Most walleye anglers wait for ice-out on their favorite lake for early-season action with marble-eyes, but instead they could find excellent fishing for river walleyes in the waters that serve as inlets and outlets for those big-water walleye havens.
Unlike those doing big-lake walleye fishing, river fishermen have the advantage of casting to a captive audience of sorts. In large lakes, schools of walleyes can be anywhere at varying depths and often in places where only boat anglers can reach them.
On rivers, however, spawning walleyes are forced to abide by current flows, using river channels and sandbars as hiding places, which makes them particularly vulnerable to shoreline fishermen. Anglers who find large pools of slow-moving water less than 5 feet deep are almost guaranteed a limit of walleyes if they have the patience to probe the bottom with deep-running lures and bait rigs that can be fished slow and deep.
Because spring is spawning time for walleyes, it makes sense to target holes featuring rubble or gravel as well as eddies and other slow-moving hotspots where these fish tend to stack up in dense schools. High, cold water means walleyes will be sluggish, even more so than usual, but patient anglers can expect to creel a limit of fish if they pay attention to the signs and deliver preferred baits and lures to bottom-hugging ’eyes.
Walleye fishermen should approach a river in much the same manner as a summertime trout angler. Study the water within casting distance, focusing on current seams, pools and dropoffs where schools of pre-spawn walleyes are likely to be holding. Early season river walleyes are not likely to be found in swift, deep water, nor will they be in areas where reverse currents and crisscrossing flows create pockets where it is difficult to suspend and feed. Instead, look for river walleyes near shallow sandbars and similar physical features near deep water where forage species are likely to be found.
Most spawning walleyes will be found in water from 1 to 5 feet deep, although it makes sense to fish deeper pools when current flow, temperatures (in the 45- to 50-degree range) and conditions are right.
Walleyes are most fond of bite-sized baitfish such as minnows, sculpins and juvenile yellow perch. Logic suggests that fishing pools and runs where schools of bait species hold will produce the most action. River walleyes are similar to lake fish in that they also follow roving schools of bait from pool to pool, and so it pays to fish a variety of deep holes until discovering a school of walleyes. When the bite begins to slow, head upstream or down to the next large pool and continue to slow-probe the deepest water with lures, live bait or worm rigs.
The basic tenets of river walleye fishing have not changed in 100 years. Walleyes tend to congregate in schools, which means anglers can expect fast fishing for same-sized fish once the bite begins. Also, walleyes are nearly always found on or very near bottom, so deep-diving, bottom-bumping baits and lures are the rule. Walleyes are notoriously fond of baitfish, which means any lure or bait that resembles their favorite forage species will get the most looks. Nightcrawler rigs are productive when fishing for schooling early-season walleyes.
Walleyes are well known for being slow and methodical while feeding, taking their time when looking over a potential meal. For that reason, it’s important to offer slow-moving lures or baits that can be suspended just off the bottom. Add weight as necessary and keep baits still or moving very slowly to give the fish more time to make up their minds.
The best times to fish for walleyes are at night or early and late in the day. The action is likely to be much slower on bright, sunny days, so plan to be on the water during low-light periods or on days when the weather is cloudy, overcast and unsettled.
Gearing Up For Spring River Walleyes
Walleyes range in size from a few inches to more than 20 pounds, but the average spring river fish is likely to be in the 1- to 3-pound range, or about 20 inches on average. For that reason it’s not necessary for anglers to gear up with heavy tackle.
Basic bass-fishing gear will work fine for most river walleyes. Many anglers use standard spinning tackle with a 6-foot, medium-weight rod and 8-pound-test monofilament. Some anglers opt for baitcasting gear with braided line to thwart the inevitable snags, and some even use fly-fishing gear with monofilament line to take advantage of the longer rod’s fish-handling capabilities.
The real crux of the matter when it comes to river walleye fishing is terminal tackle, which should include a two-way swivel with a foot of light line and a weight capable of keeping a bait or lure on the bottom. Small, flashy lures and spinners will work when current flows allow, but the most common offering is a worm-and-spinner rig. In either case, bring plenty of “ammo” because river bottoms are invariably rough and full of obstacles. Expect plenty of snags and prepare several terminal rigs ahead of time for quick and easy replacement.
Generally speaking, small lures resembling baitfish and No. 6 hooks for worm rigs should be more than adequate for most river walleye fishing. River walleye fishermen should be ready to adapt to existing conditions and try to match rigs that other successful anglers are using.
A good idea for anglers new to a particular river is to stop in at a local tackle shop and get the local experts to recommend tackle and rigs that are taking fish. Experiment when the fishing is slow but go with what works for the locals when the bite is on.
—Stephen D. Carpenteri
DRESS FOR SUCCESS
Perhaps the greatest challenge to spring river walleye fishermen is the weather, which can vary from warm and sunny (not very good for walleye fishing) to blustery, stormy, rainy and cold. Generally, the worse the weather the better the walleye fishing, which means anglers should head for the water prepared for anything Mother Nature can dish out.
Waders with cleats or felt soles are a must for shoreline angling. Wicking layers of lightweight clothing are recommended because conditions often change from balmy to stormy in just a few minutes. It’s much easier to pull off a layer or two if temperatures allow, but it’s impossible to stay warm in a T-shirt and flannels when the wind comes up. Top off with waterproof rain gear that offers protection from the wind as well as occasional showers that often plague early-season anglers.
Experienced anglers bring two or three changes of gloves, at least one being waterproof, because they know they’ll be spending a lot of time changing rigs, handling baits and dealing with lively walleyes that are none too interested in taking their place in the creel or on the stringer. Several packages of chemical hand warmers will help keep frigid digits warm, especially early and late in the day when walleyes are most active.
Because walleyes are popular schooling fish, it’s generally considered proper etiquette to fish casting-close to other anglers, who sometimes are willing to impart their knowledge of the fishery and their own “secret” tactics to help other fishermen go home with a limit of ’eyes. Certainly, give fellow anglers room to work the water around them, and don’t be afraid to move upstream or down to find fish. Expect company when the bite is on, and come prepared with extra lures, baits and terminal tackle for those days when snags seem to be the order of the day.
River fishing for spring walleyes is not rocket science but it does require a degree of knowledge, preparation and determination. Head for the water dressed for changing weather patterns and bring plenty of terminal tackle. Fishing deep in river rubble can be a challenge but that’s where the spring walleyes are most likely to be found.