April 01, 2022
We monitored the screen as we motored up the river channel, studying the underwater topography on both sides of the boat. Larry Hutchens split his Lowrance HDS-7 screen to three, sometimes four, windows, and toggled between side scan, structure scan, chirp sonar, GPS with map chart and down scan, eventually settling on the side-scan feature. The depth ranged between 8 and 60 feet while the scan searched for fish 100 feet to either side of the boat. There were a lot of fish on the screen—too many to ignore.
Hutchens cut the motor and threw his crankbait toward a sandbar. He reeled hard, the plug dove deep and the rod bent over. Before long, the yellow flanks of a walleye flashed in the green depths and Hutchens leaned over to pluck the beast from the water. Hutchens lives to fish for bass, but he likes eating walleyes. He marked the spot with a waypoint.
Over the last 20 years, I have shared camps with some of the best anglers on the Columbia River. Recently, I checked in with a few of them to pre-scout the late-winter fishery—the high point of the year for the trophy walleye hunter.
WHERE TO FIND THEM
Walleyes are spread throughout the lower Columbia, as far downstream as Astoria, Ore., but the best fishing is between the dams from Lake Roosevelt downstream to the Bonneville Pool.
From late March through the first two weeks of April, fishermen have a chance at catching big pre-spawn females as the water begins to warm. Look at the license plates in hotel parking lots from The Dalles to Umatilla to the Tri-Cities, and you’ll realize that anglers travel from all over the U.S. for a chance to catch the biggest walleye of their lives. Ed Iman, longtime river guide and captain, believes this is the best walleye habitat in the country—the river that will produce the next world record.
"The Columbia is so rich," he says. "The fish eat mayfly nymphs, lots of small minnows, suckers, squawfish, chubs, crayfish, baby perch and crappies—whatever they can catch." That wealth of food puts pounds on fast.
Iman says to look for sections of river with shallow spawning runs over a gravel or sandy bottom located close to deep pools or channels. Watch for the places where small fry might congregate, and hunt for walleyes there. Locate jetties, drop-offs, ledges, rocky points and gravel bars.
Pro walleye angler Ted Beach lives in Washington’s Tri-Cities area, within striking distance of some of the best late-winter fishing.
"I look for structure," Beach says. "Eventually, an angler learns to target current seams at the sweet spot where the current slows down. Between the navigation markers, I search out rocky bars and sandbars and the mouths of tributaries."
Essentially, he looks for fish anywhere a current change might mark a holding spot for minnows. Beach warns against getting hung up looking for big fish on the screen, though.
"Watching the depth finder, I don’t try to guess what type of fish it is," he says. "A walleye stays close to bottom and it can be hard to figure out." Instead, Beach looks for any kind of wood structure on the screen.
"Mostly I look for the edge. The edge of a [tributary] river. The edge of a stump field. The edge is always what you look for," he says.
HOW TO CATCH THEM
With winter flows, the currents run faster between the dams, and anglers target different types of water than in summer. It becomes more of a fast-moving river fishery, due in part to the forage base. Sculpins, baby suckers, smallmouth fry and tiny perch and crappies are all on the menu beginning in March.
Beach’s personal-best walleye was an 18-pound female he caught and released.
"I caught it on a jig cast out of the boat and trolled at a slow speed downstream," he says. Beach likes to use crankbaits, blade baits, jigs and large, buoyant worm-harness rigs like the Wally Pop or Double Whammy on bottom-walkers.
Bob Loomis of Mack’s Lure concurs, particularly about jigs and blade baits, which he says are some of the most productive lures on the Columbia through April. He and Beach both try to match lures to the forage base.
"Jigging is an extremely overlooked method," Loomis says. "There are at least five different sculpins, and they range in color from purple to brown to black to olive. Use the dark colors to imitate sculpin and lighter colors to imitate small bass and perch."
Winter walleyes tend to stack near large schools of bait fish. When a school is located, mark it with a waypoint and drift over it again and again with jigs and blade baits fished in a vertical presentation—cast, twitch, reel, twitch, reel.
When fish are farther out, perhaps marked with side-scan sonar, cast the bait, rip it, reel, rip and reel some more.
Good blade baits include the 1-ounce Sonic BaitFish, the SteelShad in fire tiger and the Rapala Rap-V.
"In March, the river is full of runoff," Beach says. “The dams are opened up and there is quite a bit of current. Water temperatures are in the mid-30s. That tells me I have to slow down. These fish are lethargic in that water.”
Beach likes 3- to 5-inch crankbaits like the Rapala Husky Jerk, which can be cast or slow-trolled upstream.
“When you’re talking bigger fish, you’re talking bigger baits like the Wally Pop,” Loomis says.
What makes the Wally Pop work is its neutral buoyancy. Rig a whole nightcrawler to hang straight down on the two hooks, presenting a huge, protein-packed profile. Lift the stack bead and insert scent inside the tubing for long-term dispersion. Some good choices are Pro-Cure’s leech, minnow, trophy perch and shad gels.
Troll the bottom-walker downstream on a long line or off to the side of the boat’s path of travel. Beach recommends 0.6 to 1 mph (watch the ground speed on your GPS), making adjustments with the speed of the current.
A walleye will often strike the bait then back off and hit it again. Set the hook with a gentle but firm lift.
When using bait, drop the rod tip a few inches and count to three before lifting the tip to gently set the hook.
Prospect for large pre-spawn females in 20 feet of water using bottom walkers with worm harness rigs or by trolling crankbaits. The fish will go even shallower when the sun goes down.
Remember that there is more current in winter. It may take 2 1/2 to 3 ounces of lead to keep the bait tapping bottom every 8 to 10 seconds.
To fill the cooler, look for schooled-up males suspended in 60 to 70 feet of water. Beach recommends switching to blade baits and hitting them with a vertical presentation.
"You have a real shot at a true Columbia River giant [pre-spawn],” Beach says. "What we have to remember, though, is the big female fish lay up to 500,000 eggs per year with a 2 percent survival rate. Release the females to ensure we have more walleyes for the future."
STAY. EAT. DRINK.
Good grub, suds and lodging options in the area to go along with awesome Columbia River walleye fishing.
- Best Breakfast: Momma Jane’s Pancake House, 900 West 6th St., The Dalles, OR
- Best Pizza: Spooky’s Pizza, 3320 West 6th St., The Dalles, OR
- Best Prime Rib: Baldwin Saloon, 205 Court St., The Dalles, OR
- Best Brews: Freebridge Brewing, 710 East Second St., The Dalles, OR
- Lodging Near the River: Shilo Inn: 3223 Bret Clodfelter Way, The Dalles, OR
- Lodging with a View: Celilo Inn, 3550 E 2nd St., The Dalles, OR
- Local Knowledge: Gorge Outfitters Supply, 102 East 1st St., Rufus, OR
- Fishing Guide: Twisted Waters Guide Service, twistedwaters-gs.com
- For More Information: The Dalles Area Chamber of Commerce, thedalleschamber.com