Now is the time to plan some strategies for spring fishing. Just thinking about ways to catch more walleyes, northern pike and smallmouth bass in our rivers in the coming season will help shorten the winter. I like to look over county maps and topographical maps, picking reaches to try when spring finally gets here.
My initial title for this article was “Bridge To Bridge Fishing.” Whether you’re wading or floating, covering a substantial section of river will increase your chances of finding fish that haven’t been pressured and are more likely to strike. The monofilament dangling from the overhanging tree and the forked sticks stuck in the bank near the access site tell you that the fish there get to see many anglers’ offerings. It follows that the fish in the holes and runs that are far from the access points will see fewer lures.
Bridges and public access sites will provide the starting and ending points for your fishing outing. You will have to experiment a bit with how much time it takes to float or wade a particular river. The larger and more sinuous the stream, the longer it will take you to fish the section between two bridges that are one mile apart. When wading small rivers I can cover that mile in four or five hours, but if the river is large, has a lot of bends and is on the turbid side, it may take eight or nine hours to fish it all. Floating usually takes one-half to two-thirds of the time compared to the time it takes to wade upstream.
Initially, fishing with a partner and leaving a vehicle at each bridge is a good idea. That way you can determine how long it will take to fish a stretch without being pressured to get to the end at a certain time. Once you have a river figured out, you can fish two adjacent sections with a friend or two using only one vehicle. The first angler or pair gets dropped off at one bridge and the car is moved to the bridge where he or they will finish. The second angler(s) will fish to the next bridge, where he or they will be picked up by the angler fishing to the car.
Walleyes and smallmouth bass prefer river reaches with moderate flows and rocky or firm sand bottoms. Northern pike like a more sluggish flow, but all three species are very cover-oriented. Fallen trees, boulders, logs and overhanging vegetation all provide cover and a place from which these fish can ambush their prey. In-stream vegetation also provides cover and provides habitat for insects, crawfish, scuds and other food items.
Photo by Tom Evans
Classic water, where gravel riffles alternate with pools and deep runs, will hold all three species. The walleyes and smallies will be at the base of the riffles and move into them to feed if the water is shaded or turbid. Northerns will be found in the pools and along the edges of the river where there is little current. The bass and walleyes will also be found in the deep water but may not hit as well as they do when they are in shallower water.
When wading, it is a good idea to move in an upstream direction. All river fish orient to the current. Much of the time they will lie behind an obstacle or in the slot between a side eddy and the main current, waiting for the flow to deliver food items. Of course predators like walleyes, smallies and northerns will also actively chase minnows and crawfish. Since they are usually facing upstream, approaching from behind and casting above the fish is a good plan. This allows you to retrieve or drift your offering with the current in a natural manner.
Another big plus to fishing upstream is that the fish remain unaware of your presence. Large smallmouth bass and northern pike are very wary fish. Walleyes are not exactly dummies either, and you will have a better chance of catching all three species by staying out of their vision and not sending a cloud of silt ahead of you. When floating, you should try to be as quiet as possible, and drifting by along the shallow edge of a good-looking hole or deep riffle and then fishing it back upstream is often a good idea. When the flow is gentle you can do your whole float in an upstream direction. Fishing this way from a canoe or a small boat works especially well when fishing low, clear water. A small anchor will allow you to stop and fish as you go.
Jigs, spoons, weighted spinners, crankbaits and spinnerbaits are good lure choices for all three species in rivers. While weighted spinners are my favorite, I use them all and tend to match the lure type with the river habitat and how the fish are reacting. For shallow, rocky stretches, the shallow-diving balsa minnow plugs are effective on all three predators. For somewhat deeper water you can switch to deeper-diving lures, but keep choosing plugs that imitate the shiners and other minnows that are present in the river. If the fish follow but don’t hit, try a different type of lure and change the retrieve speed.
Weighted spinners are especially effective lures in moving water, and they are a great choice when you are exploring and covering a lot of water. They really get the attention of the fish and have action at slow retrieve speeds, which is quite helpful when the bass, walleyes and pike are not particularly active or the water is on the muddy side. While this lure doesn’t really represent any natural food, it appears alive and attracts fish through sight and sound. Spinnerbaits attract strikes in a similar manner and are more snag-resistant. Spoons are easy to get down to the fish in deep holes but must be retrieved faster to impart their wobbling action. Thus, they are less frequently tied on my line, especially when the visibility is low.
Jigs dressed with plastic tails, hair or live minnows are excellent river lures. They seem to be most effective when the current is slow and the water is relatively deep. Jigs have the ability to entice a strike from relatively inactive fish because they can be worked much more slowly than other lures. This gives you extra time to convince that walleye or smallmouth that the metal and plastic offering needs to be engulfed.
Once you have found some good water with lures, you may also want to test the prime holes by drifting the real thing. Live bait will often produce more bass, pike and walleyes and help you fool the lunkers. Turbid or muddy conditions when the fish have difficulty seeing lures is another good time to try live bait. It can be drifted at a slower speed than the current and its natural scent will precede it, in turn attracting fish.
Shiners, creek chubs and other minnow species that are native to the river you are fishing will work well for all three species. Night crawlers, hellgrammites and other large insect nymphs are also on the menu of smallmouth bass and walleyes. Hook these offerings with fine-wire hooks and use just enough weight to drift them near but not on the bottom. The
fine-wire hooks will keep the bait lively and they are easily straightened when you hang up on a log or rock. Toss them upstream so they will drift through likely fish-holding water and reel in the slack as the bait comes toward you.
Employing a float is a handy and effective way to present live bait in a river. The bobber can almost eliminate hanging up on the bottom, which is often a problem with hellgrammites. Choose a float that is just large enough to suspend the bait and a split shot or two. The weight will keep the bait at the desired depth and is especially important with minnows since they often try to swim to the surface. The net result with this setup is live bait that is struggling for either the surface or the bottom and is sure to attract a hungry predator.
As you search and explore for walleyes, smallmouth bass and northern pike from bridge to bridge, don’t forget your polarized sunglasses and billed cap. They will be great aids in reading the water and finding the submerged logs, root wads, boulders and other cover that these fish like to lurk near and under. Try to cast and retrieve your lures as close as possible to this fish-holding cover. Similarly, try to judge the currents and land your live bait so that it will drift by the log or rock. Having said this, I will note that it is better to miss the target by being a bit wide of the target rather than get hung up on the first cast. Make your first presentation as close as you can within your casting ability and then try to get closer with subsequent casts.
Great sport awaits you on our warmwater rivers during the coming season. Mapping out locations and strategies now will help you get through the winter and enhance your success when you can get on the water in the spring.
(Editor’s Note: Author Jim Bedford is a retired fisheries biologist.)
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