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How to Catch Big Ice Out Walleyes on Crankbaits in Rivers, Reservoirs, and Lakes

The ice just went out on the local lake a few days ago, it's early spring, and you're chomping at the bit to put together a winning pattern on your home lake. Where you are fishing will determine what types of patterns will be productive. Walleyes in shallow natural lakes will be a pushover during the day compared to a reservoir where walleyes spawn on rip rapped dam faces. These off colored shallower lakes warm up quicker and walleyes really get active in surprisingly large numbers at ice out. A deeper colder reservoir will have more options for you though. Let's look at these waters and a few others to see what the most effective crankbait patterns will be for this cold water period. I hope you can get out at this time of year, the fishing is surprisingly good despite the cold.

Shallow Natural Lakes With Basins No deeper than 12 feet 

Lets start on the shorelines of these lakes, as the ice disappears walleyes are pulled in strongly to the shallow rocky shorelines in these dirty watered lakes. In fact, during late ice, you can catch these fish in 2 or 3 feet of water up next to shore! They have no problem being up in 6 inches to 5 feet of water all day long at ice out. Good conditions will be warm days with light Southerly Winds. The fish in these lakes don't linger around on deeper flats like they do on deep reservoirs and natural lakes. They don't have to wait for the water to warm up-it warms up the minute the sun comes out-Literally!

Walleyes will congregate around rocky shorelines receiving the southerly winds. In these lakes they'll also group up around any rocky areas close to the inlet and outlet. The sweet spots on big rocky shorelines will be where a deeper basin contour comes up in the vicinity of the rocky shoreline. You'll find this zone will be the hot run to make when you begin trolling at ice out. Work an equal balance of crankbaits and stickbaits into your trolling spread. 

Use something equivalent to a number 4 Shad Rap. Chartreuse is usually the best color in these stained lakes. Keep your stickbaits small and subtle as well. Husky Jerk, HJ 4 is a good choice. You want to use small baits so you get good wobble at very slow speeds. That's only half of the equation though. Incorporate a thin super braid into your delivery system.

I prefer 6-2 Fireline for trolling these small baits. The thread-like super thin line creates almost no resistance to your baits-so they really come to life at slow speeds, it makes all the difference in the world! Guys trolling with traditional 10-4 Fireline or thicker mono will not see the results you'll see with 1 or 2 pound diameter line. Don't worry, set your drag right and should you hook a big fish, slow the boat down to .5 or .8 MPH as you fight the fish. You always want to keep the boat moving a bit when fish are hooked trolling crankbaits.

Get on a good shoreline and deploy 4 rods with two people in the boat if you legally can. Use a planer board for your shallow bait. First, stick the bait down in the water next to the boat so you can see it wiggling and diving. Get the boat moving along just fast enough to make the bait barely dive and wobble and look at your GPS speed. Remember it and maintain it to the Nth degree! Feed out 8 feet of line to the bait and clip on the planer board, send this bait right up next to the rocks in 2 feet of water. 

The next bait out will be the deep planer board, run you're other crankbait on this line for whatever you have for depth 20 feet from the boat on the deep side. You want your baits tickling the bottom occasionally in the cold murky water. Send your stickbaits out the back of the boat in the 4 to 5 foot depths, again, adjust them so they knock rocks occasionally.

You're all set to crawl these little walleye killers all along where fish are grouping up for the spawn. For this time of year you will definitely find the fish getting more active as the warmth from the sun does it's work in a day. The period from noon until evening is an excellent time to incorporate this method.      If you continually whack fish every pass in one certain small area, it would be advisable to anchor nearby and fan cast these little baits in the hot zone. Be sure to work them back to the boat in the same slow bottom bumping manner, almost like you're milking a jig along.

Deeper Environments

In deeper, clearer reservoirs and natural lakes you can find the walleyes quite deep during the daytime at ice out. Some walleye will move shallow immediately, and other fragmented populations will use the upper shallower ends of reservoirs. Your best bet is locating the largest most prominent spawning habitat and working deep flats out from these areas.

This will be where a big group of fish is found. They tend not to be grouped up to heavily and many fisherman traditionally drift these areas with jigs. Leadcore line and the same small crankbaits become deadly weaponry for these scenarios.

Work deep 25 to 35 foot flats adjacent to the areas walleyes will use for spawning later in spring. Any long points that stick out from spawning areas will show you good locations-work the open water flats off the ends of these major projections. Humps, sloped banks, or actual points won't produce fish like the flats will at ice out. If you're used to only fishing structure it's time to get out of your comfort zone and ply deep open water walleye holding areas. These areas are flat or at the least very gradual in tapering.

