Photo by Tim Lesmeister
It doesn’t matter what part of the country you’re in, those river walleyes tend to hole up and get tight-lipped after they spawn. You would, too, if you had just swum for miles up a river and then laid a few thousand eggs. Fortunately, however, those big females don’t spawn all at once, so there’s always some good walleye fishing somewhere on the river for big fish. You just have to know where to find it.
Of course, the smaller male walleyes will recover much faster than the bigger females, and these 2- to 3-pounders will be biting in certain locations. That’s the beauty of river fishing for walleyes. There are always some nice fish biting somewhere on that waterway. You just need to know which game plan to employ to catch them.
There is one hard-and-fast rule whenever fishing on a river. You must keep your bait or lure near the bottom. When the walleyes are in a transition period, like they will be during post-spawn, these fish will be moving. This movement consists of an upriver or downstream movement from one current break to another. Typically, but not always, this movement is near the main channel. When the walleyes are moving from one break to another you can count on the fact that they will be right on the bottom.
Here’s another rule you can count on. During the post-spawn period you’re going to be dealing with fluctuating water levels. When the river is rising, the walleyes will be moving tighter to the shoreline. When the water is dropping, the fish will be heading for the deeper channel.
The one variable that doesn’t change is the fact that the walleyes are using current breaks during their movement up and down the river. Now if you’ve fished the river as much as I have you know that every current break is not going to be loaded with fish. In fact, during the post-spawn period the walleyes tend to be spread out even more, and few current breaks hold the mother lode. This is why you find yourself moving a lot during post-spawn because the pattern almost always finds you picking up one fish here and one there, but it’s always on a current break.
There’s a typical reaction for most river anglers to always grab a jigging rod. The old tried-and-true jig-and-minnow is well known for catching a lot of fish on the river and it’s hard to change ponies in the middle of the stream. But it’s not the only way to catch walleyes in the river. There are plenty of others, but while we’re on jigs, let’s go into a bit more detail.
Always use a jig heavy enough to get you down to the bottom in the current you’re in. Some anglers think that the early-season cool water temperatures require a smaller jig. In my book, size is the least of your worries if the lure is not on the bottom.
I also prefer a more vertical approach on the river, when possible. This way you can pinpoint the lure on the current break and feel every bite or tick. I believe you also lose fewer lures when keeping the presentation as vertical as possible, and rivers typically eat a lot of jigs.
I like my jig to do double duty when I’m fishing rivers. While I like to tip the jig with a minnow, I also thread a scented-plastic grub body on the jighead before I slide the point of the hook through the bait’s lips. The action of the grub body and the scent of the minnow will get a bite a lot quicker than a plain jig-and-minnow.
On post-spawn river walleyes the best place to drop that jig is on a riprap shoreline. With a jig you can tempt the fish that are lying on that pile of rock that’s stabilizing the shoreline. Riprap is a magnet for post-spawn walleyes and the jig is the best way to get them to commit.
The current provides the water flow to create the action on the crankbait, and those walleyes will pop out of the rocks and rubble that make up that wing dam and just smack the lure.
As I move out to the channel or fish deeper current breaks I always rely on my No. 1 post-spawn river rig: The three-way swivel setup.
The three-way swivel rig is one of the most productive techniques on post-spawn walleyes that I know of. With this rig you can set a bait or lure in front of a walleye’s nose for awhile, and sooner or later they will take a bite.
I need sensitivity from that rig when I’m fishing it, so I use Berkley FireLine from the reel to the swivel. This line is ultra-sensitive so I can feel every little movement of that rig while it’s on the bottom.
From the swivel for the dropper line — the line that holds the sinker — I tie on an 8-inch chunk of clear monofilament line in the 10- to 12-pound-test range and attach anywhere from a 3/4-ounce sinker to one a few ounces in weight. Like the jig, use the amount of weight it takes to easily get the rig down to the bottom.
On the snell — the line that holds the lure — I use Vanish, a fluorocarbon line, in the 8- to 10-pound-test range. The fluorocarbon is completely invisible, so it takes away a negative reaction if the walleyes are a bit line skittish.
I typically slide a few beads on the snell, a No. 3 silver blade and then some more beads before attaching a No. 2 hook. To the hook I attach a minnow.
This is the perfect rig for slipping and sliding all over the contours of a current break. You just lift the lure, move the boat and send the rig back down. The current straightens out the snell and moves the blade, which attracts the walleye that then eats the meat. It works every time.
You can slow-troll a three-way swivel rig upstream, slow-slip this rig downstream or just hold in one spot and let the rig perform its magic. Anytime you’re over 10 feet deep and wanting to work a lot of different depth ranges on a break, this is the rig to use.
When you discover that a particular depth range is where the fish seem to be hanging out, then you can’t beat a crankbait. You often find this situation when the water is low and the fish are on the upper or lower edge of a channel. They might be moving from a turn to some riffles, but these fish are moving along the channel in 12 feet of water. Now is the time to tie on a crankbait that will tick the bottom at 12 feet.
The key word here is tick. You don’t want that lure diggi
ng into the bottom, and you don’t want it running too high off the bottom. You just want to occasionally feel a little tick here and a tick there. Get the lure running right and I guarantee you will catch more fish with it.
Let’s discuss specific locations. We already covered riprap. Another great spot is where the channel intersects with a backwater area. You can easily spot where the walleyes will be. You don’t want to be in the heavier current, yet you don’t want to be where there is slack water. It’s that in-between section where the walleyes will be holding, just waiting for a morsel to float by.
Another great spot is on the downstream segment where there is an island. Walleyes moving upriver or downriver in the channels will settle in right behind this current break to hold for a short time before continuing the migration. These spots are hit or miss, but when you hit it, you can catch high concentrations of walleyes loading up there.
When I’m motoring from one spot to another I always watch the sonar for a dip in the bottom. Anglers often just run right over these subtle depth changes, but not me. I know that walleyes like to settle into these indentations and let the current slip over their heads. Let the blade from a three-way rig settle in front of them and they will take a poke at it.
Wing dams are the community spots, but don’t rule them out. When the water is low and the current not too fast, I fish the upstream sides of these current breaks. When the water is higher and running stronger I stick to the downstream edges of the wing dams.
Something I found that works well at wing dams is taking a three-way swivel rig and instead of a spinnered snell I tie a crankbait on the snell line. The snell only needs to be about 20 inches long for this setup. As you move the boat around the wing dam you just raise and lower the rig. The current provides the water flow to create the action on the crankbait, and those walleyes will pop out of the rocks and rubble that make up that wing dam and just smack the lure. You can work all the depths around the perimeter of the wing dam quite easily with this setup.
Everyone knows that walleyes in rivers go into a funk after spawning, but since there is a six- to seven-week window where the fish are pre-spawn, spawning or post-spawn, you can always find some fish biting somewhere. You just need to be in the right place at the right time, and now you know how to get there.