longer. Fishing pressure might also throw an interesting twist to fish location in the sense that these obvious locations where you know there are fish get a serious amount of attention. When we often picture patterns and locations for catching walleye, we often also picture traditional and stable weather patterns.

Early Spring Walleye Weird weather, storm fronts, wicked winds and the like can throw everything you think you know right out the window. There are times where fish aren’t going to be where they were last spring or the last five springs and the culprit is usually related to weather There has been a lot written and said about walleye being shallow whenever the wind is pounding a shoreline or where wind has muddied the water. There has been a lot said about walleye being shallow or feeding aggressively whenever there are overcast skies

Many people have a mindset that the fishing early in the season gets good or better with some kind of weather. Clouds and wind are supposed to make walleye bite better right? From my own experiences on primarily large natural lakes and reservoirs, these conditions often coincide with drops in air and water temperature. These types of conditions generally ruin the traditional patterns not make them better.

For many anglers, trolling crankbaits early in the season is almost taboo. There are obviously strong trolling bites happening on some of the Great Lakes and river systems early in the season but many anglers have a hard time trolling crankbaits on many lakes and reservoirs right away. The truth is, presenting live bait in less than ten feet of water is probably going to work better most of the time but… for those times when nothing is working where it should crankbaits often save the day.

Storm fronts and nasty winds can change fish location so quickly and usually from what I have found, these fish usually move deeper. I often use other fish as well to serve as a barometer. If for example I am catching walleye in four feet of water for argument sake and mixed in with walleye are drum, white bass, pike, etc these other fish give me clues as well. If I am still catching these same fish after some sort of change in the environment, I know not to go off the deep end too far with location. If however I completely blank where I think I should be catching walleye and don’t get bites from anything, I know the change is much more serious. Also, say I slide out to thirty feet of water and start picking up white bass as an example when really, white bass shouldn’t be there… I know I am getting close again.

Most of the time early in the season, every fish in the lake should be shallow. When you get blanked up shallow and start hitting fish regardless of species in much deeper water, you now know that whatever factors sent these other fish off the traditional patterns are probably also changing the walleye’s routine.

Trolling enables me to cover a wide range of depths and several acres of water in a hurry. Lead core line enables me to put the subtle tight wobbling crankbaits that work so well in cold water to any depth I need to fish. Generally, trolling speeds are much slower in the spring than during summer or fall. Often, 2 miles per hour ground speed on the GPS is the high end for speed but even 1.2 to 1.6 miles per hour is significant for covering water, much faster than most live bait presentations. To control and fine tune-trolling speeds while slowly crawling with lead core and crankbaits, a drift control sock is an essential tool for boat control. Throwing off just one small drift sock off the front cleat of the boat is going to drop your speed down. Putting down your bow mount trolling motor down as well will generally drop your ground speed by .2 miles per hour. Angling into the wind or chop or even hitting the waves sideways will also drop your speed even more. During severe wind where you have to troll with the wind to control the boat and keep planer boards from snapping and bogging down, two drift socks might be necessary. A drift sock off each side of the boat will enable to stay on course and turn much easier with heavier seas.

Early in the season, the surges and jerks on the lure that might work so well to trigger fish later in the year can sometimes be a negative. Some stops or stalls are usually good but the lure still has to be easy to catch. This is one of the few times where I will let out too much lead core and let the line really bow in the water and slap bottom. The extra bow in the line when moving at extremely slow speeds seems to absorb some of the wild surges that occur when trolling through big waves. I also seem to have better luck by using a longer leader than normal. I don't think the long leader is the result of fish being line shy but perhaps subdues the action in some way. I also like to use Fireline for the leader because short hits and shake offs that just reveal a fish for even a second are easier to notice. Even if the fish barely nips the crank and shakes off with one headshake, I still want to know about that as this information allows me to make better decisions. Short hits are often the rule as well in the sense that fish are often hooked with the back hooks on the crankbait… often just one hook in the tip of the walleye’s jaw. Where and how the fish are getting hooked on crankbaits tells you a lot about how these fish are hitting. Lures that are caught sideways in the fish’s mouth or swallowed are revealing that the fish are generally hitting these lures pretty aggressively. Fish that are stuck on the outside of the face or barely through the front of the mouth with one hook reveal that these fish aren’t overly aggressive.

If I can get to the rod immediately or am holding the rod, I will often give the rod a little bit of a hook set when trolling at these ultra low speeds. I have also found that I am much more successful landing fish by keeping the drags set really light as these fish will come unbuttoned if you horse them. Many of the fish shake off in the net. A long handled trolling net is a big plus. When Lindy Legendary Tackle bought Beckmen Nets, they sent me a trolling net with an extremely long handle. That handle must extend out to twelve feet or more and might seem kind of awkward but boy has that net saved me some fish. Now I can’t imagine trolling without it. When trolling at these slow speeds during the spring, I will sometimes kick my speed up just a hair as well after hooking up with a fish that I really want to get. Whenever possible, I want the fish to ski or rise up behind the boat versus digging and running below the motor especially when barely hooked. Also when I can see the fish coming to the surface behind the boat, I can tell how the fish is hooked which allows me to make better decisions on how much pressure I can use to land the fish.

This past season, I had the opportunity to design what I feel is the perfect trolling rod (Jason Mitchell Guide Series Rods). The rod has a soft forgiving tip, which enables anglers to get those lightly hooked fish into the net. The rod also differs from many other trolling rods in the sense that we shortened the butt of the rod so the movement on the rod tip while removing the rod from the rod holder is more fluid. This is a big aid when trying to maintain the right amount of pressure on lightly hooked fish without giving any slack. These trolling rods also fish longer in the sense that the overall rod length isn’t tied up in a long handle that gets in the way inside the boat.

When fish aren’t where they should be this spring, trolling areas nearby and deeper will often put you on the pattern again. Especially during abnormal or abrupt weather patterns, we often find walleye scattered off the first significant break and across the first significant flat that is located where the fish were or should be. Many people also assume that the weather that can shut fishing down will put these fish on sharp breaks and to the sides of structure. This might be the case at times but the adjacent deeper flats or basins that run along these breaks often hold a significant number of fish as well and these areas are much easier to cover in a hurry by trolling crankbaits.

Editors Note: The author, Jason Mitchell is a legendary guide on North Dakota’s Devils Lake. This article has been brought to you by Jason Mitchell Guide Series Rods, www.jasonmitchellrods.com.

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