PARK FALLS, Wisc. – Ask any self-respecting walleye angler which season they like best, and spring is likely to be at the top of the list. Coming out of winter, it just feels good to pitch some jigs, hit the rivers, and spend time in the boat. But springtime walleye fishing means you’re contending with mother nature’s temperaments and variable spawning activity, which affect the quality of fishing you might earn on any given day. We tapped some of the best walleye anglers on the St. Croix pro staff to offer some timely, detailed advice on the bites they’re hitting right now, as well as what’s to come.
John Balla is a household name to tournament walleye anglers. A professional angler, educator, and fishing promoter hailing from Barrington, Illinois, he travels extensively to sniff out the best spring bites on rivers like the Illinois, Mississippi, Missouri, Detroit, Fox, and Menominee each season. Balla is consistently tasked with breaking down these waters. “I’m mainly looking for fish that push to current seams caused by spring snowmelt and rains,” he says. “If water levels are normal, I start looking at the top end and edges of wintering holes and then move upstream to hard-bottom spawning areas and dams. These are the most obvious stopping point for migrating fish,” he offers. From there, Balla uses navigational buoys in these large systems to help find large, shallow flats that hold fish as water warms into the 40’s.
To get bit, Balla loves to target walleyes by pitching, casting, or vertically jigging the current breaks and deeper channel edges. Pitching rules the day when fish are shallow and flows are low, but Balla goes vertical in faster, deeper water. “With higher water levels the current also increases, forcing an angler to increase the weight of the jigs to compensate and maintain bottom contact,” he says. “I like using heavier jigs from 3/8 oz. to 1 oz., depending on depth and current speed. Fishing vertically is usually the name of the game in such conditions,” continues Balla, who likes to rig his jigs with thin-bodied paddle tail plastics, 3-4″ shad bodies, ring worms, or 3-4″split-tail minnows. “I alternate between subtle lift and holds in colder water to aggressive snaps and lifts as the water warms. Saugers seem to prefer the aggressive action of rip-jigging, while walleyes demand a bit more finesse.”
Balla says the St. Croix Eyecon Heavy Metal rod (ECS58HF) is tailor made for jigging heavy spring flows. “The ECS58HF is 5’8″ long with heavy power and a fast top section. The rod is perfectly matched for heavier jigs and plastics in heavy current and deeper water. The properties of the SCII carbon blank actually make this rod perform more like an extra-fast model. The heavy power allows for heavier lures and powerful hooksets, while the fast action facilitates bite detection with enough deflection to handle big fish in heavy current on braid without losing fish. The manageable 5’8″ length is ideal for vertical jigging and line management, while also helping with fast, powerful hooksets in deep water with heavier lures.”
Wausau, Wisconsin native Cody Hahner, well-known for his bass talents, warms up each season on Green Bay, targeting post-spawn walleyes in the Fox and Peshtigo River systems. By May, Hahner is onto bronzebacks in the bay, but in spring he’s glued to his electronics in search of big ‘eyes. Hahner starts at hard-bottom spots near the mouth of the river, pushing out to open water while monitoring side-imaging for pods of fish to throw at. Hahner carefully studies the wind, which tells him where to be from day to day. “Warm water moves based on current and wind direction, which also positions fish on these hard-bottom spots,” offers Hahner. “It doesn’t have to be rock; even zebra-mussel beds will have fish if the water is warm and the wind is pushing right.” Bait is less of an issue for Hahner, who knows the walleyes are eating a pile of gobies anywhere they go, just like the smallmouth. “Warm water, a bit of wind, and some hard-bottom are what you need to be looking for early in the season.”
While proven methods like jig-and-minnow fishing will always get you bit during the spring, Hahner prefers to actively search out pods of fish with side-imaging sonar and then cast to them. “Hair jigs, blade baits, rattle baits, I use them all,” he says. “Even underspin jigs like we use in the bass world work really well out here.”
Aggressive techniques call for big 3000 or 4000 series reels and their larger arbors for long casts and great drag characteristics. “These are big fish that don’t take huge runs or anything, but you need to keep them buttoned up,” says Hahner, who prefers to run braid with a fluoro leader like Balla, opting for 15-lb. main line, and a 6-10-lb. leader. “I like a lighter leader for live bait and early, clearer water, but I’ll use a heavier leader when ripping more aggressive artificials.”
Different baits and techniques call for different rods, and Hahner loves setting up friends in the boat with a simple jig and minnow and a St. Croix Legend Elite ES70MLF. “The softer tip lets you pitch that jig at distance without losing your minnow, while allowing for incredible feel that’s crucial when fishing live bait,” says Hahner. Unsurprisingly, he’s also impressed with the new Legend Xtreme Series and what these rods mean for fishing with superior sensitivity. For fishing hard baits, he prefers the longer Legend Xtreme XFS76MF. “Longer casts mean I cover more water, but I still need feel at the long end of that cast. That’s where control and sensitivity is so important; a long cast is worthless if you can’t feel that far. These rods do that job better than any other I’ve used, even with a bow in the line,” says Hahner. For the long-distance hair-jig game, Hahner goes back to the Legend Elites and fishes the ES76MLXF model. “Long rods are so important out here, and for hair, I still want that longer cast, but with more of a yo-yo natural rise and fall jigging motion. The medium-light power is just a touch more subtle, which I really like for those jigs,” he concludes.
No spring Midwest walleye discussion would be complete without mention of the Detroit River and its legendary spawn of brute west-basin Lake Erie walleyes. That’s where long-time pro and Erie expert Chuck Mason comes in. Mason explains the two-part game of the region – river and lake. “On the Detroit River, I am looking for spots with slack water or choke points that the bigger fish will slide into in order to get out of the current and rest up. Out on the Michigan side of Erie’s western basin, I’m looking for areas where the fish will stage before heading for their spawning structure and river runs.”
