Shallow Water Walleyes

For those that don’t believe walleye put up much of a fight clearly haven’t experienced shallow water walleyes.

The question is…

“What is considered shallow water”? This is really up to each person’s perception. When I look at a fishery and want to attack the shallow water, I’m looking for water that is 10 feet or less. Much of the time, I’m fishing in less than 5 feet of water.

Time after time, while I’m guiding, I hear my clients say they can’t believe we are fishing so shallow and catching fish, especially during the dog days of summer. I’m a firm believer that you can find a walleye shallow 365 days a year. That may sound a little hooky to you but if you have fished with me you will notice I always start shallow and work my way into the deeper water no matter the time of year. Why do I think walleye are shallow 365 days a year? It’s really pretty simple. Shallow water is warm; baitfish like warm water, vegetation grows thicker and faster in warm shallow water. Where there is vegetation there is oxygen and bait, and where there is bait there is most likely a hungry walleye. As a predator fish, it’s just the laws of nature. Of course, this doesn’t mean I don’t ever fish for deeper fish. But I do target shallow water first, especially on a new body of water.

There are certain circumstances that call for the deep water bite over chasing a shallow water bite. Springtime is notorious for a shallow water bite as the ice clears off the North shores and bays will warm up first.

What little bait there is in the system will be in those warmer areas. This is one of my favorite times of year to fish as the water is still pretty clean and clear. If you can find a school of fish you can really put the smack down on them. Early season is a great time to pitch jigs such as Northland Tackle Current Cutter Jig rigged with an Impulse Core Swimbait. A Fireball jig tipped with a live fathead minnow or shiner is always good, as well as, a stand-up jig for vertical fishing in the river current.

The use of plastics, such as the Impulse Core Swimbait, BFishn Moxi or a Berkley Havoc Beat Shad, all have ribbed bodies that cause the bait to put off more vibration as well as fall slower in the water column, which is excellent in early spring when the fish are less aggressive. Slowing your bait down in early spring can make a huge difference in the amount of fish you put in the boat and one way to do this, without consciously thinking about it, is to use monofilament line. I’m a huge fan of the super lines and use them 95% of the time, however early spring calls for monofilament at times.

Shallow water walleyes are no secret, especially to the avid angler, but what most people miss out on is the hot bite that can take place during the summer on shallow water walleyes.

By nature, we have been taught over the years that a walleye is a cool water species so they will go deep once the water temps begin to rise during the mid to late summer months. This is true for many of the walleye in a particular body of water, however, a walleye is still near the top of the food chain and the fish is an opportunist, going where ever the easiest meal can be found which is shallow much of the time. Just think about trying to catch a little minnow in an area where it can swim freely dodging its predators by diving down or swimming upward or just keep out-swimming them side to side. Now think about skinny water where the minnow has very little room to swim and the predator can pin the bait up shallow, against rocks and/or structure not to mention the vegetation that is most likely present that the predator can hide in waiting for the perfect moment to ambush the school of bait.

                                    It just makes sense, right?

Like any freshwater species, walleye need oxygen to survive and that is measured in PPM (parts per million). So when looking for shallow water eyes in the summer months it’s important that vegetation is present. Vegetation creates oxygen as well as cover. This is what attracts the baitfish which in turn attracts the predator fish. I look for just about any kind of vegetation I can as most bodies of water will have a different type of weed or grass growth. If you’re fortunate enough to have Cabbage weed present, which puts out a lot of oxygen, that’s a good place to start. Same goes for Milfoil weed (best in early spring). Unfortunately, Milfoil is an invasive species and can choke out an entire system by late summer. Bulrush, which is a tall grass, is what I find myself fishing around the majority of the time, and is another great vegetation that can grow up to a few feet out of the water making it easy to identify, often times holding some large fish. Now I know I said walleye need a certain amount of oxygen to survive but don’t get me wrong, I have seen walleye chase bait in one foot of 80º water and eat like a king until they are dead. 

A hungry walleye can be as  clueless as a buck in rut.

Most anglers slide out into the deeper water by July and begin to pull bottom bouncers and troll crankbaits targeting the deep water fish. There are certainly days I will do this as well but I can attest that if I can find a shallow water bite it’s going to be a hot bite as those fish are there for only one reason and this is to feed. Much of the time these are large and aggressive fish and certainly a lot more fun to catch pitching a jig versus dragging a crankbait around in 30 feet of water.  Once you have found some decent vegetation to target it’s most effective to start with casting a crankbait to cover as much water as possible in order to locate active fish. I prefer to use a Berkley Bad Shad or a Berkley War Pig for this presentation. The War Pig is a lipless crankbait and I can adjust the depth I want to fish it by the speed of my retrieve which is great if there is a structure or even pockets I want to work it over or into. If you’re river fishing much of the time you will be able to troll these shallow water spots as they can run on for a mile.

A great way to cover that shallow water is to use Off Shore Tackle Planer boards.

These will get your baits out away from the boat so you’re not spooking these fish when you drive directly over them.  Another method is to deploy an arsenal of 12’ rods out the side of the boat with two 5’ rods directly out the back. I spend a lot of my time on the Missouri River system near Yankton, South Dakota, on Lewis and Clark Lake. This particular body of water isn’t the clearest so running these short rods straight out the back of the boat in four feet of water hasn’t been an issue as of yet. Sometimes the disturbance the prop has made can trigger a bite. As the water temps increase and summer progresses so does the walleye’s metabolism. Their metabolism will increase with water temp and the fish will need to eat more and be more aggressive.

The dog days of summer have been referred to for too long as not a good time to be fishing.

I can tell you it’s not the warm water that is making the bite tough, it’s the competition of bait fish in the system by mid to late summer. Usually, around August, most of the bait has hatched and the walleye are feeding on the small shad, which means a couple things to the angler. “Match the hatch” may be a phrase you have heard a hundred times or to get outside the box and try something that is unfamiliar that will get their attention. I always downsize in late summer using #5 crankbait size and light jigs with 1/2 a night crawler or pinching off part of the plastic to resemble a Mayfly or an insect larva.

I target these areas as long as I can into the fall. The vegetation will usually hold up until late fall depending on the body of water and I know I can almost always find fish there. As the days get shorter and the water temps begin to slowly drop these areas that were hot spots in mid-summer can be amazing spots in the evening hours of the fall. The walleye once again will try to pin the bait fish up in the shallow water at night making this is a great time to upsize your baits and hang on for a big one! 

Fall shallow water walleye can be the best as you really have a great shot of hooking into a true trophy.

Shallow running stick baits work great for this time of year as do jigs rigged with fluke type style bodies. Next time you hit the water this spring or summer remember to start shallow and work your way out to deeper water if you can’t find an active bite. You will be glad you did when that shallow water bite hits as it can be fast and fun. I have had walleye come out of the water like a bass and splash around like a pike when hitting the bait. These fish are strong and aggressive in shallow water and they will let you know it once the hook is set, so hang on.