Every spring, a window of opportunity opens for anglers ready to cash in on a midstate walleye bonanza. (May 2007)
Photo by Tom Evans
There are two kinds of walleye anglers in central Iowa. One group considers a boat behind a pickup, a couple of tanks of gas and a map of Minnesota essential to a successful walleye fishing trip. A smaller group of walleye hunters will cheerfully wave goodbye to their lakebound brethren, grab a pocketful of jigs, and head for a couple of local rivers to fill their stringers with hefty walleyes.
The grinning anglers who patrol the banks of the Des Moines and Middle Raccoon rivers in central Iowa know that they have the potential to catch just as many walleyes as will their northbound brethren, and often larger ones. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources aggressively stocks Iowa's major inland rivers every year with a riverine strain of walleyes that have flourished in both numbers and size.
A "WINDOW" FOR WALLEYES
Forty-one-year-old Rod Campbell, called "Mr. Walleye" by other anglers on the Des Moines River in central Iowa, hesitantly agreed to talk about the exceptional walleye fishing he enjoys less than six miles from his back door in Boone -- "as long as I don't have to give away any of my secret spots," he stipulated.
Campbell has fished the Des Moines River for more than 25 years. His detailed fishing journal proves that walleye fishing on the Des Moines River has gone from "good" to "outstanding" during that time.
"I've got photos of me back in the '80s with stringers of nice 2-pound 'eater' walleyes," said Campbell. "The walleye fishing was pretty good. But lately it's gotten to the point where it's almost unbelievable. It's nothing to catch 5-pounders anymore. Last year, I caught 12 walleyes that were 7 pounds or larger. My largest fish from the Des Moines River was a 27 1/2-incher that weighed 10.5 pounds. You can't do that well in a lot of the lakes up north."
Campbell, who fishes without a boat, starts patrolling the banks of the Des Moines River soon after ice-out. He's looking for a "window of opportunity" that signals the best walleye fishing of the spring.
"Right after ice-out the river runs high with snowmelt, but then it mellows out, and there's usually a period of time, a window, before spring rains start, that it runs relatively clear and mellow," he said. "What I'm looking for is the first significant warmup within that window. That's a trigger for walleyes. Another trigger is just enough warm rain to bring the river up a little, but not muddy it up. That will really put them on a bite."
Campbell acknowledged that several well-known spots on the Des Moines River near Boone have produced lots of walleyes for him over the years. The south end of the Fraser Dam, both ends of the Boone Waterworks Dam and the rocked jetties at "Big Eddy" on the major bend in the river due east of Fraser are perennial producers for him.
"The dams are obstacles that concentrate fish when they're making their run prior to the spawn," he said. "Big Eddy has the rocks, the deep water and the current breaks that will always attract walleyes. Those are definitely spots I always consider when I go fishing."
Beyond those well-known hotspots, Campbell is intentionally vague about where he finds walleyes. "I've spent a lot of time walking, looking for rock bars, rocky points, riprapped areas, tributaries and high cutbanks with rocks at their bottoms," he said. "There are literally hundreds of really good spots from Fraser all the way downstream to Madrid. Just about any place you find rocks next to deeper water, you'll probably find walleyes. Sometimes a lot of walleyes, and sometimes a lot of big walleyes."
Campbell probes potential walleye holes with unconventional tackle and tactics. In the springtime he often forgoes the twistertail jigs tipped with minnows thrown by most anglers on the river and opts for a tube jig presented as vertically as is possible.
"Crappie-size tube jigs can be deadly for walleyes in the spring, but you've got to present them right," he said. "Instead of swimming them horizontally, I do more of a vertical presentation. I keep my rod almost vertical, so that the jig does a lot of up-and-down. That dropping action of a tube jig really works on walleyes on the spring."
Jig size depends on water flow. If the river is mellow and he's fishing a current break out of the main flow, a 1/32-ounce jig is his choice. More current requires heavier jigs. Line weight is critical.
"I used to use 8-pound line, but caught more fish when I switched to 6-pound," said Campbell. "For the past few years, they've been biting really soft for some reason. The lighter line has helped me feel those light bites and hook more fish."
Campbell rarely tips his jigs with live baits, though he occasionally adds a chunk of night crawler. "I think that part of my success has been the flipping, hopping action of that tube jig," he said. "A minnow or a full night crawler deadens that action. A twistertail and a minnow will definitely catch walleyes that time of year, but I seem to catch more walleyes the way I do it."
Campbell said that once the "window" for walleye fishing on the Des Moines River closes, he switches to fishing for crappies in lakes, and hunting for mushrooms in nearby woods.
"When the spring rains start and the river gets high and muddy, the walleye fishing gets tough," he said. "Year in and year out, I'd say the best time in the spring for walleyes on the river, depending on when the rains start, is early-to-mid April, sometimes into late April, maybe May, if it's a dry spring."
Another river in central Iowa offering similar early-spring walleye opportunities is buffered from the rise and fall caused by spring rains. Lake Panorama, a private lake just north of Panora, absorbs many of the rises and falls of the Middle Raccoon River, creating a consistent walleye fishery downstream to Redfield and beyond.
"The river below the dam is relatively clear, and the water levels don't go up and down as much," said Marty Balukoff, an angler from Ankeny who often makes the 35-mile drive from there to tempt walleyes from the Middle 'Coon. "I check http://ia.water.usgs.gov to see what the water flow is at the (Redfield) dam. If it's between 200 and 300 cubic feet per second, I try to figure out a way to go fishing."
Balukoff said that one of his best spring days on the Middle 'Coon came in that ideal 200 to 300 cfs range. "I caught a 3-pounder, three 5-pounders, a 5 1/2-pounder and one that went a little more tha
n 6 pounds in just a little over an hour," he recalled. "They all went back into the river, because I only keep the smaller one for eaters. But that's just an example of how good the fishing can be in the spring on the Middle 'Coon."
Balukoff usually uses either a 1/8- to 3/8-ounce chartreuse or black twistertail jig tipped with a 2- to 2 1/2-inch minnow for fishing the Middle 'Coon. If his jigs don't draw the attention of walleyes, he switches to a black/silver or blue/silver Storm Thunderstick or Storm WiggleWart.
"There are times when they are just more interested in a crankbait," he said. "I've also had good luck in the past year or two using bone-colored Thundersticks or WiggleWarts."
Balukoff's strategy of taking a spring afternoon off from work is not without forethought. He has experimented with early-morning, late-afternoon and midday fishing trips to the Middle 'Coon.
"In the spring, they seem to turn on after the sun has warmed things up, around 2 or 3 in the afternoon," he said. "Guys who fish on lakes always want a cloudy day to make the walleyes bite, but for me, the best days in the spring to catch walleyes have been the nicest days to be fishing-clear, sunny days, when you're looking for an excuse to be out of doors."
While Balukoff often begins his sunny-day searches for walleyes at the Lennon Mills dam on the southwestern edge of Panora, he's had success walking the banks of the river all the way downstream to the dam at Redfield, and beyond.
"I'm looking for rock bars, rock walls, riprapped areas -- anything rocky," he said. "When the river flow is in that 200 to 300 cfs range, if you find rocks associated with deeper water, and fish the current breaks around those rocks, you're probably going to find walleyes."
That's a pretty simple formula that works on sunny spring days on either the Des Moines River or the Middle Raccoon River: rocks, deep water, current breaks and a pocketful of jigs -- a formula more convenient, cheaper and, potentially, more walleye-productive than a couple of tanks of gas, a boat behind a pickup and a map of Minnesota.