Where, when and how to catch more May walleyes

May is prime time for walleye fishing as post-spawn fish begin replenishing their reserves after the rigors of reproduction. With so much water to cover in search of the next hot bite, however, it pays to have a game plan for finding and catching the ’eyes of spring.

Fortunately, walleyes follow predictable patterns, and few fishermen know the drill like veteran guide Jon Thelen. He blends an understanding of seasonal trends, baitfish biology and walleye behavior with a suite of foolproof fishing tactics to put fish in the boat all month long. His hit list includes top fisheries including Lake of the Woods, Mille Lacs and Devils Lake, but his strategies hold water on lakes across the Walleye Belt.

“Throughout the Upper Midwest, walleyes spawn in late April and early May,” he says. “For a short period right after the spawn, large female walleyes become pretty dormant. They slide out into slightly deeper water and are harder to catch.”

Male walleyes, in contrast, hang around the shallows a bit longer and remain far more active. You can often find them in 15 feet of water or less. Thelen focuses on breaklines in the neighborhood of spawning areas such as wind- or current-washed rubble, sand and gravel.

“Wherever you find the first decent break off a spawning area, you’ll find fish,” he said. “And unlike female walleyes, the males are aggressive and ready to feed. With shallow, active fish, the action can get pretty crazy for awhile.”

All too soon, however, factors such as boat traffic, fishing pressure and the outbound migration of baitfish cause the males to move into deeper water. They start migrating out to the second and third breaklines, or the first offshore structure such as a rockpile, gravel bar or mud flat.

Thelen follows, using his sonar and GPS chartplotter to scan promising structure for signs of baitfish, along with the larger returns that indicate predators. While shadowing the migration is key, he cautions not to target the tip of the seasonal fish migration spear.

“The very first fish to arrive in a new area typically don’t bite right away,” he says. “I’m not sure whether they need to adjust to their new surroundings or don’t feed until additional waves of walleyes spark increased activity, but whatever the reason, those first fish are hard to catch.”

As a result, Thelen looks for biters a bit behind the pilot fish. The second and third breaklines off spawning areas can be great in late May, he says. For example, if the first major drop-off runs from 9 to 12 feet of water, the second break may taper sharply from 15 to 20 feet, while the third dips from 25 to 30 feet.

Exact depths vary from lake to lake, but Thelen maintains that finding a distinct edge that offers baitfish holding and hiding areas is key to locating walleyes.

“It’s actually a matter of finding the forage,” he notes. “If there’s nothing to eat, it doesn’t matter how good the structure looks, you won’t find any walleyes on it.”

In flowing water, Thelen follows similar protocol—searching for forage-rich areas adjacent to spawning grounds. Keep in mind you typically have strong flows and high water this time of year.

“Both of these conditions tend to push baitfish into slack-current and shallow-water areas, including flooded timber. Just as in lakes, where the food goes, walleyes follow.”

Weather is a factor throughout the season, and May is no exception. Cold fronts and barometric pressure changes shut down walleyes, with large fish being more affected than smaller ones, according to Thelen.

“Walleyes will be tighter to structure and less active, so you need to slow down your presentation and camp right over any fish you mark on sonar. Many times you have to put the bait right in front of their nose to get them to bite.”

Fair weather and foul, Thelen favors the iconic Lindy Rig for delivering live bait to the strike zone. To help anglers tailor rigs to both bait and conditions, options abound in snell length, weighting and hook configurations. Original Lindy Rig Snells are available in pre-tied lengths of 36 to 72 inches, while the Lindy Rig X-Treme stretches 42 inches. Thelen likes a long leader over smooth bottoms, but the X-Treme is a fine all-around length for May walleyes. It comes packaged with a red hook, colored bead and painted walking sinker for added attraction.

Speaking of sinkers, the classic Lindy Sinker, a sliding bottom-walker, is a killer. But when gnarly rock bottoms or woody cover come into play, a banana-shaped Lindy No-Snagg helps reduce hang-ups.

“A short leader or floating rig can cut down on snags, too,” Thelen adds.

As for sinker weight, he commonly pulls a 3/8-ounce sinker in deep water, but downsizes to a ¼-ounce weight to get the rig away from the boat when plying shallow structure.

Minnows are Thelen’s favorite tipping throughout May, with leeches typically coming on strong in June. Both the Original and X-Treme rigs offer minnow, leech and nightcrawler hook choices. Whichever bait you choose, Thelen advocates fishing it with a slow hand.

“Until water temperatures hit the mid-60s, work your baits slow and methodically,” he says, noting that speeds of .3 to .5 mph are ideal.

Wherever walleyes are concentrated, vertical jigging can be another effective option. A Lindy Jig tipped with a minnow can be deadly. Thelen likes natural jig colors in the clear waters so common in early season.

“Silvers, golds and reds are top picks,” he says. “But blues and purples can be deadly, too. And if you’re on a perch-laden fishery, chartreuse can be a game-changer.”

Jig-strokes are tempered by water temperature. In cold water a slow drag, lift, drop presentation most times far outfishes aggressive jigging.