By Jason Mitchell
Trusting your electronics has become cliché with walleye fishing but there is an art to distinguishing what you see on your electronics. There are also so many situations where you just won’t mark fish right below the boat particularly in shallow water.
As I have gotten better at reading my sonar over the years, what is also obvious is that walleye in particular are often moving. Many of the fish we are catching are drifting and move around much more than what many anglers imagine. There are also blind spots created by uneven bottoms and rocks that can hide fish. Can’t tell you how many times I came up a break and marked a fish and put a waypoint or icon on that fish only to lose that fish as I came down the break from a different direction. What we also find in shallow water is that fish don’t stay in the cone angle of your sonar very long. Trusting your electronics is an art and the nuances can vary from fishery to fishery. Gain knowledge and trust in your electronics however and you will take your walleye game to an entirely new level.
Perhaps the most challenging aspect of walleye fishing is simply finding them. We all know that we simply catch more fish if we avoid wasting time where there are no fish. If there is one mistake we have all made, that mistake would be cruising around until we marked fish and then wasting too much time fishing for marks that were not the targeted species. A school of drum, whitefish or suckers can look an awful lot like walleye. Over time, you can get comfortable distinguishing small fish like crappie from a fish like a walleye. Similar fish however that have the same overall length and body build can be difficult to distinguish. As a rule of thumb and of course there are exceptions but usually… walleye will come across the screen one fish at a time. Walleyes often seem to like some space around them where they will be in clusters.
If you are looking at a whole school of fish scrolling across the screen where there are several fish overlapping, the fish you are looking at are probably whitefish or some other species. At times as well, the definition of side imaging can help you distinguish species. Catfish for example will often have a noticeable teardrop shape. Freshwater drum will have a higher back. To get the definition of actual fish shape, it seems to help if you scan at a slightly faster speed (3 miles per hour) and drive straight. As you slow down, you will still pick up fish on side imaging but many of the fish get distorted. Rule number one is to fish for walleye if you want to catch walleye. If something looks too good to be true with the number of fish that you are marking, it usually is. I have found some other species that would just stack up in some locations and there are times when walleye will mix in or swim below big schools of whitefish, suckers or catfish but usually, you end up wasting a lot of time trying to fish for walleye over a school of fish that is not your targeted species.
In shallow water, we can sometimes find fish with side imaging and cast to those fish. What can make distinguishing fish difficult overall when fishing at slow speeds with side imaging is that the shapes get distorted where they begin to resemble white lines. You really notice this distortion when spot locking over an area like a current seam on a river and waves of fish push through. The side imaging will be clean and then you will notice some white lines scroll down the screen. Still important info as you can cast out towards those fish as they swim by. With side imaging, fish often show up much better over sand or a smooth bottom. Sharp breaking rip rap is a scenario that can really hide fish in shallow water.
When you find walleyes deeper than ten feet of water, they can usually be found below the boat with sonar. Traditionally, the down imaging is best for reading bottom composition, distinguishing rocks, trees, transitions and weeds. The down imaging will also pick up fish right on the bottom that traditional sonar will sometimes miss. Traditional chirp sonar however is still often optimum however for marking fish and baitfish. I feel much more comfortable gauging the size of the fish with the traditional chirp sonar. A new Lowrance update from this past season combines the best of both worlds and this sonar option is called Fish Reveal. Kind of an overlay that combines the down imaging screen with the fish showing up in traditional sonar colors.
As a rule of thumb, big fish simply make thicker marks and if you are using a Lowrance, you will get that second or third color inside the signal on a bigger fish. The length of the mark is simply how long the signal is behind the boat. This knowledge enables you to find fish at faster speeds. As you speed up, the marks become more vertical like a slash. As you slow down to around three miles per hour, you will start to get nice arches when you go over fish. As you slow down even more, the signal becomes distorted where you get a blob shape that is just a hump or round elongated signal.
When it comes to catching specific fish, you see on the screen, I have tried a lot of different strategies with some success. I have moved the crosshair onto the fish creating a waypoint and then zig zagged over that waypoint and caught fish but that is assuming the fish doesn’t move. I have also tried to stall out over the mark and attempted to hang in one place usually by back trolling and done well. Of course, catching a specific fish, you are marking on your sonar demands that your presentation is right below the boat and close to the cone angle of your electronics.
With jig fishing, I find that I am more effective if I reset when I have a fish right below me. When you are scooting around looking, your line is invariably at a forty-five-degree angle or more. As I drag the jig below or behind the boat while looking for a fish, I simply hit the spot lock on the trolling motor when I am on top of the fish. I than reel up the jig fast and drop the jig down right in front of the trolling motor. Often, you can see the jig dropping down on your sonar. The jig is now in front of or close to the fish at this point, but I believe something else happens as well when you do this reel and drop technique. The jig falling through the water often gets the attention of fish and the jig makes noise when it hits the bottom. I often find that I catch more fish by letting the jig hit the bottom fast. This noise might be important for turning the fish if the fish is facing away or facing a wrong direction. Both jigs and rigs will work for this technique along with horizontal swim lures like jigging raps or even rattle baits or jigging spoons. I have grown to love tungsten for this technique because not only is tungsten heavier but also much louder. The noise is often important because you are simply dropping into the zone that might be within ten feet of that fish.
Often, when you drop down and move your rod tip around the trolling motor, you can find your jig on the sonar screen and the jig will appear as a line that moves up and down as you jig, resembling a heartbeat monitor. You can often see the fish come up and strike the jig.
By scooting around looking for fish and then spending some time over a specific mark, I believe you increase the number of fish you catch through the day dramatically. This also enables you to specifically target a fish that appears to be bigger.
Understanding the full capabilities of your electronics will no doubt mean catching more walleye this season. Reading structure and finding fish is one element. There are more secrets however that can up your game. The more comfortable you are with your electronics, the more fish you will catch. Using side imaging can really increase the amount of fish you catch in shallow water and enable you to find isolated rocks or give you a better understanding of the bottom. The scoot and shoot method or reeling up fast and dropping back down on top of a fish is another trick that will put a lot more fish in the boat.
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