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Cruising Walleye

By - David Hendee
Omaha World Herald staff writter
CHAMBERLAIN, S.D.-Ice cold water+ hungry walleye= hot spring fishing.

That foolproof formula is the only code anglers need to know that spring walleye fishing is heating up as ice vanishes from prairie lakes and rivers.

The last ice melted in south-central South Dakota’s Lake Francis Case on the Missouri River last week, opening the entire 107-mile-long fishery to the annual walleye onslaught.

Joel Vasek can’t wait.

He didn’t wait, actually. He was fishing from his boat February 27 in open water at the upper reaches of Lake Francis Case when most of the reservoir was covered with ice-and he was on the lake most days last week.

"Walleye fishing from now through the rest of the year is an all-out blitz," Vasek said. "We’ll fish daily all the way into December before we shut down.

Vasek, 29, is a fishing guide. His South Dakota Outfitters Unlimited is based at Lake Francis Case but, he said, angling for spring walleye is the same in Nebraska, Iowa, and elsewhere in the plains.

The water is cold. Until the spawn begins, cold-blooded walleye are lethargic and hovering at the bottom. They’re hungry, but can’t chase after fast-moving bait.

An angler’s best walleye tactic for about another month is dropping a jig with a fathead minnow attached to the hook straight off the side of a boat to the bottom, Vasek said. Slowly jigging the lure by repeatedly lifting it a few inches and letting it sink to the bottom invites a wintered walleye to strike.

"The colder it is, the slower you jig," Vasek said. "Slow, slower and slower. That’s key."

During an outing last week, Vasek used yellow Cabelas Livin’ Eye jigs and the biggest fatheads he could cull from his bait bucket. The 3/8-ounce jigs he set out gave anglers a better feel for the lake bottom in the windy, choppy conditions then did the -ounce versions.

Some jigs had a treble fish hook attached as a stinger rig to giver anglers a better chance at catching a walleye that might strike short of the lure. Vasek poked one of the hooks through the minnow’s top dorsal fin.

The setups worked. His boat landed 59 walleye and a stray sauger on a day when changing weather quieted the fish bite and sent other anglers back to shore.

Most of the boated walleye were around 14 inches long and were slipped back into the lake. Only four crossed the 15-inch mark to qualify as keepers.

"I know people get frustrated at not catching keepers, but if you’re having a good time there’s so much more to catching fish than frying fish," Vasek said. "You can only take what the lake gives you on any given day."

Monday, the lake gave up dozens of walleye born in 2005. They weighed in at a pound or two each. Two days later, Vasek landed a 4 pounder and was catching 2-to 4-pounders by week’s end.

"You can’t predict when that will happen," he said.

Vasek doesn’t fish to fish. He fishes to catch. He grew up fishing the reservoir and turned his passion into his profession.

An estimated 75 percent of Vasek’s fishing partners are Nebraskans and Iowans who pay him to take them to the fish. They rank second and third among out-of-state anglers fishing in South Dakota. Nebraskans bought 11,616 nonresident South Dakota fishing licenses last year. Iowans bought 10,492 permits. Only Minnesotans bought more permits (12,438).

Anglers frustrated with getting boats in and out of drought-lowered Lake McConaughy in western Nebraska are a big share of Vasek’s new business, he said.

"McConaughy’s a great fishery, and it’ll come back," he said, "but some people just don’t want to put up with the hassle."

Lake Francis Case is a reservoir like McConaughy, but the Army Corps of Engineers keeps the South Dakota lake at a relatively stable elevation by releasing water from upstream impoundments on the Missouri. McConaughy, on the North Platte River, relies largely on natural inflows and irrigation runoff.

Although Vasek isn’t always after a trophy, he does chase fish.

"I don’t like to sit out there and not catch fish. It’s boring," he said. "I’d rather catch 30 or 40 fish a day and have a good time doing that than sit out there waiting for two or three fish to bite."

Knowing where and how to fish makes the difference.

This time of year he fishes the edge of the old river channel in the middle and upper reaches of the reservoir near Chamberlain. He’ll soon move to the depths at the lower end of the lake.

Last week, he targeted walleye cruising the mid-zone between the deeper bottom of the channel and the shallower flats toward shore. That corridor gives walleye an opportunity to dart into the shallows after a minnow and then quickly slip back into the safety of deeper water.

The channel bottom was 30 feet down where Vasek fished along the east bank north of Chamberlain. The corridor was 17-22 feet deep. That’s where Vasek concentrated his fishing.

"Up here, fishing is simple," he said. "There’s no science to it. You just hope the weather cooperates and then get a jig and a minnow on the fish."

"You don’t need a boat to fish for walleye. The best months for shore fishing for walleye, smallmouth bass, and white bass are April, May and June," Vasek said.

"Cast a line with minnows or night crawlers hooked to a crappie rig from the shore to catch the early-season action. Casting jigs with minnows or crank baits also are effective," Vasek said.

Shoreline fishing will excel in coming weeks during the walleyes spawn. Water temperatures in the 40s will start the spawning action on rock and rubbing along sun-warmed shorelines.

After females drop their eggs into the rocky structure, males move in to fertilize. That’s when anglers from boat and shore target the reservoir banks.

Females recuperate from spawning for about two weeks and then go on a ravishing bite.

"After May 10," Vasek said, "it’s basically a free for all with a huge population of fish just feeding through October."