Early Season Walleye Tips from a North-Country Guide

Published On: May 5, 20206.8 min read
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Early Season Walleye Tips Crane Lake

Crane Lake Area Early Season Walleye Fishing Tips For Depth, Temperature, and Targeting

Getting bite in May can be a challenge for anglers in the northern half of the walleye’s range, as every year can be a bit different depending on ice-out, weather conditions, and what it does to the impending spawn.  Even the spawn itself can have variation, being mere days to long weeks, again given a host of climatic and environmental variables.  Yet, there are guides that produce for their clients in these conditions year-in and year-out, and most walleye anglers could benefit from that experience

We interviewed Michael Schwanke of Voyageurs Guide Service in Crane Lake, MN to get his take on early season walleyes in the vast Voyageurs National Park Area, including trips to the Canadian side of the border where he takes anglers every year.

If you fish anywhere north, from sand and reed dominated Midwestern lakes to Canadian Shield waters, his decades of angling expertise in northern waters will put fish in the boat on opener and beyond.

Crane Lake Visitor & Tourism Bureau Interview With Michael Schwanke: Early Season Walleye Tips

Q:  Can you share a little about your background, and how you got started with fishing and becoming a guide?

I’ve been lucky enough to spend every summer of my life up here. Playing and fishing until I was 12 years old and then working during the summer at Handberg’s Marina as a dock-boy. That’s where I learned a lot about the lakes, fishing, boating and the community. I bought my first boat right on the boat ramp. I worked there until I was 25 and then started Voyageurs Guide Service.

My dad, brother and I started to started to learn how to fish together when I was a teenager and it progressed each summer into something more serious. We’d try new spots and different techniques throughout the season.  Truthfully, I decided I wanted to be a guide right after I had cancer. Life is short and I wanted to live mine where I love, doing what I love. It’s been a major motivator for me

Q:  Tell us about your guide service – what you guide for, time of year, etc.

I guide May-October predominately on the Canadian side of Lac La Croix and Rainy. Although we do a fair amount of trips through the Park (Sandpoint and Namakan).

Q:  Aside from your family connection to the area, why did you decide to start a guide business here?

 A:  I think the best thing about Crane is the access it gives you the Park, Canada, BWCA and Quetico.  Of all the towns/cities that border Voyageurs Park none give you all the same access that Crane Lake offers.

You’re covering a large area and hundreds of lakes, but where do you start for early season fishing?

A:  Crane is great the beginning of the year due to all the different inlets and current spots. With the Vermillion River, Echo River and Camp 40 creek all flowing into Crane there’s a lot of habitat and area to catch some nice walleyes.

Q:  What kind of spots are you looking for?  What depths, types of cover or structure, and water temps are you targeting?  Does weather play a significant role?

Fish shallow in the spring. Walleye are either still spawning or in their post spawn phase, strapping on the feed bags and staging outside of their spawning areas.  On Crane lake this means strong current areas and shallow windblown bays (Gorge, Echo, Rollick and NorthWest Bay are great walleye spawning areas).  Recommended Depths are anywhere from 2-15 feet. Different walleyes spawn at different times and will be making their way through areas at different times. Log lay downs in shallow waters as well as sections of gravel bottom and behind large rocks in current areas are good places to look.  Look for the warmest water you can at opener. Weather doesn’t seem to play as large a factor this time of year as fish are locked into their habits. Fishing will normally slow down a little during the first day of a cold snap, but consistency in weather is always what I look for.

Q:  What setups are you working with – any rods/reels, lures, or special equipment that makes a difference for you?

Jigging rules this time of year, and I’ve found nothing better over time that produces like a jig and a minnow. That means 1/8 oz. sizes if you are fishing shallow as it will keep you away from all the rocks and snags up here. Only go 3/16 oz. or ¼ oz. this time of year if the wind is blowing and you need help getting down to the fish, but do it in small increments.  It’s amazing how a small change in jig-size can mean the difference between constant action and nothing but rocks.

Pitching the jig and minnow into structure as well as vertical jigging on deeper breaks seems to work best, progressing from earlier in the day to higher skies. In the tannic stained waters of Voyageurs National Park, I use a lot of neon colors for jigs, as well as gold. Never hesitate to change it up, and feed the fish what they want.  For jigging, I like to use a 6’3” to 7’6” jig stick (shorter for vertical jigging, longer for pitching) in a medium power with a fast tip. The fast tip gives you enough feel to detect a light bite and the medium action gives you the strength to set the hook into even a trophy fish. I typically fish mono line this time of year, as fish are shallow so you don’t have much line out, making line-stretch less of an issue.  Given all the rock, logs, and other cover up here, I find mono to be easier to get out of snags too.

Q:  Is there anything “special” that you do that seems to really trigger bites during this time of year?

I think too many people over-work their jig setups this time of year.  The water is cold, and fish are looking for an easy meal.  Especially if you’re vertical jigging, hold it 18” off the bottom and dead stick it.  You have living prey on your hook, let nature do the work. 

Q:  How close are you to the Boundary Waters to where you guide, and do you do any canoe-fishing for walleyes?

Crane is about a 10 minute boat ride to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). Starting in Little Vermillion to running towards Loon Lake. Unlike almost all of the BWCA you can boat in Little Vermillion and Loon Lake, this allows you to gain access to Lac La Croix and all the different lakes in the BWCA off of it.

I love fishing for walleyes out of a canoe! When I’m paddling I always drop back a crankbait, as you never know what you’ll get. When I’m stationary I like to jig and plastic combinations, especially paddle tails up there.  It’s pretty simple fishing; use the wind to your advantage by getting on the windward side and slowing drifting and dragging jigs in patterns over the deep edges of reefs, working your way shallow.

Q:  How can people get connected with you and your guide service?

You can find us at: www.mnvoyageurs.com

Facebook: Voyageurs Guide Service

Instagram: @voyageurs_guide_service

My Cell: (952) 239-3266


The Crane Lake Visitor & Tourism Bureau can assist you with ground, water, or air transportation, lodging reservations, group planning, meeting facilities, and any special consideration required to accommodate a unique condition or disability.

If you would like more information about the Crane Lake area or to access our Visitors Guide, please visit our Contact Page. Thank you for your interest in our beautiful area.

Crane Lake Visitor & Tourism Bureau
7511 Gold Coast Road
Crane Lake, MN 55725
800-362-7405 · 218-993-2901