Super-Rigging for River Walleyes
September 24, 2010
If you are looking for a few new techniques to add to your walleye fishing arsenal, try these tips from the experts.
Genetically, walleyes are predisposed for rivers. River current, which walleyes are designed for, presents challenges for you and me as anglers. Fatefully, some of the year's fastest action takes place in current - below dams and amidst island tailraces and rapid bottlenecks, as well as in main-channel troughs and flats during peak feeding and spawning runs.
Tactics must be customized to achieve success.
JIGGING To get walleyes to go after an offering, there is no better presentation than jigging. But in order for an angler to combat the strongest force on earth - water - the right jigs, gear and techniques are essential.
Trolling and jigging, drifting and jigging, casting and jigging - all are acceptable means for delivering lead, each tailored for certain situations. Upwards of 75 percent of my river jigging is done trolling upstream, against the current, while holding as vertical a position as possible.
Regardless of the depth of the water you're fishing, your task is to keep frequent, if not continuous, contact with the river floor. Get vertical, or pitched with no more than 45 degrees from rod tip to jig, and with a short leash. The vast majority of rivers, despite the time of year, are murky in appearance, permitting tight-working quarters. Toss in the background trickle and blur of running water, and walleyes won't be alarmed by your presence.
Selecting precise jig weight is a science of experimentation, keeping in mind that you want to reach the bottom quickly and remain there. I favor dense, rotund jigs with a wedged or shovel head - nothing thin and tall, because current wreaks havoc with these. Basic round heads work fine, too. Long hook shanks are preferred for threading minnows on - running the hook deep, through the mouth and out the back. If you opt for short shanks, incorporate a stinger or trailer hook.
Photo by Tom Evans
I use three core jigging methods: The Hop, The Crawl and The Rip.
Hopping, in its basic form, involves lifting the jig 6 to 18 inches off the bottom, letting the current and gravity pull it back while holding a semi-taut line. It's nothing fancy, but your average river walleye seems to like it. Lengthen and shorten the hops depending on fish aggressiveness, and certainly feel free to improvise.
Crawling is for times when walleyes are "tummies down," which is common in heavy current, or when provisions are of little interest. Instead of conspicuous lifts and falls, keep the lure down, tracing bottom contours and structures, never lifting more than a few inches off the deck.
Both hopping and crawling are best practiced while slow-trolling upstream. In mild current, I backtroll for optimum boat control, but otherwise you'll need the pitch of the bow for navigation. Adjust throttle speed so the boat lies motionless in the current. Creep forward, sustaining a speed that keeps your jig down, occasionally increasing and decreasing momentum until determining what speed flips their switch.
Ripping is the final act. Ripping intends to provoke strikes through reactionary means. With a torturous jerk, you rip the jig - more horizontally than vertically - in increments of two feet or so. Ripping is effective for trolling and casting, and it gets strikes from more than just aggressors; it also summons walleyes that failed to hit traditional strokes. Ripping is most effective with a feathered or grub-bodied jig, sans the minnow, because fish are taking response-oriented wallops, and live bait tears off anyway.
Sometimes in an effort to cover water it's wise to drift and jig. With a heavy jig and minnow, I'll bump along, traveling at current speed, constantly watching the sonar for features, depressions and possibly "marks." Depending on current speed, it's fast fishing but effective for exploration, or when fish are scattered but on the bite.
There's nothing wrong with anchoring either, especially during peak runs. On one of my favorite waterways, walleyes and saugers make spring (spawning) and fall (feeding) river pilgrimages, and their cruising lanes are quite predictable - troughs, sometimes flats and especially bends. So instead of tiring my throttle hand and chasing ghosts, I find the sweet spot, anchor up and jig into passing pods of walleyes.
Casting is most effective early and late in the season when walleyes inhabit shoreline domains, like backwaters, timber and shoals. Anchoring and casting can be productive over wing dams any time of the year.
