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Never Underestimate Shallow Water

Never Underestimate Shallow Water

by Bill Mitzel

There are two periods of the year, especially, when fish seek shallow water vigorously. During the spring and fall stages.

Can’t help it. I’m a shallow-water-kind-of-guy.

We have had too much great fishing in shallow water to try now to break the habit and go deep. Heck, “deep” to me is 15-feet.

We’ve had such good luck finding shallow water walleyes, pike and white bass in Devils Lake in May, June and again in October and November. It can often be impossible to avoid them.

These fish are often the biggest among the pack, as well. If you want to catch little walleyes in Devils Lake, drop a jig into 20 plus feet of water and you’ll find them.

In May and June, catching walleyes, pike and white bass only inches from the shore is common. Cast a crankbait along a windy Devils Lake shoreline in May and June in 1- to 5-feet of water and you’re going to find fish. Walleyes, pike and white bass are commonly found in shallow water in Devils Lake.

Granted, these fish will gradually move deeper as summer progresses, but generally I don’t follow them. I’m still going to find some wind and cast baits into the shallow, choppy shoreline,  regardless of the time of year. It is just too easy to find fish there.

Devils Lake, with its rocky and sometimes weedy shorelines, are ideal for casting crankbaits into shallow water. There are simply a lot of fish there. Period.

There’s no question a boat spooks fish, but not, I believe, in the way we think. If we approach a shallow area at trolling speed, that is, come onto the fish gradually, we’re not going to scatter them recklessly. That applies, though, to water, say, deeper than 6- to 8-feet. Less than that, and we’re better off to back off and cast to those fish.

The important thing is: There are fish in very shallow water in the spring and fall periods. Lots of them. Especially on Devils Lake. Whatever the reason, warmer water, comfort, food, sunlight, spawning… whatever… they’re there.

Generally, if you’re trolling crankbaits upstream on the Missouri River, for instance, which is one of the first places we fish each spring, you’re going to let out more line in relation to the depth of water. If you’re trolling in 10- to 14-feet a standard 60- to 80-feet of like is OK. But, if you’re trolling shallower than 8-feet of water, you’ll want to let out more line.

This is not to get your crankbait deeper, it’s to allow the fish to move out of the way of the boat as you pass over them, only for them to move back into their resting/feeding area after you have passed through. As a result, your lure will be in the right place when the fish return.

Now, what many anglers pass up are the fish in that 1- to 4-foot range of water. It’s hard, not impossible, to troll or drift a boat over that water without moving fish away. So, you drift farther out and cast crankbaits to them.

The is one of the hottest and most productive techniques on Devils Lake today. A lot of anglers are “casting crankbaits”. You find some shallow, warmer water in the spring then cast shallow running crankbaits toward the shoreline and retrieve them back slowly. You’ll get smacked more than you think.

In Devils Lake, wind drives fish into shallow water any time of the year, but in spring, it’s prevalent. Of course, different species prefer different areas. Pike for instance, are always generally shallow, resting or feeding. But while pike don’t particularly favor a wind chop, we  that walleyes do. So, even in the heat of summer, you can move into a shallow shoreline that’s been beat hard with waves for even a minimal amount of time, and you’ll stand a good chance of locating walleyes, pike and white bass.

Shallow water fishing compares to picking brush patches for pheasants. It is a relatively small area, and it’s attractive to wildlife. It doesn’t take you much time to cover it, but there’s going to be something there. You can basically decided how you want to work it.


I was always fond of shallow water fish, but had a barrier I could not break years ago. Six feet of water seemed to be my line of penetration. Shallower than that I wasn’t much concerned of confident. I just reasoned there couldn’t be fish THAT shallow.

But, there were.

I watched, one day, as a boat ahead of me slid very close to a shoreline in which we were working. He was working, I guessed, water in the 2- to 4-foot range… and danged if he wasn’t catching fish. How was he doing that? I had to find out.

I struck up a conversation and learned he was using floating crankbaits. He was using shallow running crankbaits with a very small split-shot about 2 1/2 feet above the lure. That is all. This enabled the lure to get in the 2- to 4-foot depth without hitting bottom, and yet attracting fish. There were, indeed, walleyes in that area.

I don’t know why, but fish hitting in shallow water are much more aggressive than those deeper. A 3-pound walleye or northern pike smacking a crankbait in two feet of water is a possessed creature. You’d better have a good grip on the rod.


Perhaps the bottom line is this: Fish, especially walleyes, will always try to get into as shallow water as they can, given safety and food. So, if it’s windy, they tend to head shallow even in the heat of summer. It’s a fish’s nature to do that, for most of the time that’s where their food source is.

Of course, there are no hard-and-fast rules for where fish will be on a given day, at a given time. We’ve caught walleyes in 4-feet in Devils Lake on calm, sunny days in July. Pike, too. Don’t know why they were there, can’t figure it out. And truth is, such a situation is rare. But put in some wind with that, a little “mixed” water, and you’ve got a great opportunity for some great action.


“Hunting” for fish is the name of the game. That means covering a lot of water, often quickly. If it’s true, as the adage proclaims, fishing occupies less than 5 percent of the water, then we have a lot of work to do from the start of the day.

Aside from wind, one other ingredient serves to attract fish into shallow water… anytime of the year, and that’s weeds. In there, again, addition to shade, comfort and safety.

Walleyes and pike are specialists of the weeds. And walleyes love weeds as much as pike, bass or any other fish. Weeds are just too beneficial to fish for them to ignore the stuff.

Big fish are much are much more visible than their smaller counterparts. But with that size and power, a handicap emerges. They can be seen more readily than smaller fish. Thus, the weeds give them the opportunity to hide, among other things.

Weeds are not to be avoided.


At two times of the year, fish are going to be shallow without reservation — spring and fall. After that, it’s a hit-and-run situation. But, even if I’m on the big main lake area that’s clear and calm, I’m always going to spend a little time searching for shallow water fish.

It’s simply a good bet.

If you took a tally, I believe you’d find that many of the tournaments on Devils Lake were won in the back bays as far back as you can go in some cases. Even with tournaments being held in July.

Certainly, you plan your technique based on the day’s weather. If you’ve got a windy shoreline without risking your life, wonderful. If it’s early in the morning and the sun isn’t high yet, great. If the water is a little “off” color from yesterday’s wind, sweet. If there are weeds along the sharp-breaking shoreline, it is begging to be fished.

Fishing is largely a game of chance, but as the man once said, the hard I fish, the luckier I get.

Fish it all, but don’t forget that shallow water. •

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