High-Water Walleyes

In the spring, sometimes we can experience high water on our rivers, but the walleyes still have to eat. Here's how to find and attack their new temporary home.

by Noel Vick

I live on skinny water. It's a multifaceted river that opens with a creek-sized head, exposed rock and riffles. As the river unfolds, it ages. Sand, timber, clay and silt gain control, and at its conclusion, the flowage finally concedes to a mightier river. And throughout its course, from young and gushing to old and rolling, this river plays host to walleyes.

Now the walleyes on my river aren't rabble-rousers or trailblazers either. They pretty much exhibit classic walleye behavior, frequenting flats and sundry current breaks during high-water periods and pools when levels are low. But in some years, due to relentless rain, there have been few stints of normalcy.

Customary seasonal models are out the window after a heavy rain. The water is mostly, if not always, high. Walleyes are nearly duty-bound to inhabit flooded shoreline areas, because that's where the food is, that's where the cover is, and that's where the current is not strong.

Stalwart river guide Dick "Griz" Gryzwinski has encountered and reacted to the high-water phenomenon with success.

"When rivers flood, the walleyes go up in the woods," says Gryzwinski. "That's where the food's at."

Specifically, Gryzwinski pays attention to immersed shorelines that feature rock or riprap along with timber. He wants some current too but not a swift whitewater flux. And if the flow is impeded by rocks or a logjam, the subsequent eddy is especially appealing.

Photo by Jim Barta

In the spring - April and May - Gryzwinski finds those elements to be particularly productive if they occur near known spawning grounds and below dams, which are often one-in-the-same. Following an exhausting breeding season, walleyes won't journey farther than they need to. They require only provisions and a safe place to rehabilitate. Flooded shorelines have both.

But the challenge with high-water country is its impassability. The very rocks and lumber that walleyes favor are a nemesis to anglers. It's unfeasible to troll through the latticework and is taxing at best to cast into it. Gryzwinski has ways though.

In most instances, The Griz anchors alongside probable spots and pitches jigs. Gryzwinski's implement of choice is a 1/8- to 3/8-ounce chartreuse jig complete with a color-coordinated 3-inch grub body. Casts are directed toward clearings and lanes and typically placed in 3 to 6 feet of water. If it's deeper than that or the current is too fast for a 1/8-ounce jig, Gryzwinski motors elsewhere, alleging that walleyes won't frequent blasting current.

The casts are short to maintain control, and Gryzwinski retrieves with a snap-relax-snap-relax cadence. Strikes are usually ferocious and occur while the jig is falling. He sets the hook hard and doesn't relinquish much play until the fish is clear of the snags. Gryzwinski points out that rivers also eat jigs, especially snarled shoreline cover. So be prepared to lose a few jigs, not to mention fish. If the spot produces a few fish, Gryzwinski might camp on it awhile. Well-equipped areas invite a continuous string of newcomer walleyes. Patience is a virtue in these circumstances.

Tube jigs have also developed into secret weapons. Those 3- to 5-inch soft-plastic squids that bass anglers use are gaining favor with walleye purists. They juke and jive like minnows. And if rigged weedless, with the hook buried internally, they slither through branches and brush.

Gryzwinski has watched this tubing-phenomenon evolve. It began with inadvertent walleye catches by the bassing crowd, and soon their walleye counterparts were tubing backwaters on purpose - but just not talking about it.

The standard idiom "backwater" requires a bit of analysis, too. Walleyes are fishes of modest current. If given a choice, walleyes would most certainly take running water over settled water. Conversely, walleyes seldom inhabit off-the-beaten-path swampy backwaters. Walleyes require water wafting around their noses or at least to be pointed in the direction of flow. So don't squander casts in murky panfish sloughs, but most definitely take time to scour recently formed backwaters that broach moving waters.

So from Gryzwinski's anchored position he can flip jigs or tubes. But that's not where the dominion of plastics ends. Also hailing from the bucketmouth files are jerkbaits, the soft and snag-free versions. They too impersonate baitfish with authority. But a weightless soft jerkbait is easily overwhelmed by current, so its use is restricted to pools and slackwater. As a countermeasure, bass anglers often use weighted hooks, or they'll inject various-sized finishing nails into the lure, adding enough weight to fight current and encourage sinking.

Based on the aforementioned tactical data, it seems that the average walleye angler needs to broaden his horizons. These are bonafide bass schemes but are hugely effective on floodwater walleyes.

In settings where sunken treelines are relatively uniform and there is a lot of shoreline to cover, Gryzwinski pulls crankbaits. Operating with a short leash - 30 feet of line - he trolls bow-forward and upstream. The shallow and oft muddy conditions call for a precision lure with measurable flare. Through years of experimentation, Gryzwinski has settled on No. 5 and No. 7 Rapala Shad Raps. He sometimes tinkers with colors but by the end of the day, usually has a shad-pattern tied on.

An alternative but conspicuously similar spin on high-water walleyes comes from the bass-brain of pro angler Karl Kleman.

"A few years back I was pre-fishing for a tournament in a timber-infested flooded backwater," says Kleman. "My partner and I were chucking 1/2-ounce spinnerbaits, and unbelievably, we stuck as many walleyes as bass. Big walleyes, too - nine fish over 7 pounds."

Kleman surmises that the gigantic pre-spawn females were in this foreign environment because of the groceries and tepid water.

"The backwater was wall to wall with shad, so thick you could actually snag 'em," said Kleman. "And I think the baitfish were there because the water was four or five degrees warmer than the main channel."

Kleman has another favorite haunt where walleyes and bass coexist.

"This spot is more predictable, in so far that it's on the main channel and has hard features," said Kleman. "It's sort of a cut, like a rock- and rubble-covered ravine that runs deep into the

bank. During dry times it's on shore, but in the spring when river levels are up and the ravine is submerged, it always holds a few smallies and walleyes. The groove provides a nice current break, and I suppose walleyes lay in there, facing the current, and smoke whatever swims by. At least that's how they treat my tubes and stickbaits."

Gushing tributaries are yet another locale Kleman probes for bass but happens upon walleyes.

"Water temperature is a big deal in the spring," he says. "Baitfish go to the warm stuff, so do bass and walleyes. A feeder creek can kick in at two or three degrees warmer than the main river. That's all it takes. Baitfish will pile in and then come the predators. I'll come back to a productive creek or river inlet three or four times in a day. Fresh fish just keep rotating through."

In mouths of streams, Kleman has huge success with fast-tracking lipless crankbaits. Bill Lewis' Rat-L-Traps and Rapala Rattlin' Raps mimic shad and shiners with great accuracy. Kleman also names flooded points and islands as prospective walleye lairs. "Anytime water rises up and over timber, you've got potential, especially if the area is gravely and exposed to current."

Pro walleye angler John Peterson is another believer in woody walleyes.

"When current pushes through a wooded point, I'm there," says Peterson. "Walleyes will use downed timber and the backside of the flooded point for both relaxing and ambushing. They want to be out of the current but not away from it. Newly flooded shorelines provide new territory to explore, areas to search for food in, and of course, somewhere to avoid strong current. Other than heading for the banks, the only other place walleyes can go to dodge current is inside deep holes and eddies."

High water need not be a detriment to your spring fishing but an epiphany instead - an awakening to shoreline techniques seldom employed by walleye anglers. And just because the shorelines go under water, its not to say that all walleyes turn quasi-terrestrial because they don't. But rather, keep an open mind to fishing sunken banks when your traditional spots don't rise to the occasion.

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