by Jason Mitchell
For many walleye anglers across the upper Midwest, some of the first open water walleye fishing opportunities occur each year on river systems like the Wolf River, Missouri River, Mississippi River and Rainy River to name a few. While each system can have specific nuances that make that system somewhat unique, river walleyes also follow some of the same general rules regardless of where they swim. How fish relate to current and set up on current seams seems universal. This month, we offer some insights and guidelines for narrowing down the hunt for river walleyes this season.
1.The Trump Card
Look for the right color water. Incoming tributaries and culverts are prime locations for finding spring walleyes on river systems. This incoming current is often warmer and there are often washout holes, channels and current seams where fish can rest. Water color however is the trump card. High water can cause turbidity in the water and can also contain a lot of debris. Some incoming tributaries have more turbidity than others after a rapid snow melt or rain. In some cases, you might have to move upstream from the incoming tributary because the water is too dirty. Use your prop to gauge water clarity. If you can see your prop, the fish won’t have any problem finding your presentation. If you can only see a few inches into the water, spend a good part of your day looking for cleaner water. Pockets of cleaner water will produce better fishing when rivers get muddy.
2. Fake it Till You Make it
Soft Plastic lures and hair usually out fish live bait. Not to deny the effectiveness of a jig and minnow. We all know a fishing jig and minnow catches a lot of spring walleyes but we dare argue that soft plastics and hair can catch even more fish. Here’s why… as your jig sweeps by fish in the current, these fish don’t have as much time to react to or scrutinize your presentation. The added durability is part of what makes both classic bucktail hair jigs and soft plastics so effective. When you miss a fish with a jig and minnow and the fish steals the minnow, you’re done. You must rehook the bait and there is dead time where you are not effectively presenting your presentation. Soft plastics and bucktail hair jigs or marabou jigs keep you in the water longer. For moderate current, Kalin’s Sizmic Grubs work well while a slimmer and more streamlined profile like the Kalin’s Jerk Minnow JR work better in stronger current.
3. The Bait Debate
There are situations however where you better have water in the baitwell. There are times when minnows are needed and it typically coincides with slower current, tougher bite conditions. I would dare say that much of the time, we find most fish close to the current seam where the aggressive fish are in the faster water and the rest of the fish are close to the seam. There are times however where fish will move away from the current entirely and set up in backwater areas during high water or warmer dead water pockets behind sandbars and other current obstructions. This is a situation where we often see a classic jig and minnow shine. No current on a tough bite can sometimes be a minnow bite.
4. Angle of the Dangle
When slipping the current, the old rule of thumb was to keep the boat the same speed as the jig getting swept down river. You wanted to keep your line vertical. This is one vital page from the playbook and we have seen where you wouldn’t get bit if the line wasn’t vertical to the jig. There are however other plays to have in your bag of tricks because it can be downright amazing how river fish can respond to different presentations. Dragging jigs upstream or downstream can be downright deadly and what is amazing is that dragging can often put a lot of fish in the boat when traditional slipping presentations that keep the jig right below the boat don’t work. These dragging tactics shine in less than ten feet of water where there is moderate to slow current which is where you can find a lot of walleyes each spring. For dragging down stream, lighten up the jig and give your jig a good cast upstream. Let the current carry you downstream with the jig dragging upstream behind the boat. If you can’t keep the jig upstream, you don’t have enough weight. The other method is slowly dragging the jig upstream. Again, simply cast behind the boat and use your trolling motor to crawl upstream. You typically want the jig to tick bottom occasionally. These horizontal jig presentations can shine on river systems.
5. Cast More this Season.
We all know how good river holes and deep channels can be. Here is the reality however with river walleyes. These deep holes are often where fish winter. As the water warms up raising the metabolism of fish so they start swimming against current and moving through the system, these fish will often use much shallower current seams and breaks. Some of the biggest fish each spring are routinely caught out of shallow water along rip rap, clam beds and sand bars where there is less than ten feet of water. In fact we catch many big walleyes on rivers each spring in less than three feet of water. You will not only catch these shallow fish by pitching or casting jigs, you will also just fish through so much more water with each cast.