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Fishing the Fuzz - Canadian Walleye  at Cabela's

Fishing the Fuzz - Canadian Walleye

Author: Kevin Wilson

When they're hot, they're hot. And when they're not, they're not! Oh how true this popular refrain is. In fact, for the avid angler, 'eyes can be either the cure for what ails you or root of your frustration. But one fact remains; walleye generally turn on as soon as the poplar fuzz flies!

Author, Kevin Wilson, and a Canadian walleye.
When they're hot, they're hot. And when they're not, they're not! Oh how true this popular refrain is. In fact, for the avid angler, 'eyes can be either the cure for what ails you or root of your frustration. But one fact remains; walleye generally turn on as soon as the poplar fuzz flies!

Few things excite me more than the instant my line tightens, followed by the ever-so-slight lift to confirm it, and the hookset that finds old marble eyes at the other end ready for battle. With the rod straining and line peeling from the spool, my blood starts pumping - big time! Combine this with flying fuzz and there's no denying it's prime time on walleye waters!

As one of North America's most reputed game fish, walleye present a challenge unparalleled by any other freshwater inhabitant. In the spring of the year, action can be fast and furious. As summer progresses, it's a mixed bag of spectacular fishing and frustrating deep sonar probes in hot weather. With the onset of fall, some tremendous action can be had, but once winter sets in - well, suffice it to say, most have to search long and hard to find action that would fall into the "hot" category. In simple words, no one rushes the walleye. They feed in their time, and anglers in the know take advantage of seasonal patterns.

Accredited walleye aficionados maintain that ten calendar periods exist in the world of the walleye. These include pre-spawn, spawn, post-spawn, pre-summer, summer peak, summer, post summer, turnover, cold water and winter/frozen. If I were to select one as my favorite, it would be a close tie between the pre-summer and summer peak periods. In most mid-mezo (mesotropic) lakes, these periods take place from the end of May on through the month of June. The weather is warmer and feeding activity dictates resident fish population's migration to traditional haunts. By using commonly understood search and presentation techniques, success is widely shared in prime locations.

Walleye are truly masters of their domain. While they share the same waters with countless other species including such famed peers as northern pike, perch, whitefish and burbot, these perfectly adapted, yet vulnerable predators rule the waters. They are, in a sense, the bourgeois of our freshwater rivers and lakes.

Next to bass and musky, and outside the realm of our fly-fishing sub-culture, walleye are by far, the most sought after freshwater game fish. Throughout North America, literally millions of anglers pursue this piscivore with fervor.

Walleye have not gained their reputation as a worthy opponent for the competitive angler by default. In fact, such a worthy opponent is Stizo stedium vitreum, that entire tournament circuits are solely devoted to their honor. For most recreational anglers, it becomes a seemingly impossible challenge to zero in on primary fish holding zones on unfamiliar waters. Ask any angler which species they feel are the most finicky, and the reply will almost invariably be "walleye!"

So how do we tip the odds in our favor, with a species that will often pay little or no attention to our presentation? It was on a trip with good friend and tournament angler, Claudio Ongaro, that I learned a few key tips for zeroing in on walleye, when the poplar fuzz flies.

Kevin Wilson cranks in another big walleye.
Identify and Adapt To Seasonal Migrations
As water temperatures begin to rise and oxygen is cycled into the water, so too does a walleye's metabolism. With increased metabolism comes more aggressive and more frequent feeding. These same fish may have slowed their feeding to a virtual standstill during the long winter months entombed under the ice. With the arrival of warmer weather and open water, walleye migrate to traditional spawning locations such as shallower flats near and up into river and stream tributaries. With this springtime phenomenon comes a noticeable increase in voracity during the pre-spawn period in the first part of May, with a general lull during the spawn proper.

In fact, when it comes to the hottest action of the year, few question June as prime time. Hungry walleye, and an ecosystem with remnants of winter reduced forage causes a situation of increased competition for what food exists; thus walleye will also spend more of their time feeding in a positive mood.

Throughout most of western Canada, the month of May brings with it a transition in the landscape as grasses turn from a pale brown to a lush green, and tree buds burst forth, in particular the poplars. A good marker for anxious anglers is the inevitable arrival of airborne poplar fuzz. Invariably, the month surrounding this distinctive transition is as good as it gets for the walleye angler. This period is usually earmarked by the first really hot days of summer.

It is commonly understood that walleye feed most heavily in the morning and evening, zeroing in on bait fish and other natural forage. As true as this statement is, walleye can also be caught throughout the day. Fish strike for two main reasons, first - to feed in response to hunger and, second - an act of aggression against an annoyance. Prudent anglers select their tactics relative to forage, visibility, sound vibrations, weather conditions and, of course the voracity of the fish themselves.

At this time of year, walleye are commonly found feeding in frenzies. This being the case, nothing beats throwing jigs with spinning gear. If on the other hand, they have a negative attitude toward feeding, other more passive techniques may be necessary. Fact is, fish still need to feed, sometimes they just need a little encouragement. Through trial and error, you can discover the right presentation to entice a strike. From drifting bottom bouncers or Lindy rigs, trolling crankbaits, offering stationary bait under slip bobbers, to vertical jigging, each presents a different motion. When you discover which one the walleye are interested in, usually more than one is soon brought to the boat.