LEAD-CORE TROLLING At times - namely in the heat of summer - crankbaits are as effective on river walleyes as jigs. No crankbaiting method is more specialized than trolling with lead-core line, and nobody knows more about line and lead than professional angler Tommy Skarlis.
"I use lead core when I need to run crankbaits deeper than they're able to dive by design, or when there's a tremendous demand to match the hatch," Skarlis says.
"Deeper than they're able to dive" means taking a crankbait that's built to run to 15 feet and forcing it downstairs to 20, 30, 40 feet and beyond. "Matching the hatch," as Skarlis explains, proposes the mimicry of natural forage, such as immature white bass and sheepshead - normal river forage - with small shad-style crankbaits, and being able to deliver the bait at whatever depth is necessary. Sometimes, too, he relies on lead core to drive exceptionally large shallow-running crankbaits to deep-ranging walleyes.
Lead-core line consists of braided Dacron wrapped around a thin leaded core, and generally speaking, walleye trollers use 18- and 27-pound strengths. Keep in mind that sinking rates remain the same, though. Skarlis also expresses that lead core gets cranks down in a hurry. How fast? As a rule of thumb, crankbaits descend 4 to 6 feet per color change, which translates into every 10 yards, because lead-core line is colorized for depth and distance identification.
Skarlis builds in a 30- to 40-foot leader that he ties in with a tiny barrel swivel or "nail knot" - both of which can be reeled through the guides. Superlines such as Berkley FireLine make for ideal leader material, as does Berkley Vanish (12- or 17-pound-test), a fluorocarbon for when you're trolling in clearer conditions. Sensitive superlines help telegraph crankbait vibrations, alerting the operator of fouling weeds.
Dealing with such unforgiving line calls for a specialized rod, one with good end play and some length. Skar
lis wields a 7-foot, 6-inch telescoping Berkley Lightning Rod. Glass is another option, because it flexes and forgives.
Running his baits between 1 and 4 mph, Skarlis realizes that speed affects depth, so he lets out more line at higher rates and reels up when slowing down, all the while watching his electronics for "thumbnails" and feeling what the crankbait has to say.
THREE-WAY CRANKBAITING Precision and control also surface in discussions of crankbaiting with three-ways rigs, and this is another arena Skarlis excels in.
To him, three-way cranking is best applied to wing dams and rockpiles, particularly ones in heavy current, where pinpointing and holding is an arduous task. The washed-out faces of wing dams attract and hold walleyes right where the current buckles.
Let's examine the basic package. It consists of a three-way swivel (which attaches to the main line - 10- to 14-pound low-stretch mono or superline), the dropline and the snell section. The dropline should be tied with lighter line than the main spool, so it, not the entire rig, busts free in an unyielding snag. Bell-sinkers and pencil-weights (sand applications) are proven three-way anchors. And outfit yourself with myriad weights, including 1-, 2- and even 3-ouncers.
According to Skarlis, dropline length is proportionate to snell length at a 4:1 ratio. For instance, a 4-foot snell calls for a 1-foot dropper, a 6-foot snell an 18-inch dropper, etc. Skarlis never runs anything longer than 8 feet, because current walleyes don't demand stealth and finesse and because mega-long snells turn netting into a circus. Low-stretch monofilament and fluorocarbon make fine snell lines (8- to 14-pound-test).
Shallow-diving stick baits are the predominant cranks of choice on a three-way. Their long and tubular profile slashes through current, riding straight and true. In a hectic river environment, bright patterns and rattles help raise attention, so choose your baits accordingly.
In an effort to blanket water, Skarlis trolls forward, occasionally pivoting the bow to cut one direction or the other. He maintains that angle until reaching the bank or the end of the structure in question, then redirects toward the opposite bank. Along the zigzagging course he incorporates a few stalls, aiming directly upstream.
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Be sure to add these tips to your walleye fishing arsenal this spring.
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