How To Read A River For Walleyes
September 24, 2010
It's that time of year when several species of fish begin migrating upstream. Do you know where they'll be hanging out?
When February finally arrives, I know that spring isn't far away. The days are getting noticeably longer and the sun is getting higher in the sky. Even though it is still below freezing, the increased solar radiation begins to help the current work on eroding the ice covering many of our rivers.
Walleyes, northern pike and rainbow trout are all early-spring spawners. While the northerns head for the marshes for procreation, the walleyes and rainbows move up the rivers. A real key to catching both species is finding their preferred habitat in the river.
While electronics will help you when fishing from a boat in a large river, your eyes are a key tool in reading the water. It is very important that you take your "reading" glasses with you when river fishing. No, not the ones for reading the fine print, but your polarized sunglasses. These sunglasses cut the surface glare and let you see what's under the water. A light amber tint seems to be best for most situations, and be sure to couple your sunglasses with a long-billed cap to shade them from the glare from the sky.
Walleyes on their spawning run need cover and areas to rest. The current is both their friend and their enemy. The river's flow guides them upstream, but walleyes are not strong swimmers, and they take the path of least resistance and rest often. They stay near the bottom where they are more protected and the current is the slowest.
Logs, large rocks and manmade structures such as wing dams and bridge abutments provide cover and block the current. Rock and clay ledges and other factors that make the bottom uneven create rest areas where the current is greatly reduced. Similarly, along the edge of a river an uneven bank creates friction and produces side eddies. The slot between the eddy and the main current is a prime resting area for migrating walleyes. There is almost no current in the slot, but the fish can easily slide back into the flow and head upstream when it is ready.
In addition to slowing the flow, the bank also provides cover for the fish via overhanging vegetation.
Undercut banks also provide great cover but are more often utilized by resident river fish. Water depth also provides cover, and this is usually all that is needed in large rivers. The depth needed for the walleyes to feel protected varies with the clarity. A broken surface provides cover and can decrease the depth required. Basically, if you can't see the fish, that doesn't mean they are not there.
Usually you can see the logs and large boulders but sometimes you will to read the currents when they are submerged. Look for bulges in the current and remember that they occur downstream from the obstacle. It is obvious that the current will be slowed downstream from a boulder or log, but don't forget that current is also reduced in front of them. Usually it is easier to fish the area above because there are no back eddies. In addition to fishing above and below the logs and boulders, also try to present your lure by the edges of the rock and the end of the log.
Walleyes don't make nests or spawning beds. They just broadcast their eggs and milt over a rocky bottom with moderate current. When fishing a river, it is important to concentrate in areas with a firm substrate. While you can intercept walleyes on their way to the spawning grounds, they will usually be more concentrated in the areas where they spawn.
Most all of the standard river walleye methods will produce during the early spring spawning run. It should be noted, however, that the No. 1 objective right now is carrying on the family name, and eating is not a priority for the walleyes. With that in mind, pick lures that get the walleyes' attention and invade their territory.
When fishing from a boat in a large river, it is pretty hard to beat vertical jigging. Pick jigs that have a streamlined shape such as the bullet style and are in bright colors. Fluorescent chartreuse and white show up best in the often turbid rivers of spring. Whether you tip the jig with plastic or the real thing, keep it highly visible, too. Always jig with a tight line and immediately pick up the jig after tapping the bottom. If you allow slack, you will miss hits and greatly increase your risk of snagging the bottom.
Crawler harnesses, weight-forward spinners and plugs will also catch early-spring river walleyes. But, instead of drifting and trolling, utilize the river's current. Position yourself above the area to be fished and allow the current to carry your offering down to the fish. You can also cast and retrieve, with slow being the operative word on the retrieve.
In addition to reading the river, you can also "feel" the river with lures that have some current resistance like plugs and spinners. As previously stated, walleyes like a relatively slow current and will move out of it to rest frequently. With your favorite lures you can learn and remember how they feel in the current of holding water that produces walleyes. Then as you prospect for more fish, give the holes with just the right feel more time.
Lake-run rainbow trout are much stronger swimmers than the walleyes but they also need to rest on their spring migration. They utilize the same types of cover but will frequently be found in faster water. In the classic riffle-pool situation where the rapids pour into a pool and then the pool becomes gradually shallower, the walleyes will typically hold in the deeper main pool. On the other hand, rainbows are likely to be at the head of the hole poking their nose into the rapids or in the shallowing tailout of the pool.
Rainbows dig spawning beds in gravel runs and riffles. For this reason, these trout will tend to be concentrated in reaches where there is a good gravel substrate. Like the walleyes, they can be intercepted on the way to the spawning riffles, but fishing the holes and cover near the gravel is usually more productive. Good overhead cover like logs, overhanging vegetation and undercut banks near the spawning area are the places to concentrate your fishing. Slots near banks with a lot of cover are prime locations for resting trout.
Drifting bait, casting lures and pulling plugs against the current are all methods that will take rainbows on their spring spawning run. These fish are not actively feeding, but spawn sacks and other baits are still effective because they smell and taste right. The trout don't swallow them but hang on long enough for you to set the hook.
Adding brightly-colored yarn and drift-bobbers help attract and/or annoy trout into taking your offering. Invading a rainbow's resting spot with a shiny spinner, spoon or plug is also likely to get an aggressive response. They have the advantage over bait in that they can be fished faster, so you can try more possible holding spots on your outing.
Rainbows also lie near the bottom, but it is important to remember that they look forward and up. Thus, yo
u want to make your presentations near the bottom but not on it. If you get hung up a lot, you are fishing too deep. It is better to err on the high side because you can't catch any when you are re-rigging.
Dams concentrate both walleyes and rainbows on their spawning migrations. When the dam is equipped with a fish ladder, it will still take a while for the rainbows to find it, causing them to linger. Walleyes rarely ascend a fish ladder, so they will remain downstream. Typically, when walleyes and trout reach an impasse, they spend some time trying to find a way upstream and then back downstream until they find suitable spawning habitat.
Try to make a mental note of the type of water or cover where you catch each fish and you will increase your success by fishing hard in similar water. This can be especially important in big water that is hard to read.
Another tip when fishing unfamiliar water is to fish "under the bubbles" when you can't figure out where the fish should be. The bubbles will be concentrated in the main flow of the river and this is the current that guides the walleyes and rainbow trout on their upstream migration.
It is also important to use some restraint when harvesting these fine fish. Releasing the females you catch will go a long way toward ensuring the future of our fisheries. A small male can fertilize the eggs of many females, but once you remove a female we've lost that reproductive potential.
Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!