Regardless of preferred technique and lure choice, bait is equally important. Determine what the walleye are gorging themselves on at this time of year, for example spotted shiners or leeches, and mimic the movements or even better yet, arm 1/16 to 1/4 ounce jig heads with either of these and chances are you're in for some good action. Generally, the smaller the jig head, the better.

If you prefer plastics, given clear water with good visibility, stick with darker colors like black and brown. If visibility is poor, brighter colors like chartreuse, yellow, orange and light absorbing plastics can work wonders. Scent impregnated plastics also work well under these conditions. Berkley manufactures a well-known line of PowerBait® that is most effective under all conditions. While artificials offer effective options without the care and concern that live bait requires, nothing beats presenting walleye with the real thing. Without question, my best days on the water have involved bait presentations.

When fish are in a positive feeding mode, in my opinion nothing beats a simple 1/4-ounce chartreuse jig tipped with a small minnow for most late spring or early summer conditions. But remember, heavier jigs are more difficult for fish to inhale, and this means you could be missing a great deal of undetected takes. As a rule, I stay away from using swivels and opt to affix my line directly to the jig head.
A walleye that fell for a walleye diver.
That said, I must admit I too have succumbed to the allure of fishing gear. Akin to a candy shop for adults, I simply cannot resist the plethora of baits and lures offered. Crankbaits, spinnerbaits, jigs, worms, Lindy rigs, pickerel rigs and more abound, and I have a tackle box filled with them and want more. Each has its application. And, given the mood of the fish, be they negative, neutral or positive, savvy anglers adapt accordingly.

Learning to match natural forage will always increase your odds. Crankbaits are designed to resemble bait fish and emulate their actions. While all have been developed with specific applications in mind, every tackle box should host at least a few of the following: Fat Rap, Husky Jerk, and Shad Rap. These come in a variety of sinking, floating or suspending versions. Other important lures to have in your collection include the Rat-L-Trap, Wally Diver and Fenwick's line of flashy rattling diver and wobble baits. The type of crankbait and presentation should be adapted to the depth of the water you're covering.

Capitalize On Structure
Most anglers are all too familiar with the term structure. Ask the pros and they'll tell you, "if you want to find walleye, find the structure." So freely used is this terminology, that structure has come to define a range of ledges, shoals, dips, drop-offs, deadfall, mid-lake humps, rock outcroppings ... and the list goes on.

To effectively zero in on key areas holding fish, before going out onto any body of water, take a look at a hydrographic map. By studying the hydrography, or contours of the lake floor, you will be able to identify likely areas of structure.

Perhaps the single most effective tool today's angler should have in his/her arsenal to identify structure is a sonar or fish finder. Not only do these handy gadgets reveal key depth changes, but they also identify the whereabouts of bait fish and larger predatory fish. It's important to bear in mind that, as with most products, you generally get what you pay for.

In scanning a lake with sonar a while back, I was amazed to learn of the dramatic hydrographic variation. This particular body of water was littered with submerged hills and valleys - outstanding habitat for walleye. Finding the magical hole with fish stacked up was the trick. Once discovered, frenzied action ensued.

It's not uncommon to see boat after boat trolling up and down the shoreline of any given lake. Clearly, the mobile approach to capturing walleye proves effective from time to time. In my experience, when the poplar fuzz flies, trolling is productive to a certain extent; but for my money, pinpointing the exact spot where fish are stacked up, anchoring and working them in one location is far more productive at this time of year. Once the hot summer days bring water temperatures to higher levels and walleye begin to disperse throughout the lake and are found moving at different strata, trolling can often produce better results. Jigging on the bottom, often dragging at a snail's pace, or a very subtle three-inch lift and reel sequence will result in consistent hook sets once those prime fishing holding structures are located.

Use The Right Equipment
As most walleye average between one and three pounds, standard spinning reels and basic 8-pound test mono line will suffice. If it's larger 8- to 12-pound fish that you're after, you may want to consider upgrading your gear. I know many that swear by Berkley's Fireline but I still prefer their mono in either Trilene XL or XT for my own outings.

While many anglers favor baitcasting rigs, I still prefer to use a 6-foot, medium action, spinning rod and reel combo for most casting applications. Select a rod with a very sensitive tip and a fair bit of backbone. You'll want a reel that is well matched to the rod and light enough to make fighting walleye a challenge, yet strong enough to handle larger fish.

Sensitivity is of the utmost importance when targeting walleye as they often require a finesse approach. A super-sensitive tip allows the angler to pick up the slightest bump or twitch, then proceed with a hook set. And really, when it comes to the walleye game, only those truly in tune with their rod and reel will detect those subtle takes. It's well worth investing a few extra dollars in good equipment that essentially becomes an extension of the nerves in your fingers.

Despite the advantage of precise presentations tied in with seasonal timing, even when poplar fuzz flies, every day on the water is different. Some are hot and heavy, others are slow and arduous. Regardless of the action you experience from one season to the next, remember that as soon as the air is filled with poplar fuzz, walleye will be at their best, and you should be on the water!





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