When looking for walleyes on new water, where do you begin?
Walleye guide and renaissance angler Tony Roach simply clears his mind, opens his eyes, and adds up the usual variables.
“Never go anywhere thinking you know where the ﬁsh will be,” he says.
“Preconceived notions get you into trouble,” Roach added.
“If you believe you know where walleyes are on new water, you spend too much time trying to prove yourself right. Check every theory quickly, efﬁciently, and move on. When you’re beating a dead horse, the quicker you admit it the better off you’ll be.”
Roach refuses to ordain any method or tactic for ﬁnding ﬁsh fast on new water.
“If you go to new water thinking you know how you’re going to catch them,” he says, “it’s as bad as thinking you know where to look before hitting the water.”
Roach may follow some simple rules that help him ﬁnd ﬁsh faster, but he lets on-the water observations provide the primary clues. No matter how illogical the choices of the ﬁsh may seem to us, his methods for ﬁnding them fast are beautifully logical.
Time of year is an overriding factor when locating any species of ﬁsh.
“Pick a season,” Roach says. “The entire year can be seen as a cycle returning to that point. From the spawn through late spring, walleyes are moving toward summer habitat, taking advantage of the concentrations of baitﬁsh drawn to the warmest water in the shallows until temperatures reach to 60°F or so, using ever deeper weedlines as they show up. Late summer ﬁnds walleyes gradually moving toward fall habitat, and so on. In summer and fall, walleyes are constantly moving into and toward main-lake basins and structures where they spend the winter, but in fall and winter they also begin moving back toward those shallows and tributaries where they spawn. If you know how walleyes relate to temperature regimes and baitﬁsh movements during each season, you can immediately eliminate 70% of the water.”
Stocked Vs Natural
“The forage base is the biggest thing for me, but you have to start breaking it down at multiple levels,” Roach said. “As a general rule, walleyes in stocked lakes relate to weedlines. I can’t tell you how many stocked lakes I’ve been to with beautiful structure that’s completely devoid of walleyes. On every stocked lake that I’ve ever visited, they roam weedlines all season. Naturally-reproducing ﬁsh are more likely to use structure and to suspend.”
Roach theorizes that baitﬁsh species that relate to weeds are the easiest for stocked ﬁsh to take advantage of. It makes sense. Stocked ﬁsh have no genetic history in the water they ﬁnd themselves in—no understanding of their place in the predator-prey relationships of this brave new aquatic world they ﬁnd themselves in. Weeds instantly provide cover and ambush points.
“Relationships with pelagic species like ciscoes, smelt, alewives, and shad are a little more complicated,” Roach said, implying walleyes need to be born into those relationships, and hunt with familial groups that track those forage species from structure through open water and back to become proﬁcient at it.
“I’m prepared on stocked lakes to ﬁsh paddle-tail worms behind spinners, pulling them through cabbage tops. Great to pull them with boards if the weed tops are deep enough, but you have to stay above the height of the weeds. Paddle tails work best for rigging, but soft jerk shads and minnow shapes work great when pitching weed-guard jigs with braided line, ripping up as soon as it touches a weed. I call it power jigging, and I use it a lot in new water because it covers areas quickly. I’m prepared in bigger lakes with natural reproduction to look at structure and basins, hunting for baitﬁsh concentrations and hatches. I spend a lot more time on my graph on those lakes.”
Picture The Forage Base
Stocked or not, Roach investigates the forage base before visiting a new lake, attempting to create the most complete picture he can of all the possible patterns. That means taking inventory of the forage populations—which ones dominate and which ones are secondary.
Pulling down reports from state biologists, calling them on the phone, calling tackle shops, and just talking to anglers at the landing puts that piece of the puzzle in place before the hull touches that new water.
“It provides a good starting point,” Roach said. “Look where you would expect to ﬁnd the most populous baitﬁsh in the system. If perch make up the bulk of the biomass, start around major weed beds and basin ﬂats surrounding off-shore humps. If the cisco or smelt populations are highest, start around classic structure like major points, reefs, and islands, then scan surrounding open water for suspended food chains.
“People often say that’s not an option on their water. Some lakes have so many healthy populations of different baitﬁsh, walleyes spread into too many patterns,”
Roach added. “In that case, I troll. With too many forage options to narrow down, trolling gets you to the ﬁsh faster and keeps a line in the water while you observe and cover options.”
Follow The Wind
Immediate walleye location in any lake, river, or reservoir is tied directly to current and wind. “After nailing down the forage base, I go where the wind has been blowing in,” Roach said. “Wind and current play such a big factor. Those dynamics move plankton to baitﬁsh and baitﬁsh to predators.”
Wind history is easy to track these days by calling up any of the many on-line weather services.
Punch in the town closest to the areas you want to ﬁsh. Start at least three days before going to new water, pay strict attention to wind direction, and start circling areas on the map where the wind is cracking directly into points and other structures.
“I always look at both the front and backside of weed beds and structure, relative to wind direction,” Roach said. “Wind shifts can come in an instant. When it happens, if all the ﬁsh are on the north end of a structure they can move to the south end within minutes. They seem to know all the bait is going to shift to that windward side.”
Finally on the water, Roach keeps the rods strapped down. “I spend lots of time graphing before wetting lines in new water,” Roach said. “I’m looking for life—pods of bait, insect hatches, and squads of big ‘hooks.’ If abundance is everywhere or nowhere, I troll. The idea is, ‘How can I ﬁnd ﬁsh fastest?’ In those scenarios, it’s trolling.”
“Graphing” doesn’t really describe the activity. Call it “instrumentation.”
