Gary Parsons recalls some lessons learned from fishing Wisconsin's Lake Winnebago with his father that have changed the way he approaches early season walleye fishing.
I realize its only March and there could still be ice covering some of the lakes and rivers that "Old Marble Eyes" inhabits. But sometime over the next four to six weeks the ice will be gone and winter-long visions of chasing summer-time walleyes will become reality. Of course, these early outings normally will find you probing the water with jigs and minnows; working river stretches or shallow flats near spawning grounds. It’s a tried and true approach that will put fish in the boat, but it’s a numbers game … mostly smaller males … the big mamas are rarely found in the mix.
There is another option, though very few anglers ever take advantage of it. The bites are few, but the rewards can be monstrous! Beginning what seems like eons ago, my dad and I began doing fairly well on Lake Winnebago fishing the main lake basin as early as April. We were getting fewer fish than the guys fishing in the river, nearer the spawning areas, but the fish we caught were considerably larger. They were getting limits of 14 to 16 inch walleyes, compared to our two or three fish that went three to five pounds. At that time, those were the largest walleyes in the system, and we consistently took home Big Fish honors in the local early season tournaments. Those experiences lead us to believe that, once the spawning female’s duties are done, they make a move … straight to deep water. That’s not to say that they head for the depths and just sit there. They tend to relate to the first deep water flats near the mouths of spawning rivers, or the nearest deep water close to main lake spawning areas. On Winnebago, the deep water meant 18 to 20 feet, but the fish were not always on the bottom. They were scattered throughout the water column, most likely chasing baitfish. These females go there to feed and regain strength from the rigors of spawning, and they’re catchable.
The validity of this pattern really came to light back in April of 1991, as Keith Kavajecz and I were pre-fishing for our first PWT tournament on Lake Erie’s western basin. Most of the anglers were concentrating on the reef areas, fishing shallow water patterns near spawning sites, and while the catches were fair, no one was finding the large females that we knew inhabited this body of water. That’s when we took the lessons I'd learned from Winnebago, and headed for the first deep water flats near the spawning areas and began looking for "the pot of gold". Well needless to say, we found it … in fact Keith ended up second and I third in that tournament and the early season fishing on Erie has become legendary since then. In fact, in April of 2002, the PWT once again held a tournament on the western basin of Lake Erie, and the big walleyes were there in full force. In three days of competition, there were 350 walleyes over ten pounds brought to