Baiting Tips for River Walleyes

Knowing how to present a big night crawler, leech or minnow properly is the key to catching early-spring marble-eyes right now. Here's how!

Whether it roars like a hungry lion or mews like a lamb, March's arrival awakens an age-old desire to be rid of winter's doldrums. And fishing is, of course, one way to shake off winter's lethargy. So right about now I'm thinking about rivers, and when I think about rivers, walleyes are sure to come to mind.

Walleyes? Yes, walleyes, because there's more - and better - river walleye action in your area than you might imagine. Now's definitely the time to give this often overlooked fishery a try, because the first warm spring rise is the walleye's version of spring tonic, inspiring thoughts of food, travel and spawning.

Space doesn't permit a "graduate level" course in hydrology, but such a course is not a prerequisite to angling success. In fact, all a practical-minded angler needs to know is that a flowing body of water is nothing more or less than a constantly repeating series of riffles, holes and runs. That seemingly simple description holds true regardless of the stream's size. However, as a general rule, larger streams tend to have fewer riffles and holes per mile (and hence longer runs) than smaller streams do.

Riffles are created when the river flows over a section of exceptionally hard bottom material. This material is usually rock or gravel, but it can be shale, marl or clay. A riffle's relatively swift and complex currents make it an ideal feeding area for a large number of fish species, including walleyes. In addition, riffles serve as spawning areas for river walleyes.

At some point, the river's bottom strata will become less dense, and the current rushing out of the riffle will gouge out a hole. Usually, holes are roughly teardrop-shaped, with the drop's bulb located immediately downstream from the riffle. Walleyes primarily use holes as resting and staging areas, but individual fish (or small groups of fish) may set up feeding stations near the head (upper end) of the hole.

Since the increased depth of the hole allows the current to slow, holes eventually tail out into runs. A run is characterized by moderate current flows and relatively constant depth. Each run will continue until the river once again encounters hard bottom strata and forms another riffle.

Photo by Gordon Whittington

In winter, summer and fall, the odds are you should ignore runs in favor of holes during the daytime and fish riffles at night or on cloudy days. However, from mid-February through early April, individual river walleyes will be in the pre-spawn, spawn and/or post-spawn stages of their life cycle. As a result, all of the marble-eyes will be spending a lot of time moving up and down the river, putting themselves in the runs as well as the riffles and holes.

All this is well and good, but can a fellow go about putting some of those hungry, spawn-crazy bad boys and girls in the livewell? You don't need two river walleye experts to start a fight over that question. One expert will argue with himself until he's blue in the face. Be that as it may, I'm going to try to control myself long enough to describe three baits and rigging techniques that are time - and walleye - approved. Be advised that I've paired each technique with the bait best suited to it, but frankly, any of the three baits will work well with any of the three rigs.

Spinner-Rigged Minnows
Spinner rigs have been around for decades. One of the most common rigs - and definitely one of the best - consists of a 3-foot length of 20- to 30-pound abrasion-resistant monofilament with a loop tied in one end and a hook tied to the other. Several beads on either side of a clevis-mounted spinner blade (usually a Colorado, but sometimes an Indiana) are strung on the line ahead of the hook.

Ready-made spinner rigs are available at tackle shops and through catalogs, but many anglers prefer to make their own. I'm among the do-it-yourselfers. My rigs have quick-change clevises and terminal snaps, so I can change blades or hooks on the water.

This type of spinner rig is tipped with live bait - in this case a minnow - and trolled using a rod with a medium-to-fast action. It's usually best to keep the rig moving approximately a foot above the bottom. Depending on depth, current flow and personal preference, this can be accomplished with an in-line keel sinker, a bait walker, a weighted wire or a three-way swivel with a drop weight. My personal favorite is the three-way swivel, but that's opinion and nothing more.

Remember that trolling involves far more than dragging a lure behind a moving boat. In rivers, trolling spinners is normally more effective, or at least more practical, when the boat is moving upstream. However, that doesn't mean the angler shouldn't vary speed, depth and angle of boat travel vis-ˆ-vis the direction of the current. In other words, don't just sit there. Do something!

Trolling is a great way to pick off aggressive marble-eyes in holes. During the height of the spawning cycle, trolling through runs rather than bypassing them can be worthwhile. Conversely, DO NOT troll through riffles. Even in relatively deep riffles (say 4 to 6 feet), running a boat directly over walleyes is not the route to a fish dinner.

Slip-Bobbers/Night Crawlers
Riffles may be no place for boats, but they're great places for baits. Admittedly, slip-bobber rigs aren't the only way to present live bait to a hungry walleye that's holding in shallow water. On the other hand, it's mighty hard to find a more effective - or more fun - way to fish.

Slip-bobbers are available in myriad shapes, sizes and materials. I won't use anything but slip-bobbers made of wood, but other experienced anglers do just fine with foam floats. Try several types and see what works best for you.

To build a slip-bobber rig, first slide a small plastic bead onto your line, which will be followed by the float. Since we'll be using night crawlers, tie a No. 4 or No. 6 short-shank hook to the terminal end of the line and add sufficient weight (multiple, spaced split shot work best) to almost sink the float. Adding a "stop" the appropriate distance above the bead controls the depth. I use a piece of crochet thread attached to the line with a Uni-knot. Commercial stops, most of which must be placed on the line before the bead, are available.

Whenever possible, it's best to fish a riffle from the bank or by wading rather than from a boat. Your "platform" notwithstanding, cast the rig upstream and across and allow it to drift downstream as far as will be practical. Stay alert to where your line is in relation to the float, because it's oft

en necessary to make adjustments to keep the line tight enough to allow for a hookset. A soft-action 8-foot rod makes this process easier.

Leadheads And Leeches
This final rig/bait combo is made to order for anyone who felt the first two rigs were overly complex in either manufacture or use. Only a plain hook is simpler than a leadhead jig, and the leech is the very essence of "what you see is what you get."

When most anglers add live bait to a jig, they use a jig that's already equipped with some type of artificial tail. That's certainly not a cardinal sin, but it is gilding the lily. In fact, it's hard to improve upon a plain, bare jig adorned with nothing but a leech. However, if adding a bit of color seems in order, remove the tail from a soft-plastic grub and use just the body ahead of the leech.

This rig can be cast and drifted or cast and retrieved in riffles. It can be especially deadly when allowed to "tumble" over the edge of a riffle into the hole downstream.

The jig's unquestionable value in shallow water aside, this lure comes into its own as a tool to make vertical presentations to walleyes holding in water 8 feet or more in depth. "Vertical" was the key word in that last sentence. It's essential that the angler use a jig that's heavy enough to remain directly beneath his boat. Depending on depth and current, that can mean a jig weighing anywhere from 1/8 ounce to 1 ounce or more.

Boat control is another crucial factor. One of the most basic techniques is to motor to the head of a hole and then to use an electric motor pulling against the current to slow - but not stop - the boat's downstream movement. A skilled motor operator can move his boat across the current as well as up and down the river and thus maximize his chances to catch walleyes.

River fishing for walleyes in the spring is simply too good an opportunity to let get away. Be forewarned, though, that once you hook into one of these biggest members of the perch family, you may be hooked on walleye fishing for life!

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