The first week of March features typical late-winter temperatures in the low 30s. Warm spring weather slowly increases the water temperatures, until the icy cold snowmelt hits the main stem of the river, causing water temps to crash back down. The water will stay cold until most of the snow is gone, allowing the soils to warm and either absorb the snowmelt, or transfer the soil’s heat to the spring runoff. Pre-spawn walleyes respond to this burst of icy cold water in predictable ways. First of all, recognize that the fish don’t move (or, don’t move very far). Biology and instinct has driven them to position on or very near spawning areas, and those biological urges have not disappeared. Unless the dip in water temperatures is also accompanied by an unusual, dramatic increase in water flow, the fish will typically not reposition within the river. That’s the good news: if you knew where the fish were in late winter, then you know where to focus your efforts when the water temperatures dip again.
This first stretch of consistently warm weather in the spring melts the snow in our yards, gets the sap moving in the maples, and brings anglers and their boats out of hibernation. The lure of an early spring trophy walleye draws an increasing number of boats to large rivers that host significant migrations of walleyes and sauger from downstream lakes, reservoirs, or riverine areas.
While fish numbers in spawning areas will slowly increase during this time of year, it’s important to recognize that the spawn may be several weeks away; dictated by factors such as water temperature and moon phase. Consistent fishing at this time of year demands attention to detail, and a willingness to adapt to changing water conditions.
While the weather is warming and becoming consistently more pleasant, water conditions are changing in a wide variety of ways. As water flows will slowly begin to increase, that increase in flow will bring with it a decrease in water clarity and a decrease, yes a decrease, in water temperature. Fishing in cold, dirty water is very different from fishing in the cold, clear waters of late winter.
River rookies are often caught off-guard by the fact that water temperatures always fall before they begin their long march to summer highs. The reason for this dip is simple: melting snow generates large volumes of ice-cold water. As that snowmelt travels under the receding snowpack and over still-frozen ground, it carries those cold temperatures into the streams and creeks that feed larger, walleye-laden rivers.
Another tool that we find very effective for finding fish at this time of the year is our Aqua-Vu underwater camera. In these cold, clear waters of very early spring, fish can be relatively easy to find with traditional sonar or high-frequency imaging techniques, so separating the undesirable fish (like shad, sheephead, suckers, etc.) from our target species is important for fishing with high efficiency. The Aqua-Vu Micro 5 camera system is incredibly lightweight and portable, has a long-life lithium ion batter, and features outstanding optics for excellent image quality in the relatively clear river water.
Here is an example of how we use Aqua-Vu cameras to find early spring walleyes:
Although the fish have not moved, their feeding habits are certainly impacted by the drop in water temperatures. Fish that may have been willing to crack a ringworm or run down a crankbait just a week or two earlier will now be significantly less active. Catching such fish with consistency can take one of two approaches.
First, during the day, consider a very ‘old school’ approach of a jig/minnow combo, or even a simply live bait rig with a 4″ leader and enough weight to maintain bottom contact in the current. When fishing jigs, we prefer H2O jigs. These jigs feature strong, long shank hooks, outstanding paint jobs that resist chipping on rocks or mussel beds, and weights that are molded right into the head to make jig selection easy. Under low light, we will switch back to light (1/16 and 3/32 oz) jigs and ringworms. Fish these soft plastics very slowly, dragging them on long lines behind the boat.
The flush of cold snowmelt marks the beginning of the true ‘pre-spawn’ period for me. Fish will be gathering in large numbers in traditional spawning areas, and will gradually start feeding more aggressively as water temperatures rebound. As water clarity begins to decline, the bite will gradually shift to being stronger during the day.
Charge up your batteries, dust off your jig box, and join us at the river for some improving, early spring walleye action.
Dr. Jason Halfen owns and operates “The Technological Angler”, a media company dedicated to helping anglers learn to use their onboard technology to find and catch more fish. Their first full-length instructional video production, “The Technological Angler, was the winner of the 2014 AGLOW awards-in-craft competition in the TV-fishing division.