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Unscrambling Transition Walleye in Northern Ontario

If you know where walleye spawn in spring and where they reside in the summer, locate all key structures that intersect the “walleye highway” and you’ll catch fish like this beauty. • Credit: Gord Pyzer
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Unscrambling Transition Walleye in Northern Ontario

Learn how spring fish migration works on the walleye highways

Can you believe the deliciously hot weather that those of us who live in Northwestern Ontario's Sunset Country has been blessed with of late?

I've been fishing in a t-shirt and shorts for days now and have watched the water temperature shoot up unbelievably quickly, from the low-50s Fahrenheit range well into the mid-60s.

It can mean only one thing for the walleye angler, and it's that the fish will be moving from their post-spawn spring locations to their early summer haunts in all of Northern Ontario's fabled walleye waters – from Rainy Lake, Eagle Lake, Lac des Milles Lacs and Kenogamisis Lake to the North Channel of Lake Huron, Dog Lake, Lake Nipissing, and Kesagami Lake.

But if you don't know where to look for the fish during this transition phase, they will drive you crazy.

Fortunately, understanding the spring migration is a lot easier if you keep two things in mind. The first to remember is where you've been catching the fish since the season opened in mid-May. The second is where you normally catch them in the middle of the summer.

With water temperatures rising quickly across Northern Ontario, the fish are moving from their post-spawn spring locations to their summer haunts. If you want to stay on top of them, you need to move too. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

I am not being facetious when I say this, but right now you'll find the walleyes and enjoy the best action somewhere in between. But here is the secret. The transitional shift from spring locations to summer haunts isn't haphazard, random, or disorganized. Rather, the fish use very predicable routes – I like to call them "walleye highways" – to migrate between the two seasonal settings.

To understand what I am saying and pinpoint your best options, grab your lake contour map and start by highlighting where the walleyes spawned and where you've been catching them up until now. Next, circle your favourite summer hangouts – the places you either catch walleyes in late June, July and August or would anticipate doing so. Now, draw an expressway between the two locations and note all of the key structural features that intersect the two locations.

By key structural features, I am referring to the tips of islands, sunken reefs, humps, shoals, and isolated rock piles: anything that either crosses or is positioned close to the highway.

I like to think of these structures like restaurants, where the walleyes can pull off the highway to gas up, use the facilities, get a good meal, and maybe even snooze before they continue travelling on to the summer cottage.

My grandson Liam and I put this game plan into effect the other day and were pleasantly greeted with bulldog battles from walleyes, which brings up an important consideration. You'll catch more and bigger 'eyes during the transition if you leave the namby-pamby live bait presentations at home, and stick exclusively with fast-paced horizontal and snap jigging approaches.

A little breeze is also a bonus, as the water temperatures in shallow water right now are precisely what the dim light-loving walleyes prefer. But when it is sunny and calm and the water is clear, the fish typically hold back in deeper water until late afternoon and early evening.

Break up the surface tension with a little breeze, however, and the fish will flood into the shallows and feed aggressively, giving new meaning to the term "high noon."

Liam Whetter may be only 12 years old, but he has learned that when water temperatures start rising at this time of the year across Northern Ontario, the walleyes will be stopping at the restaurants between their spring and summer locations. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

Anytime I find walleyes up shallow in 10 feet of water or less, feeding greedily, I like casting jerkbaits like the Rapala XRap and Husky Jerk. You can cast the lures out of sight with a fairly long 7' 2" medium-heavy action rod like the Shimano Crucial when you team it up with a 2500 or 3000 series Stradic reel spooled with a ten-pound test braid like Fireline, Nanofil, Power Pro or Sufix Fuse. By the way, I always add a three- to a four-foot length of 10-pound test Maxima Ultragreen to the end as a leader.

Because the jerkbaits float at rest, you can cast them tight to shore and then give them a quick tug, hard enough that you can feel the lure make contact with the bottom. Then, pause for a second or two to let the lure suspend in front of the walleye's face. I'll continue jerking and pausing like this – the pause is critical – until I catch a fish or retrieve the lure back to the boat. Then I repeat the process.

Casting minnow-imitating jerkbaits and ripping lipless crankbaits like this Kamooki Smartfish will result in arm-jarring strikes from walleyes across all of Northern Ontario. (Photo credit: Gord Pyzer)

Another deadly transitional presentation is using a lipless crankbait like the Kamooki Smartfish or Rapala Jigging Rap. I like snapping any time I find the fish spread out over a shallow flat, especially one that is not littered with big boulders or snaggy jagged rocks.

I'll flick the lure behind the boat, let it fall to the bottom and then engage the front, bow-mounted electric trolling motor so that when I snap the rod aggressively the lure will scoot up from the bottom. Then, I'll pause to let it fall back down and as soon as it hits the bottom again, rip it back up.

But be careful, because big Northern Ontario transitional walleye have been known to try to pull your arm out of its socket.

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