As Mother Nature slowly loosens her grip on winter, many of us are starting to look forward to getting our fishing equipment ready and getting on the water to fish the spawning runs. I reside in Illinois, so most of the ice covered rivers have already given way to open water and with no closed fishing season on them. It won’t be long till my boat and I are pointed toward the river to give some pre-spawn walleyes sore mouths. However, with all this pent up anticipation and confidence I have to remind myself that fishing for walleye and other fish species during their various spawning cycles can sometimes be a challenge. During the spring and early summer, most fish have one thing on their mind and that’s to complete a successful spawning run and keep their species moving forward. This one track instinct, coupled with inconsistent water temperatures, water levels, and weather changes, can leave many anglers, including some of the most seasoned, scratching their heads on where to find the fish during the run!
Last spring on an early fly-in with Wilderness North, we got to experience the challenge and opportunity of following large female walleyes through their post spawn transition. I call it an opportunity because I had never experienced a post spawn transition on a lake before and it was indeed a challenge for the same reason, but once we put all the pieces of the puzzle together it was very rewarding! We went from finding the big girls near waterfalls and creeks at the beginning of the week, to reconnecting with them mid-week in shallow muck basins where they moved to warm up, recover and feed after the spawn. Then, by week’s end the pack of big girls made their way to a couple of rocky points on the main lake just outside those muck basins. It was really educational to experience their migration, which surprisingly, only took 7 days. It really opened my eyes to the fact, that as anglers, we need to stay flexible and not assume that if the fish aren’t biting they must just be turned off. We need to be open-minded to trying new and different lures and techniques and especially new spots. We need to be willing to give up on a spot that was hot yesterday if it’s not producing today, and move around to try and reconnect with those fish.
Here are some general rules of thumb for finding fish during the various phases of the spawning cycle. For the purpose of this article, we will stay with five of North America’s most sought after species; bass, crappie, panfish (bluegill/sunfish), pike and of course my favorite, walleye.
Winter Phase: This is what I would call the first phase of the spawn. By mid-to-late winter, most species will school in deeper water than we would normally find them during the spring or summer. Winter is a time when the female fish’s eggs start the maturing process and most will seek the comfort of deeper water, because it offers warmer water temps, the oxygen levels are greater, and the forage is the most abundant. In winter, “deep” is relative to the species and the body of water they live in. In general, by midwinter, walleye and crappie can often be found in the deepest basin of a lake or river and in most cases that would be about 20 to 50 feet. Bass, panfish and pike are generally found a little shallower, in 15 to 25 feet. If you enjoy hard water fishing and you’re having trouble finding big fish in midwinter, try fishing the deeper water basin of your favorite lake. You might be rewarded with the lake record!
Pre-Spawn Phase: This is the second phase of the spawn cycle, when fish move from their wintering holes to somewhat shallower water to feed heavily and build up energy for the vigorous act of spawning. Of the five species mentioned, pike are the first to start their pre spawn move. This often takes place when the lakes are still frozen. Pike will leave the deeper water in search of the mouth of an incoming river, creek or bay. There they will actively feed and build up energy as the ice continues to disintegrate above. Walleye will follow a couple weeks later, when the lakes have thawed, and will set up residence just outside areas of flow. Then a few weeks later, the crappie, bass and panfish will get into the act and start moving toward shallower water. At their different times of their spawning cycle, each species will move from their deep wintering holes to the mid-depth ranges of roughly 10 to 15 feet. This is where they will setup base camp while they wait for their eggs to mature to the point they are ready to spawn. However, the amount of daylight, coupled with water temperatures, will give the final cue on when to make the final move towards spawning. As anglers, we need to keep in mind that changes in light, wind, and water temperature will affect the fish’s depth on any given day or even hour. For example, if the sun has been shining for several hours and it’s been one of those mild, calm spring days, typically the fish will move shallower into 3 to 6 feet of water. They do this because the water is warmer which first allows them to warm themselves, stimulating their metabolism; Second, helps their eggs mature faster; third, provides more forage for them to eat; fourth, allows them to start looking for a suitable spawning spot. On the other hand, if the water temps decline, the fish will move deeper from their intermediate base camp depth. In fact, if this happens early in the pre spawn stage, fish will often move back to their wintering hole until the warmer, more stable weather returns. This is what makes pre-spawn fishing a challenge. They can be here today and gone tomorrow, so if it’s warm and stable, think about checking shallower. If it’s cool and windy, think about trying deeper. As anglers, we really need to pay attention to the weather, past and present, and be willing to move deeper or shallower.
Spawn: Once water temps reach, and consistently stay in an optimal range for spawning, for several days, fish will move from their intermediate depths into the shallow bays or incoming rivers and creeks to lay their eggs in 1 – 6 feet of water. Bass, crappie and panfish move up to spawning beds they previously constructed by creating depressions in the sand during the latter part of the pre-spawn stage. Unlike bass, crappie and panfish, the pike and walleye are known as broadcast spawners and don’t have a specific spawning bed to drop their eggs in. This is significant because bass, crappie, and panfish will stay around their nests to guard them for several days after they spawn, while pike and walleye have an “All-About-Me” attitude and move away from their spawning site sooner. Sight fishing for bedding panfish can be a blast during the warmth of summer and keeping a few can make for an excellent fish fry. However, with bedding bass, it’s always good to practice catch and release or not fish them at all. Many states won’t even allow anglers to fish for bass until the season opens. In normal weather years, most seasons won’t be open until after the bass have spawned. (Please be sure to check your regulations for all your target species season openers.)
Post spawn: This can be one of the most challenging times to find fish and produce consistent catches. For example, with walleye, the smaller males will hang around the spawning grounds for several days looking for a female to make a connection with, even though the vast majority of females have already skedaddled. You can usually catch the smaller male walleye during the post-spawn phase right where the females were a week earlier. But it’s the big females that are challenging to find. They will usually stay put and feed heavily for a day after they spawn, then they virtually disappear for a couple weeks. However, once they have regained their composure and energy, they regroup and go hunting for forage as a pack. When this occurs it can be some of the best fishing of the season. Not only will you find big fish but you will find them in numbers and very aggressive. This amazing bite only lasts about two weeks so timing is everything. Try to find out when the spawn occurred by asking the local bait shop, natural resources office, or your camp manager. They will usually know. Then, if the air temperatures are fairly consistently warm for the next week after the spawn, figure on fishing your target lake or river that following week. Beyond timing it right, I believe the best way to hit the motherlode is to cover water quickly by trolling a crank bait or slow-death rigs. Once you find a pack of hungry girls you can slow down and work them over with a jig, live bait rig, or slip-bobber. In the case of all these species during the post spawn phase, think shallow 4 – 8 feet deep. Pike and walleye like to recover in dark muck bottom bays after they spawn because it’s warm, while bass, crappie and panfish love to hang out in newly emergent vegetation.
Below is a chart, based on water temps, that will give you a general starting point for finding fish during the multiple stages of the spawn cycle. Remember, in winter think deep. Pre-spawn, think mid-depths near likely spawning sites like incoming rivers or creeks. During spawn, think shallow. After the spawn don’t be afraid to go searching. Click on the below table to enlarge.