Fast & Furious River Walleyes
September 24, 2010
You have to be at the top of your game to catch walleyes at this time of year. These tips from the experts should give you the edge over everyone else jockeying for position on the river.
For years we have been instructed to head to the river for great spring walleye fishing. We've been told to take a lot of jigs and minnows, and motor right up to the downstream side of a dam where walleyes will stack up like cordwood.
Obviously, many anglers have heeded this advice because in the spring, venturing into a channel below a dam will put you right in the middle of a flotilla of boats often described as mayhem. But according to two veteran river rats with solid credentials on the walleye tournament trail, anglers are missing the boat on a lot of productive water.
Steve Delain is a tournament professional who cut his teeth fishing rivers while competing on the Masters Walleye Circuit (MWC). In 1999, he and his partner took top honors at the Illinois River Event, and in 2001 they were crowned MWC Team of the Year. He now competes on the FLW Walleye Tour.
Nick Johnson is a full-time angling pro who also competes on the FLW Walleye Tour. In 2004, he was crowned that tour's champion, and in 2005 he won the coveted Angler of the Year title.
Both of these anglers spend tremendous amounts of time on the rivers in the spring, and both agree that the dams are the last place they would be found fishing for walleyes.
"Everyone tends to head up to the dams on rivers during the spring period," said Johnson. "I try to avoid that because of the crowds. I find that whenever I move away from the dam, sometimes even six to 10 miles downstream, I'll run into those bigger pre-spawn walleyes that haven't moved up yet and are staging. You have to realize that not all the walleyes are spawning at the dam. Some are heading to the tributaries or they spawn on a riprap or rock structure on the edge of the main channel."
"It's a misconception that all the walleyes in a river system go up to the dam and spawn all at once," added Delain. "Walleyes will use sand flats, rock and rubble flats, clam beds, deep transition shorelines, boat harbors with groundwater springs --just a lot of different habitat that walleyes will use. It's a small percentage that go up to the dam to spawn. Walleyes will use whatever habitat they are imprinted to spawn on and then they leave. They come in waves, with some using downriver spots like a flat or a tributary or side-channel area. So these fish are using different habitats in the system that can be several miles apart."
The problem is that anglers are also imprinted with the notion that to catch fish in the spring, they need to fish the dam. They don't have a clue where to look, outside of this obvious spot.
"What anglers need to do is take a section of the river and pick out the best features," said Delain. "Is there a point, a current break or a rock ledge or a sandbar, something in that section that holds fish? Start there. After you break down that little section, fish those spots and you'll find walleyes. If you try to fish a big section all at once, it will be too confusing and you'll wonder 'Where do I start?' Start small and break down a section, and if that doesn't work, break down another section. At some point you'll find out what the walleyes are using to stage and feed on. Do this, and when you find walleyes, you know you have accomplished something rather than going to a general spot where everyone is at. Soon you'll gain confidence about going to a river system and catching fish in different areas other than the dams."
"When I'm down from the dam, what I look for is a current break with some available forage," said Johnson. "It might be a wing dam, it might be a riprap shoreline with a little steeper break on it. The rock tends to slow the current. Some of my best spots are where the riprap or wing dams drop off at the edge a foot or two into a slower-tapering bottom out to 7 or 8 feet deep. If this structure is producing a back eddy that pushes the water back upstream along the riprap, it can really concentrate walleyes.
"If I'm not finding walleyes on the shallow structure," continued Johnson, "I tie on a three-way swivel with a heavy weight, 3 to 4 ounces, and pull a crankbait with a shallow-diving lip in the deep holes. The current can be strong here on the surface of the river, but that flow slows down in the hole, and walleyes and saugers will stack up there. This is typically 18 to 25 feet of water. These fish are staging in the holes as they make their way to the dam."
What is interesting is that neither of these two top anglers uses the jig-and-minnow combination as their top lure choice -- a combo often touted as the only way to catch spring walleyes on the river.
"The jig-and-minnow is a good presentation, and it will work in the holes," said Johnson. "But I like to fish fast and find the aggressive fish, so I don't fish a jig-and-minnow much. When you do find me jig-fishing in the spring, I'm almost always casting a jig with a plastic body shallow and looking for the spots where the fish are feeding. The walleyes slide up onto these spots because the baitfish are there."
Delain sets his sights on traditional spawning areas when he works downstream from the dam.
"I like shallow clam beds near side channels or backwater areas because the walleyes use these areas for spawning," he said. "Rock/rubble shorelines are also great, especially those that taper into deeper water. The walleyes like to stage in the deeper water and then move over the tops of the shallower rubble to feed."
Delain's method for spring river walleyes consists of casting and trolling crankbaits.
"I like lead-core trolling," he explained. "With lead-core line you can troll a crankbait real slow and keep the lure in the strike zone within 4 inches of the bottom and cover a lot of area. I cast crankbaits on the shallow rocks and wing dams. On this structure I cast the lure and bang the rocks on the retrieve. That's a late-spring tactic for me. In the early spring I troll the crankbaits on lead-core line in depths from 8 to 12 feet. I troll a shad-style bait usually, but sometimes a longer stickbait-style of crankbait is better because it has more wobble. You can troll flats, cover some ground and pinpoint the fish. Once I'm on walleyes I can go back and either vertical jig plastics or hair jigs. I can also pull a three-way swivel setup in this situation. Trolling crankbaits allows me to cover ground and search for fish. On rivers, trolling lead-core is a popular presentation because you can keep the lure in the strike zone 100 percent of the time."
One aspect that is often overlooked when the topic of finding spring walleyes in rivers is discussed is the correlation between
forage and game fish. Anglers realize walleyes are transitioning from one current break to the next in their journey to the spawning sites. But how does the baitfish factor come into play?
"Some people don't think that spawning fish are forage-oriented," said Johnson. "But wherever I find forage, I catch fish. These walleyes are feeding. I'm looking for current breaks, but that's where I'm finding forage and that's where those walleyes are feeding."
According to Delain, "Fish have to feed. Walleyes tend to key on those emerald shiners or gizzard shad that are a predominant forage base in rivers. You can always count on walleyes being where those forage fish are. It's those points, current breaks and rockbars that pinpoint that forage, and walleyes will be there to prey on them. Forage is a key factor in where you find these migrating walleyes."
So now that you're convinced to head downstream in your search for spring walleyes, here are some tips from our pros.
"Stock up on hair jigs in different sizes and colors, and make sure you have plenty of plastic that mimics the forage in the system," said Delain. "Learn how to troll with lead-core line and take along plenty of crankbaits."
"Pay attention to every little detail," noted Johnson. "You never catch a walleye by accident, and the fish are always talking. You won't know what they're saying until you get one to bite, but when you get that one fish to 'go,' you need to analyze how you caught it. I'll stop right after I catch a fish and look at what the weather conditions are, what color I'm using, what kind of structure and look at any other minor detail. It's important that you discover what triggers the bite. Are you rolling the jig? Are the walleyes hitting as the jig drops off the edge from shallow to deep water? Is one color of crankbait working better than all the others? Ask yourself lots of questions and put that information to use to fine-tune your presentation, and you will get into some fast action on some big walleyes.