Roach has all screens up, using GPS to create a grid while looking at surface temperatures, traditional sonar, and side-ﬁnders. “I spend a few minutes on a city-block sized piece of structure,” Roach said. “People overlook the very tops and very bottoms of structure and weedbeds, especially in late summer. I try not to assume where the ﬁsh will be, looking from the top all the way down, but if I can’t see bait I start moving off into the basin in ever-widening circles.”
Roach creates a grid over the basin, “just looking,” watching GPS tracks to keep the circles far enough apart to let the side ﬁnder work its magic.
“Our minds tell us to spend time thoroughly searching structure because that’s what we’ve been taught. We feel like a needle in a haystck out on the basin, so I speed up to 6 mph, scanning everything I can, looking for baitﬁsh and hatches, monitoring surface temps, noting thermoclines, scanning structure, hunting for drop-offs, looking for cuts, and watching wind direction. Positions and attitudes of the ﬁsh tell me how to proceed from there.”
If walleyes appear in tight groups suspended, or scattered and suspended, it suggests lead core trolling.
“To cover water fast, I troll,” Roach said. “If they’re in tight pockets on one particular point, totally keying on structure, I pitch jigs or cranks. I even anchor up in that situation. If everybody’s drifting the point, they’re off ﬁsh more than on them. I stay on them using the bow-mount trolling motor or by anchoring up when walleyes are really tight and concentrated on small spots.
“When ﬁsh are scattered on bottom on structure, I pull spinners. And where water temps are conducive, I always want to move fast by three-way rigging—faster than most people might do it. If all the ﬁsh are on bottom, uniformly associated with an edge, boat positioning becomes the key factor—especially if it’s a big piece of structure. If walleyes are concentrated but picky, I mighty slow down and give them something they haven’t seen with the new Northland Butterﬂy Blade rig tipped with a leech or minnow. If walleyes are scattered but in pods, I power jig through them quick, pick up and go to the next pod, picking off the most active ﬁsh from each pod."
“Every good angler knows there’s a clicking point,” Roach said. “Everything clicks when you ﬁnd baitﬁsh concentrations attended by big hooks in locations, depths, and attitudes that suggest the prime method to you. Where are the biggest concentrations, where is the biggest ball of baitﬁsh, where is the insect hatch? After determining that, the best way to catch walleyes is the only primary concern left. To arrive at that clicking point, graph ﬁrst.”
“I always look at surface temp,” Roach said. “It determines presentation and speed. It tells me how fast I can push the limit of power ﬁshing, speed trolling, or just ﬁshing fast in general. And it provides clues about where the ﬁsh will be.”
In spring, ﬁsh are going to be shallow in all environments. “Say the water is in the mid to upper 40s—baitﬁsh are all shallow,” Roach said. “Even in a river, the water is high in spring and both walleyes and baitﬁsh relate to shorelines rather than mid-channel areas in that situation.”
Top: Northland Mimic Minnow Jig and Northland Impulse Paddle Tail Minnow Bottom: Rapala Jigging Rapala
As summer approaches, Roach starts looking for emerging weed beds. “From 55°F to 60°F, I see big migrations of walleyes from those bays to weed beds in mid-lake areas, from channels and shoreline areas to main-lake cabbage beds and structure.
Midsummer starts for walleyes as the temperatures climb toward 70°F, and I’ll be looking for mid-lake humps and reefs. Insects are emerging, and that will drive baitﬁsh and walleye migrations to different but fairly predictable basin areas with softer bottoms.
“When the surface tops 70°F, I start looking deeper and ﬁshing faster, never using live bait, and really speeding up presentation—often power jigging with plastics or size #5 and #7 Jigging Rapalas. I’m always prepared to ﬁsh presentations that cover water fast—especially trolling, power jigging, or pitching cranks to size up a ﬁshery quicker.”
But Roach begins on new water hunting with the eyes in his head as well as the electronic ones attached to the boat. “The majority of my time is spent looking,” he said. “No information is bad, no discussion in the parking lot is worthless.” Time is always short on new water, and the pieces are all in a pile. Roach can help anybody slap that puzzle together in record time.
POWER-SEARCH TROLLING PRESENTATIONS Top to bottom—Rapala Shad Rap RS, Rapala Original Floating Minnow, Rapala Husky Jerk, Northland Butterﬂy Blade Rigs
The Tony Roach Power-Jigging method is similar to Snap Jigging and Rip Jigging, but it’s designed for pitching as opposed to a backtrolling approach. It’s a technique that works equally well (with different baits) for big trout, pike, muskies, and bass.
Braided line in the 10- to 15-pound range is key, providing better response, feel, distance, and hook-setting power. A small barrel swivel is attached to keep line twist to a minimum, with an 18-inch, 8- to 10-pound ﬂuorocarbon leader between swivel and jig.
Roach uses a Tony-Roach Signature Wright McGill Power Jigging Rod to pitch ¼- to ¾-ounce Northland Mimic Minnow or Northland Slurp Riggin’ Jigs coupled with Impulse Paddle Tail Minnows. He follows the jig down with his rod tip and the moment it touches weeds or bottom he rips it up about 3 feet and repeats, never letting the jig rest. This covers water fast along the edges of structure and weeds, and Roach uses it to immediately go after any big ﬁsh he marks with sonar in basin areas. Jigs and plastics give way to Rapala Jigging Raps and Northland Puppet Minnows as the water warms.
He moves fast—10 mph or better—looking for active targets appearing off bottom on sonar then quickly stops, pitches back to them and power jigs through the bubble trail.
Just one way Roach boils big water down to puddles.
- written by Matt Straw (pictured above)