Depending on timing and water temperatures, you may want to be in one place over the other. “We start out snap-jigging hair jigs and lipless baits on the Detroit river, than shift more to using blade baits out on Lake Erie,” says Mason. “On the D, we fish vertical presentations consisting of jigs varying in weight from 5/8 oz., 3/4 oz. and 1 oz. in combination with Wyandotte Worms and plastic minnows, then tipped with live bait and rigged with a stinger hook.” What sounds like a clunky offering has some real method behind its apparent madness. “Tipping the presentation does two things,” Mason says. “It bulks up the profile in dirty water while adding flavor and scent. The smaller jigs are my finesse presentation in clean, shallow water or in areas that are completely out of the current. Heavier jigs up to an ounce are employed in spots where the current is whipping, but holding a bunch of fish.”
After the spawn, the big, open water of Lake Erie calls for differing tactics. “On Erie, I’m often pulling big body baits behind planer boards in combination with some shallow baits rigged with snap weights to get them down in the water column,” Mason says. “Some areas are holding fish in tight spots, and that is where casting lipless baits like the Northland Rippin’ Shad comes into play.” When focusing on these small spots, Mason will fish on a controlled drift, using either a drift sock or use the bow-mount trolling motor. In stained water – the “soup” as he calls it – Mason snap jigs ½ oz. to 1 oz. hair jigs. A variety of tactics will work for these post-spawn fish, so Mason emphasizes a montage of methods to figure out what works best on any given day.
Though many anglers choose to tie braid direct in the stained water to avoid losing baits, Mason prefers using a 10-lb. fluorocarbon leader and hi-vis braid in conjunction with a ball-bearing swivel. For his trolling setups on Erie, he spools Daiwa Sealine 27 line-counter reels with 12-lb. mono and uses a snap at the end. For snap-jigging, hair jigs and lipless baits are rigged with 30-lb. hi-vis braid for castability with a 14-lb. leader, while his blade-bait rods are rigged with hi-vis 10-lb. braid and leader. “These trophy fish call for higher-end rigging and heavier line in general,” advises Mason.
Like Balla, Mason is a huge fan of the St. Croix Eyecon Heavy Metal rod (ECS58HF), as it was specifically designed and built for big-jig vertical presentations on spring rivers with heavy flows. “When it comes to vertical jigging the Detroit River, the shorter the rod, the quicker the hookset, which is huge considering we just might be fishing the most snaggy river system in the country,” Mason says. “Specifically, in the Trenton Channel where the big girls are many, it’s a complete jig graveyard. The ECS58HF allows for intense control, driving home hooks through hard mouths quickly, while providing a fast response that makes it the right tool for the job. It also feels really light in your hand, which is key for fishing all day, pumping heavy jigs in fast current,” he adds. For less current and lighter presentations in the ½ oz. – 5/8 oz. range, Mason reaches for the Legend Tournament Walleye LWS59MXF. “Like the Heavy Metal Eyecon, this Legend Tournament is a great rod for bigger jigs, but it has a sweet spot and really excels right in that ½-oz. category.”
Mason deploys Eyecon Trolling rods when pulling baits on boards or snap weights on Erie. “They’re powerful enough to hold up to pulling boards through big water in a tournament situation where we might be dealing with 4-to-5-foot waves, but still soft enough to play a fish into the net,” says Mason, who prefers longer rods while trolling, saying they offer better leverage and line management. The Eyecon ET86MMT telescopic model is one of his favorites. “It’s just a sweet rod that fishes really well, then stores so nicely at the end of the day.”
One of Mason’s favorite techniques is snapping hair jigs off the bottom on the drift with Legend Tournament Walleye LWS68MXF. “Toss out a couple of bags to slow you down, then put down the size that works best for the conditions and give your rod tip a six-inch pump off the bottom, and then drop back down and snap again,” he advises. “The action on the Legend Tournament Walleye is perfect for setting the hook on a bite, which comes on the lift 95% of the time,” continues Mason, who’s also bullish on St. Croix Avid Series rods. “The AVS68MXF has the exact same length, power, and action of my favorite Legend Tournament Walleye model, but Avid’s larger guides make it a perfect choice for casting a wider range of baits from lipless cranks to Jigging Raps and swimbait presentations. I’m often casting up onto structure this time of the year for big pre-spawn walleyes, and precise location is a big deal on the fly. The 6’8″ length and extra-fast tips on these rods make for extremely accurate casting, while the guide trains are very forgiving with a variety of baits on all kinds of line.”
All three St. Croix pros agree that there are plenty of ways to get bit during the spring walleye runs, but urge careful matching of componentry and rigging for each presentation. Basic details like pairing the right rods to the task at hand are key. For the most part, vertical operations require a shorter, stouter rod to stand up to heavy jigs, while affording fast, effective hooksets. Pros that favor pitching jigs looked to longer options in the 6’8″ range for precision, all the way up to 7’6″ when distance is identified as a critical factor. Diverse St. Croix rod series like Eyecon, Legend Tournament Walleye, Avid, Legend Elite, and Legend Xtreme are widely employed by these pros for a variety of springtime walleye bites across the Midwest. No matter what series in the lineup you choose, you’ll find quality rod choices specifically designed to give you the upper hand when targeting spring walleyes with any technique or presentation.
Braid is the name of the game, but Balla tends to run a leader with lower flows. “I use 10-12-lb. braided line in hi-vis yellow to help with bite detection and to maintain bottom contact. In clear water, I tie a small #10 barrel swivel and attach a 2-3′ leader of 8-10-lb. fluorocarbon before tying on the jig,” he says.