It was fitting that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band blared through the back doors of the pavilion, where the 10:30 crowd at the wedding reception sang along with each verse of “Fishin’ in the Dark” with growing rowdiness, especially on the well-known choruses of the song. Just down the sandy shore of the lake, my brother and I found ourselves where he was just after midnight the night before, fishing familiar structures, but not for the fish we normally sought. Here, in the two-foot shallows along the sprawling multi-boat dock complexes, walleyes were relating to the warmth of the skinny water of the north side of the lake, and were holding tight against lifts, posts, and under the first few pontoons parked for the start of the season.
Much like we would do the following day, as part of Minnesota’s early catch-and-release bass season, we flipped our offerings under, along and just short of the structures. But instead of plastic tubes and Senkos texas-rigged on worm hooks, we were pitching stand-up jigs with spottail shiners and dragging them through the shallows, illuminated by the flood light of the nearby apartment complex on the shore. The first walleye to come to boat, a chunky 16-incher, bent the rod like a largemouth and bulldogged like a bass as well on the way in. The second I’d pick up came from the emergent grass just off the complex, in about 18 inches of water. The two fish in the livewell weren’t the limit my brother had taken the night before, but they were certainly a reminder of the attraction the shallows have on fish this time of year.
The following morning, we headed back to the northern portion of the lake and played the wind, fishing the docks on the far side. It wasn’t long until we found the same success, but for the normal springtime denizens; stout largemouth bass that were setting up along the shoreline for the approaching spawn. Bigger docks along the east shore held two or three fish, while the smaller ones produced with less regularity. With the sun obscured by a haze of clouds, the action continued throughout the morning and the bass readily gulped down our tubes and worms as we worked them in just three feet of water around the docks.
It was obvious on the depth finder that temperature was a factor as we transitioned to the smaller section of water from the main body. When in the big lake, with its depths of 40 to 80 feet, the water was chilly, but upon crossing the channel into the northern portion, with maximum depths of only 12 feet, the readout jumped by three degrees, giving us an important clue as to why fish were foraging and setting up in the much shallower basin. Being oriented on the north side also allowed the shallower portion to absorb more sunshine – and thermal energy – throughout the day, getting maximum exposure to the season’s rising sun angle.
Spring is a time of transition, and for both the walleyes and bass we caught, along with most other species of fish, they will find the areas that allow them to feed and recover from the spawn, or set up for their upcoming reproductive rituals. Warmer water tends to trigger these activities, and brings in forage like the first run of shiners and other baitfish, along with year-old bluegills and perch which also provide a good food base for bigger fish. Following water temperature cues based on depth and geographic location of a portion of a lake, along with paying attention to these natural cycles and recent weather patterns can help increase success in a time where conditions can fluctuate wildly from day to day and week to week. Adjusting to the mood of the fish, and to what they’re keying in on and even why they’re targeting a certain lure – eating it or attacking it to protect their territory – is part of the process of figuring out what’s going on in the shallows each spring.
All around us, on the first weekend of Minnesota’s main angling season, there was evidence of fish in the throes of spring transition. A pair of sturgeon patrolled the end of a connecting canal between the smaller lake and a backwater. Beat-up muskies, apparently fresh off their spawn, lazily rolled over emergent weed patches. Schools of crappies were staged on the edge of the shallows, bullied around by bluegills that stole our offerings of smaller jigs before the papermouths could even think of snatching them up. For each species we found, the shallows provided the clues as to not only where the fish were at in their annual spring movements, but where they had been and where they were going…in our outdoors.