Trolling is widely considered a top tactic for targeting walleyes in mid to late summer, but it’s an effective option early in the season as well. In fact, under the right conditions, pulling spinners or crankbaits can out-produce other strategies long before other anglers even think about straining water on the troll.

“Trolling is a deadly weapon on a lot of walleye fisheries in May and June, although the timing, locations and tactics can vary from lake to lake,” says veteran guide Jon Thelen.

Two of his favorite fishing holes are Minnesota’s legendary Mille Lacs Lake and the state’s section of the mighty Lake of the Woods. And, while both offer fine opportunities for trollers, the scenarios are far from similar. Mille Lacs is located in central Minnesota, while Lake of the Woods straddles the Canadian border. This sets up distinctly different trolling bites.

“Mille Lacs is farther south and warms up faster,” Thelen said. “So, from May into June you’ll see the first major movement of walleyes from shoreline shallows out to offshore structure. But, some fish are always within striking distance of shore, so you have to keep that in mind as well.”

From a tactical standpoint, Mille Lacs’ presentations generally kick off with a flurry of Lindy Rigging and slip-bobbering options. While these catch fish, Thelen frequently slides trolling into the mix, particularly along near-shore breaks.

“There’s an unbelievably good early crankbait bite that most people miss, both on Mille Lacs and a lot of other lakes,” he says. “Anglers are conditioned to fish slowly in cold water, but you can crush the walleyes by trolling a crankbait.”

Low-light periods are particularly productive trolling times. Cloud cover or wave action can trigger daytime feeding flurries. And as for the night bite, Thelen says spring walleyes are accustomed to being active once darkness falls due to their nocturnal spawning traits, as well as the low-light visual advantage they command over baitfish such as yellow perch.

“Their activity level starts rocking come evening,” he grins. “You can fish all day for three bites, then the lake catches fire at sunset and you limit out in an hour.”

Productive depths often fall between 7 to 12 feet, though Thelen cautions that they tend to trend shallower as the night progresses. Twelve feet may be magic at twilight, but don’t be surprised if the fish slide into 7 feet or less an hour or two after sunset, he says.

Structurally speaking, he looks for a major drop-off lying within this depth range, and notes that a shelf along the break can be especially good. Look at a lake contour map and find those areas with wider gaps between the lines. Wider shelves are best, he says, and he ignores those areas with closely clustered lines that indicate fast stair step drops.

One of Thelen’s favorite baits for the spring bite is a Lindy River Rocker. He says that although the banana-shaped lure was built for strong current, it shines in still water, too. Of the Rocker sizes available, he favors the smallest option—the 2 3/8-inch-long number 3.

“Walleyes aren’t tuned in to big baitfish right now,” he explains. “So you don’t want a huge bait that produces a wide wobble. The River Rocker’s small profile and tight wiggle generate just the right amount of flash and vibration.”

Tackle requirements are straightforward. You don’t need any special trolling gear for the night bite. A medium-action spinning rod spooled with 10-lb monofilament line works just fine.

To get started, Thelen casts the lure behind the boat and lets it dive. He continues letting out line until he feels it begin to tick bottom, then raises it slightly with two or three turns of the reel handle. Water temperature dictates trolling speed.

“In the 50- to 55-degree temps common in spring, I run from 1.3 to 1.5 mph, moving slightly faster as the water warms,” he says.

On Lake of the Woods, Thelen says walleyes are slower to head offshore.

“You don’t typically see the main lake bite this soon on Lake of the Woods,” he says. “Walleyes do filter onto the first deep breakline, however, which is often in 17 to 19 feet of water. Once you locate the fish, they’re relatively easy to trigger.”

He targets such areas by trolling parallel to the drop-off. Spinner rigs laced with nightcrawlers are top options, and are kept in the strike zone with a 1½-ounce bottom bouncer sinker. He also uses Lindy’s new Lil’ Guy hybrid rig, which combines the benefits of a spinner, Lindy Rig and crankbait.

It’s worth noting that trolling bites hold water on a variety of fisheries, including the Great Lakes. May often finds veteran big-water guide Jason Muche pulling a 72-inch Lindy Crawler Harness in 7 to 9 feet of water just off the shores of mighty Lake Michigan. He looks for schools of shad, shiners and other baitfish near the first breakline off shore or along last year’s weedline for hungry walleyes.

To avoid spooking fish, Muche uses a planer board to position his bait in the shallows while keeping his boat over deeper water. He typically runs 50 feet of 10-lb mono mainline between board and spinner, and trolls at about 1 mph.

Muche favors a size 5 Colorado blade in shades of perch or golden shiner. He notes that trimming the last inch off of the ’crawler’s tail helps shorten the gap between the end of the bait and the trailing hook, thereby improving the odds of successful hookups.

“It also increases the amount of scent the rig produces,” he adds.

Whether you’re plying the Great Lakes or a 150-acre prairie pothole, putting Thelen and Muche’s tips into practice can help you cover water and catch more walleyes early in the season, and outfish anglers using slower paced presentations in the process.