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Walleye Are Everywhere

Here is the information, as of this midweek writing: we can still go fishing, according to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s NY Pause executive order.

However, in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, the state asks that you please act safely when fishing. Do not crowd access sites. If you arrive at an angler access area that is congested, consider finding another area that is less crowded or consider fishing another day. When you’re on the water, please make sure there is ample room between you and your fellow anglers. Don’t share a boat unless it is large enough so that all persons aboard can always remain at a minimum distance of 6 feet apart. Providing ample distance helps to reduce the spread of colds, flu and COVID-19, and also contributes to an overall better angling experience.

In a nutshell those are the “new” rules for fishing in today’s world in our part of walleye country.

The past few seasons have found walleye fishing success increasing on Chautauqua Lake. With that said there have been a few adjustments, such as the statewide limit of five fish with a 15-inch minimum per day is currently in effect on Chautauqua.

With the annual opener being the first Saturday in May, we are experiencing an earlier-than-normal opening day. Along with the spring that Mother Nature has given us, water temperatures are still on the low side, but will increase at a quicker rate than recent years.

For the record, from ice out to the low 40s is one of the best times to target walleye. This is the pre-spawn period where the fish are aggressive, and a great time to catch many of the big fish before they enter the spawning period. Walleye will likely spawn in the upper 40-degree temperature range and then fishing will shut down during the actual spawn, and usually the week or so after as they recover from the stress of spawning.

When walleye spawn depends on two factors: length of day and water temperature. Length of day offsets the extremes of temperatures. However, water temperature differences can still mean the difference of fish spawning in early April or early May in this part of the country.

Walleye on average spawn when temperatures are in the mid- to upper 40s. This, of course, depends on the locale. Fishing heats up around these temperatures, but not during the actual spawn.

Pre-spawn is a hot time to fish and usually picks up when temperatures start hovering around that 40-degree mark; dies down during, and immediately following, the spawn; and picks up again as temperatures rise through the 50s generally.

The actual spawning period is entirely dependent upon water temperature and time of year. River walleye will spawn before lake walleye and in some inland lakes such as Chautauqua, many walleyes run up creeks and inlets that flow into the lake to spawn also. Often this happens because the water warms faster in creeks and inlets than the lake.

Especially on inland waters, older females will have a quick entrance and exit to the spawning area, and then usually return to deeper, calmer water. Smaller females will often congregate to easy food sources, often in the shallows looking for perch.

Sometimes in the weeks following the spawn, when the temperatures rise into the upper 50s, it’s best to go deeper. Rocky points like Warners and Bell Tower are good areas to pick up larger females after the spawn. With that said, just about any structure on Chautauqua that is 20-plus feet in the northern basin will produce some of the bigger fish.

It’s best to target these deeper spots with jigs. One can vertical jig in the deeps, you can drift in the shallows. They are highly variable tools that give you the flexibility to target the walleye wherever you can find them. You can “pitch” them, drag them, or let them hang, depending on the walleye’s mood.

Over the years I have discovered, the lightest possible size that will still reach the bottom is the best during the first few weeks of the season. Depending on current, this usually means 3/8 or 1/4-ounce jigs. Color and dressing are guessing games. Each angler has their favorite. Locally it’s best to keep with darker hair jig, tipped off with crawler or minnow.

Recently, crankbaits and rattle traps style baits are becoming very popular. The thing with crankbaits is there is only really one method to work. It is more of a reaction bite and allows you to cover significant ground. I’ve heard of anglers having a lot of success during the pre-spawn period, running cranks up and down rivers as walleye start migrating through for the pre-spawn period. However, you do not get the variability that you do when running a traditional jig and minnow.

For shore hugging, use shallow cranks, like the No. 5 or No. 7. Remember to try and get as close to natural bait fish color as you can. Locally, you can never go wrong with a perch pattern. The difference between early season and mid-summer is generally the speed. Try running slower in the early season and a bit faster mid-summer. It also depends on what the fish want that day, and that’s up to you to find out. Never be afraid to switch colors or speed.

I cut my teeth slowly trolling weed edges on the upper basin on Chautauqua. To this day an evening trolling is still my favorite way of filling the freezer with eyes.

When trolling for early season walleyes one needs to look no further than worm harness and jointed stick bait. Working your offering just on the edge of the weed line is often your best bet, but rocky points will also produce good action.

When one finds a rocky point that butts up along with a weed edge, hold onto your rod and be ready to keep your secret honey under wraps. Working your bait slowly has always been the key as water temperatures begin to move up.

The old rule of thumb is keep an eye on your rod tip, then let the fish tell you how they want the bait. With the program, we always put out a stick bait on one side and a worm harness on the other and, again, let the fish tell us what they are hungry for.

The slower one trolls the further down your worm harness will run, so keep that in mind when you are working weed edges. Nothing worse than having to pick up your bait all the time and get lettuce off it, because of course walleye don’t like lettuce with their meat.

If it’s best to troll or drift is basically personal preference, but it should also be based on lake conditions and where you are finding your “eyes.” When you find a large number of them together, it is tough to beat a jig. When the fish are spread out and on the move, trolling with cranks or spinners is a great option.

Early season walleye fishing can be a lot of fun. They are also great table fare. While practicing social distancing, this is a great time to be on the water.

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