Searching the Flats in the Spring

One of the very first places I look and concentrate my efforts is on the flats. Flats are the least interesting types of structure in a lake. There are no breaks, holes, edges, and just flat bottom. But seemingly featureless flats hold most of the active walleyes during most yearly periods. With that definition there is always an exception. The exception in this case is the mud flats of Mille Lacs. They are mud plateaus that rise up from the floor of the lake and they have edges, holes, and inside turns, but on the top they have the qualities of a defined flat.
On the flats, the weather has not as much of an impact as it does in shallow water. Fish favor stability. Relatively constant water temperature, water quality, weather, and abundance of prey let fish live predictably. Good fishing often accompanies stable conditions, but sometimes when weather is poor fishing is the best on the flats. Flats are the major food-producing regions of most lakes. Walleyes forage over flats. Therefore, the flats are the home of walleyes.
It’s easy to identify productive flats. Some prime flats drop off steeply into deepest areas of the lake. Walleyes that use flats typically move shallower at night to feed on a variety of prey species. Baitfish such as ciscoes and shad move shallower at dusk. The depth of a good flat can very from only a few feet to over 20, depending upon the lake and the season. Flats with a fairly soft or sandy bottom carpeted with low weeds, with patches of coontail or cabbage rising above the carpet, attract walleyes. The sandgrass persists through winter and provides cover for postpawn walleyes on sand or gravel flats.
Submerged weeds develop as the water warms in the summer. Weedy flats hold baitfish that attracts walleyes at night. In fall, weeds decline and small fish are flushed from cover. Walleyes feed aggressively throughout this period. Walleyes can feed in dim light. They have a feeding advantage over most prey species after dark.
Walleyes often feed voraciously at night. First-time night fisherman finds a new and unfamiliar world, which at first can be threatening and unproductive. But with proper equipment and background knowledge, night fishing adds a fascinating new dimension to fishing.
Whether you fish during the day or at night, the fish are rarely deeper than 30 feet. Many are shallower than 15 feet, and at night, 2 to 8 feet is common. There are some advantages, as well as disadvantages, when the fish are this shallow. Location is easy, but the fish are often extremely spooky.
To establish a pattern, make a few trolling passes at various depths. If walleyes seem skittish attach side planner boards and get your lures out of the wake of the boat. I use the Pinpoint Positioning System, that allows me to bottom track and shows me the inside turns, but if you’re familiar with a particular flat, you can determine your location as you move by noting the pattern of water depth, bottom type, and vegetation. Ability to keep on track and determine location as you move by noting bottom contours can greatly improve fishing success on nights that are too dark to see landmarks on shore. For this kind of navigation, my Pinpoint Positioning System allows me the freedom of not watching the depthfinder and more concentration on my line in the dark. The other advantage of this system is that I can watch the same thing from the bow of my boat or the console. Both of the Pinpoint Graphs are interlocked to show me what is going on no matter where I am at in the boat. This is great in the day light, but come night fall it becomes essential to have as many eyes on the bottom as possible. With the bottom track feature and double read outs the boat can steer itself while I may be retying or adjusting my equipment.
Although walleyes don’t necessarily follow narrow pathways as they enter a flat, a good bet for locating them is to find a stretch of rocky rubble that is adjacent to a steep drop-off. At night, walleyes on flats tend not to hug the bottom, but often suspend in mid-water and sometimes near the surface.
Active walleyes hold above dense weeds, rock, or other cover; but they also roam more freely than during the day. Don’t neglect areas with sparse cover that walleyes rarely visit during the day. Just because there may appear to be no cover does not mean that walleyes are not roaming over the flats. Keep a constant eye on you depthfinder to see if you see any fish suspended. Because, on flats, large walleyes feed in a variety of the depths, from just a few feet to the deep outer edges of the flat. Depending upon what’s available to eat, walleyes may be on the bottom, suspended at mid-depths, or even at the surface gobbling mayflies or shad.
The character of the flat and the season determines fish staging. If the flat is a large with broad contours, trolling usually is best. Trolling or anchoring and casting can probe small shallow flats. This is a very effective method for looking for large walleyes in the spring. They seem to take bait if they are not pressured by boats and motors moving over the fish column.
Jigs an live bait rigs are generally your best choices for this time of year. The simpler the better. Small jigs tipped with a small chub or fathead minnow, are perfect. Fish bright fluorescent colors in dirty water, and natural or subtle colors in clear water.
Use 1/8 to 3/8 ounce Fireball jigs, depending on the depth or current conditions you are faced with. In most current situations, you want the jig to slowly bounce up and down, on and off the bottom, in the current.
Long-line trolling with crankbaits is the most versatile technique for fishing the flats. Trolling covers lots of water and crankbaits are attractive to feeding walleyes. Try large crankbaits that run with a wide wobble at medium speed. Big walleyes prowling the flats aren’t easily intimidated. I like to use large Rapalas and the Husky Jerks are probably one of my favorite baits. I prefer to use black or dark baits at night. On bright moonlit nights in clear water, however silvery patterns often out produce dark ones. Of course, don’t hesitate to use bright yellows and blues to catch walleyes at night. It seems that, as soon as you have them figured out it is time to change to a completely different color.
When you are looking for some productive walleye fishing in the spring of the year head out to the flats and you might be surprised to find a large population of fish. Use your searching techniques and you will catch some nice walleyes for pictures and a few to take home for supper.

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