Well a couple weeks into the season and the water temps are coming up into the 65 degree range in my neck of the woods. It has been a great season so far with a lot of fish boated. Starting on the opener and the proceeding weeks I worked shallow sand flat areas in 5-7' using crankibaits. The water temps were in the low 50's. This scenario begs for live bait rigs and jigs and minnows and these baits do have a time and a place but for me there is nothing better then casting for open water eyes!
I like to throw #5 shad raps early season and slow roll them back to the boat while fancasting the shallow flats. The key to cold water cranking is to slow way down and then slow down some more to keep that bait wiggling but in the face of the fish just long enough that they can decide it is a meal. In my area, and many of the metro lakes, the key forage options for walleyes are young bluegills and perch. I like to target areas that have nearby rock and gravel, deep water and also a defined emerging weedline when early season cranking, subsequently these are also areas where you will find gills staging to spawn.
For early season think spawning habitat. Rock and gravel are premium but walleye will spawn over sand if suitable spawning habitat is unavailable. Walleyes will even stage and make mock spawning runs in lakes that have less then suitable habitat to spawn, moving to sand flats and even up into the shallow water rip rap areas. These areas will tend to congregate fish but in many metro lakes where there is not enough suitable spawning shoals, the eyes will find the nearest sandflats and do their business.
Emerging weedlines: This is a pivot point but also a piece of structure that will congregate bait and give walleyes ambush cover. Typically this is also where a sudden bottom change occurs where sediment and light penetration are suitable for the first developing weeds to emerge. This emerging structure in combination with a bottom content change tends to be very distinct later on in the season but early season you can find these areas while cruising the flats and looking for the weed growth on your electronics. One key to finding a good sand flat area is to watch where the developing weedline starts. If the weedline starts in less then say 5', you are probably looking at a mud and silt bottom and the adjacent weedline will tend to hold bass and pike but few if any walleyes. Why fish the emerging weedline instead of live bait rigging at the base of the first break into the basin? Well, in early season the fish will migrate from spawning habit to the first available structure that holds bait and this often equates to the emerging weedline.
Cold water temps in the 45-55 degree range, you will want to run baits with a tighter action or a slow side to side roll like shad raps and thunder sticks. Casting these baits work them back to the boat at a slow crawl and even throw in a pause now and then. The pause often triggers following fish to strike when the bait stops right in front of them, they just cannot resist. If trolling when the water temps are in this range work from .8 mph to 1.2 occasionally pumping the rod forward and dropping it back. Again, this can cause a follower to become a biter. When the water temps increase into the upper 50's and low 60's this is a time to start increasing your retrieve speed as the fish are becoming more active and will readily smack a faster moving bait. As the temps move into the mid to upper sixties it is game on and you can start running and gunning with lipless rattle baits retrieved just fast enough to occasionally tick bottom. These are ideal search baits and will take everything from bluegills to muskies. I like the rattlin raps in #5 and #7 for most applications but will beef up to a #8 if I am really burning them looking for reaction strikes. I like to work these baits on braided line with a bait caster and often will use them over the top of emerging weeds. If I feel a weed on the bait, often you can rip it once or twice and return to a normal retrieve weed free.