Tubin' River Walleyes

News & Tips: Tubin' River Walleyes

Gitzit, gatzit, river walleyes'll snatch it! Tube baits excel in a variety of late winter and early spring river walleye situations.

Tube baits are the best bet for winter walleye fishing.

The shape, profile and subtle action of 3- to 4-inch tubes, rigged in concert with standard insert-style leadhead jigs, dupe cold water river walleyes in both deep and shallow situations. There's also an added benefit of not having to deal with half-frozen minnows.

On the Shallow Side

It's well accepted that river walleyes take up residence in slackwater pools during late fall and remain there until the spring spawn stimulates a movement to acceptable habitat for reproduction. What isn't as well understood is the frequency in which fish using these low-current sanctuaries migrate to the shallow fringes of such places to feed. This is particularly true of larger walleyes. Likely it's a pecking order thing, where larger, more dominant walleyes get the best seat at the dinner table.

Shallow water feeding lies coexist with major slackwater pools. Common examples include wingdams and gravel bars and structures that actually create downriver (and in some cases upriver) pools and eddies.

The presence of a larger incoming tributary often provides shallow feeding lies. The force of the main current scours the edge of the delta formed at the mouth of the feeder water. Inactive walleyes hold in the deeper river area, moving up to the shallow, soft-bottomed delta to feed on the abundant food found there when they become active.

Besides these familiar feeding zones there are other shallow locations where active walleyes can be found. Shallow rock, gravel and sand flats that rim the shoreline edge of a deep wintering hole will experience an influx of feeding walleyes, particularly when the water is up. Shallow flats located downriver of a key walleye hole will also hold fish - more so when water levels are normal or low. Higher water tends to bring too high a current level for walleye use at this time.

Relatively light tube jigs can be used to effectively work these shallow water feeding areas. Walleyes find the shape and fall of a light tube appealing; the angler need not worry about the force of the cast ripping the bait free of a minnow-tipped jig.

For shallow water work, I use a 3-inch Yum tube or similar fat-bodied tube. Good walleye colors include Mardi Gras and green pumpkin for stained water. Smoke/red flake is a good clear water choice, while mustard/red pepper often excels in dirty water. Some days color doesn't seem a factor, but in the world of the finicky walleye, other days it does. Thus, I share what my experiences have shown.

A slow descent and turtle-paced retrieve can be a key in triggering bites from walleyes, even feeding walleyes, in cold water. So go light on the jighead. Eighth and three-sixteenth ounce leadheads with a quality light-wire hook ensure a proper presentation as well as hooksets that bite. The light leadhead will allow the tube to fall slowly, which is often the mechanism that prompts the strike. Fish that don't respond to the initial fall of the bait will often do so if it's dragged along the bottom. Again, the use of a light jig makes certain that you work the bait slowly to keep it on the bottom.

Boat Control

Boat control is a vital component in presenting light tube jigs to shallow river eyes.

When working shallow shoreline flats, the most efficient way to cover the spot is by holding the boat a short cast's length off of the bank. Wind and current will dictate the direction to point the boat. The objective is to slowly move down the bank while maintaining a steady platform that allows the tube to be correctly fished. If there is little to no current in the boat's position, and wind is not a factor, most times it's best to go bow downstream, jogging the trolling motor as needed to shift the boat to the next casting spot. If the current off of the bank is moving the boat too quickly, or a downriver wind is pushing the boat that same direction, point the bow upriver. Use the bowmount to *** the boat's downriver travel -- again, at a pace that allows you to fish the bank correctly.

Light tubes are most effective around rock and gravel bars when the river is on the low side. Walleyes often move up on such bars and shoals toward evening and during dark days. That's the time to break out the anchor. I like to position the boat so it hangs right in the current seam just downriver of the tip of the structure. It may take a couple anchor sets to get it right, so if it's not correct the first time, reposition until it is.

Picking a good walleye tube color depends on the water.

Cast the tube out into the deeper water, on the slackwater side of the current edge, slowly dragging it toward the boat (and shallower water). After you've caught a couple of fish you get a feel for that perfect sweet spot and will know where to target your next cast.

Anchoring is also a good device for holding the boat in the correct position off of a river or creek mouth. Spike the boat back off of the delta edge 20 feet or so. Walleyes will travel along the corridor as they move up to the creek mouth. Cast a tube jig up on the mudflat and work it back to the boat. If the fish police allow, it often pays to fish an additional deadstick rod in a rod holder, with the bait a few inches off the bottom.

Flats found below river holes frequently attract feeding walleyes. The lip of the hole, where it transitions from deep to shallow, often serves as a holding area for fish. Tubes pitched up on the flat, and pulled down over the ledge, will often be bit by the fish found there. Position the boat a pitch-length above the lip. Slip along the edge with the motor as you work the structure. If you find the spot-on-the-stop, use an anchor to nail the boat to that spot.

A 6.5-foot medium action spinning rod is ideal for pitching and casting light tube jigs. I mate this rod with a Pflueger Medalists reel, spooled with Gamma copolymer 8-pound-test in high-vis gold. To keep the bright line a distance from the fish, I tie in a 1-foot Edge leader, typically of 12-pound test, but will go stronger if toothy critters are about.

Going Deep

It would be nice if there were always a few shallow water 'eyes to target. But the sad fact is that at times it's necessary to target the masses, those inactive fish found scattered throughout the slackwater environment. Tube jigs can be used to purse these fish as well.

Slip drifting through the pool, using the combination of trolling motor thrust and proper jig weight to maintain a vertical presentation, is the customary way of working these fish. It's a proficient way of catching these fish and can be done so with tubes.

Whereas a bulkier jig provides a slow fall for a pitched jig, it's a hindrance here, where being streamlined means moving through the water better. So make the adjustment to a thinner bodied tube. I particularly like Canyon Plastic's original Gitzit — a bait that provides a hydrodynamic jighead-clinging package that creates minimal drag.

The fundamentals of slip drifting a river pool call for using as light a jig as you can, while maintaining a somewhat vertical line angle. Typically in depths of the 10-foot level, 1/8 to 3/16 ounces works out right. Ten to 20 feet of depth calls for a 1/4 ounce, while greater depths require 3/8 or heavier. Even a tight-bodied tube may feel "draggy" to someone accustomed to jigging a compact Fireball-type jig, in which case it may be necessary to bump up the jig weight a notch from what would normally be used.

Maintaining occasional contact with the bottom so you can position the tube a few inches off the bottom during the drifting pass means getting (and detecting) the most bites. For this work, I use a sensitive line like 6-pound test loaded on a Pflueger 6025 Medalist spinning reel. A shorter medium action rod makes a great vertical jigging stick.