With the clearer water be sure to run some baits 5 and even 10 feet off the bottom, walleyes that may snub their nose at a slow bottom bumping presentation will feed up very aggressively when baits swim over their heads in clear water. Be sure and run one crank and one stickbait bumping along bottom, keep the other two up. Use the same speeds and line diameters as the previous example and you'll have the jig fisherman wondering what the heck your doing-moving around so quickly (comparatively) and putting quality fish in the boat. The fish will be spread out so be sure and drop icons on pods you come over as well as where you catch a fish. After a few hours you'll be playing connect the dots with your trolling passes and icon reference points.

The other really good option in reservoirs is to milk a spread of crankbaits along the deeper reaches of the rip rapped dam. There will be a point in time when your deeper walleyes start to disappear from the flats. When you notice this happening get right up along the rip rap in 12 to 20 feet of water, keep your baits walking over the rocks in a slow deliberate manner.

Deep Natural Lakes-Shallower bays      

Shallow bays connected to larger natural lakes will be the other area to spend some serious time crank'n ice out eyes-all through the spring period. These bays usually have an inlet and some spawning takes place back in these areas. Since they are usually dishpan slow tapers, you'll find the walleyes are positioned exactly like they are on the deep flats. They're spread out in the middle of the bay, maybe relating to an 8 foot depression in a bay that's mostly 6 feet deep. Swim your crankbaits all over the middle of these off colored warmer bays in the spring time for surprisingly high numbers of big fish!

Night Time Casting

Once actual spawning fires off night fishing really takes off in the many smaller reservoirs that dot the Midwest and Southern Regions of the US. The rip rapped faces of dams in reservoirs is a favorite location where these waters are located. Cast big stickbaits parallel to shore along these rocky areas-most of your walleyes will come within 10 feet of shore. Slow steady retrieves will produce better than quick jerky stop and go motions. Concentrate around the corners of the dam, any rip rapped points that stick out from the dam, and especially the outflow spillway. It's a pattern that happens on every single walleye-stocked reservoir where fish don't make an upstream migration.

Early Spring River Patterns 

Spring rains and high muddy water make river fishing difficult early in the spring period. The best baits under these conditions by far are either the Number 7 Jointed Shad Rap in Chartreuse or running stickbaits in tandem with each other. Hand lining or the use of a three way weighting system is the most effective way to fish these river conditions.

Walleyes will run shallow in large rivers as the spawning time draws near. Rocky shorelines in areas of reduced current and around the mouths to major slough entrances are great areas to probe with three ways under tough conditions.

The real secret is stalling the boat out over marked fish or an interesting hump as you slowly crawl your way upstream. Get the boat just creeping up stream at a snails pace in an area with the right current, depth and rock. 8 feet, give or take, will be good.  Periodically stall the boat so you aren't moving upstream anymore. You come over something interesting on the electronics, hover over it for a bit and even let the boat slip backwards ever so slowly-slipping those baits backwards into the waiting jaws of old Marble eyes. This is a rarely used tactic that produces big time!

You'll find walleyes will eagerly gobble a crankbait right as the ice comes off your lake or river. Part of the trick is fishing shallow off colored lakes or shallow dingy bays connected to big deep lakes during the daytime for success. If no shallow options exist on your lake or reservoir with the exception of a night bite, then running leadcore on deep flats adjacent to spawning areas will be the number 1 producer-until the water warms sufficiently to get fish moving shallow. 

Note: Kolby spends countless hours each year chasing walleyes around the Midwest in many different water types. Kolby is the 2007 I.O.W.A state champion and author of the ebook, INLAND WALLEYE, powerful information for walleye anglers.

About Kolby Kester

Kolby brings knowledge and real life experience to you from two and a half decades of serious fishing time. He spends on average 150 days a year chasing walleyes in every conceivable environment. INLAND WALLEYE, AMERICA'S FAVORITES, and MASTERING THE CRANKBAIT GAME are new releases from Kolby. "I'm careful about where I fish and what the walleyes in that particular lake can teach me"...

"It's funny most fishermen like to go to lakes where the walleye fishing is phenomenal - you can do no wrong. Don't get me wrong, I like that too. But for strictly educating walleye anglers, there will be many misconceptions past along when you catch a fish per cast or every 5 minutes on a trolling run on a so called, magical bait.

I think fishermen would be better served if some of the television shows would stop fishing walleye factory lakes and pushing products so much. I've always felt they should concentrate on spreading out more in the states - maybe catching some fish under tough conditions in a lake that isn't world renown. Walleye fishing is about the root fundamentals and understanding the dynamics of walleye behavior under countless conditions and water body types...

If you figure out how to catch walleyes during the toughest times of the year, or on waters where everyone struggles, you'll really learn the true secrets on what makes walleyes tick. Learn to catch them in lakes where they aren't so prevalent or at difficult times of the year and you can catch them anywhere...


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