April 23, 2020
By M.D. Johnson
Many river fisheries excel as walleyes participate in their annual spring spawning tradition. Below, let's look at three great river destinations to get in on the action.
MAUMEE RIVER – MAUMEE, OHIO
When the talk turns to rivers and spring walleyes, it’s hard to leave Ohio's Maumee out of the discussion. Located in the northwest corner of The Buckeye State, the Maumee flows into Lake Erie near the city of Toledo, and then upstream to the south and west before crossing into Indiana. If you’re anti-social, then perhaps the Maumee isn't for you; however, if it's fresh-from-the-lake walleyes you're after, what's a little bit of competition, eh?
"If you want to go by the calendar,” said Mario Campos, owner of Maumee Tackle & Fishing Outfitters in Maumee (419-893-3474), "you start looking for fish in late February or early March. It's totally governed, though, by the water temperature. You have to get that water up over 40 degrees."
So, with the water over 40, what’s an angler looking for now?
“The mouth of the river has been dredged so much that it’s deep and mucky. Walleyes usually blow right past there,” said Campos. “The first section of good gravel natural river bottom (they find) is right here in Maumee. So, you’re looking for gravel bottoms. Rapids, so the water is well oxygenated. Brushy bottoms, with a lot of places for the eggs to stick."
Access to the river, said Campos, isn't a problem. He notes that the river is on the Maumee River Water Trail. The trail formally runs for 107 miles from Lake Erie to the Ohio/Indiana border, offering 39 major access areas.
"From Defiance to the mouth," Campos said, "there's an access point about every half mile for wading, boat launching and all sorts of things. It's one of the reasons we're so popular."
Gearing up for Maumee walleyes is a relatively simple affair, as is the technique. Campos likes a medium to medium-heavy 6-foot-6 to 7-foot rod with a fast tip and a reel spooled with 10- to 15-pound line.
"A lot of anglers do prefer braided for the sensitivity because the spring bite is very light," Campos said. "The rig consists of a (half- to one-ounce) trolling sinker, a 3- to 4-foot monofilament leader and a floating jighead."
A 2- to 4-inch twister tail grub completes the setup.
"As a rule of thumb, bright days mean bright colors like chartreuse or fire tail," Campos said. "Dark days, and you start with the dark colors. Motor oil, brown, black, or black sparkle."
MISSISSIPPI RIVER – GUTTENBERG TO MUSCATINE, IOWA
During the fall, eastern Iowa's Travis Mueller is a waterfowler, through and through. Come March, however, the 44-year-old territory manager for Banded/Avery switches gears radically, transforming into a fanatical angler with one thing on his mind: walleyes. Mueller grew up on the Mississippi—Davenport, to be precise—and he knows the Old Man well, but he does, by his own admission, have a multi-geographic list of home waters when chasing spring walleyes.
"I'll spend my time at Guttenberg, Bellevue, Davenport and Muscatine," he said. "But it all depends on the water conditions, especially water clarity. Eight to 10 inches (of visibility), and I'll fish. Two feet, and I'm golden."
Mueller adds that it's not an apples-to-apples comparison going downriver from Guttenberg to Muscatine, though. He notes that the river will always fish differently at Muscatine than it will at Guttenberg, for example.
"Current, clarity, river level, temperature," he said. "They're all going to come into play."
But it's a huge river, with more than 150 river miles between Guttenberg upstream and Muscatine down. Where to begin is an obvious first question.
"With a place like Bellevue," Mueller chuckled, "someone new to the river isn't going to have a problem deciding where to fish. Just look for the boats."
More seriously, he suggests that the best thing newbies can do is watch what other experienced folks are doing to understand the process and techniques—how people position their boats and keep them where they need to be for best success. He also recommends touching base with the folks working in a bait shop, saying he's "never been steered wrong by the guy behind the counter."
Unlike the Maumee, where it's almost exclusively an inline sinker/grub program, the Mississippi walleye fishery lends itself to a variety of tactics.
"Your safest bet is the traditional leadhead jig and a minnow," Mueller said. "But you'll see guys fishing [Heddon] Sonars out there. Stickbaits. Or they'll be running Dubuque rigs, three-way rigs with a dropper and jig. Me? I’m partial to plastics. They just seem to catch bigger fish for me. And not grubs. Six-inch ringworms, though I've had incredible days using a bass-style lizard in purple and chartreuse. Try to go as light as possible," he continued. "And understand that jigging is a fine art. It often takes a good hand to tell the difference between a clamshell and a rock and a walleye."
MISSOURI RIVER – PIERRE, SOUTH DAKOTA
"Depending on the year, the walleye fishing will start picking up on Lake Francis Case (below Pierre) in Fort Thompson in February and March, and you'll have anglers generally fishing from Big Bend Dam to Crow Creek," said Nick Harrington, a digital content strategist with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks. When he's not in front of a computer, he's also the owner and operator of Lip Ripper Guide Service (402-689-9947) and a tournament walleye fisherman.
"March and April," he adds, "and the stilling basin (below Oahe Dam) gets popular, as do the bridges around the Pierre area. Lake Oahe is next," he continued, "but that's primarily a May/June fishery."
Most hesitate to ask a tournament walleye angler where to go, but I asked.
"The stilling basin is going to be the capital of walleye fishing at the state capital," said Harrington, without hesitation. "And you'll usually find a lot of boats there. But there's nice rocks and boulders at the tailrace, and the water's usually really clear; and it's unique that you can look down and see the walleyes you’re trying to catch. And it's close to town. If you launch at any of the (Pierre) city ramps, you’re looking at a 10-minute boat ride."
In terms of tackle, baits and technique, jigging’s the name of the game. More specifically, vertical jigging. For this type of fishing Harrington prefers a medium-light rod with an extra-fast tip paired with 8- to 10-pound test—"something like a Fireline or Sufix 832." He likes those two options mostly for their lack of stretch, which he says is key for good hooksets in 30 to 35 feet of water.
I've fished Lake Sharpe many times over the years. Although, I've had challenging days, the fishery itself is—or can be—quite elemental.
Harrington advocates leadhead jigs "just heavy enough to get on the bottom." A half-ounce jig will usually do, he said, but it depends on wind and current, too. The choice of minnows or plastics depends on the person. Harrington feels both can be successful, with minnows particularly popular in early spring. He said many plastics proponents like 3- to 5-inch pearl-colored GULP minnows or split-tails, which, he added, "can often catch some nicer fish, too."
River Walleye Gear
From Ohio to Iowa and on to South Dakota, there are some common denominators regarding spring river walleye gear, particularly line. Campos, Mueller and Harrington all mentioned braided line in the 8- to 10-pound class, the major difference being how it’s rigged at the terminal end. On the Maumee, Campos runs his braid to a trolling sinker finished in a monofilament leader.
To the west on the Mississippi, Mueller, when he chooses a braid, ties it directly to the jig; however, he said his decision as to whether to run braid or monofilament depends on the pool he’s fishing on any given day. "The Clinton Pool," he said, "is snaggy, so I'm running braid. Guttenberg's cleaner, so I'll use mono. And I do like the feel of mono a little bit better."
Over on the Missouri, Harrington’s a fan of braid; but there’s a but. "In these often-ultra-clear water conditions," he said, "I will run my braid to a tiny barrel swivel, and then tie a 2- to 3-foot fluorocarbon leader from that to the jig. Something like an 8- to 10-pound Berkley Vanish.”